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10 in 10 with MICA's Declan McKenna

Queerness on earth (and in outer space).

by Karl Ortegon
June 11, 2021

Queer people know that finding one’s self can be messy, painful and traumatic. And yet, on the other side of that hurt there is beauty, inspiration and an inimitable love. For Maryland Institute College of Art animator Declan McKenna, that very process has become the cornerstone of his art — and his broader vision in life.

To be queer is to live in the abstract. It is to know the world, examine its structures, ridges and pathways, and carve an entirely new route in life. Declan, who began by drawing cartoons before delving into the world of figure drawing and form, has found that this abstraction is inextricably tied to both his queerness and his art. So it’s no surprise that the impact of his work hardly stops at the physical final product — rather, his art is constantly evolving, as are his beliefs, all pointing to one greater truth: we must question everything around us so we can continue to grow.

The first in his family to commit themselves to art, Declan has found that his creations are invaluable despite his own financial troubles and bouts of housing instability. He’s found a life-changing mentor by way of a random encounter with an elderly sketching teacher, earned spots at Baltimore galleries, and even taken a trip to space (well, figuratively speaking) through an associateship with NASA. Put simply: his art is his life, and vice versa. 

On a Zoom call from Baltimore, he told Quadio about where his art has led him, how art can help us all embrace the unknown, and the delightful gems we collect when we go through life with a critical lens.

Tell me a little bit about yourself and the art you’re making today.

A lot of my work is experimentation, and I primarily do self portraiture and animation. I like to explore my life, the places I’ve been, and interrogate intimate and romantic moments and relationships that I experience. My current thesis is this project about a boy figuring out what it means to be in love — and to matter to other people — through this metaphor of concrete. It’s pretty abstract, and I have to do this two-step process where I first create each frame and then animate it, bringing it into motion (and to life). My art explores texture, material and animation — all while I observe myself and my identity.

How did you get into making art?

Being a child of the internet, I encountered art everywhere. It’s very easy to find independent art online, and that taught me that it was something I could do. Eventually, as I started becoming conscious of myself and the world, I started doing more self portraiture to figure out who I am, what being queer means, and what it is to be a teenager. 

Nobody in my family is very artistic, but my mother always supported me making art. She’s done a ton of different jobs and she’s had many struggles in her life, but she always told me, “Don’t do what I did. Don’t go get an office job. Don’t do something you’re not passionate about.”

It took a lot of time to have the confidence to pursue art, though. There’s so much fear involved. Coming from a poorer background, and growing up with housing instability, it was tough to say, “Yeah, I can go into this fragile job market and make abstract animations.” Luckily, I’ve had so many opportunities through schools that have kept me going, like scholarships and campus leaders reminding me that I’m going to be okay.  

Was there a moment when you thought, “Okay, now I’m committing to art in a serious way?” Or was it a slower progression?

I still struggle with that every day. It’s always this push and pull between success and recognition and financial hardship, especially during the pandemic. My mom lost her job and was evicted. I’m currently on Medicaid and food stamps. I go through phases where I think everything is working out, and then phases where life happens, in a bad way, and it sucks. 

But there are steps towards healing from that kind of economic trauma. There’s a certain value in making art that I have to prioritize over some economic systems in the world. There are also moments where it starts to feel right. First, it was getting accepted into college and getting scholarships. Then it became much bigger — I was getting gallery shows and internships. Those are the little moments that keep giving me faith in that decision.

Who have been your greatest teachers in terms of art?

After committing myself to animation school, I realized I needed a year’s worth of experience in figure drawing first. I found someone online who was teaching classes out of her apartment, so I would go to this little 70-year-old woman’s place and she’d walk me through drawing a live model. Her reaction to the first sketch I did was, “We’re going to have to change everything about how you draw.” I kept going every Saturday, and 16-year-old me would just draw this nude model. I was struck by her; here was this woman who had so much faith in me, and while she could be stern, she was steadfast in supporting my growth. I completely admired her — I even began to work for her as an assistant and help her with her studio. She was so blunt and honest, which I think you really need from a mentor — the real world isn’t going to hold your hand.

How do you see the relationship between your queerness and your art? How do they influence and engage one another?

The double-edged sword about being queer is that from a young age, when you start to realize that there’s something different about you, there’s this process of almost destroying everything that you know to be true. It’s a very stressful and confusing metamorphosis of sorts, one where you don’t know what you’re going to become and you don’t know what’s happening, but you’re questioning everything about yourself and about life. My artistic process became a place where I could lay down the pieces of my mind and my thoughts and start connecting them like a puzzle — one where there's a thousand different pieces that could all fit together in different ways.

Hopefully my art will continue to exist for years as a record of what it meant to be queer right now, in this day and age. What it means to be queer in Baltimore. What it means to be a queer artist. Seeing other openly queer artists that went through this same type of deconstruction of themselves really made me feel like I could start to question who I was, and I’d love for my art to accomplish that for other people.

When you're making more abstract pieces, is there a pressure to make something that people will easily understand? Or is it more about making what speaks to you? 

There’s a lot of pressure to make things that are understandable. But one of my thesis mentors told me that I shouldn’t dumb things down for my audience. People that are going to engage with the art, they’re smart. People that don’t understand it, there is power in that for them to create meanings about what the blurry images and bodies mean. Sometimes, I want to make my references very obvious for the audience so that they can learn what exactly it is I’m talking about. But I remember it’s also important to allow people to create their own connections from that. It’s a navigation between abstraction and ‘real worldliness,’ which is very similar to being queer. That navigation is hard in art and in life, but if it was easy, it wouldn’t be as fun.

Speaking of abstract, um, space. Space! Can you talk about your experience with NASA?

I created GIFs for this article about Asuka, a meteorite. One of the researchers for the article said, “I don’t want you to do something that’s just a clear-cut illustration. I want you to have fun with this.” So I first learned everything I possibly could about this meteorite. I went to all of these interviews and info sessions; I don’t know a lot about science. I ended up making these abstract GIFs with these beautiful colors, all flowing out from this orb, like a meteorite entering the earth and also like the chemical interactions going on inside of meteorites. It didn’t directly depict anything queer, but I think it’s a very queer approach to making art about science. It gives people the opportunity to go beyond that science and start to think, “Okay, what is happening here? What do these colors make me feel?” It’s a chance for people to step outside this realness into their emotions and reactions, which are just as real, but I don’t think they’re given as much space in science. 

Oftentimes, the point of science is to be as objective as possible. But humans are not objective beings; there’s more to life than just what ‘is’ and what ‘isn’t.’

I totally agree. Growing up queer is when you really start to learn that nothing is necessarily real or truthful. Science is all about creating that truth and knowledge, and there’s a lot of good in that, but also, who’s to say what is real and what is important and what matters? So any chance I get to make people question that, I’m always really happy.

You mentioned your art as a kind of ‘queer record.’ Is there anything else that you hope your art can achieve?

I would love for abstraction, and how it relates to us thinking about ourselves, to hold a bigger role in society. It’s kind of a cliche, but everyone (even me, for a long time) jokes about abstract art — that they don’t understand the purpose of it. I would love for some kid growing up queer or just growing up differently to be able to connect to abstraction because they see more of it out in the world.

It comes down to questioning as a practice — I want everyone, including non-queer people, to experience it because it can grow into something huge. We start with questioning, but eventually, we’re bringing that into politics and society and legislation, and we’re starting to imagine different, better futures.

What do you want to be spending your time doing after you graduate in December?

I’ve been looking at a lot of internships and obviously, I’m hoping I won’t have to do some things that I don’t want to do to make money, but the reality of being an artist is sometimes taking some gigs that are a little more commercial. There’s always that chance to bring yourself to the table — I doubt NASA knew I was going to be doing a bunch of abstract, ‘out there’ work. 

One day, I would really love to be a teacher. Teachers have been key to my survival, and I want to pay that back. I’d also love to branch out into filmmaking, and be able to offer people more to engage with. I’m going to be all over the place when I grow up, but I would love to just keep making art and keep figuring myself out and keep interacting with the world. That’s what I really want.