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Tessellation Artist Jim McNeill.

Jim McNeill

Jim McNeill was born in Rahway, New Jersey in 1967. When he was about three years old he first started his art career. During high school, his band teacher gave him some advice, "your talent is your obligation." He realized at this point that art was his obligation.

McNeill: (in response to Angie Verschage's request for his participation in the interview): It's my pleasure to answer the students' questions. Believe me, I'm thrilled that there are people in the world who are actually that interested in my opinion about things! The only trait every artist in the world shares is not being able to shut up about themselves, so it will not be an inconvenience!

Students: Is it hard to think of an idea or theme for an original artwork?

McNeill: Great ideas are a lot like pens: they're all over the place when you're not looking for one, but the minute you need one (like when you're on the phone and you need to take a message) you can't find one anywhere!

I've noticed that my best ideas for a new piece of art come to me when my mind is on something that has nothing to do with art. There have been days when I would sit with a sketchbook in front of me for hours and wouldn't be able to think of a single thing to draw. The next day I would be vacuuming my apartment and I'd have a brainstorm!

There are also times when I may have come up with an idea for a new piece but I can't figure out how to actually create it on a computer or a piece of paper. This happened with Escher Bowl. I knew I wanted to make a tessellation with football players, but I couldn't figure out how to fit them together so two opposing players would be facing each other. It took me a couple of really frustrating weeks just to come up with the two outline shapes. Once I was able to figure out that part, filling them in was easy.

Students: Who is your favorite artist?

McNeill: There isn't a single artist I could pick out as my favorite. There are too many ways to make art and too many great artists making it.

Some of my favorite painters (in no particular order) are Rembrandt, Velazquez, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon, George Tooker, and Jack Levine.

The Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940s (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) were what made me want to become an artist in the first place. They were made by great animators like Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Robert McKimson. I think some of the cartoons being made today are pretty cool, too. I think Bruce Timm and Paul Dinni did a great job on the character designs for the Batman Animated Series. I love the way Bruce Timm draws anything! He's fantastic.

I've also always loved comic books. There were some really great artists working for Mad in those days, like Mort Drucker (who would be the greatest caricaturist on the planet if it wasn't for Al Hirschfeld, whom I also love!) and Jack Davis. Alex Toth, Reed Crandall, Bernie Krigstein and Wally Wood (my favorite of the bunch!). Those guys could DRAW!

Students: When did you start your web site? Why?

McNeill: I started my web site about four years ago ... to train myself to use HTML, the computer language of the [Internet]. It turned out that I didn't need to: they were coming out with software programs that would help you make a web page without using a single line of HTML about a week after I started my web site! You can never keep up with technology!

I think my web site is a really great way to have a place to show your work to the rest of the world. I don't think art is really art unless somebody is out there appreciating it. It's so great to get e-mail from somebody who just happened to be "browsing" by and ended up seeing and liking my work ... It's like showing my work in a gallery that never closes!

Students: What steps did you follow when you drew the football players in Escher Bowl?

McNeill: Sometimes it takes me so long to make a tessellation that I think it would be faster to talk about the steps I didn't take!

I started out with the idea for a football theme and started to make very loose sketches in my sketchbook. This step is to get a very general idea of what the outside edge, or silhouette, is going to look like. At this time the drawings looked pretty much like regular cartoons of football players, though I'd go back over the outside edge carefully to see where its bumps and indentations were and how they might serve to make bumps and indentations on another player right next to it.

Once I came up with silhouettes that seemed to work, I started working with graph paper, a pencil and a very large eraser! I drew a rectangular grid whose rectangles seemed to be roughly the same dimensions as the silhouettes in my sketchbook sketch. I then drew slightly more defined silhouettes in each of these rectangles to see if the silhouettes would fit together on paper as well as they did in my mind. Some areas of the silhouettes seemed to work better than others.

I scanned my graph paper sketch into the computer and traced over it with Adobe Illustrator. This enabled me to get an outline that I could stretch around like chewing gum or duplicate as many times as I needed. This step further refined the outside edges, but I had to start adding interior details to the silhouettes to get a clearer idea of what the final characters were going to look like.

I printed out a copy of the computer silhouettes and started drawing inside them with a pencil, adding the arms, legs, and so forth. I noticed I was going to need some more leg room for one character, so I had to take some leg room off the other one. I scanned this new drawing back into the computer and made the corresponding adjustments, also adding the interior details that would be common to all the players except the two in the center.

I then printed out a number of copies with everything in them but the faces. I added these with a felt tip pen and scanned them back into the computer. Once the line work was established I added the color and the rest, as they say, is art history (at least that's what my mother says!).

Students: Which sports players inspired Escher Bowl?

McNeill: It's going to take a lot of guts to admit this to Dallas Cowboy fans, but I've been a long-time Giant fan! You're booing, aren't you?!

I've always lived in New Jersey and it's almost a law that you have to like football (and love the Giants!) when you live here! I don't know if there are any particular players that inspired me while creating Escher Bowl, but I've loved the sport all my life.

Students: We were told that you play a Chapman stick. What is it? Why do you like it?

McNeill: A Chapman Stick is a twelve-string music instrument played by tapping on the strings like a piano rather than plucking them like a guitar. I love it because it seems like it's a cross between three instruments I've always wanted to learn how to play: the guitar, bass and piano. I studied percussion (drums, timpani, xylophone) for ten years before playing the Stick, and it seemed like it would give me the opportunity to play all those other instruments (guitar, bass, piano) more or less at the same time.

Since relatively few people play the Stick, I've had the chance to come up with my own sound on it without being too influenced by what other musicians have done with it. I tried playing the guitar for a couple of years but could never stop wondering if the world really needed another guitar player. There already seemed to be so many great ones! There are already some great Stick players, but only enough to inspire me rather than overwhelm me!

Students: Are any of your relatives artists?

McNeill: I'm the only artist in the family so far. My nephews, Matt and Mike, are pretty good with their crayons, so we'll have to wait and see. They're five right now (twins), so I figure I'll give them a few years to practice!

Students: What is your lifelong career goal?

McNeill: It may sound strange, but I'm achieving what I set out to do in kindergarten! I always knew I was going to be an artist ... My goal was to be able to do it professionally, so it's nice to know I can make a living at it now.

... I find myself being pulled away from making computer art and gravitating more towards comics. The greatest thing about art is that it enables you to communicate something about the way you are at the moment you're creating it.

I couldn't tell you what kind of art I'll be making even five years from now, because those five years of experience will have made me a different person (and artist) from the one I am today. Who knows? I might even be playing the Stick at Carnegie Hall!

Thanks for the great questions. They were a lot of fun to answer and really made me think about what I do in a different way.

--Jim McNeill

RELATED ARTICLE: Suggestions for Online Communication with an Artist

* Artists should be contacted well in advance of the assignment and they should be agreeable to working with students and teachers. The collaboration between McNeill and the authors had existed for almost a year before it was decided that the artist would work online with students and later in person with teachers.

* Select an artist whose work is accessible so that students can explore the images.

* Limit the number and types of questions or images that are submitted to an artist.

* Provide the artist with a copy of the finished assignment.

If Internet access is limited or not available on your campus, contact an artist by telephone or mail. On occasion, local artists can visit classrooms. Look to parents, art centers, universities, museums, and other members of the community as resources for finding artists who are willing to work with your students.

Resources

Interdisciplinary Connections: Art and Math, Take-5 study prints, Crystal Productions

Jim McNeill's Web site http://members.aol.com/JMcne76 382/home.html

Integrating Art and Math, NTIEVA Newsletter Fall 1998 http://www.art.unt.edu/ntieva/ news/Vol9/issue3/index.html

Dr. Pam Stephens and Nancy Walkup are project coordinators and mentors for the North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts, University of North Texas, Denton.

Jim McNeill spends most of his time working as a freelance artist in Iselin, New Jersey. This has allowed him the time to work on creating his own Web site, explore tessellations, and to write a childrens' book.

Cooperating teachers: Suzanne Wilson, fifth grade teacher, and Angle Zarvel Verschage, art specialist, Mitchell Elementary, Piano, Texas. Elizabeth Willett, art specialist, Oakhurst Elementary, Fort Worth, Texas
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Title Annotation:artist Jim McNeil answers student question about his work and his Web site
Author:Walkup, Nancy
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
Words:1906
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