Jess McDonald working on her t-shirt designs
Credit: Leah Ladson
Stories & Ideas

Wed 08 Sep 2021

Meet Jess McDonald, the artist behind our High Tees shop range

Art Behind the scenes Commission Interview
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Leaona Cusick

Retail Manager

Lee Lin Chin, Sam Neill and Adam Goodes are among the Australian and New Zealand icons who appear in the High Tees collection, lovingly designed by Melbourne artist Jess McDonald.

Jess McDonald is the incredible talent behind West Melbourne based design studio High Tees. Inspired by iconic Australian and New Zealand heroes, High Tees celebrates who people are and what they stand for. Leaona Cusick, who manages the ACMI Shop, spoke to Jess about her carefully considered creative process – from her inspiration and screen culture influences to how she captures the beauty and essence of her subjects.

Leaona Cusick: When it comes to designing a new range, what is your process?

Jess McDonald: There are two elements here. The first one is that I have a large list of amazing Australians and Kiwis that I am slowly but surely getting to draw and represent. And I also receive many great suggestions.

Secondly, I usually respond to what is happening right now. This year I designed a SEASCAPE range featuring high voltage colour underwater flora and fauna. I did this range to highlight the impending issues with climate change and the problems with overfishing. My platform is so small but a platform nonetheless. I like drawing people, flora and fauna that I can then talk about the issues that mean something to me.

I am a passionate advocate for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, so I look for people who have been instrumental in this area to represent. I love Australian art and innovation so find having Australian artists on High Tees gives me an opportunity to celebrate their achievements and successes. I also want to talk about people who have significantly contributed to our culture – whether that be in innovation and invention such as Victor Chang performing the first ever heart transplant, to the glass ceiling breakers such as Ita Buttrose and Penny Wong, to pioneers such as Valerie Taylor, to feminists and strong amazing women such as Judy Davis, Hannah Gadsby and Chrissy Amphlett, to people I am big fans of such as Kylie Minogue, Clive James and Tex Perkins, to First Nations heroes such as Adam Goodes, Cathy Freeman and Evonne Goolagong. Ultimately, it is people I am inspired and humbled by, and people I believe we should continue to talk about.

I spend some time researching the person, watching lots of footage and photos to immerse myself in their world. I then print out between 15–20 photos of them and measure out their face to understand their unique proportions. I then start sketching and finally fall on a design. It is all about trying to capture the beauty in the person and represent them as best I can.

Some of Jess McDonald's work

LC: What are some of the sources of inspiration that you draw from when designing your pieces?

JM: Black and white art has been a feature of my work all the way back to high school art days. I love the sharp contrast, playing with shadow and light but also the restriction of just black and just white (or a limited palette of grey). I usually start most practice sketches playing with positive and negative space.

I am a huge fan of the recently deceased Chuck Close. His huge realistic paintings have always been of huge fascination and inspiration for me. Close was able to capture every detail of his subject’s face but he was also able to capture the character and soul too.

I draw much inspiration from anime to photography drawing on works from Gerhard Richter, Ansel Adams, Masashi Kishimoto, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Helmut Newton, Jean-Luc Godard, David LaChapelle, Ellen Von Unwerth, Luc Besson.

LC: How does the world of screen culture influence your work?

JM: I am an avid fan of screen culture and popular culture. I had studied Creative Arts at VCA and made films, took photos, painted paintings, acted on stage and mixed all disciplines. I have a weird and wonderful taste of film – I love action and fantasy films. My dad used to take me to all the James Bond and Die Hard movies when I was growing up. I used to watch Marilyn Monroe and Elvis films on Saturday afternoons as a kid. My favourite film as a 3 year old was Franco Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew – I could almost recite it verbatim. My husband and I love to watch documentaries. Our current favourites are mountain climbing docos. But also give me a great Aussie comedy or tear jerker romance any day. (Absolutely no horror though. Too easily scared.)

I am quite fascinated by the influence of screen culture and how that is rapidly changing as technology and culture changes. I called it ’snapshot screenshot’. It seems people are less and less likely to concentrate on one thing for long periods of time. Tik Tok 30 second films, the ability to flick and scroll – you really need to capture attention quickly these days.

I get quite nostalgic about film and love the look and feel of 70s films, particularly movie posters. I did a lot of research of movie posters when I first started High Tees with the initial idea of creating a showreel of the person’s many achievements or through history as a movie poster – a bit Star Wars-esque.

I continuously look to film, photography and TV for reference and influence.

Jess McDonald holding markers

Credit: Leah Ladson

LC: Do you have a favourite exhibition or film that you've seen at ACMI? What makes it special?

JM: Ohh this is a hard one. It has to be two – the Martin Scorsese and the David Bowie exhibitions.

I had majored in Cinema Studies at university so Scorsese’s work dominated so much of the study. I love his work and count many of his films as my favourites. The Scorsese exhibition was also my first of the ‘immersive’ exhibitions, I truly felt like I was swimming in his world.

I am also a mad Bowie fan and spent hours in the exhibition. One of my favourite jobs had been working in a costume shop in Melbourne many years ago and Bowie was always a popular choice for customers. So to be up close and personal with Bowie’s fashion was joy. To see his scope of work and his process was overwhelming and magical.

Find your hero in the High Tees collection

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