In this week’s edition of I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, we speak with Yates High School alum David McGee about what inspired him to become a professional artist, which of the many awards he’s received means the most to him, and how Rock’em Sock’em Robots relate to his artistic process.
Every artist has his or her own style, but my (admittedly, untrained) eye detects some of the best aspects of Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, and Georgia O’Keeffe in your work. Did any of these painters actually inspire you? As an artist, whose work do you admire or find moving?
I think in my work, if studied, one can find many influences via my interests in travel, literature, and politics. As a painter, it would be very difficult for me to choose any one person. The range of my interests is too vast. Let’s put it this way: From Magritte to James Baldwin, I have a lot of wonderful forefathers.
You’ve received a number of grants and awards for your work, including two from the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Which one means the most to you and why?
One of my favorite writers, Philip Roth, was asked this very question. It is great to win prizes; it gives you enough time and space to do what you love to do. I’m just very appreciative to be considered for anything that allows me to work.
You’ve had solo exhibitions in Texas, New York, Rhode Island, and North Carolina, and your work has been included in either group or curated exhibits in such esteemed institutions as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Harvard University, and the Menil Collection. What is it like seeing your work hanging in places like that? Did you ever imagine when you were a kid at Yates High School that that was your destiny?
Absolutely not! While attending Yates, I was a newly formed Texan, arriving from Detroit, Michigan. I basically had no idea about any direction but that of a baseball player. Painting and art came rather late to my life. The creative process and the emotional need to express myself (although dormant) was always within me.
I remember as a child, walking into the Menil for the first time and being awestruck. Although I’ve been to many museums around the world, the Menil experience stayed with me. I even wrote a letter to the great Dominique De Menil expressing my admiration, and to my surprise, she wrote back. I imagined how great it would be to show my paintings there one day. Many years have passed, and to my great wonderment, this museum now owns seven pieces of my art, and I have had the privilege of showing there. This one experience is the one I keep with me the most. Perhaps it speaks of dreams and the power of faith.
How did your time at Yates prepare you for your career as an artist? Did you have any great art teachers there, or was it a case of winnowing out other career options that you realized weren’t for you?
My time at Yates was the enjoyable time of a child trying to figure out his options. Ironically, my younger sister Sherri was the superstar at Yates, and I was very much in the shadows. I will say this in closing about my Yates experience — although I didn’t take art classes, I fancied myself a great baseball player in my years there and took pride in my letter jacket.
In some of our photographer’s pictures of you, I spied a Rock’em Sock’em Robots game in your studio. Are those there to provide inspiration or relaxation or both?
(Laughs) My beloved Rock’em Sock’em Robots are a simple reminder of what a self-employed artist must do to maintain his craft — passion and gifts to a world sometimes barely curious.
This is the third in a weekly series of articles on HISD artists as a part of Black History Month