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From East to West: Local artist has done it all

After being selected to illustrate a children’s book, local artist Karly MacDonald reflected on all the ups and downs in her career that brought her to where she is today. Her work is displayed at Mountain Galleries and the JAG gallery. Submitted photos.

After being selected to illustrate a children’s book, local artist Karly MacDonald reflected on all the ups and downs in her career that brought her to where she is today. Her work is displayed at Mountain Galleries and the JAG gallery. Submitted photos.

Armed with pallets, brushes and canvas, local artist Karly MacDonald recently embarked on a journey like no other, as she was helicoptered into the mountain range of Golden, B.C.

Earlier this year MacDonald found out she had been selected to illustrate a children’s book about Bella the Bear—Golden’s equivalent to Jasper the Bear. Rather than sit at home, left to the confines of her imagination, she was airlifted to the Purcell Mountain Lodge to draw inspiration for five days.

“It was incredible—every day I woke up and went on these seven and eight hour hikes and got to come back and draw everything I had seen,” MacDonald said. “I had five days of no phone calls or work—it was just me and my art.

“It was very surreal and I just couldn’t believe I had the opportunity to do something like this—even as a little kid I never imagined my career would take me here.”

MacDonald’s love affair with art goes back as far as she can remember. As she reflected on her Golden adventure, she thought back to a time when she was a child sitting at her Nova Scotia home, with a fistful of crayons and a spread of scrap paper. About five-feet from her face, the VCR gently whirred back and forth as she paused and replayed her favourite scenes from The Little Mermaid.

“I loved Disney movies. I would watch them over and over again, studying them. I would freeze-frame the scene and try to sketch the characters,” MacDonald said.

As she got older the art world became more like a safe haven.

In high school, MacDonald said she was shy and uncomfortable, and rather than socialize with other students, she spent many lunch hours down the rabbit hole of her sketchbook.

“It was an escape for me,” she said. “It was something I did to stay happy.”

As her Grade 12 year started to come to a close, MacDonald found herself in the same position that almost every 17-year-old finds themselves in—anxiously sitting in the guidance counsellor’s office, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do yet and the guidance counsellor just looked at me and said that everyone already knew me as Karly the artist and that I shouldn’t let that go,” MacDonald said. “At that time it was like a whole new world for me—I didn’t know the average person could just get an art job.”

Her guidance counsellor suggested that MacDonald enter the graphic design program at a nearby college. Unsure if that was really the right path for her, MacDonald set up an appointment to visit the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC).

As she walked down one of the college’s hallway, she noticed a poster for an animation program.

“That was right up my alley, but it had never occurred to me that was actually a job,” MacDonald said. “I thought to be an animator you had to live in Florida and be handpicked by Walt Disney himself.”

By the end of the day she was signed up and excited for the first day of school.

She spent the next two years at NSCC, studying everything from animation fundamentals and composition to painting and structural drawing. After graduating with honours, MacDonald was immediately picked up by a small animation studio, a few hours from home in Dartmouth, N.S.

“I had just moved into my first apartment and was ready to live in the city and work this great job,” MacDonald said. “I couldn’t believe that someone was going to pay me to draw. I was on cloud nine, but just as quickly as it happened it all came crashing down.”

After a month, the animation studio started failing—MacDonald’s position was cut.karly01-k-byrne

“I was devastated. Here I was at what I thought was going to be my dream job and the next moment I have these people apologizing to me for getting my hopes up.”

Hooked into a new lease in a new city, MacDonald felt trapped.  

“I called my family and they told me I could probably get a nearby waitressing gig,” MacDonald said. “I come from a traditional Nova Scotia fishermen family so they were all pretty skeptical of me doing art as a career.”

Just as she was getting ready to throw out her art supplies, a knock rapped on her door. To MacDonald’s surprise it was one of her professor’s from NSCC.  The professor had hopped a two-hour train ride after hearing MacDonald had lost her job.

“She knew I was feeling defeated so she basically came to tell me not to give up on my dreams,” MacDonald said. “She said I was one of the strongest students she’d seen in years and it would be a shame to waste my talent.”

MacDonald’s professor suggested she continue her education at a bigger school—one with more notoriety.

Before she even really knew what she was doing, MacDonald was packed up and headed for the raging metropolis of Toronto. She spent the next three years improving her skills at Max the Mutt: College of Animation, Art and Design.

“With animation you can come up with one character, but then you can draw 10 variations of that one character. I really fell in love with the whole idea of creating things from nothing. You can create a character, but you can also create a whole world,” MacDonald said. “And I wasn’t ready to give up on that so that’s why I went to Toronto.”

After completing that program, MacDonald’s career luck shifted. Within weeks of graduating, the animation jobs started rolling in. She started working for popular kid shows: Pound Puppies and PBS’ Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. She also started designing artwork for various Canadian video game companies.

However, despite achieving her goals, something was missing.

“We were working 12-14 hours a day and living off coffee—we never left the studio and when you did you were surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Toronto,” MacDonald said. “I grew up with the ocean in my front yard. I was really missing the outdoors and nature.”

Once again she packed up her life, but instead of heading back east, she set off for the rocky terrain of Jasper.karly04-k-byrne

Since making Jasper her home she has dove into the local art scene, landing a job as assistant manager of Mountain Galleries at the Fairmont’s Jasper Park Lodge. When she’s not managing the gallery she volunteers with the Jasper Art Guild (JAG).

Since moving, MacDonald has taken a small step back from digital animation, focusing more on her acrylic and watercolour skills, drawing inspiration from Jasper’s natural beauty.

“It’s no work at all for me to be inspired. I’m so in awe of this place every day,” MacDonald said.

MacDonald’s work is on display at Mountain Galleries and the JAG gallery at the Jasper Library and Cultural Centre.

While there is no final date set yet, MacDonald predicted her book on Bella the Bear will be out later this year.

Kayla Byrne

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