Professor Jon McDonald Receives Society of Illustrators’ Distinguished Educator in the Arts Award
If you want to pass one of Professor Jon McDonald’s classes, you’re going to have to fail first. A lot.
Since joining the Illustration faculty at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) in 1980, McDonald has consistently brought out the best in his students by motivating them to transcend their comfort zone. And, as the seasoned artist, illustrator, and educator knows from experience, the road to creative growth and professional success is invariably paved with mistakes.
“I grade on progress, so I always tell my students to show me some courage. If they don’t push themselves so far that they fail, I’ll fail them myself,” McDonald says with a smile. “Mistakes are a given; it’s what they learn from them that counts.”
McDonald’s no-nonsense approach to teaching and creating has made him a force of nature, here at KCAD and far beyond. The Society of Illustrators recently honored him with the 2019 Distinguished Educator in the Arts Award, given annually to an individual who has made an undeniable impact on the illustration field as both a teacher and an artist.
Prestige aside, McDonald insists he’s just doing what he’s always done.
“I want students to make the most of their education, but they need to have fun too, because I don’t want them to get discouraged,” he says. “I want to divert them from the fear of failure.”
After earning a certificate in Illustration from KCAD in 1969, McDonald had a “fail” of his own when he went to work as an illustrator for Chicago publishing giant Lyons and Carnahan. The experience taught him that he “never wanted to work in a cubicle again.” So, he headed west, earning an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972 before establishing himself in Los Angeles as a freelance illustrator.
Early on in his career, McDonald missed out on a few prime job opportunities—including an album cover for Tom Jones—by failing to meet client expectations. But he learned another valuable lesson in the process: be adaptable.
Since then, he’s spread his talents far and wide, from illustrating advertisements for leading corporations to creating a traveling exhibition of portraits of Black American role models, to dreaming up massive murals for the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, and the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University.
“It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ you are,” McDonald says, “No one’s going to hire you if they can’t trust you to do what they’ve asked you to do. The more diverse you are, the faster you’re going to be able to build yourself up.”
In the classroom, McDonald emphasizes professional readiness above all else. His students are encouraged to explore as many different media and techniques as possible as they move beyond self-expression and learn to communicate a broader range of messages and ideas.
“My goal has always been to equip students to go out and build a career,” McDonald says. “If you can draw and paint and do a lot of other things well, so many doors will open, but if you limit yourself to one medium or one style, those doors are going to start closing quickly.”
McDonald helps a student hone his work
As teaching from experience requires, McDonald practices what he preaches. He’s continued to dabble in commercial illustration work, has developed several series of paintings focused on issues he’s passionate about—such as racism, Black history, music, and the environment—and frequently tackles cityscapes and portraits to keep his technical skills sharp.
Even now, McDonald makes creating work a daily priority.
“I try to walk the line between artistic purity and the reality of living and working in the world,” he says. “I do surrealism when I really want to have some fun, but I need the technical knowledge too, so I do things like city scenes and portraits and I try to make them better each time. Every day I paint or draw to get better at it, because my teaching depends on it.”
McDonald has also made the most of chances to improve as an educator. He’s a regular at teaching seminars organized by the Society of Illustrators, and keeps his finger firmly on the pulse of the latest pedagogical and industry trends.
“Without the Society’s help, I couldn’t have taken my teaching to the next level. The seminars they offer are just wonderful,” he says. “You need to stay on top of it all, because the old way of doing things isn’t what’s going to help students succeed in today’s world.”
McDonald interacts with prospective KCAD students visitng the college during a recent Art Day competition
Opportunity has abounded for KCAD Illustration students over the years, in large part because of the work ethic McDonald exemplifies and instills in them. The program achieved record enrollment during his tenure as Chair—2008–2017—with many students winning highly-coveted awards and scholarships and being featured in publications and juried exhibitions around the world.
Once graduated, they’ve gone on to work for clients such as Disney, Marvel Comics, Nike, and Simon & Schuster; lead non-profit organizations; publish books; start their own businesses, and become teachers and leaders in higher education in their own right.
“They’re not afraid to go out and make their mark, and they’re doing it,” McDonald says. “As a teacher, that’s all you could ever hope for.”
His own mark on the world extends far beyond his teaching. With the support of late West Michigan philanthropist Peter Wege, McDonald embarked on a series of global travels in which he painted the world around him in an effort to remind people of our common humanity.
A trip to Costa Rica gave birth to a series of works that captured the splendor of the natural world and advocated for its preservation. Another trip to South Dakota produced paintings that served as both a celebration of Native American culture and a reminder of America’s gross mistreatment of native populations. A more recent series, “Slavery’s Chill,” is another stark confrontation of America’s problematic history of racism.
"Leaving Home," a painting from McDonald's "Slavery's Chill" series (image courtesy of the artist)
McDonald’s favorite project involved portraits of influential Black Americans like former U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan, astronaut Fred Gregory, pediatric neurosurgeon Alexa Candy, and filmmaker Spike Lee. He would take the portraits around to different inner-city and suburban schools and teach kids from all walks of life about the individuals they depicted.
“It was a gas,” McDonald recalls. “The students really lit up when they learned about these people, because in most cases they’d never heard of them before.”
As for what his own students at KCAD learn, McDonald is just as invested in their humanity as he is their creativity. And he isn’t planning on stopping any time soon.
“These young people now are probably the most accepting of diversity I’ve ever seen, and that’s great to see, because I want them to leave here having learned to respect each other and being prepared to work with all different kinds of people,” he says. “I’m going to keep supporting them until I can’t.”
See more of Jon McDonald’s work at jonmcdonaldgallery.com.
Learn more about KCAD’s Illustration program.