Imagine yourself, stretched out on the couch among comfy pillows and slathered in cats and a dog. You are listening to the syncopated rhythms of big band jazz (strictly instrumental) leaning over a digital image you are meticulously crafting with and iPad and stylus. It’s a cozy scene, vibrant music and all, and it’s where you will generally find artist JJ McManus when he is creating.

“I need to explore some aspect of creativity and I choose the medium based on that. Currently, I’m concentrating on digital.”

McManus’s introduction to art and the hook that stuck is a memory many of us, young and more mature, share. The one when you first walk into that craft store, or art cupboard at school and your eyes are immediately drawn to yellow boxes of all sizes with the brightest array of colors splashed along the front.

“In 1959, in a Woolworth, the 64-box of Crayola with the built-in sharpener and a Ben-Hur coloring book; the smell is what first got me.”

In the decades since, McManus has experimented with all kinds of different mediums and although the goal is always to improve and evolve as an artist, there is something underlying of more importance. A valuable lesson in life he learned from his uncle and has carried throughout.

“My uncle,Chef Joseph Mailous, made me his apprentice at seven. I learned to scrub pots. I mastered Hollandaise. He taught me that cooking is an art and a pathway to the sacred.”This translated into the realization that his own art, in whatever form, is the same – a pathway to the sacred.

What was not as easily grasped from that experience was the importance of daily practice. “Prior to 2019 I was doing 2-3 pieces per year, since then, I’ve averaged 2-3 per month. A single painting takes about 20 hours.” 

This exponential increase in creative output is due to the no-nonsense attitude that McManus now enforces with himself. 

“I’m always editing in my head. Every spare minute.Making subtle changes each time. I set aside a portion of every day for focused meditation. When it’s time to go to the studio I’ll have a roadmap or two of where I’m going that night,” McManus continues, “ [At] 12 midnight, I get comfortable, put on headphones, do a few minutes of warm-up sketching gestures; then detach my brain from the outside world and my hand from my brain. Usually, for about two hours. Repeat daily. No excuses.” 

Thanks to this diligent work ethic, McManus rarely experiences creative blocks, “It doesn’t matter if a thing is right. What matters is that I showed up.”

Still, diligence isn’t the point of creating the work. McManus creates art for himself, each is a part of his personal journey and relates back to his own hallowed path. 

“Independence Day” by JJ McManus

“For the vast majority of people, art is something happening in the background of their lives. It is the semiotic that molds our day-to-day lives; unnoticed but essential. It speaks loudly to us even when we don’t think we’re listening. It has to be very dramatic to rise above a mere thing you glance at, then move on from. Yet, the experience of a gallery…shapes a persons mood for days,” he explains.

It’s because of that unseen and unheard impact that artists like Edward Hopper, Mary Cassatt, and Norman Rockwell inspire awe in McManus. It’s in the details of how they create. 

He makes special note of the intimacy with which Hopper painted the long quiet parts of life, or how Cassatt used free, loose brush strokes to convey meaning with immense emotion; and how Caricaturist, Norman Rockwell, always painted with Kindness.

This artist has been blessed to observe how his own work has on occasion elicited immense, albeit unexpected, emotion. “We were strapped for cash and it was the holidays. In desperation I sculpted a small landscape. When I gave it to the owner of the property they broke into tears,” he said.

McManus goes onto elaborate that one of the biggest rewards of art are, “The people I have met; the good and the bad. Knowing that we are in this together even though we spend hours alone in our studio spaces asking questions and throwing pigments around. Misery loves company but so does creativity.” 

Although this path has its shortfalls, McManus credits three things along that have been key to making it there – love, objective self-reflection, and the right tools. 

“Restocking” JJ McManus

McManus explains,“Family is everything. My wife, mate, and life partner. Seeing her happy is all the success I need. She is the first to see anything I do and if she is not moved by it, the piece needs to be fixed. There is no opinion I value more,” he goes on, “Understanding that I have to be the toughest critic of my own work, ignoring other critics when necessary, [and] the iPad and Apple Pencil.”

Professionally, he credits Fine Art Representative Suzanne Schultz, “I know things because of her that I had no idea I needed to know. She challenges me,” he said.

In his current series, McManus attempted to grasp Munsell color theory which he referred to as “very dry stuff” that explains how colors interact more deeply when there are so many of them. 

As a consequence of the COVID-19 virus, this series – which was initially just an exercise in learning – became a way of documenting a shared social experience. An unprecedented, globally-shared experience that spared no communities – and how we all have shown resilience and persevered.

“Sunglasses” JJ McManus

“COVID affects everyone, in multiple ways. I want to show how we are getting on with our lives despite it all.”

In much the same way as Edward Hopper painted quiet moments of life with intimacy, McManus’ current body of work has painted the shared experience of COVID and also created an artistic depiction of this moment in history. All the while on his creative journey to the sacred.

Would you like to see more? JJ McManus is part of the permanent collection at the Brighton Historical Society Museum. His artwork will be shown at the Warwick Center for the Arts beginning in April 2021. Visit his website here: