Western News

STAFF PROFILE: Artist doing it all by using it all

Leslie Kostal

October 20, 2011


                                                                               Paul Mayne, Western News
A five-ton press in her basement is just one of the many tools Jan Shepherd McKee used to create her artwork.


Jan Shepherd McKee loves drawing the most. Of course, there is also printmaking and papermaking, sculpture, quilting, jewelry designing and even a little stained glass.

And if that doesn’t exhaust you, she’s also an avid gardener, specializing in heritage tomatoes.

“The key is to have the flexibility to be able to do a lot of different things,” says the associate director undergraduate services for the Faculty of Engineering.

Her aphorism on life is to bring everything one has back into the community, to enrich and positively change the environment. You could say, literally, it’s from the ground up.

 “My husband jokes with people that it takes me an hour to get from the car to the house because I have to go through the garden,” she admits. 

She plants various varieties of heritage tomato seeds indoors during winter. They come from all over the world. “I have some this year from Peru,” she says, “and they have sort of a fuzz on them like a peach.”

As soon as the frost is gone in spring, she’s keen to get the plants outdoors to join the rest of her herbs, vegetables and flowers.

Take Irises, for example. They create good fibre for papermaking.

“Papermaking is very interesting because you can do it anywhere in the world,” she explains.

Having studied both Western and Eastern papermaking, Shepherd McKee knows what kind of fibre she needs depending on the project. It’s the content of the cellulose she’s after.

“Now you would think something like a corn crop would give you lots of cellulose, but in fact I’ve tried it, and you’re boiling it forever. You get very little out of an acre of corn. I’ve also tried banana skins,” she says.

Although you may get beautiful pieces of paper, she claims you need a lot of banana skins to do it.

For an exhibit at the McIntosh Gallery in 2004, Shepherd McKee created pieces of handmade paper that lay under a nickel titanium based wire (shape-memory wire), which, when programmed with a computer, moved by an electronic current. Different coloured pieces of paper flowed in randomized waves. Visitors noted its calming effect.

To enhance the exhibit, lights were lowered and music added. “It had a strong force that I really didn’t plan and was surprised at,” Shepherd McKee says. “It was a piece that I made to be installed and taken apart again. It was a moment in time.”

More lasting is Shepherd McKee’s printmaking, made with the help of a five-ton press in her studio. She does etching, engraving and linocuts.

As a visual artist, her work is realistic, influenced by things she does.

“I don’t tend to do a lot of abstract work,” she says. “I think probably the most conceptual work I do is in sculpture, but my prints are usually very clearly realistic subjects.”

In addition to praising her mother as an artist, who taught her children at an early age the value and history of art, Shepherd McKee compliments a former art teacher who, during an exercise, encouraged his students to rip up their prized work.

“He was teaching us that the value is not in the work,” she says. “The value is in us and our ability to produce that work.”

Shepherd McKee doesn’t consider any specific piece she has done to be precious. “You can sell out my whole inventory if you want to,” she says. “I’ll just make more. Because it’s about the process of making the art. It’s really not about the finished product.”

In addition to the art she shows here in London and abroad – dealers respond favourably to her work in England and Spain – Shepherd McKee designs jewelry and quilts in the winter. If she’s not picking up gems in antique shops to remake pieces of jewelry, or shopping at Hancock’s of Paducah (her favourite fabric store in Kentucky), she’s working with stained glass.

Let’s go full circle:  Grow something in the garden to make paper; make paper; print on it; embed it in glass.

Shepherd McKee acknowledges the support of colleagues at Western who have endorsed bringing art into her everyday life, in fact, using “art to bring people together, to really solidify a team.”  

“If I’m not allowed to do my artwork,” she says, “I’ll be over in the corner screaming ‘mommy.’”


Leslie Kostal, web administrative assistant, Department of Economics, writes periodic pieces profiling Western staff members. If you know someone with an interesting story to tell, e-mail her at Leslie.Kostal@uwo.ca.

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