We had the good fortune of connecting with Jessica “J.R.” MacKenzie and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Jessica “J.R.”, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I’ve been an animal lover and an artist my entire life, yet I never took my passions and talents I had for either seriously until the last four years or so. I’ve always been interested in art. In fact there is a great story of me finding a random crayon in the back of my grandmother’s car when I was very little, and the artwork I created with it on the back seat itself! As I got older, art classes and art-related projects were always my favorite classroom activities. But growing up in the heartlands of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado in the 80s and 90s, art was not all that encouraged. The term “starving artist” was very real. There was no internet, YouTube, or social media to learn from or use as a tool, and I didn’t have a lot of resources where I was. So I was encouraged to find another more practical means to support myself after high school.

I decided to attend college and like many of my peers I struggled to find the right major. Eventually I found my path into interior design. I was just too creative for anything else! I graduated and went to work for an architectural firm in Colorado. It didn’t take long for me to realize how much I loved drafting and training new hires on our design technology and systems. In-turn, I realized that teaching was more of what interested me then actual interior design, so I went back to school, earned a master’s degree, and I currently teach design technology at a university.

My department is housed in a School of Art and being surrounded by student curiosity and art really inspired me to create my own art once again. But truth be told my desire to rekindle my artistic interests sparked when my mother gifted me a set of pencils and coloring books for Christmas in 2018. I had so much fun taking everything I learned from my interior design training and applying color, lighting, shadows, and textures to the pages. It sparked a deep-rooted desire to just draw and color an animal again. When I was a little girl, I was always drawing animals. I would cut my drawings out of paper and make murals above my bed of little scenes – like a sunset on the Serengeti filled with giraffes and lions. I guess the little girl inside was really calling for me to now apply everything I had learned since my mural making days. So, I purchased a couple art boards and I also purchased a more professional set of colored pencils, and I went to work creating art in my spare time. It really was for no other purpose than the simple joy of drawing animals.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how well I was doing with pencils after having put them down for so many years. I always loved how detailed a colored pencil could make a drawing, and when I put one in my hand, it was like my hand just knew what to do. I didn’t have to do a whole lot. As an animal lover, my goal was to try and capture the animal’s personality, its soul, and its beauty. I felt the best style that could do that was a more realistic look, because the natural design of the animal itself was where the true beauty could be found. My version of realism has its own little illustrative flare to it and I was really good at replicating the things I saw in a photo into my art pieces. I joined groups on social media, I started watching more videos, I also started studying animals more. The more I drew, the stronger my technique became, and the more detailed my artwork got.

It was shortly after I started drawing animals again that a local art contest opened up and it was focused on endangered animals. What great timing! I went to work right away, submitted a piece and anxiously waited the results. As a forty-year-old woman at the time I wasn’t really expecting anything major from the contest. I just wanted to see what other people thought about what I created. As it turns out, I won the best overall category, and also won a one-year membership to the art group that hosted the event. Having access to the local art scene and local artists helped me gain confidence in my art and my place in the art world itself. Being an instructor in the School of Art I got to learn about exhibitions and was encouraged to enter juried contests as part of my creative production requirements as a professor.

What started as a pastime activity and general curiosity soon ignited into something much more meaningful and rewarding to me than I ever imagined. Now I have had works published in magazines, my work has received awards, and I have also exhibited internationally. I am starting to get private commissions from not only family and friends but from strangers as well, which is always exciting to an emerging artist. I also just received my first invitational to show and auction my work in Scotland and England for an online event in order to raise money for endangered animal charities. I’m excited to see where this unexpected journey will take me, what good I can do for the world, and what can be created in the process.

I don’t have a special background, or an unusual upbringing. I’m just a small-town girl trying to work my way through the game of life and while I do so try to have a little fun and play in my passions. What I appreciate most about this journey is that even though I was re-directed early on to do something else, my talents and passions steered me right back to the path I was meant to be on. However, the skillsets and experiences I picked up along the way helped me form my own unique artistic voice. I truly believe that our talents were gifted to us to make the world a better place. And I also believe we have the opportunity to learn new things that can enhance our contributions in new and exceptional ways.

My love of animals and my love of art are coming together to help animals, and to also help those that view my art. It’s important that people appreciate how amazing animals are. Like Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter, once said, “If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched. Share my wildlife with me. Because humans want to save things that they love.” This small-town girl wants to make a difference in the world, and I especially want to make a difference for animals. I can’t be Steve Irwin, or Dian Fossey, or Jane Goodall. I don’t have a lot of money to donate to great causes with. But I can trust that my passions and talents are valid, that my voice as an artist has a place, and that I can make a difference if I just grab a pencil and start working.

I’m hoping my simple story can help encourage others to know that no matter what your background or upbringing may be, no matter what age you are, or what your situation is in life – you’re amazing! Your voice has a powerful place in our world. If you lost sight of your talents along the way, it’s okay! It happened to me too. Maybe that was meant to happen so that you could pick up skills and interests that will ultimately make your talents distinctive. The universe will help bring you back to your purpose if you are open and play in your passions. At forty-some years old I can tell you that a simple gift of a coloring book and a couple of pencils rekindled my old passions and changed my life and my perspective greatly. I’m now starting to setup my own private art business, and I’m helping animals as well as humans while I do it. It’s my childhood dream come true! Looking all the way back to the time I picked up the crayon in the back seat of the car, I can see how all my experiences led me to where I am today. This is my own story. What’s your story? Just be open, play in your talents and passions, start working and see what wonderful things come your way as a result!

Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I’m a colored pencil artist, and I enjoy creating realistic yet illustrative portraits of animals. My heart is drawn to helping people get to know wildlife better, especially wildlife that are endangered, weird, unusual, or unknown. Helping people overcome negative connotations associated to animals is also something I strive to do. All animals are beautiful, have an important role in our world, and help us understand our own selves. I like to think that the things you see in each animal I draw are the things you can see reflected back into yourself. Animals teach us a great deal, and their innocence and ability to love and survive should be respected far greater than they are.

I also enjoy creating pet portraits, because the animals we invite into our homes play an intimate role in how we live our daily lives. Sometimes they are the only ones who love us after a hard days work, and they can bring such unexpected laughter and joy. Pets are a treasure and it’s an honor for me to draw a portrait of someone’s pet.

I don’t really see challenges, I see opportunities to honor and tribute animals and when it comes time to worry about other things I just let the universe do the worry and the work for me. It’s not always easy to let go and let the universe work on your behalf. I’m still a work in progress when it comes to this arena for sure but I try to keep things simple, and I create what I’m drawn to and trust that when the time and opportunity is right, everything will work out.

In terms of my brand, I recently watched the movie “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain” and was immediately connected to his story. He was an artist and a lover of cats, which I am as well. In the movie his wife tells him that “The world is full of beauty and it’s up to you to capture it. To look and share it with as many people as you can. You are a prism through which that beam of life refracts.” When I heard that, I felt like that describes the way I see my own purpose. I have my own unique voice and perspective and through that lens I can share the beauty of animals with others. It’s important for me to humbly be that refraction for animals. And for humans! There is so much to learn and apply to our own lives when we can understand the beauty that surrounds us. We get so busy with our lives that we can forget to appreciate important things around us. I love to help people stop and appreciate things that are worthy and good. Like animals!

Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I live in Flagstaff, and there are so many amazingly wonderful places to visit within an hours drive. My husband is the chef at Zenith Steakhouse at Twin Arrows casino and his restaurant specializes in Navajo beef, which is incredibly tender and flavorful. If you have never tried it and enjoy a good steak, it’s worth a quick 20 minute drive East from Flagstaff. Not only can you stay and play at the casino, but they have a small colony of feral cats that you can view from inside the hotel area. I learned that the Navajo people don’t like having snakes or rodents on the property, because it brings negative energy. The cats help keep the place free from this negativity and so the casino actually supports the cat colony in many ways. Other things to do include Walnut Canyon where you can see wild tarantulas and coatimundi (not everyday, but they are there!) as well as ancient cliff dwellings. Another favorite place of mine is the Navajo Bridge about an hour and a half drive North of Flagstaff where you can see the extremely endangered California Condors enjoying a cool evening breeze under the rafters of the bridge.

Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I have two people I would like to recognize, my mom and my Aunt TT. My mom was a single mother raising me the best way she knew how. Times may have been tough for us, but she always encouraged me to do what was in my heart. Had she also not gifted me those coloring books and pencils, I wouldn’t be where I am now. My Aunt TT has been a great guide for me in recent years to trust who I am and to be in the moment. She gave me the phrase “play in your passion”. She has supported my artistic endeavors financially as well as emotionally and mentally and I would not be aware of my journey and its potential if it wasn’t for her. I am eternally grateful for having these two strong and loving women in my life. Thank you both for all you have given and invested into me.

Instagram: @JRMacKenzieStudios

Facebook: @JRMacKenzieStudios

Other: I’m working on getting a website up this summer!

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