Interview with Jason McInnes

Interview with Jason McInnes

KB: Where were you born?

JM: I was born in Rochester Hills, Michigan. My family moved to Novi, Michigan just before my sixth birthday. Novi is what I call my hometown. I'm the oldest of three. My brother Andrew is three years younger and my sister April is six years younger than me.

KB: What were you like as a kid?

I was (and remain) a kind of tinkerer and explorer. I had friends and we played outside every day, but I was happy to wander alone and follow my own whims.

Our subdivision was on the outside of town. It was surrounded by acres and acres of fields, woods, a swamp, and a pond that would freeze over in the winter. I spent a lot of time outside building snow forts, speeding along a bike path through the woods, climbing to the tops of trees, and scavenging ropes and scraps of wood to build all kinds of bridges, zip lines, and hideouts where I could quietly watch the world go by.

Jason McInnes

KB: Can you describe one event from your childhood that left an indelible mark?

JM: There is a type of event that happened several times in my life, which is very important to my relationship to my art.

  • First Grade - I scored 100% on the MEAP standardized test, without knowing what a test was. I received a certificate and was part of some kind of ceremony with some older kids.
  • Second Grade - My art teacher entered a piece of my art in a local art contest. I didn't know anything about it until I was one of the winners. My artwork was part of a local art show and was recreated in frosting on a giant cookie that was displayed at the Twelve Oaks Mall.
  • Sixth Grade - My second year of formal music education. The previous year there had been no ranking of anyone, but in 6th I was give the title of First Chair of the trumpet section. I hadn't done anything differently that I did the previous year.

I say all of this because what ended up happening was I learned that I received a lot of praise sometimes, and none other times, but it didn't seem to correspond to anything I tried to do. It just happened. By the time middle school came around, I started to quit things that I didn't have success with right away. When quitting wasn't an option, like math class, I was so stressed about maintaining my rank that I actually fell behind. Which created more stress. Which knocked me further down. Which created more stress. Soon I had quit taking any class that would challenge me in any way, and had given up on sports, art, and eventually music.

That was a very dark time for me.

KB: When did you become aware of art and having an interest in making things?

JM: I've never been aware of not having an interest in making things. My favorite book as a little kid was Harold and the Purple Crayon and my earliest memories are working with art materials like playdough or markers and crayons, as well as playing with a "make a band" kit of instruments like claves, a giro, woodblock, and a tambourine.

KB: What types of books do you enjoy reading?

I enjoy reading, and listening to podcasts (which I do a lot!) about artists and musicians, and cultural moments and histories. I enjoy making connections between work that resonates with me and the larger cultural moment.

Many times I'm equally, if not more, interested in the discussion of how someone made something, rather than the thing they made itself. Patti Smith's recent trilogy of books has been great in this way. I am very interested in not only her art, but the art of the other people in her life, the art throughout history that she feels connected to, and the cultural moments that she has been a part of. It helped put some artists and their work into fuller context and I was turned on to a few things I was unfamiliar with. I think about those books all the time.

KB: What has been your favorite job to date?

JM: My favorite job was guitar teacher at the Old Town School of Folk Music. My favorite class that I taught was a class that I developed called Wiggle-n-Strum, which was an offshoot of the School's well-known Wiggleworms infant music experience classes. In Wiggle-n-Strum, I taught a group of adults how to play the baritone 'ukulele while their children set in their laps, crawled around, or played with each other.

Jason Teaching

Wiggle-n-Strum developed from the experience of teaching my least favorite class, which was Wiggleworms. I worked alongside masters of the Wiggleworm class and I was totally lost. I was having trouble presenting a good class and it was stressing me out. One day there was only a few people in class. We were chatting and I took my guitar off and passed it to a mom. I taught her how to play The Wheels of the Bus on the guitar. I remember literally telling her, "You don't need me. I'm not doing very much. You could be doing all of this yourself."

Then it hit me. "Oh!" I thought. "This is what I want to do! I'll teach the parents how to play music for themselves. Their babies and toddlers will watch them learn and there is the potential to have live music happening in their homes for the rest of their lives!"

I taught Wiggle-n-Strum for about ten years of my 19 years at OTS. Among the chaos of diapers, crying, snacks, and snot, the students in Wiggle-n-Strum learned much quicker than the students in my adults-only guitar classes. It seemed that the attitude of, "If I learn anything amongst this bedlam it will be a miracle" found in Wiggle-n-Strum was more productive that the, "I must master every single thing my teacher tells me in this exact instant" attitude of the students in my adult classes.

I love opening the doors to self-made music for all kinds of people, but Wiggle-n-Strum was the most enjoyable and satisfying teaching experience.

KB: Where do you live and work on your art and what makes it special?

I spent 25 years in Chicago and about three years ago I found myself very burnt out with the city and with my job. I moved away from Chicago in late 2019 and landed in Las Cruces, New Mexico in late 2020.

Jason Charcoal Drawing

Las Cruces is perfect because it is VERY quiet and there's not much to do. That keeps me at home to work on my art, which didn't happen when I was living within the rich cultural tapestry of Chicago. There is a natural beauty everywhere and I can easily go outside for a jog, hike, or just to sit in the sun every day.

I feel very lucky that I have an apartment with an office. It's allowed me to have an art studio for the first time in my life. I have a big wall to work on and my supplies are easy to get to. And, most importantly, I don't need to clean up a project because I need the table cleared to make dinner. That used to hold me back from a lot of projects.

Jason McInnes Studio

KB: Who and what inspires your creative work?

JM: I am mostly inspired by a desire to "figure something out" for myself, rather than express some kind of emotion or worldview to others. People like Philippe Petit, who figured out how to attach and walk across a tightrope wire between the World Trade Center building, amaze me and keep me dreaming.

Musically, I'm very inspired by work that is right on the edge of being too weird, even if it is popular. I love the music of the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Kimya Dawson, Moondog, Mary Lou Williams, and my friend and former band mate Miki Greenberg (Maestro Subgum and the Whole, Fetal Position, It's a Girl).

For visual art, I find a lot of satisfaction in looking at pretty much anything that is black and white. I'm attracted to the Dutch master draftsmen, scroll drawings and paintings from China and Japan, and graphic novelists like Jeff Smith and Lynda Barry.

For people in my life, I am inspired by my sister April. April has autism and is someone who needs high levels of support in her life. It can be difficult to communicate with her, but we've always been able to make connections through music and through sensory experiences that don't require verbal language. She always reminds me to live in the moment.

Jason and Siblings

KB: How would you describe your creative practice?

My creative practice is driven by two voices in my head. Every project develops, more or less, like this:

Voice One - Oh! I know what would be fun/interesting/challenging/rewarding to try. We could [insert idea here}.

Voice Two - Very cool. How are you going to do that? You'd need to [learn, figure out, buy, make time for, etc.] to make it happen.

Voice One - Yeah. Good point.

Voice Two - Well, you know the rule. You thought of it, so now you have to at least try it.

Voice One - OK. I'm kind of scared but I'll give it a try. Here we go.

I think I'm attracted to pen and ink drawing because there is no way to do it half way. It's either on or off. I find that terrifying and exhilarating.

Jason McInnes Mountain Drawing

KB: Where is the next place you want to visit and/or go on vacation?

JM: Hmm. I'm not sure. I spent half of 2019 and pretty much all of 2020 traveling around, and the thought of doing much more traveling makes me a little nauseous.

Having said that, I'm a Dead Head and I'm going to hear their current iteration, Dead & Company, in Phoenix in late October. Going to a Grateful Dead show is like going to a place. Each phase of the show, a) the journey there, b)the show proper, and c) the return home has its own special feeling. At the show I can wander alone or be with thousands of people singing together all the while connecting with spirits, emotions, and big ideas on the astral plane. I feel very comfortable tumbling through the darkness and lightness of a Grateful Dead show.

Jason Concert

KB: What makes you laugh?

JM: There were days when I was teaching when either my lesson plan was off, or the kids were too squirmy, or something was just not right and the kids would be acting out. When I get frustrated with the kids my natural reaction is to smile and laugh. 

I remember one time a group of eight to ten year olds was totally out of control--laughing and goofing off. I was like, "OK, everyone put your guitars down and listen to my voice. I am getting very frustrated because..."

One of the students raised his hand and quipped, "Jason, if you're so mad at us, why are you smiling and laughter so much?"

Good point, kid. I answered something like "Are you familiar with the phrase laugh to keep from crying? That's what you're all making me do." And then I smiled and we got on with things.

Honestly, I'm usually laughing at myself for the hubris of thinking I was a match for these brilliant young people. And, in these moments, their jokes and squirmy-ness are always hilarious. I'm glad to fall in with them, rather than fight against them. We'll get to that lesson another day.

KB: Why do you make art?

My relationship to my art-making has changed a lot over the past five or six months. In June I received a diagnosis of ADHD and a bunch of very challenging aspects of my life suddenly made a lot more sense.

For the entirety of my adult life, while I smiled and sang "You are my Sunshine" on the outside, making art and music was a series of self-flagellations mixed with a few moments of quiet to make something. I was always compelled to make stuff, but making it was torturous to the point of, many more times than not, just walking away, feeling worthless.

Since the diagnosis, I've been having the best time making art. I can't believe it. The self-flagellations are gone, and the work has been enjoyable even if it has also been challenging. For the first time in my life I'm one of those people that says, "I feel so contented when I'm in my studio." I used to never understand those people. Being in the studio was like being thrown into a briar patch. Thorns everywhere.

Jason Clouds

Now, with the support of some management practices and meds, I feel like I'm able to be myself and do the work I want to do. Like I said, I have drive to "figure it out." Answering questions like, "How do I use this pen to draw the sky, without it looking like night or like it's raining, when the sky is actually darker than the clouds?" are questions I'm finding a great deal of enjoyment in.

It was a dark, dark journey to climb out of that hole and I am very glad I'm here. In my current work, I'm finding myself digging deep into some fundamentals that maybe I would have picked up 30 years ago. I feel like I have a lot of time to make up for.