Fine arts background influences McKay’s digital classes

Aybika Kamil | The Chronicle

Starting as a fine arts major at Xavier University and now teaching graphic design at Mason High School (MHS), Dan McKay’s journey as an artist is unlike any other.

Over the summers when McKay attended Xavier University for fine arts, he worked as a camp counselor at Camp Joy, working with youth from all populations. McKay said from his experience as a counselor, he found that collaborating with children was his passion along with art.

“I love being outside, working with kids and building a good rapport,” McKay said. “It’s about relational development, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of fun and just trying to invest in people long term.”

McKay said that he had initially not considered teaching as an option. He did a thesis in oil painting, portraiture and drawing in college.  He originally planned to be a full-time working artist after he graduated, so at the end of college he received numerous commissions, but McKay said his wife was the one who recommended going into teaching. 

“It’s been neat being a teacher when that wasn’t what I initially expected or had planned, but it definitely found me,” McKay said. “Now that I’m doing it I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is right for me. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’”

Dipping into the teaching scene at Sycamore High School, McKay student-taught Advanced Placement (AP) Art with co-teacher Margaret Copfer. Later, McKay moved to Clinton Massie Elementary School where he taught art for 5 years and then taught art at Clinton Massie Middle School for 4 years. McKay said he enjoyed teaching younger kids because of their excitement for art class. 

“I like to have fun, I’m silly and I have a lot of energy, so that matches [kids],” McKay said. “I am super extroverted and I love that most kids are enthusiastic, and even if kids aren’t enthusiastic about the same thing as you, they’re enthusiastic about something.”

McKay was hired at Mason High School (MHS) in 2015 as a Photography and Digital Image Design (DID) teacher. Despite the position he was hired for,  McKay had never used Adobe Illustrator, with his only experience in Adobe being the two weeks he used Photoshop in 1998. McKay took one Adobe Education course and self-taught himself digital design over the summer. McKay said his specialization in art aided the process of mastering it and added to his knowledge and expertise in art. 

“I learned a lot of skills in terms of how to look at art, how to understand it, how to analyze it and what are techniques to improve it, so I love applying those to design,” McKay said. “I really love that I have a fine art background. [Like in fine art], even in design we can look at really minimal logo design and arrange it, I’m super passionate about it.”

McKay said that despite his prior years of experience in digital design, he finds himself learning from students and encourages students to explore and experiment. 

“I can teach people most things but the technology is always changing, no one can know all of it,” McKay said. “[Students] figure out techniques that I’ve never tried and so it’s like I learned from them and the learning is collaborative.”

Sophomore Chris Tobey had McKay as a teacher for two years for DID II Animation and Storytelling and this year in DID II Communication Graphics. Tobey said that his previous experience in McKay’s class impacted his decision to take another design class with McKay this year. 

“I had a lot of fun with that class because all the projects had a lot of depth to them and you had a lot of freedom in what you could create,” Tobey said. “It feels like I’m working on art in a studio where it’s just me and the computer and I can translate my thoughts into the art without having any issues.” 

Tobey said because of the freedom and feedback McKay gives his students, they are able to produce the best output. 

“[McKay] gives very good input to everyone because he understands everyone’s limits and what they’re capable of,” Tobey said. “He knows everyone personally and he understands their interests, which helps him give even more powerful feedback.”

When teaching his classes, McKay said he bounces around from student to student, interacting with them and matching their energy. McKay said he develops personal connections with them but also learns about their art journey, figuring out how they can grow the students’ skills in art together. 

“I’m fueled by the conversations we have and I get super passionate about seeing [students] grow, try new things and get excited,” McKay said. “I could spend the entire day talking to the students about their art and that would keep me super energized, I wouldn’t be tired of it.”

Junior Ryan Rogers said that McKay attempts to make personal connections and a comfortable atmosphere with students through conversations. 

“Mr. McKay was just friendly from the get-go and the class is just a good environment to be in with all different kinds of people,” Rogers said. “Mr. McKay talks with all of them like they’re his friends. I’m not afraid at all to ask him questions. And he’s not afraid to come up to me and give me advice on my projects and I feel comfortable with him doing that.”

Next year, McKay plans to teach Drawing and Painting I through IV and AP Art Studio. McKay said the AP art teacher had previously encouraged him to take on the position in AP Art Studio, motivating him to consider it. Despite having taken a path different than he originally planned, McKay now has the opportunity to return to traditional art. 

“I do feel like it’s time to go back, jump into traditional art, and have a chance to finally get back into the media,” McKay said. “[Traditional art] has been something I’ve used my whole life that I have just a ton of passion for and I’ve loved.”

McKay aims to use his skillset in the digital art realm and apply it in teaching his classes next year. McKay said he can guide students who take both digital and traditional art on applying their knowledge of one thing to another. 

“I think having a deep understanding of both will just make me that much more able to coach students in the right direction of how their art needs to manifest,” McKay said. “I’m just really excited about that and for the depth in the ability to re-engage.” 

Even though he is comfortable circling back to traditional art, McKay said he likes change and is always open to adapting to what students want and need. 

“Teaching is kind of like surfing, you don’t know when the waves are gonna come or how big they’ll be, you just have to be ready for it,” McKay said. “I’m by no means an expert and I want to learn the same way [students] want to learn, so hopefully I’m always changing.”