At Home With
Mason McFee, Artist, and Jess Clark, Graphic Designer

When Mason McFee and Jessica Clark decided to name their new company Crummy House, referring to their own charmingly ancient one-bedroom rental in Austin, Texas, it was mostly out of admiration rather than denigration. Sure, the paint is cracked in places, the garage has an uneven dirt floor, and in the winter, the cold night air blows through with no regard for shuttered windows. And it was a bit of an inconvenience when, two months after they moved in, an old tree fell directly onto McFee’s car. But with two desks in the living room, a workshop in the garage, and the kitchen basically converted into a studio, the house has become a kind of creative haven for the couple — a getaway from McFee’s responsibilities as an art director at the ad agency Screamer, and Clark’s as a graphic design student at Austin’s Art Institute. They spend weekends making art there, side by side, and with Crummy House they’ll start their first true collaboration: a kind of arts promotion initiative in which they’ll make black-and-white zines showcasing the work of their artist and illustrator friends. Eventually they hope to end up with a grassroots agency on their hands.

Besides Crummy House and their day jobs, though, McFee and Clark’s personal work has little in common. Clark layers detailed pencil drawings with watercolors, photographs, and resin, the end product being either digital or digitally altered. “I can never be satisfied with one medium,” she says. “If I draw something, I put it on the computer, and if I make something on the computer I print it out and cover it with resin.” McFee — whose style falls somewhere between folk art and street art — prefers all things rough and handmade, painting not just on canvases but on chunks of driftwood, bottles, stones, and other found objects. He grew up doodling incessantly and emulating illustrators like Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarrey, and Where’s Waldo creator Martin Hanford, eventually moving on to appreciate folks like Barry McGee; Clark started with Lisa Frank’s computer-drawn fantasies and eventually came to identify with Mike Mills and minimalist Swiss designers.

Though they fuel one another’s creativity, when they’re at work in the kitchen or garage, even their process is fundamentally different. “My thought is, don’t even go into it with an idea,” says McFee. “I have a blank piece of paper, or a pile of wood, and I just make something out of it.” Says Clark, on the other hand: “I see what I’m making before I make it. I try so hard to let that go, but I need an element I can turn into something else, whereas he can sit on a desert island with nothing but a pen and pencil and have something beautiful come out of it. He’s more of a real artist, and I feel like while I can make art, I’m more of a designer. I see the Adobe screen in my head when I go to sleep.” The pair invited Sight Unseen over on a recent warm Austin evening to show us around their home studio, which isn’t as crummy as they make it out to be, and told us all about their working methods, their Texas upbringings, and how their creative time together is like a form of meditation.

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As a promotional image for McFee and Clark’s nascent Crummy House initiative, this image depicts what Clark calls “our combined ephemerata” — weird objects they’ve made, found items, and other trinkets. Crummy House, after all, is the couple’s first creative collaboration, an umbrella under which they both hope to work in the future. They’ll start by making black and white promotional zines featuring friends in the art and illustration worlds, which they’ll send out to industry contacts. They’ll also host shows by those artists and, if all goes well, turn the company into an agency. Once things progress, they’ll work with the artists they represent on Crummy House t-shirts and other merchandise.

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The couple’s kitchen, which doubles as their drawing and painting studio, in addition to hosting the occasional photo shoot. The backdrop is an old piece of fabric Clark found and hung on the wall. “We didn’t used to make our art in the kitchen,” she says. “We tried to make it in the living room, but eventually we moved the work bench in here and that’s where we sit and create now.”

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In the living room sit two little wooden sculptures that McFee made which epitomize his working process: “I get bored easily,” he says. “When it strikes me that I want to do something, I have to do it right then. The other week I found this tree branch out back that was really nice to carve, so I sat down in the garage and made some legs, and they turned into four of these guys.” In the background is a piece Clark made from a box of pencils she got from McFee’s sister, who’s a teacher. “I really like the way office supplies look,” she says. “I'd like to base a series around them.”

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“This is a piece of redwood my mom brought back from California, sitting on top of my worktable,” says McFee. “I painted some rocks with the same pattern. I love the history of a desktop I’ve used for a long time. One of my favorite artworks I made was an old drafting table I’d covered in drawings that I took the legs off of and hung on the wall.”

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Found objects in general play a large part in McFee’s art, as with the painted Jack Daniels bottle on the left and the so-called “cat robot” made from wood on the right, whose eyes and mouth are casters from the bottom of a desk. “I have crates and boxes in the garage full of random crap that I use in my work,” he says. “My father collects stuff too, and will hand over a box of screws and metal pieces. I also look at thrift stores and in friends’ woodshops, where the scraps are already cut into cool shapes. Other people then start to think of me, too, and save me things.”

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Some of McFee’s best finds have come — like Clark’s pencils did — from his family, who are all teachers. That’s how he found a box of educational picture cards from the ’70s, which depict everyday objects and scenarios, some with racially insensitive captions. Clark has used the cards for inspiration, while McFee has recently been using them as makeshift canvases, drawing his characters on top of apples, loaves of bread, beach balls, and other strange and mundane illustrations.

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Clark, whose desk is pictured here, occasionally uses found objects as well, but more often she creates all the various layers that go into her work. “With a lot of my pieces, I’ll draw something or paint something, then put it away for months until I see it or think about it again, then I’ll go back and cut it up and add it to something else,” she says. “I’m still drawing on these braids; I’ll probably scan them in and put them over a photograph, I’m not sure. I’m not as good as Mason at completing works of art.” Says McFee: “I’m never finished though. I’m one of those people who always wants to go back and work on something again. We both have something of an attention disorder.” Adds Clark: “Hence the doodling through school at all times while growing up.”

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Another of Clark’s unfinished works. “I really like watercolor and drawing over watercolor,” she says. “This is an example of me mindlessly screwing around, and if anything, I might cut this up and use it in a digital piece. I actually meant to throw this away, but Mason made me save it.” Adds McFee: “The artist Robert Hardgrave once made a giant costume out of all his failed paintings. He took all the canvases and made a suit from them.” Says Clark: “I’d thinking about doing that with my typography journal when I’m done with it. A lot of the things I end up making into full pieces of work are my scrap papers, because it gives me something I can start with.”

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The second desk in the living room is a shared workspace, the only one with a printer and scanner. Above it hang meaningful sketches and images, like a black-and-white photo of Clark’s father, who was a musician as well as a photographer. He played in the Coventry Singers, an old folk band back in the ’50s that performed at festivals alongside Johnny Cash. On the upper right is one of McFee’s wooden starbursts. “My recent stuff is more rustic,” he says. “It’s basically: I’m gonna cut these things, and then I’m going to stick ’em together, and then paint ’em. Any craftsman would look at my work and be like oh my god.

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“I’m into Volkswagen Beetles, so I have a bunch of VW stuff around,” says McFee. “The photo on the left is of Jessica holding a pumpkin.” Says Clark: “I think I was probably 9 years old, and for Halloween I dressed up as myself as an artist. I wore a shiny leotard, drew all over it, and put color in my hair.” Adds McFee: “What I like about this picture is the display box. I really love to set things up; I can sit for hours just arranging how they look.”

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Above the bookshelves is a small collection of McFee’s toys and other objects, which reflect his love for creating characters. The half-head was inspired by “Kilroy was here,” the iconic image of a cartoonish man peeking over a fence that has its roots in WWII but eventually became a common trope in the graffiti scene. “My dad used to draw it, and I’ve done a lot of characters peeking over something,” says McFee. “Many of my characters are recurring. People will ask me who and what they are, but I don’t usually have an answer to that. It’s just how I draw people and animals — that’s just what comes out.”

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The first, most prominent character in his work — and the one that inspired his professional moniker — was Mase Man, a guy in a space suit with shifty eyes. McFee has since phased him out, but at one time you could find Mase Mans pasted around Austin. “I wouldn’t consider myself a street artist, because to be one you have to be in the streets all the time, and I’m not,” says McFee. “But I always have markers, and if I’m in a bar bathroom with tons of drawings, I’m going to put mine up there, too. Growing up I was influenced by street artists, though. Seeing the work of the Beautiful Losers crew when I was 18 made me realize that all this doodling I’d been doing on my notebooks — I might be able to make a living doing that."

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The couple may use the kitchen as their studio, but much of the fabrication happens here, in their garage. Inside is where McFee does all his woodworking and Clark makes her resin pieces. “It’s really about to fall over,” laughs McFee. “I come in here and tinker around, then Jess comes in here and pours resin all over my stuff and gets bottles stuck to the table.”

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The workshop is equipped with a belt sander, a band saw, and a welder that rarely gets used.

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In progress on the day we visited was this series of resin-coated pieces by Clark, which incorporate dog-head playing cards she inherited from her grandmother’s estate. “I’ve kept most of what I got from her so sentimental that I haven’t been able to enjoy a lot of it,” she says. “These pieces represent the first step in my being able to finally use all this cool stuff in my artwork. I’ll probably go back to them with paint and pencil in the same colors and do some very detailed line work. Hopefully the resin layers will be thick enough that you’ll be able to differentiate the spaces between all the drawings.”

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On the side of the garage hang two paintings McFee did with his friend Jesse, which were created over the span of one day for a restaurant commission that eventually fell through. “It made me interested in collaboration in general,” he says. “I think that’s what I need sometimes, to break out of my own stuff and work with other people. We started with two large boards, applied painter’s tape, then both just attacked them with color at the same time.”

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He and Clark have already gotten Crummy House underway, with McFee being the first subject. His sample zine includes both pictures of his work and inspiration images like these. “We’re just playing with how we want the books to work,” he says. “We want the artist to be able to have free reign, but we both agree it’s more interesting to have lifestyle shots juxtaposed with images of their artwork.” Says Clark: “Mine has more art in it, but we’re working on how much structure these should have and how much content we’ll arrange, versus handing a book over to an artist and just seeing what comes back.”

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More of the couple’s personal inspiration imagery can be found tacked to their refrigerator, where a jokey teddy-bear postcard a friend sent from Marfa lives alongside a motivational card sent from McFee’s mom and a photo of Bruce Springsteen. “One of my fondest memories from living in New York for four years was being taken on a surprise trip to Asbury Park with my friends,” Clark says. “We all have drunken tattoos that say ‘the Boss’ that we hand-wrote on napkins.” Says McFee of his mom’s “You make me so proud” card: “She always finds cool stuff and sends it to us. She’s the main reason I like design.”

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The couple’s cats, lounging around on the living room sofa. On the left is Moose, and on the right is Clem. “As in Clementine,” says McFee. “It’s not a very tough name for a male cat, but oh well.”

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One recent project of McFee’s was this banana-shaped figure, created for the local bookstore-gallery Domy, which invited dozens of artists to make a monster for its Halloween show. “He’s not really your typical monster with big teeth,” says McFee. “I see him more as evil, almost like an evil Muppet. He looks like Beaker. I make protagonists and antagonists — there’s a certain group of characters that look nice and friendly, and others that are evil or just regular angry or unhappy people. Everyone goes through those emotions sometimes, so those kind of guys are in there, too.”

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This character was one of a dozen McFee made for an installation at the Austin boutique Bows + Arrows, which sells clothing by the likes of A.P.C, Band of Outsiders, and Billykirk in addition to smaller objects by local artists. McFee’s friend David Clark, an up-and-coming woodworker, made the shelving in the store.

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One of Clark’s older images, from a photo series she shot as an homage to designers like Stefan Sagmeister. “I really wanted to take pictures when I saw that hardcover book by Taschen, Pierre et Gilles, where the images are so styled and gorgeous,” she says. “I set up scenes like neon fake flowers and candles in our windowsill, and totally overproduced them. It was during one of my bad phases of wanderlust, so for this one I took a sad little blow up globe, hung it in our backyard, and tried to capture it spinning. I have a hard time doing anything personal in my work, but this piece tells a lot about how I was feeling then.”

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Another telling piece is this painting by McFee, which he made on top of an old window pane by fusing tons of small paintings together using glue and resin. “The idea I was going for was pieces interlinked, all bound together into one,” he says. “But I don’t ever think of the meaning behind these things until they’re done and I have to make something up to tell people what they are. That’s my process — it just happens. My process informs the outcome more than what I tell people about it.”