Mastering skills and creating daily masterpieces

Formerly incarcerated artist Richard McDonough approaches cartooning and culinary arts with zeal and persistence
by Fernanda Pires

ANN ARBOR—The fully equipped kitchen is Richard Mcdonough's new favorite spot. The Prison Creative Project artist, known as RIK, has been spending lots of time cooking and watching culinary shows at his family's house since he was released from prison about two months ago. 

Culinary arts—from baking, grilling to sizzling, and roasting—is a brand new passion for the artist. Different types of bread, chicken, dumplings, corn and pork loin, barbecue, portobello mushrooms, pizza; RIK is preparing everything from scratch.

"It's gonna be good. Trust me, I take it really seriously," he said, while cooking dumplings during one of our conversations. 

"I really enjoy watching cooking shows because they are always teaching me something. I am learning all the little nuances of cooking, how to use spices, how to use knives, different tools, how a convection oven works, why we should use it and when we should not use it. I can say cooking is one of my main activities nowadays," RIK said.

RIK (an acronym which means rambunctious and virtuous kid) took a similar all-in learning approach when he started creating art while incarcerated. Behind bars for 27 years, he is self-taught and his art has been part of PCAP's annual show for more than two decades."

People say that art saves lives and it couldn't be more true than with me," he said.  "When you're surrounded by nothing but negativity, and you have an extremely long sentence—I had a life sentence—I had every reason in the world to be bitter and hostile."

"But all of the things that PCAP offered just opened the door and gave me a way to recover the person that always was before 'life' happened. I just decided that I was going to take all my old stuff, all my bitterness, all that knowledge and just put it into my art. And in that way I basically purge my soul."

An artist is born

About a year after being incarcerated in 1995, RIK, who is also a welder, published his first cartoon at The Spectator, an inmate newspaper that has run  since the 1930's. His 'neighbor' was the editor for the outlet.

RIK asked him if he could publish a cartoon. “He was like, ‘Well, you got a pack of cigarettes?’ I said, ‘Sure, here you go,’ and he published my cartoon," said RIK. "Three days after that newspaper came out I got a desk. I was so excited. I would give my kingdom for a desk, so I just started doing cartoons and little goofy characters. I kept scribbling stuff, just making my own level of crazy little notes. I wasn't serious about it."

It took a few more years for things to get serious. Every day, after working a long shift in the prison welding shop, RIK would spend an hour or so watching TV. RIK remembers artist Frank Clarke, who used to teach painting with watercolors on a PBS show, Simply Painting Around the World, saying on the screen one day, "Well, if you're not painting along with me, why don't you go outside and play in the garden or do something; quit wasting your time doing this."

"He then threw down the gauntlet, and I said okay, I wanted to buy some paint," RIK remembered. 

It was just the beginning of a fulfilling journey as an artist. 

RIK immersed himself into arts, reading different types of books, learning the classic sketches, drawing different objects, landscapes and mannequins to capture movements, positioning and mood. He would try something new every single day. 

"I had a bunkie at the time that liked to sleep all day. So, at night, after he would take his meds, he would knock out, and I could just sit in the dark, and paint with the black and white and gray. I could see all the tones, all of the textures and all of the things that I needed to see," he said.

For years, RIK just painted at night on black or gray canvases, until he was challenged by the then University of Michigan professor and current PCAP senior curator Janie Paul, who showed him some pictures of her own personal art with watercolors and pens.

"That was when I really started doing all my watercolor work, almost exclusively with watercolors, pen and ink," he said.  "I was basically doing landscapes. I was learning my colors, learning how they blended together and which colors liked each other."  

From black and white to colorful cartoons

After discovering colors and finding the perfect black ink pen to draw, RIK really started creating art for himself and giving life to characters he remembered from his imagination.

"For years and years, I did most of my work in black and white, and then there was a doorway," he said. "I could see a pasture off in the doorway, and it was all color. I was leaving the darkness and stepping into the light, leaving the dead mundane drab dreary world for something a little brighter. I went out of my way to use color theory in my art. I was really conscious of it because I wanted it to be as colorful as it could be."

RIK creates all his characters with a pen so he cannot erase it. “No eraser, no safety net, no nothing,” he explained.

"I just draw with a pen and whatever happens, happens. I've learned over time to just repair my mistakes as I go along and learn to live with them," he said. "A lot of artists refine their art as they move along. When you do it with the pen, you really can't. I had to be that strong to just step over one wrong line and start making new lines."

Everything in RIK's cartoons has some sort of meaning related to his friends and loved ones. There are secret messages, references to classics, and political satire. He turns his friends into characters in his art. PCAP people, for example, are represented by berets and clothes of specific color combinations. Friends may also get spirit animals. 

"Every single story brings itself to life in my heart. The people that I know end up being rabbits, songbirds, or maybe they turn out to be a spider or a bear," RIK explained. "The coolest guy I've met through this program is Graham Hamilton (PCAP arts programming coordinator). He is the snowman because he's so cool and you can't get cooler than a snowman."  

The artist added that one of the characters that has always been recurrent in his art is a carrot.

"A carrot represents so many things, it's an inducement to be good," he said. "Shockingly, in  prison, they feed you carrots every other day, twice a day. So I hate carrots!  They have these carrots that are diced and they look like they have teeth. You have those little pieces together and when you pull them apart, they look like they have teeth. So that's why my characters have teeth."

During the nearly 30 years that RIK was behind bars, he was part of PCAP's annual shows and is one of the program's most celebrated artists.

"It's not that I would prepare every year for the art show, it was that I would prepare every single day, all day long. Every day I would be doing something, even if it was just doodling one or two characters," he said.

A new dish or a new character, away from the walls, RIK keeps creating something fresh daily. A mixture of the old and the new passion—cartoons and food—seems to be an unequaled blend, perfect instruments for the artist's reflection, transformation, growth, and expression.

Release Date: 06/11/2021
Tags: Prison Creative Arts Project