Jeremy MacKenzie's Hidden Blueprints
*Note: This article was previously published by The Crossover on October 13, 2015
One of Burlington’s newest emerging artists, Jeremy MacKenzie, knows firsthand the powerful effects art has on the human soul. Aside from creating an entire gallery of artwork, MacKenzie possess a personal story of self-creation with the potential to change the life of anyone who comes in contact.
Hanging on the alabaster walls of the Amy E. Tarrant Gallery at the Flynn Center in downtown Burlington, are eight wood scrolls and their accompanied blueprints. Created by MacKenzie over the course of two prison sentences, his collection illustrates a time of major growth and revelation in his life.
“They were inspired by experiences I had on the inside, but none of them are actually about prison,” said MacKenzie. “They have very little to do with that environment. A lot of the scenes were inspired from the internal life that I created for myself.”
One of MacKenzie’s largest pieces on display at the Flynn Center is a piece titled “Imagination.” The scrollwork depicts a young boy sitting on a bench reading Homer’s The Odyssey, alongside a girl reading Little Women.
“In the background, the characters from the stories are coming together,” MacKenzie explained. “On one side, soldiers are marching into the scene, and on the other side are the characters from Little Women. It’s a scene of their two stories coming together.”
The piece was inspired by a similar experience MacKenzie had while incarcerated in a Kentucky prison.
“Just because you’re locked up doesn’t mean you don’t want to develop relationships. I knew a couple people in the women’s prison, so I got the idea to start writing to one of them. We weren’t allowed to do this, so I wrote letters to my father, and he’d act as a postman and mail them back to the women’s facility. I wrote a letter to one of them saying, ‘I’m going to start a story. I’m going to set my own characters and set them on a journey. When you receive it, you can add your own characters and take the journey wherever you want.’ It was all about the journey, all about the imagination,” he said.
After writing back and forth for over a year, MacKenzie and his secret pen pal had created a world of their own. While still imprisoned, he began designing the blueprints for what would later become his “Hidden Blueprints” collection.
“I had no idea this would go in the direction it did,” said MacKenzie. “At first, my design techniques were rather crude. I was teaching myself from scrap and I was starting with really basic design elements, just trying to find things that looked and felt right with little experience.”
Noticing that standard square grid paper did not allow him to be as precise with his work as he wanted, MacKenzie began designing his own grid paper using an octagonal pattern. This allowed for the symmetry and fluidity MacKenzie was striving for in his art.
“All it came down to, was I had a lot of time on my hands to teach myself things about geometry and design that I hadn’t been introduced to. It all made sense on paper, and if it made sense on paper, then I was certain it could work in cutting,” said MacKenzie.
After designing several pieces, MacKenzie was released from the Kentucky prison.
“When I came home from Kentucky, things were not changed in my life. I spent most of my sentence sitting a thousand miles away from home in a burned prison on a hill and that wasn’t very conducive to changing anything. I ended up back involved with drugs very soon after I came home and ended up reincarcerated.”
During his final prison sentence, however, MacKenzie’s outlook on his situation changed drastically, and he was ready to apply that revelation to his art.
“My belief system changed, and the way I thought about the world began to change in radical ways. I went back to, not only designing, but studying. When I was in Kentucky, I lost my college opportunity because the school was burned in a riot. During my final sentence, though, I decided I didn’t need to wait for a college opportunity. I could start studying the subjects that I wanted to study on my own and study every one of those subjects like scripture,” said MacKenzie.
After being released from his final sentence, MacKenzie went straight into college, having already received scholarships while on the inside. At that time, he also began devoting so much time to cutting his wood scrolls, that he found himself becoming imprisoned yet again
“Designing these pieces in [prison] was freeing because it was this thing that I had stashed away that nobody knew about. Even if someone was judging me as a prisoner, I could say to myself ‘It’s okay. I’ve got a gallery full of artwork hidden in my legal work.’ There’s something very empowering in knowing you’ve got something that will matter, even if it doesn’t matter right now.
“Then, when I came home, I locked myself away in a windowless attic. I was cutting my summers away and it was very un-freeing. I suddenly felt the irony in it. All this designing made me feel free on the inside, but I was re-imprisoning myself to it on the outside.”
His internal entrapment grew to the point that MacKenzie seriously contemplated burning all his woodwork and blueprints. He was just one small flame away from destroying years of hard work, but an experience at Burlington’s Art Hop last fall deterred him.
“When I told my story at the Art Hop, it suddenly caught a lot of attention. It turned into an all night event, sharing the story with several hundred people. After that, word got back to people at school and I ended up sharing the story with even more people, which ended up opening a lot of doors. I’m now a fulltime student at Champlain College,” MacKenzie said.
Jeremy’s art collection, “Hidden Blueprints” will be on display at the Flynn Center until November 28th. His final wood scrolls can be viewed, as well has his original blueprints, created from the inside, allowing viewers to see the before and after of, not only the artwork, but of the artist.
“One of my favorite teachers, Gordon Glover, said to me once, ‘People want to believe there’s a circle of things they know, and a circle of things that they don’t know,” said MacKenzie. “People want to believe that they can just take the circle of things they don’t know, and move it into the circle of things they know, and suddenly understand. But really, there’s an even bigger circle, and that’s of the things you don’t know, you don’t know’. I hope that if anything, my artwork is able to challenge people and shed light on some of the things they don’t know, they don’t know.”