Jerry McLaughlin Loves Duality in Art


Courtesy of Jerry McLaughlin

Growing up in the small rural town of Portsmouth, Ohio, Jerry McLaughlin never felt he fit in. Although he describes his childhood home as a “safe place to grow up,” he knew that if he was going to thrive, he would have to leave. He never could have anticipated where that journey would take him.

McLauglin vividly remembers the first time he was impacted by art. As he recounted in a recent interview, “I was a nerdy kid growing up and used to flip through the encyclopedia while I watched Saturday morning cartoons. One morning I came across a Jackson Pollock action painting and it moved me deeply. I had never seen anything like it. I remember thinking ‘I want to do this.’”

He instantly acted on that inspiration. “Later that day I took a bunch of different house paints we had in the garage and made a pour painting. I loved it. It felt so fun and expressive, and to me it was beautiful. I showed it to my parents and they were underwhelmed. Although my parents didn’t suppress my artistic interest, they didn’t encourage it.”

So, rather than following artistic pursuits, McLauglin left Portsmouth for Cincinnati, where he attended college and medical school, before moving on to his residency in San Francisco. Despite the fact that he still wanted to paint, his only creative outlet was photography. While he had success in the endeavor, he “never felt authentic” and realized that the camera was keeping him from pursuing his actual interests. In order to free himself, he took all of his photographs and equipment to the local dump and turned to his real passion — painting.

Without formal art school training, McLaughlin began to develop his own technique that has evolved over time. “I paint with cold wax medium, oil paints and dry pigments,” he explained. “I was initially an encaustic painter; I used molten beeswax and pigments as my paint. However, because it requires heat to move the material around, it never had the painterly quality I always imagined painting would have. I stumbled across cold wax as a possible way to bring that painterly quality to my work. Within three days of receiving my first can of cold wax, I put away my encaustic materials and have never returned to them.

He continued, “Cold wax is a mixture of beeswax and mineral spirits that is a paste at room temperature. I add oil paints, dry pigments and other materials (like sand, dirt, and ash) and build my paintings with those mixtures. The wax is a freeing and forgiving medium, and it allows me to build thick textural surfaces not normally possible with oil paints. It dries over a period of days to weeks, allowing me to continue to manipulate the surface as I develop the work. Finally, the material cures to a hard, matte surface — one that viewers of my paintings feel almost compelled to reach out and touch. The tactile experience of the process and materials is very important to me.”

Courtesy of Jerry McLaughlin

Beyond the physical aspects of McLauglin’s mostly large format wood panel work, is a deeper emotional component. He noted, “There is something so amazing about taking feelings, thoughts, ideas, and moods — these complex, intangible, amorphous things that are so real to us and live so palpably inside us — and translating those onto a surface, something other people can see and experience. However, despite their very real presence as a painted image, because of their abstraction, they still remain elusive and ineffable. I love that duality.”

McLauglin also loves that he can express his often suppressed feelings through his paintings. “Growing up as a gay boy in Appalachia profoundly affected my work. I felt very different and very isolated. I felt like there was something wrong with me, something fundamentally flawed, something that as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t change. I was also the ‘smart kid’ in class. I was teased and bullied… a lot. I knew that crying or getting emotional would only add fuel to that fire, so I learned not to react, to suppress my feelings and to pretend that everything was OK, even though I felt a lot of turmoil and pain. I learned to be what most people would call ‘tough.’

He added, “I think being in medicine has also influenced my art for similar reasons. I am a critical care pediatric physician. I take care of very sick children in the ICU. I watch these children and their families go through a lot of trauma and pain. Very often, like most healthcare providers, in order to function and cope, I have to suppress my feelings.

“So, those childhood experiences, hiding my sexuality until I was in college and years in a career like medicine have all made me a master at suppressing and denying feelings,” McLauglin confessed. “But suppressing and denying does not mean they’re not there. And through painting I can access and experience those feelings — and a lot of them are dark emotions. But I am not a dark person. I am actually a happy, joyful person.”

McLaughlin is not only joyful, he’s incredibly busy. He’s in the process of finishing 25 large scale pieces for shows later this year. The first, Dark Matter, is at GearBox Gallery in Oakland, California, and runs from September 28 to October 21. The second, Savage Beauty, is at the Jen Tough Gallery in Benicia, California, and runs from October 13 to November 6.

In addition to that, McLauglin and co-author, Rebecca Crowell, have recently published the book “Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations,” which he described as “the first ever comprehensive book covering the myriad ways artists can work with cold wax medium. It is 320 pages long and contains the work of over 100 artists around the world.”

To learn more about Jerry McLauglin visit his website.

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