At only 19, Jonathan MacGregor is making his mark as a painter in the Chattahoochee Valley.
The son of a retired Army colonel, MacGregor is one of eight children who were all home-schooled by his mother while being stationed all over the world. The family settled in Columbus after his father’s retirement, which led to MacGregor being able to study art privately in town.
The young local artist is going into his freshman year at Columbus State University in the fall where he plans to major in art. After winning first prize at the Georgia National Fair last year, MacGregor’s work began garnering the attention of folks throughout the region. He currently spends two hours a day practicing his craft and working on a series of commissions and ongoing projects.
MacGregor recently sat down with arts reporter Carrie Beth Wallace to discuss his path to painting, how his upbringing shaped him, his interesting process, his major influences and what his plans are for the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What got you interested in art growing up?
A: Well, my oldest brother was an artist. He’s 15 years older than me. There are eight of us. He was already in college for art. So I always had that. My dad also painted in college, and my mother majored in music in college. So I was always around art.
I really liked drawing as a child. I think every child likes to draw. I liked drawing people, but I never had an art teacher until I met Katie Kent. She is my first teacher. I started with her in 2015. I’ve only been painting for two years.
Q: Really? Did you study anything before that? Was any of your home schooling geared toward the arts? Or did you learn by just watching what was organically happening in your family?
A: Well, I remember my mom getting me a book for drawing. I believe it was by the company that produced our curriculum. It had little art tasks like, “Draw an elephant” with a grid on it and things like that. Some coloring lessons. That sort of thing.
I’ve also always liked designing things.
Q: Designing. In what respect?
A: Just like clothing and people. When I was younger, I wanted to do everything. I wanted to be a writer, an actor. So I never really found my niche with art until high school.
Q: What helped you narrow down to painting?
A: I had to take two years of extracurricular studies. I had to do a P.E. so I chose tennis, and then my other extra curricular was art.
I chose art because I had always had a dream of doing art, but I had never thought it could be a career.
Q: I see. Did your two-year requirement of extracurricular activities lead you to studying painting?
A: Yes. That’s when I started studying with Katie Kent.
Q: How often do you study with her?
A: Every week for two hours. There are four of us in the class.
Q: How did you get to study with Ms. Kent?
A: My mom was looking for art teachers around Columbus. We’d been here, but we weren’t involved in Columbus because we’d lived on post. Then, when my dad retired we moved off post, and we didn’t know downtown Columbus well. So my mom started looking for a teacher for me and she was given Katie’s name by Tommy Orr, who is our organist on Fort Benning. He said, “I know this lady. She owns Brushes & Beverages and I can give her your number.”
We looked her up and saw that she offered home-school art lessons every week. We noticed that there didn’t seem to be something that went with my curriculum in the home-school art section, but my mom saw that there were weekly private lessons on Wednesdays. So we asked if I could join that and she agreed. I’ve been studying with her ever since.
Q: How has it been? What was it like getting started with her?
A: Well I remember that she asked me the first day, “Do you have anything to show me?” She wanted to see three different things, and I had only painted one painting. It was of a little golden apple. I still have it. For my second piece, I drew Twiggy. Then for my last piece to show Katie, I drew Salvador Dali.
Q: Did Katie have requirements for you to do those assignments? Or is that just what you brought in?
A: No. I had just done those in my free time. She just wanted to see what stage I was in with my art endeavors.
I showed them to her and then she just let me paint from then on. At first, she said, “You can paint whatever you want off of this wall.” So I picked a Van Gogh. I painted that and then it all started to come together.
I practice around two hours every day. Ever since I started those classes, I’ve become more and more obsessed with everything art. I remember reading about an artist who went six decades and never missed a day without painting.
Q: So you have committed to painting two hours every day?
A: I try to, yes.
Q: What all do you paint? I have seen some of your work and it is beautiful, but what haven’t I seen? What subject matters do you enjoy depicting?
A: Lately, I have been really into portraits. I am working on some commissions.
I try to find symbolism. I love symbolism. Specifically biblical symbolism. I always try to put some of it in my work.
Q: Is there a specific reason that you love it?
A: Well, my dad is a chaplain. He retired as a colonel and was a chaplain for over 30 years. I love the way that biblical symbolism represents my faith.
Q: Can you give me some examples of how and why you include it in your work?
A: Back in the Renaissance, even though that time wasn’t specifically biblical, artists often used biblical symbolism in their work. For example, a lily would represent purity. A feather would represent a writer. I always look for those types of things. I love things you don’t have to describe to people. Those who have studied it will know what you’re conveying, but if not, they still see a beautiful painting. So I just try to look for symbolic elements to add into my work.
Q: How do you feel like your time in Europe informed your style?
A: Well, when I was there I took a lot of photographs. I wasn’t painting yet, so I didn’t have inspiration to paint any of it. But just seeing how the classical architecture interacts with the modern world. I thought that was so interesting. We don’t have that in America. I was fascinated by that dynamic of old and new.
My time there certainly shaped me. A lot of my paintings are of places in Germany and France. Most of my art either comes from New York or Europe. When we traveled to Italy, I wish I could have taken more time to study things there.
Q: Will you try to study abroad during your time at CSU?
A: Yes. Definitely. I’d love to go back to Europe again.
Q: How would you describe your style?
A: I have always wanted to blur the lines between impressionism and realism. I like the idea of impressionism. It’s so messy and good. But I also love the idea of realism- more of a Renaissance realism, not hyper realism. So yes, I want to marry those two together.
I respect the impressionists and what they did, but really love good realism painter. I really, really respect the work of Bo Bartlett. He is definitely an inspiration. Bartlett studied under Andrew Wyeth, who I also really admire. Another influence is Edward Hopper.
Q: That’s a great list. Any other influences or inspirations?
A: Van Gogh. I have always had his work in my room. I love that contrast of how he was so sad in life, but he became so happy some way through his art.
Botticelli’s use of symbolism, I love. I really respect Frida Kahlo. I find her interesting because she said she did self portraits because she didn’t know anybody else. I think it’s fascinating that she had the ability to keep herself company through her hardest times.
Q: You said right now you’re painting a lot of portraits. Are you painting people you know? Or commissions? Or portraits of famous people like Salvador Dali?
A: I usually try to find something interesting. Because I don’t have many people around that would want to sit for a four-hour portrait session, I search on the internet for something interesting about a face. Whether it’s a facial structure or a lighting. I’ll take that image and crop the head out, and put it on a body that I’ve composed. Then, I’ll add elements in with Photoshop that I want to include. Then, I paint it.
A recent one is from a photo I took of New York that I put with this lady holding a carnation. The carnation represents undying love. It’s as if she has an undying love for New York. She’s looking longingly at the city.
I try to take images – not like photo realism, I don’t copy them- but I use the technology to get the proportions and everything right. Then, I paint them from that composition.
Q: Let’s talk about CSU. What was their admission requirement? A portfolio?
A: Yes, I submitted a portfolio.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I am working on a commission of Brugges a family member took while in Berlin. It’s a city landscape photograph that I’m working from.
Q: Has your work been featured in any exhibits or art shows anywhere? Where can people find your art?
A: Well, locally my work is at Freeze Frame. I also won first place at the Georgia National Fair in Perry last year. So it was displayed there as well, but that exhibit has now closed. That’s the biggest competition I’ve won. I enter competitions online often, but not many physical exhibitions yet.
Q: What led you to enter your painting? Which one was it?
A: It is the one of Strasbourg. Katie (Kent) is who suggested I enter the National Fair contest.
Q: Will your art also be for sale on your website?
A: Yes. I believe so. The website will be up by the end of this week, but I’m not sure when paintings will be for sale on it. We are building the site now, and it will be up by the end of the week. People will be able to contact me through the website as soon as its launched, and eventually purchase art there as well.
Q: Last question. You said at the beginning of our discussion that you were always interested in the masters, but that you didn’t find art attractive as a career because of all of their rough lifestyles – to put it lightly. So how have you found hope in doing this as a career and making painting a lifestyle that you want to have?
A: I think that if you stay level-minded, you can have a beautiful life. I don’t know, I also think that society back then loved to capitalize on the tortured artist. I feel like artists sometimes try to create the illusion of a free spirit. I mean, artists are expected to be crazy. Which, kind of then, is hard to remodel. But being an artist can be a good thing. There is beauty in a sad painting.
Finding the beauty in pain is important. Pain doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In life, I believe that God does that for us. Our lives aren’t terrible, but we all have rough patches. So I guess keeping a view of that, remembering it in that sense, is why I feel like I have hope in doing art as a career.
Hometown: MacGregor is from a military family and has lived in many places, including several posts in the United States and Germany. He moved to Columbus where his father retired as a colonel after 35 years of service as a chaplain. His family now resides in Columbus permanently.
Education: Home-schooled by his mother.
Family: Chaplain Col. Thomas A. MacGregor, retired, father; Bonnie MacGregor, mother; youngest of eight siblings.
More to Know: He is entering Columbus State University in the fall to study art. He is also considering studying business. For more information about his work or inquiries about commissions, visit jonmacgregor.com.