Chattanoogan: Frances McDonald – “Life Is A Collage”

Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Executive Director of Mark Making Frances McDonald has learned to become fearless. In fact, it is her desire to teach others to be fearless in their creativity not only with art, but in life.

Born in London to Jack and Frances McDonald, while Jack had attended school abroad, young Frances knew how to make her mark while still in her crib.

“Mom had given me a book to play with in my crib. It was ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. It dawned on me that if I took the book and tore the paper into little pieces, licked the pieces and stuck it to the headboard, I could create a collage. I got in a huge amount of trouble for doing that. Their anger impressed my memory more than my creative efforts,” Frances laughs.

The McDonalds moved to Chattanooga when Frances was 12 years old. One day while attending art class at GPS, she was working with clay and learned something very valuable to her.

“I was making a cow and the teacher came by and said, ‘What a great dog’. I said, ‘No, it’s a cow’ and she paused and said, ‘I don’t know …I see a dog’. And then I saw the dog. She helped me to see what she was seeing. You have to see what is there; you can’t see what you think; you have to see what is. I do this with my students. It helps to see through someone else’s eyes,” Frances maintains.

The budding artist left home at 18 and studied abroad, obtaining a degree in International Business Administration from American College in Paris and attending ENSBA (Ecole Nationale Superieure de Beaux Arts). Frances stayed in Paris for 10 years, moved back home briefly, and then took off to New York where she lived for eight years.

“My dad raised me to think it was important to do something bigger than myself and to leave a positive mark. He had consistently worked to build a better Chattanooga and was always in the middle of that,” Frances says.

“I grew up volunteering and feeling a need to contribute; it was that whole ‘finding something bigger than me’ that came back to me later,” she says.

While keeping the fast pace of New York and professionally painting on canvas for art galleries, Frances soon became ill and her spirit broken.

She found herself in a whirlwind of destructive behaviors that lead to depression as she grasped for some sort of familiarity for her life.

“I was a professional painter selling art, but I didn’t understand why I was really doing all that,” she admits.

In 1994 she returned to Chattanooga and her supportive family. “I started volunteering at the Creative Discovery Museum and I began teaching. I didn’t want to paint. To me, that was a fast-paced art world full of playing games; it didn’t make any sense. I started teaching and was hired to fill in gaps where there weren’t any art teachers. Allied Arts had an art program where schools could apply for grants and be able to hire people like me. I did that for years,” she says.

Frances facilitated over 50 public art projects before founding Mark Making.

“One day there was an opportunity to participate in this mural thing at the Central Block building at 7th and Market streets, which is now the United Way building. It was going to go down, but it got saved. We came up with some programming to get kids to paint it and had 130 kids from Parks and Rec,” Frances says.

“It was phenomenal. Kids were getting their picture taken by their work and it was an attitude of ‘I own it, this is me… this is my block and my city.’ It was that citizenship and ownership that allowed them to be empowered. Kids don’t have a choice about anything; here they made a choice and it was something everybody can see,” Frances declares.

“After that, I thought, ‘This is a really important thing. I gotta figure out how to do more of this’ and the next piece was a painting by kids on the Jax Liquor Store building. I had a dream about it twice and knew we had to do it. It was a ‘don’t drink and drive’ mural. A lot of these kids came out of homes that were torn apart by alcohol and drugs so they felt very strongly about the issues. They wrote stories and we imbedded them in the walls. It was really, really meaningful. We had no money; we were doing our best to get it done and it was seriously empowering for the people who did it,” Frances avers.

The public showed interest in these projects and for the last four years Mark Making has made its mark in Chattanooga.

“A lot of our money is funded and we have some money funded from outside of Chattanooga from individual donors. The idea was to work with under-served populations - people who could profit from the empowerment; people who had a stigma attached to them, such as ‘children can’t do anything’ or ‘people with mental disorders are worthless’, or …the homeless. I found that most of the people who can make good art are those who have nothing to lose and they are less fearful,” Frances insists.

“People are scared to rock any boats; they are scared to be creative. People who are damaged have less to fear - and that I figured out on the back end. I wanted to work with people who didn’t have any power and who didn’t own anything. I worked with cancer victims and different kinds of sick people. Those who are about to die don’t have anything to lose so they let it rip. I totally understood that being creative was not about ‘being’… it was about ‘not being fearful’,” she says.

Visual art is about more than just the art piece for Frances. It is about the person and how it can affect their overall well-being and performance in life.

“The solutions are out there, but we cut it off by being closed-minded. If you can give a safe place,  instruction, supplies and have an open-minded atmosphere where people aren’t judgmental, they will  play and do work that is able to resonate and things will go together in a way that is pleasing and hits the heart. If people have things to fear, they are going to worry about what they are doing and try to please you and it ruins any natural thing that is going to happen. If they just let go, it will happen,” Frances says.

It takes a lot of work forming these projects and making them come to fruition, but with the chaotic art world that Frances experienced in New York along with her own mind to see life as a collage, it equipped her to make things fall in place beautifully and effectively and to come full circle.

“Just figuring out how all the parts go together… you have this non-profit, this wall, these goals, this education element …you have the funder and all of these parts; everything is a collage. You juggle all the variables and come up with a solution and that’s how we teach art. We use more of an architecture language – where we build, we use tools and we solve problems,” she insists.

“People are intimidated by art. It used to be that the preacher man was the artist, the shaman was the alchemist and the artist; and somewhere it got derailed. Artists started signing their work and it got to be about them and not about the purpose that the work itself served,” Frances says.

Giving examples of Van Gogh who had to die in order for his art to matter, the starving artist myth and so on, Frances was put off by these past perceptions.

“Now it seems that you are very special and talented to be an artist and I don’t go for any of that. I think that being good at something means you can be good at other things and you try to be fearless about it. It’s about figuring out what is the right thing to do and what is the right thing for me to do,” she asserts.

Witnessing the magic that happens when placing a brush in someone’s hand, someone who may not otherwise tap into that creativity, brought Frances a sense of purpose for her life.

“We have gotten in this pinch where we are not letting people be creative. Our corporate structure has driven creativity out of everybody and so has our education system. People can learn this creativity and then go back to their jobs and use that same muscle that they learned in being open-minded and let things just ‘dawn on them’ and have the patience and confidence that the unknown will become known …and you cannot force it,” Frances vows.  

“We don’t teach people to paint; we teach them to solve problems. It isn’t just line, shape, color, texture and form,” Frances says, “and it is not going to be logical linear thinking; it’s just going to dawn on someone. In other words, clear out the stuff and …it’s already there.”

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