Artist Carmen McCullough

They Were Too Smart, by Carmen McCullough

The two young cousins on the cover of this issue are posed in their Sunday best clothes, out in the backyard on a farmstead in Otter Tail Township, in northwestern Minnesota. It’s 1955. “Oh goodness, these two girls, aren’t they awesome?!” says Carmen McCullough, of her mother, Mary Ann, on the left and her mom’s cousin, Bernice.

Perhaps it’s a confirmation day or some special event. “I just loved this photo. My mom is dressed up. They weren’t fancy people, so this was a special occasion. And there was something about Bernice … the glasses, that hat. I thought, ‘oh my word, these girls are up to something,'” she says.

The image was found in a collection of vintage photographs that came to McCullough in an old blue suitcase that had been her grandmother’s. McCullough is a mixed media artist who creates story collages from old photos and other finds.

In the background of her artwork, “They were too smart,” is a page from McCullough’s childhood diary and also a page from a Nancy Drew book. “I loved Nancy Drew. I read all of her books from the library when I was young.”

Sepia tones

Knowing that McCullough finds inspiration working with vintage photos, many have been given to her by friends and relatives. “Certain photos speak to me,” she says, even though she sometimes does not know who the people are in the images. “I sometimes see a photo and think ‘that needs to be in a collage.'” She finds other creative elements from antique shops, such as old letters or envelopes, maps and diaries.

She uses a fluid, sepia-toned acrylic paint – Van Dyke brown – as a wash over her finished creations to give them a warm, historic look. She often adds wry words or witty phrases to her artwork to give a contemporary feel – often capturing an intention or tender moment, such as “the journey is the prize” or simply, “empty nest.”

“I often try to think of clever things to go with the photos. I’ve created a few collages where I think nobody is going to get this, because it’s so personal to me. But I have found over time that those are the pieces that people identify with. Those sell quickly,” McCullough says. A gallery in Perham, Minn., features her artwork.

Weekend artist

Although McCullough was an “artsy” kid, she chose a practical path when making career choices. She has a degree in communications and has worked in corporate marketing over many years in west central Minnesota. For the past five years she has worked with Perham’s Chamber of Commerce.

“I save my art [time] for the weekends,” McCullough says, who began to work with mixed media about 12 years ago, when her two sons were young and she desired a creative outlet for herself. “I never did get that fine arts degree, so I am definitely a self-taught artist. But we’re very fortunate, because there are so many art tutorials and technique videos posted on the Internet. You can learn to do almost anything if you really want to.”

McCullough has authored two books, using her collage work and her wry sense of humor, “When She Turned 40-Ish” and it’s sequel, “When She Turned 50-Ish.” She’s currently working on a third book.

Grandmother muse

In addition to vintage photographs, inspiration for McCullough’s collages comes from her Dutch family heritage and heirlooms, music and travel. “Seeing the world out there, my creativity goes crazy.”

One of the images that is often used is of her grandmother, Marie, who came to the United States with her family from Holland around 1910. “I remember her as my grandmother, old and a bit tired, having lived on a farm all her life. And, then I found this picture of her, as a young classy lady. I thought … ‘Wow!'” She loved the image so much she had it made into a rubber stamp that often finds its way into her collages. “Marie is my muse,” McCullough says.

Her art continues to surprise her. “Even months later, I’ll see something in a finished piece that I didn’t plan on. There’s a serendipity to it sometimes.”

Carmen McCullough