The John Wesley Powell’s July Artist of the Month is J. J. McMahon, a self-taught, abstract expressionism painter who has invoked the passion of the land with his bold and unique approach to canvas painting. While inspiring others with his art he aspires to give back to remote communities in need.
McMahon was raised in the Flagstaff area and is currently a Page resident. He considers the Lake Powell area a special and spiritual place that he finds inspiring. His art is a reflection of the beauty of the land, which immediately holds the attention of art appreciators.
“I would hardly call myself an artists,” said McMahon, during his preview showcase. “I always get surprised when I hear people say that. I don’t know what the technique is called but I just put the paint on the [canvas], sometimes I throw it, sometimes I use the paintbrushes and sometimes I just I let the sun have it for a while.”
McMahon has taken his craft to the next level by introducing a new phenomenon to the Powell Museum’s wall with his technique of letting the paint on the canvas “cook in the sun”. Exposure to the heat of the sun provides a rich texture to the abstract vision of his paintings that is causing a buzz in the global art community. Using the new technique also provides the backdrop to the collection’s theme: the origin and evolution of the universe. According to McMahon, the theme also interprets the geologic evolution of earth then finishes with the introduction of spiritual beliefs. “Chaos can be a very beautiful thing,” he said. “Chaos of the universe like the evolution of the universe or the evolution of time, which to me is the tranquility of the universe. Everybody sees something different when they look at [my paintings].”
McMahon takes inspiration from his own life. He discovered life is unpredictable when he lost his left eye. In 2006 he thought that he had attained the height of social and financial success until he was involved in a fight in Tai Pei, Taiwan defending a female friend that had been grabbed by an assailant. McMahon was stabbed in his left eye and was unable to receive proper medical attention. After a couple of years of treatments and a ten-day mediation in the Himalayas, McMahon made peace with the incident and is thankful that his life was spared.
After the insight it became vital for him to change his life. He’d been indulging in an extravagant life, with an enviable career in a Fortune 500 company. He gave that up and began helping in underdeveloped places where people still valued the simple life.
To know McMahon is to hear him speak of his life’s work after 2007 when he began to travel to Nepal. Through his travels and volunteering he met his now partner Don Moore in 2009. They began working together and eventually established the Himalayan Development Foundation in 2011. The HDF began to build small and simple additions to the villages high up on the Himalayan Mountains.
“We asked the villagers what they needed, instead of coming in and just building things,” he said. “One village said they needed heat for the classrooms. But instead of putting in heaters that needed more supplies hauled in like propane, we built skylights for lighting and [natural heat from] the sunlight.
“The villagers also said they needed help preventing airborne diseases.”
This prompted McMahon and his group to build composting toilets to separate and recycle the waste of the village.
“The feces was dried and used as fuel in the winter which is [efficient] due to deforestation,” he said. “It’s one of the poorest countries in the world but a little goes a long, long ways.”
“We also noticed that there was no playground equipment when we went to all the schools. So in one village we built a small and basic playground; it had a pull up bar, sand box, a balance beam and a teeter-totter. For three days we built a basic playground. Some kids had not even seen one and it was so basic. The kids were so excited, I mean you can’t change all of the world but we can do something.”
For McMahon and the people in his foundation the new endeavors came with a steep learning curve.
“We both had to learn how to do these projects because we had never done them before,” McMahon explained. “Don was a lawyer turned philanthropist. Our first project together was the compost toilets.
“We had to ask what is the most important thing and it was what this community needs. They wanted something basic. I would have never thought of [the toilets and skylights. We needed sweat equity, people to put in the labor. So we brought in the villagers and taught them to build these things. Then we brought in volunteers to trek to the villages. The first one we launched was successful and then the first earthquake hit in 2015 We went back in 2016 after the second earthquake and rebuilt the walls with rebar so when the aftershocks hit they didn’t have to rebuild everything, just patch it up. We were 300 [volunteers] strong by last year.”
McMahon enjoys his work he does in the Himalayan villages.
“That is what is beautiful about our projects: it’s a huge trek to the destination,” he said. From start to finish we work at the local level and we get a lot more done with our little organization than the big corporations.”
McMahon says the people of the Himalayas are the most generous and jovial people he’s ever met. He also hopes to continue the Himalayan Development Foundation’s work through his art by donating proceeds from the paintings. The HDF invites anybody interested in making the trek to the villages to get information at their website www.hdfoundation.net or if they would like to make a donation to their upcoming projects.
His advice for people looking to fulfill their wanderlust is, “I would say is find a passion you love and don’t be afraid to go do that craft. Money is just a bargaining tool, but quality of life is [important]. Go to that part of the world and do a trek.”
McMahon’s collection of paintings will be displayed during the whole month of July and are for sale.
The Artist of the Month reception will be held Friday July 13 during the evening hours of 5 to 8 p.m.