Artist Interview: Joe McMenamin

Tui by Joe McMenamin

Blending organic patterns with realistic details and splashes of colour, Joe McMenamin has successfully made the transition from high school art teacher to full-time artist. 


How did you make a start as an artist and what lead you to be a full-time artist? Did you dream of being an artist growing up?

I was always good at art when I was at school. When I left school it seemed natural for me to go to art school. I grew up in Hamilton so went to the Waikato Institute of Technology and studied painting/sculpture for 3 years. I actually left art school feeling a bit lost, and after working for a couple of years I decided to go to teachers college and trained as a secondary school art teacher.

I taught art for 14 years and kept developing my painting skills. Around 4 years ago I started getting more success with selling my art and had a couple of really good years selling in the NZ Artshow. The seed was planted... could I make as a full-time artist?

In 2016 I made the step of going part-time teaching (about half time) and spent the rest of the time doing art. I made more from half time art than I was as a full-time teacher so I made the jump to a full-time artist in 2017.  


It’s a big leap from what many consider a stable career teaching to being a full time artist. How did your friends, family and students react?

Yes it is a big leap, and until 2017 I was the sole bread winner for the family. I always had those questions going around in my head "Am I good enough to be an artist?" and "Can I make enough money as an artist?".

I guess that's why I took it one step at a time, and built up a following and a pretty consistent income from art while I was still teaching, then I went half time for a year and that worked really well so I made the leap. My students didn't want me to leave, but they appreciated and loved that I was following my passion. I hope I am an inspiration for them.

Tui by Joe McMenamin



What, or who, has inspired and influenced your work?

My high school art teacher, Darren George, was a big influence on my decision to become an artist, and a teacher. He was very encouraging, and he always had a painting of his own going in the art room. I think the main thing he taught me was about the development of ideas. Taking an idea then asking "How can I make this better?" and "What does this idea remind me of?" and "What's the next step?".

I think these questions are what help me to keep pushing my style and ideas now.  


Have you keep in touch with Darren, and if so, what does he think of your success? Would you like to see any of your past pupils follow the same route?

No I haven't kept in touch with Darren. I realise after being a teacher for a while that while we might have our favorite or influential teachers when we were students, but for the teacher themselves they will have 100 or so new students every year. In terms of my own students in the past, I have always encouraged them to think about themselves as artists. Being an artist can part of your identity, or something you love doing. It doesn't mean you have to do it as a full time gig.


Would you like to tell us about your working process and what your typical week looks like?

I like having lots of different projects on the go at the same time. I get bored when I'm just painting originals all the time. I've been working on quite a few mural projects lately, which are really fun. They are a good mix of consultation with the client, design work and painting outside. I also make a range of hand coloured prints and do cards, temporary tattoos and an adults colouring book. As an artist I think its really important to diversify the art business, and try and hit lots of different markets.

I also have three kids 5, 7 and 9. So my daily flow is to drop them off at school, cruise into the studio and paint originals for the morning. Then after lunch I work on some design work, make prints, send out orders etc. I hang with the kids after school, then get a few more hours of painting done in the evening. That's a typical day, but when I have a big project or deadline I just work on that hard out until it's done!  


Close up of Joe McMenamin's Piwakawaka


Your work can be roughly clump into wildlife, Star Wars inspired and nautical: do these reflect your interests or did they evolve in some other way?

The Star Wars pieces were because I was interested in pop art a few years ago. I also love the movies and think the cult following it has is really interesting. My main subject matter is the NZ native birds. I've been doing these for a couple of years now, and I am still really fascinated with them. I love painting the details in the feathers. The organic flowing doodles that I use in most of my work are my signature style. They make the work recognisable as mine. I love how just using simple lines I can create silhouettes and shapes that come alive.


You recently moved from Wellington to Fielding trading juggling your art and a teaching career to being a full time artist. How has the new environment and routine influenced your work?

Yeah I'm loving living in Feilding. My wife Sarah is an Anglican priest, and the church has given me a studio and "Artist in Residence" position. I used to work in a converted garage so it's really cool to have a proper studio space. Feilding is cool little town too, great for raising young kids, and only two hours drive from Wellington, where I am still doing quite a lot of work.  


You’ve done several large scale community projects such as the mural at Naenae; what would be your dream project?

Shepard Fairey is one of my favourite artists and he paints some huge murals around the world. See this:  

I would love to paint a mural on a multi story building using a cherry picker. I get such a buzz from seeing my art up on a public wall!  


Joe McMenamin's mural at NaeNae
One of Joe's murals at Naenae


Art means different things to different people. What do you believe art is and what does it mean to you?

I believe everyone has been made to be creative in some way. For some people it might be cooking, or gardening, or singing. For me it's art.

Even if people say they are not creative, I would challenge them to ask themselves what they are really good at? Or feel most alive doing? Sometimes the practical skills can get in the way of the expression.

Art is about a personal expression of life. I paint a lot of NZ native birds, and that's because birds are so beautiful and free. The organic flowing patterns I use in my art are my way of expressing the unseen. What does bird song look like anyway?


Discover Joe's work here...



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