Lunch with the Creative Soul of the South, Art Director Marshall Mckinney

Lunch with Creative Soul of the South, Art Director Marshall Mckinney
By Ed Roberts

I’ve lived in the south my entire life. There were great advantages to growing up southern—like clear, sunny skies on Christmas day. I know, we’re all supposed to be dreaming of a white Christmas. But no super cool southern preteen in 1979 could adequately show off their brand new Walkman to his neighborhood besties under cold, wet and gray skies. Oh no, not cool.

My late father probably felt the same way about our warm southern weather. For him, hunting during the holiday season was a necessary passion. Although the classic Christmas dinner staples were prepared, it wasn’t Christmas without my father’s canned chow-chow prepared using produce from his beloved summer garden and tender venison from his holiday hunt.

I always found it difficult to buy for my father at Christmastime. Until one day in 2007, I was perusing a newsstand and saw southern writer Pat Conroy on the cover of a beautiful new magazine oddly titled Garden & Gun. The name epitomized my father’s entire recreational existence. I thought, “Garden & Gun—what a perfect gift for daddy.”

Each time I open this magazine it reminds me of my father and everything he stood for, particularly during the holiday season. G&G represents the emergence of a new, refined and inclusive southern culture. It is an incredible honor for me to invite you to lunch with the creative soul at the center of the new south, G&G art director Marshall Mckinney. Happy Holidays!

What is design, how relevant is it in the publishing industry today?
I’ve wrestled with this question my entire career. For me design is best when it’s almost ethereal and deftly employed. Good design is subtle, yet articulate. It must have a reason for existing. It must be expressive when called upon but not so impressive that it overwhelms the truth. A single, thin black rule can cut a page like a machete but can also be as playful as a puppy. Design is present in all times—damn, that’s the real challenge, to be modern and classic simultaneously. I hope Garden & Gun will look as good 10 years from now as it does today. If it does then good design was employed … we’ll have to wait and see.

Sadly, I think design is becoming—at times—less relevant in publishing. What I’m hearing is this ubiquitous catchphrase “digital version.” Everyone in publishing seems to be clamoring to get situated in the app space. I see content created for the printed page getting jammed into the constructs of various digital formats. In my mind a magazine isn’t an iPad and an iPad isn’t a magazine.

The difference is clear. A magazine utilizes a reflective light source. A computer screen is a glowing light source. A magazine has physical limitations, an end (unless it’s the September issue of Vogue). A magazine app created for an iPad can potentially go on forever with embedded movies, extra photographs and weird horizontal and vertical switcheroos. I think once we as publishing professionals start to make the distinction that these are two distinctly different mediums then design will be elevated.

Where did you grow up? Did your family support your creative inclinations?
I grew up in Memphis, home of Elvis, W.C. Handy, Gospel, Rockabilly, BBQ, and Beale Street; all that music, history and creativity fascinated me to no end.

Memphis is a strange and wonderful place, so much soul but no sense of community. Although the town is awash with creative fuel—the apathetic lines are starkly drawn between the haves and the have-nots. It makes you wonder if they’ll ever get it together.

I was blessed to grow up surrounded by a family of creatives who’ve always been supportive of me. Creativity is a force that burns inside—it’s nebulous. I’m not convinced they’ll ever fully understand my creative temperament, but they love me just the same.

G&G is headquartered in Charleston where the food is outstanding! Where do you go for lunch?
Lunch is an event; Charleston is beautiful and the food is good. There’s a great park across the street from my office, and I try to eat healthy and outdoors whenever possible—just me and a half dozen other bums taking it all in. I also enjoy wandering about for something tasty. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Monza, a wood-fired pizza joint where most ingredients are locally sourced. They’ve got very slurp-able Chianti, great espresso and the prettiest waitresses on the block … dolce bella!

You received your Masters in Journalism from Ole Miss; how does your knowledge of journalism affect your design decisions at G&G?
Dramatically. The editors and the art directors take different paths to arrive at the same destination here at G&G. Our goal is to elevate the story by honoring the narrative. My journalism background helps me empathize with the editor’s plight to never fool or trick the reader. It’s our job to inform, entertain, excite and at times provoke. One of the hard truths I’ve learned is that you must take your ego off the table and be committed to the story and all its components: photography, illustration, your editor, the brand etc.

What’s your earliest creative memory?
I remember a clay bust my father made for me. I thought it was remarkable that he made it by hand. Also, my grandmother Cre Cre’s fantastical collection of sculpture, paintings, and plastic covered leopard print furniture. She was a Parisian immigrant living in Jackson. Everything was textural and decadent. For a boy it was like walking into Narnia or some weird French brothel.

What attracted you to G&G; what keeps you there and your skills sharp?
I remember Editor in Chief Sid Evens reaching out to me about the opportunity at G&G when I worked at Outside’s GO. My first thought was, “No f’ing way! Who would ever name their magazine Garden & Gun?!” Three or four days past and I kept thinking and chuckling about that name Garden & Gun. I couldn’t get it out of my head and then it hit me, the name and the concept were diabolically genius! The name—Garden & Gun—is bold and pays tribute to the spirit of the independent publisher. It harkens back to a time when people were more fearless about naming a magazine. Seriously, what does Rolling Stone mean? What does Vanity Fair really mean? You better believe that when you’re launching a magazine named Garden & Gun there’s plenty of work to be done.

In five short years we’ve launched a robust print product, developed an impressive Web presence and birthed a brand. We were nominated three years in a row for an ASME Award of General Excellence—winning once—and all the while we’ve received numerous awards and accolades.

It’s my commitment to the G&G brand and standing by it as it evolves that keeps my skills sharp. Honestly, it’s just so damn fun to watch this brand grow and take shape—that’s what keeps me here. I think a lot of us look at it like it’s our child. Unfortunately it won’t be long before it becomes a teen … ugh!

Do you have a green thumb?
I love digging in the dirt! I currently rent a home that I’m making a play to buy merely because I’ve planted so many things in the yard. I should be ashamed by how much money I’ve spent on another’s property, but it brings me joy and helps me feel more connected to my community. I sometimes think when I finally go bat-shit crazy, throw my computer out the window, and leave magazines forever that I might turn to landscape design—it’s a thought.

Tell me about your first hunting experience; do you still hunt?
I duck hunted in Arkansas once as a 10-year-old boy with my uncles and grandfather who was affectionately known as “Big Boy.” Everything about that experience—hanging out with all the older fellas, me getting in the way—I was never so thrilled in all my young life.

My father took me on a couple of dove hunts afterwards, but it was a long time before I’d go on another bird hunt. In fact, it wasn’t until I came to G&G. Now I bird hunt a couple of times a year. My most recent was an epic pheasant hunt at the Highland Hills Ranch in eastern Oregon.

Join me tomorrow for second helpings with Marshall Mckinney! Find out what he looks for in a photographer and a designer.

Ed Roberts is Creative Lead at ElectriCities of NC, Inc. and manages a team of creative superheroes. Follow Ed (@InHouseObs) on Twitter for more inspiration and insight.