Smile Politely

Eastern Illinois University’s Grace McClellan excels in creating and teaching art

Oil painting featuring a small red playhouse with a white porch. Several children are playing around the house which is next to a leafless tree with a teal blue dragon snake wrapped around a branch.
©Grace McClellan, Playtime, oil on canvas, 2024

When she was a young girl, Grace McClellan made her Grandpa Mike teach her how to draw various objects, everything from a giraffe to a house in 3D. Her grandmother provided lessons in painting and influenced McClellan’s budding interest in art.

“I was constantly curious and always wanting to learn more,” said McClellan.

Photo of a white woman with blonde hair and glasses stands in front of a black and white lithograph artwork.
Grace McClellan on Instagram

Those early lessons and McClellan’s dedication to her craft have paid off. The senior at Eastern Illinois University was recently named Blue Room Magazine’s Student Artist of the Year and had two of her lithograph prints accepted at the annual EIU Undergraduate Art Exhibition at the EIU Tarble Arts Center. One of them, A Second at the Hearth, won Honorable Mention in the printmaking category.

A black and white lithograph print with a woman seated and knitting with a cat at her feet
© Grace McClellan, A Second at the Heart, lithograph print, 2024

“This meant so much to me as a printmaker because this was the piece that I felt I actually ‘made art,’” McClellan said. “It showed that I understood the process, and I felt so deeply connected to the piece.”

McClellan said the art lessons she took at Monticello Middle School weren’t quite as freeing as the artistic creativity her grandparents instilled in her, but she nonetheless picked up valuable insights during that period of schooling on perspective in drawings and ideas for future drawings. By high school McClellan’s interest in art was full blown, and majoring in art education at Eastern Illinois was a no-brainer.

Now, as a student teacher teaching art to young students herself, McClellan strives through her lesson plans to offer advice and make room for opportunities in the classroom to let her students’ imaginations run free.

“What they do is really up to them,” she said. 

McClellan serves as president of the Illinois Art Education Association (IAEA) Student Chapter, helping take care of duties such as organizing events and scheduling meetings. In March, she and her IAEA peers organized an art show called “Those Who Can Do, Teach,” an effort to contest the negative saying “Those who can’t do, teach.” McClellan said it’s dispiriting to hear teaching sometimes regarded as a second-tier profession, and the March show aimed to put a stop to such thinking.

“Through our 60 submissions, we were able to show EIU, friends, and family that we, in fact, can,” she said.

Following graduation, McClellan is considering pursuing a master’s degree in art education. As a teacher, she plans to use her art creations as examples in the classroom, working alongside what her students create.

“If they are creating, I, too, will be creating,” McClellan said. “My goal is to never let the creative juices settle.”

Black and white lithograph print of a young person sitting at a computer desk on a computer in front of a window
© Grace McClellan, Can You Even Win, lithograph print, 2024

Here’s more from McClellan about her craft and recent successes.

Smile Politely: You enjoy creating art through lithography and chalk pastels. Describe each art form and what you like about them.

Grace McClellan: Lithography is an older form of printmaking where you draw on top of limestone. It then undergoes etching processes that set the oils from the crayon used into the stone. With the help of gum arabic and tannic acid, it leaves the image in the stone, which allows the artist to roll ink onto where the drawing was and, with pressure, be able to print the drawing over and over again. I enjoy this process because it combines my drawing skills with my printmaking skills. Lithography forces me to think ahead with how I want my print to turn out because of the different grease consistencies in our crayons. The higher the content of grease, the darker that part of the image will be. I went through many trials and errors with this process.

Chalk pastels are a simpler medium compared to anything in printmaking. Just like sidewalk chalk, these are smaller sticks of colored chalk that are used for drawing. There is no color mixing, but it forces the artist to use colors next to each other to create an illusion of mixing. This technique bleeds into my painting style and is what helped me understand how to paint properly.

SP: Tell me about the two lithography prints of yours that were accepted at the EIU Undergraduate Art Exhibition, out of roughly 300 total submissions.

McClellan: The pieces were Can You Even Win? and A Second at the Hearth. To my surprise, A Second at the Hearth won Honorable Mention in printmaking. A Second at the Hearth is a self-portrait in my apartment with a framed-photo collage wall. Each of these frames has something of a Greek mythology relation, and some are my own works from other EIU classes. Greek Mythology has a huge influence in my art and in my favorite era of art, the Italian Renaissance. I decided to modernize the image but date it by including specific images. It was also important to create a homey feeling in this image, hence the knitting in a rocking chair and my cat, Stanley, at the bottom. I treat this piece as if it is my baby. I am so incredibly proud of it.

SP: Tell me about the piece Playtime.

McClellan: This image was pushing the boundaries of what I felt I could do in painting. I am not confident in painting realistically, so I thought if I painted something near and dear to me, I would then be more than willing to put forth the effort to make it look perfect. This piece of duplicates of older and younger versions of myself represents life through the child’s eye and looking back on what it was like growing up as an only child. 

As a kid, I had this imaginary friend named Felancy the Fairy, depicted on the roof of the playhouse. She was constantly watching over me, and I like to believe there are pieces of her always with me to this day. I was a very imaginative kid and took inspiration from everything around me. Whether my playhouse was a castle or a Dairy Queen drive thru, it was my safe space. 

The only downside was that I was alone. Before starting this piece, I was scrolling on TikTok and someone said, “You are now who your younger self needed.” Now, I wasn’t ever in a dangerous or unhappy situation, but I was very lonely, and now I have the best friends I could ever dream of. This painting was inspired by that quote, and thus I gave myself someone to play with. 

There are subtle nods to things in my life throughout this whole painting. For example, there is a bush of irises to represent my Grandma Carla, who passed away shortly before this painting had begun. The pose of my younger self on the porch with my older self taking a photo is a reference to how my mom made me take first-day-of-school photos there every single year. This painting changed the way I made art and will continue to be a piece I refer to.

SP: What does it mean to you to be named Student Artist of the Year by Blue Room Magazine?

McClellan: It means the absolute world to me. I am so grateful to have had the nomination of faculty that believed I could win the title. Even though I know some of my work does not compare to that of my peers, I feel this title also shows my connections through EIU, and that alone couldn’t make me happier.

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