New works by artist Mark McMahon reveal a different sty;e

Artist Mark McMahon and Thistles" that is part of his new flora series. (J Jacobs photo)
Artist Mark McMahon and Thistles” that is part of his new flora series. (J Jacobs photo)

It has taken COVID’s 2020 stay-close-to home mandate to bring out a different style side of artist Mark McMahon that his many fans likely won’t recognize.

Art lovers can see the ceramic tile mural of Chicago life done by McMahon, an internationally known Lake Forest artist, if they go to Van Buren and Federal Streets downtown. Folks who remember the ceramic pictures of local life that covered the walls of a Lake Forest McDonalds can find the extensive mural over at the town’s Gorton Community Center where they were moved when the McD property was developed into a shopping strip.

Abbotts’ employees know of his stylized interpretation of the international company’s various campuses as pictured first by his dad, the famed “artist- reporter, Franklin McMahon, last century, and twice now in this century by Mark McMahon. The commissioned pictures are in Abbott’s museum.

The Abbott works are part of McMahon’s “World Studio” category that also includes paintings done in Africa , London, France, Canada, Spain and Cuba.

They and other watercolors, many of which he has translated into giclee prints, note cards and mugs, have been commissioned by companies, cities and colleges. They have also ranged from sports venues and historic events such as a NASA space shuttle launch to scenic vistas on the Great Lakes such as Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Those are paintings that tell a story. Inspired by the way his dad  worked on-site, McMahon calls them “editorials.”

However, anyone stopping by The Gallery, a Lake Forest restaurant cum art venue, will see not just a sampling of McMahan’s story-telling watercolors , but also his latest works in oils and acrylics.

Set in artistically designed steel frames created by son Drew McMahon, the paintings are so very different from the story-telling works on the opposite  gallery wall that a visitor could be forgiven for asking who did those.

There are eye-popping flowers plus an unusual rendering of a lion fish.

"Bearded Iris Yellow-Purple" can be seen at The Gallery. (Photo courtesy of McMahon)
Mark McMahon “Bearded Iris Yellow-Purple” can be seen at The Gallery. (Photo courtesy of McMahon)

When asked about his change in style, McMahon, sitting at home with a cup of tea for the interview, said, “Wait” as he disappeared. He brought back a large canvas done in oils on site at a Lake Forest Open Lands property about 30 years ago.

If divided into close-ups, it could foretell the direction he would take decades later. But the style is different.

Even though it was done on site because that is how McMahon works, the scene didn’t begin as a line drawing followed by color as in his characteristic painting mode. Instead, the canvas appeared as an experiment in textured layers and scenic effects.

I’ve always done these on the side,” said McMahon.

His newest works focus on pattern instead of a scenic tale.

Zooming in on the shape of the flora he captures, his irises tend to to take on a Matisse-type flow.

His thistles, as in the work hanging in his and wife Carolyn’s living room, create an impact with repeated pattern. They become even more important against a forceful background color. This one is a glowing orange.

“Carolyn said this one isn’t going anywhere. It’s staying here,” said McMahon. (Carolyn, an artist who works in a variety of media, has a two dimensional metal piece attached to another living room wall.)

Another change is that he now favors icon boards over the canvas he had been using. “You feel it pulling the paint off the brush,” he said.

Members of the artistic McMahon family paint outside at the rock garden. (Photo courtesy of the McMahons)
Members of the artistic McMahon family paint outside at the rock garden. (Photo courtesy of the McMahons)

What hasn’t changed is working on site where he does his line work and initial painting and then, finishing the work back in his studio. He still brings his tools: an easel and box of paints to the site. “I like that spontaneity,” said McMahon.

But he attributes his adding a new style, “not technique,” to the pandemic. “I’ve had more time now with COVID,” he said.

Instead of traveling far afield to capture a story playing out at a city or college, McMahon heads to his rock garden or around the corner to the wild plants such as thistle that grow along telephone, electric and cable lines.

I’ve been doing this (painting) for 50 years,” said McMahon, 70. “The art process takes, 30-40-50 years to develop. They have evolved. Once in a while there is a good one,” he said.

(To view Mark McMahon’s work visit The Gallery, check with the Deerpath Art League’s date for its May fundraiser and go on April 29, 2021 to the City of Lake Forest Shop in the downtown train station for an event to help local non-profit organizations.)

Jodie Jacobs

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