Painting "Big Sur"

Michael Mckee: A Conversation In Color

Writer Shannon Severson
Photographer Loralei Lazurek/Michael McKee Gallery


Inside Michael McKee’s Fountain Hills studio, classical music is playing and the red oak or birch boards he uses as his canvases are stacked several deep around the room. In one corner stands his pastel work station, as it is the medium he used for the first 15 or so years of his 16-year career as a full-time fine artist.

A few steps away, his most recent abstract work in oil sits on a large easel with palates of mixed colors, wide-handled flat brushes, wedges, and angled painting knives at the ready. The piece is a mix of brilliant oranges, yellows, and reds, punctuated with shadowed areas of black and deep plum.

While McKee’s pastel work tends towards recognizable landscapes and cityscapes, his oils are wide swaths of abstract, bold colors, intersected by lines and the impression of muted patterns, almost architectural in nature.

“I’ve always had a lot of fun with strong color,” says McKee. “With my landscapes, even though they’re representational art, they’re not based on a specific place, but rather my impression of that place. All my work is about high-energy, high-key color. I like structure in my abstracts; I like them to look like they’ve been built with some element of control. The shapes and the architectural elements just show up intuitively.”

Co-founder of the Successories line of motivational graphics and business accessories, McKee’s background as a successful graphic designer and entrepreneur is not only evident in the feel of his abstracts, but also his profoundly personable nature. He and his wife of 28 years, Cassandra, have lived in Arizona full-time since 2013 and spend much of the year traveling the country, displaying his work at art shows, galleries and festivals. It’s clear that he enjoys the connection to those who love his work and have collected it for many years.

“I developed a lot of collectors with my landscapes and then started doing abstracts about six years ago,” says McKee. “The abstracts were very different for a lot of my clients, but I found that because it was the language of color that was speaking to them, they liked my abstracts, too. There is an appeal in the implied detail and convergence of structural elements.”

McKee grew up in Cleveland as the son of a prominent jazz musician who, at age 89, is still playing Big Band gigs. McKee’s parents, always eager to foster an appreciation of the arts in their four children, saw his love of drawing, recognized his talent and enrolled six year-old Michael in a life drawing class that met on Saturdays at a local college. There he was, sitting among adults and drawing live nude models — a bit intimidating for the average child, but McKee went with it and art was soon his career.

The musicality in his DNA comes through in a dance of visual intrigue and improvisation. His landscapes are created from memory and he sees the shapes and shadow as chords to be transposed while the paintings take shape. His process begins when he puts a mark on the board and the color becomes a conversation. He is content to discover where it goes as he works.

“Improvisation is key in jazz,” says McKee. “I view my work as improvisation, and that’s part of why I paint from memory. I try to get my brain out of the way and to be as present as possible. It’s like when you write a composition but, as in jazz, you never hear it the same way twice. There are elements with similar composition in my pieces, but none are the same. They’re different melodic interpretations.”

At just 14 years old, he became an animation apprentice, then freelanced as an illustrator and portrait artist through college, earned a National Scholastic Art scholarship, and became an honors graduate of Art Institute of Pittsburgh. His advertising and graphic design career brought him to Chicago in 1981 to launch what eventually became Successories, which he and his partner sold in 2000.

Divested of the business, he and Cassandra began to travel extensively, and the Southwest became a particularly favorite destination. It was one such trip, watching a sunset in Chamayo, New Mexico, that brought him back to fine art as a career.

“We were looking at this beautiful sunset, and I reached down to pick up some of the red dirt,” says McKee. “As I rubbed the dirt between my fingers, I felt as if I could feel the sunset in my hands. It reminded me of pastels. Seeing this sunset and holding this dirt, I had the thought that I would get some soft pastels and see what I could do with it. I just fell in love with it right away. It’s a very tactile medium. With the oils, too, I use tools that allow me to feel the tactile response of the paints.”

The rich, vibrant colors of the Southwest have always been evident in his color palate, whether in the bright leaves of a pastel forest of Colorado Aspens or dramatic orange poppies on the cliffs of Big Sur. His cityscapes are bright with yellows, reds, and cerulean blues, and large areas of negative space.

“Desert colors appeal to me,” says McKee. “Not everyone sees the depth of texture and amount of color in what they might call a limited palate. Coming from Chicago, you get used to seeing your world a quarter mile at a time. The view is confined. Here, you can see forever, and it changes how you interact with the space. There’s an endlessness — a vastness — that people gravitate toward.”

What he loves about pastels as a medium is their bright colors and ability to blend in rich combinations, bringing their vibrancy to his abstracts and, in many ways, replicating the mixing and layering of oils. Upon close examination, his pastels reveal an abstract approach to color, line, and shadow that combine to make a recognizable form. His structured abstracts use color and line to lively effect and one can imagine seeing a cityscape, a shoreline, a canyon — environments that pulse with energy.

“When you look up close at my landscapes, they’re actually made up of many abstract shapes,” says McKee. “There’s not real detail in there, it’s implied detail. The bold shapes, I would see little abstract compositions all throughout my landscapes. That inspired me to start playing with abstracts as my focus.”

McKee is a prolific painter and creates the bulk of his work in the winter so he can travel throughout the summer. While he shows his art here in Arizona October through March, his appeal knows no geographic boundaries. Palm Springs desert denizens, Texan cowboys, Midwestern moguls, and East Coast cosmopolitans all find beauty in his work.

At any time of year, his website offers notecards, free downloadable wallpapers, and a limited number of prints, so that fans with various budgets can still enjoy owning a piece of his work. Many collectors attach stories to the back of each of his pieces, noting where they were when they purchased it or what personal meaning it has for them. McKee enjoys hearing their stories and seeing how people connect with his vision.

“My goal has never been to become a famous artist,” says McKee. “I love creating what I create. At 62 years old, I don’t concern myself with the next month or the month after. There’s so much happening when you’re painting, I want to let the natural evolution take place and really experience life where it happens — up close.”

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