Some of you may remember Jeff McCann from the launch night of our 4th issue of Kaleido where your face became his canvas for geometric patterns and accessories. For those of you who are yet to discover, Jeff is an emerging artist, illustrator and maker who has mastered the skill of transforming cardboard and paper into bespoke works of art, each with a distinct handmade quality and charm. Ak sat with Jeff to discuss his background, and how his fascination with cardboard as a medium has lead to experimental art, jewellery, sculpture, costume and more.
What is your creative background?
I am originally from Dubbo, grew up in the country and went from one small town to another. I went to university at Charles Sturt in Wagga Wagga, and afterwards I spent a lot of time doing design for theatre and television.
I wanted to work on who I creatively and what my point of difference was. I remember working on set designs for a theatre show in my course, and there one show that only had a budget of $100 and I thought, ‘What am I going to do?!’ We ended up making a 20m cardboard concertina wall which wrapped around the space. This is when I really started experimenting more with cardboard.
I’ve always painted and drawn, but I never knew how it could be achievable to be an artist and still pay the rent, which is why I went more down the design track, as it seemed more attainable. I realised cardboard was really cool as a medium, it is flexible, it was free and I was poor as a student. I spent the next two years playing and drawing on the cardboard until I knew who I was more confidently, and that’s when I knew I was ready to move to Sydney to be one of thousands of creatives, trying to do stuff.
If I didn’t stay in the country, getting some experience under my belt, doing an exhibition, a show, some workshops, making some connections with regional galleries, which are just as credible, I wouldn’t have been able to build up my resume to bring new work into the city.
What inspires your creativity?
When you look at my illustrative work there is a lot of textile, design inspiration, fashion, surface design, pattern work, there is a bit of tribal and even things like street art and tattoo design. I’ve had people tell me that my work reminds them of early Mambo designs, which would completely make sense, that’s what I grew up wearing, Mambo t-shirts with the one-eyed figures.
With my wearable costume work, I am getting a lot more theatrical and passionate inspiration, like elaborate fashion from drag queens, where there is a really strong confidence in what they do. I’m inspired by aesthetics that can be a bit absurd or cartoonish. I am finding myself following a lot more drag queens on Instagram and more special make-up artists and it’s nice that I can tap in and out of different avenues and see what happens from each inspiration.
The way I like to work is to be playful and approachable and not think about the process as much. I used to be one of those artists that would get stuck in my head, be a perfectionist and thinking everything needs to look exactly like it was in my head or it’s ruined. Once I started using cardboard that allowed me to be more free and flexible and I could get so much and it didn’t cost me anything. It made me much more open to play. I liked the idea of the child-like way of creating, a kid draws just because they want to draw. If mum had three arms and purple hair, that’s what they had, and there was no preconceived idea of good art, or this is the way it should be.
The work that I have made in the last four years, whether it’s art work, sculptures or costumes, I am able to just go for it and I can spend the afternoon prototyping three or four different things because it is so easy to work with. As I am not precious about it as an object, I think that has really allowed me to have a broader range.
Why do you create?
Creating is all I know, that is all I have done. I was never a sporty kid, I am that classic middle child with two sporty brothers, who played soccer and football and who were really good at it. I was not that interested, I was not competitive, I was a fat little kid. I used to sit at the soccer or football field just drawing and I was always writing to Saturday Disney with drawings.
It’s just what I have felt comfortable doing. It’s all I really know, and I really enjoy it. That’s the dangerous thing about being a creative, is that you enjoy it so much and become immersed, you don’t stop. Sometimes I could be doing 16 hour days and I would be like, Jeff you need to go to sleep, you need sleep. I could keep going if I wanted to, but I know I need six hours of sleep to be functional the next day.
I enjoy the surprise element to my work when people think it is timber or some kind of plastic and they will come up to it and they will be like, oh it is cardboard! I can come up and tell them it was cardboard that was about to be thrown out from a shop or someone’s home and that is another element of surprise. I like when people go home and think about what they are going to throw away or could they turn it into something else. That what I like because I hate wastage.
I also like collaborating with other people as it’s a nice way to work with different types of creatives as well and challenge what the norm is. For me, collaboration is really important because I can get stuck in my own ways. Adding the element of the unknown to your work, can evolve it. Without others to work with, I think a lot of the stuff that I make now, may not even be around, and it’s important to have someone or a group of people you can bounce ideas off.
Is there anyone in particular that you want to collaborate with?
Rosie Deacon is one of my favourite artists, she does really crazy over the top Australiana kitsch, absurd, performance art, sculptural and colour overload stuff. I love her approach and what she makes, and I think that could be a really fun collaboration.
In terms of musicians, I would love to work with someone like Kimbra or even Ngaiire where they embrace crazy visuals. I’d also love to work with drag queens as well, I would love make amazing costumes.
Why is being environmentally aware and making others aware of the environment important to your work?
I hate seeing waste, whether it’s food waste, or things being thrown out, even the fact that I worked in fast fashion for a while. I just see how quickly the world moves and how quickly we move on from things, it just makes me feel a little bit sick seeing that. I never want to push what I do onto people, but I think the ability to surprise them with something is more powerful then shoving it down their throats.
If you are doing something that’s environmentally friendly, pushing the green factor, it can almost repel people because they feel guilty in some way. But when you surprise someone, and it’s fun and playful, they connect with it in a much more positive way, so that’s how I’ve been approaching it.
Have you found this transitioning into your personal life?
When I am shopping or in a market, I consider the environmental edge, what they do, what’s the practice involves. I am more likely to buy something second hand or something that’s being made locally by hand. I am more open to paying a bit more for something that is made with an environmental conscience.
I like to find other purposes for things. My housemate was about to throw out some clothes, but I ended up turning them into a costume piece. Other people will message me and offer me their TV boxes and cardboard. It’s like a ripple effect.
What visual themes or ideas do you explore in your work?
I play with a lot of pattern work and colour combinations, especially with my sculptural pieces. I found after the last show that I did, some of my work can have a trippy optical illusion effect with colour combinations of pastels and metallics next to neons. I try to use colour combinations that aren’t usually a perfect fit, I never want things to just be prettily designed.
I also like the idea of creating a space, environment or a miniature world and it’s only recently that I have started exploring that. I like to keep things playful so I go through whatever I feel like, if i want to draw faces, I will draw faces. If I want to draw patterns, I will draw patterns. It also depends on whether or not I am working with someone and what their inspiration might be. The most recent musician that I am working with loves 80’s aerobic electro gradients, and now that’s really started to filter into my personal work. The more people I work with the more things I will be open to and take back to my personal practice.
A big part of your work is making jewellery, when did that start and what drew you to it?
The jewellery started probably three years ago. When I was at university, we were next to the jewellery students in our studio space. When we were working on theatre shows, props and costumes. They were always in there for longer periods, working on their pieces. I became good friends with the jewellers and got to understand and appreciate how scary it is to be a jeweller. One sawing motion too far and something is ruined and you can’t get it back. I saw the time and the effort it took and I really appreciated jewellery a whole lot more.
I started doing markets and everyone was loving my bags and I was getting good responses for them but a lot of my stuff was at a higher price point. I realised I needed the smaller stuff that people can afford to buy when they are out on a Sunday, getting a coffee. So it took a while to come up with it but I decided I was going to start doing jewellery.
I started with clip on earrings and necklaces, and the clip ons developed into actual earrings and the necklaces became chokers as well, and then there were brooches and now there are head pieces. The styles have evolved because of what customers want. People started asking for rings, and within a month I started to make them and had at the markets ready to sell. It is kind of nice to have the ability and flexibility to listen and create what they want.
Jewellery is a nice small taster for people who are interested in my work and it is a really nice way to make contact with stylists, fashion bloggers and even other designers that might want to collaborate.
How did your interests develop into design, working with musicians and stage?
I wouldn’t have studied theatre and design if I wasn’t partly interested in it. I thought I was going to be working on set design stuff but I love music, it is always on in the studio, or at home. I am always looking on blogs for new music and musicians, I love going to gigs but can’t play an instrument. This is how I can be connected to the music industry, which would be how I would progress into my dream job of doing music videos. As a kid I was always watching rage from 5am, all 50 songs, every Saturday and Sunday. It didn’t matter if I was at someone’s house, I was going to watch it!
Three minutes where you can be absurd, or conceptual, or tell a story, it didn’t matter if you hate the song, you can still like it visually. I have always enjoyed that element of music and I think it has naturally progressed into the live experience. It is just like theatre, so I think it is a natural progression for me. If I’m going to be at a music festival, I would rather be doing that kind of stuff and working with people than just getting sunburnt and buying expensive drinks. I would rather be making money and working with people.
You have designed for the likes of Alphamama, Montaigne and Kirra, what was that like seeing your creations up on stage?
It’s nerve racking at first, praying the cardboard doesn’t break apart and worries like that, but it feels amazing. The process of approaching musicians was the biggest thing I had to work out. Emailing them telling them you make cardboard costume pieces and you want to work with them makes you sound like a crazy person. I know now why I possibly didn’t get many replies from a lot of the people at the beginning, because I knew I needed the images. I have the confidence in the work, but it’s hard to visual that with only words.
The first musician to work with was Asta, and I made some head pieces and it was amazing. She came into the creative process and helped to push the boundaries and come up with crazy stuff.
Then I started to work with Jess from Kirra and even Alphamama, they came to me with ideas and they were like, “We love your stuff can we make this collar?” Or, “I want to be a spiritual queen and here are some images and lets just do it!” There’s an openness to create and there is a real strength in them as people and their vision which also helps. Seeing it come to live on stage is so exciting.
I am also working with Montaigne now, and getting to make fun celebratory outfits and costumes for New Years Festivals and events.
You are a full-time artist, what are some of the challenges you face?
I have been full-time since October, and I just decided if I am going to do it at any point it is going to be Christmas and if I can’t make it work at Christmas then I need to re-think what I’m doing.
The hardest thing for me is to realise when to take a break, and when to be okay about taking a break and not be annoyed at myself for not working. It’s that stress of not knowing when the next project comes but still being able to say no when the project isn’t right for you. Or being able to say no when you have already committed yourself to too many things. You shouldn’t have to take on a job just for the money.
I think as a creative you are able to find creative ways of making money. Sometimes the pressure forces you to do it.
What’s next for you?
Studio space, I definitely need space. At the moment it’s working more with musicians. I am doing music videos for a musician called Mikaela Dean, art directing, styling, the whole vision.
My 12 month plan involves doing my first clothing capsule collection that includes jewellery and wearable fashion made from cardboard and try to get a runway show at a fashion event or my own. I want to make a collection and really show the range of what I can make with cardboard and really push the boundaries. Unfortunately for creatives, you usually have to put yourself into more of the mainstream business way of working to then be able to go back out and be more creative.
I would love to do more murals, I would love to do more public art and get my work into public spaces.
What is your driving goal/aim?
To be able to afford delicious food and not feel guilty! My aim is obviously to be a successful creative my main goal is to be innovative and do something that no one else is doing, I want people to come to me and know that the result is completely unique. I kind of want to be known as the weird cardboard dude, but I am pretty much already that guy.