Chris McMahon was in the middle of teaching an art class when he first got the email that Weezer was interested in using his art for their album cover. He was so shocked he nearly walked right out of the room. Luckily, he was able to keep it together until the class was over. He soon found out that the band had fallen in love with a particular painting of his, a large, furry monster taking a stroll right through a mountainous landscape. They were approaching the Iowa high school teacher about getting the rights.
“I was all for that, obviously,” McMahon says with a laugh. The painting came from McMahon’s collection of what he calls “involuntary collaborations.” Basically, he combs through thrift stores and garage sales to find old landscape paintings lost to time, and then adds his own special touches, usually a monster. The result breathes whimsical second life into the paintings which have long languished in dank basements and musty attics.
McMahon turns them from dull thrift store trifles to quirky, must-have pieces.
McMahon started to get serious about illustration and drawing when he was in high school, but it wasn’t until he was studying art in college at the University of Iowa that he became serious about painting. Canvases can get expensive though, so as a starving artist, he did everything he could to keep costs down.
“I tended to go to auctions, Goodwill, and yard sales to try to find canvases just to paint on,” he says. “Normally, if I found something for a dollar at an auction, I would white it out and just paint over it.”
This process made McMahon feel vaguely guilty though — like he was destroying someone else’s loved creation to make his own. Then one day, he was at a garage sale where he was struck by a particular painting that someone was just getting rid of.
“I found a painting of a purplish landscape with a lake right in the front. I thought it wasn’t that bad,” he says. “It looked like it was almost unfinished, because it had this great lake with nothing in it. So instead of just whiting it out, I added in this little sea serpent thing. It took off from there.”
McMahon began looking for pieces to add to rather than destroy. He explains the process of making his additions feel organic as if that cute monster was just always coming out of the lake.
“Part of it is picking the right painting to start with,” he says. “Sometimes if a painting is really thick, and you can see a lot of the brush strokes, it makes it difficult to integrate something into the texture of the painting.” So McMahon searches for paintings that are fairly smooth, then he’ll sandpaper areas of the painting to remove texture, and seamlessly apply his own creations. In doing so, he tries to keep the original integrity of the piece, fusing his monsters with the existing bones of the work rather than overwhelming it.
“It’s more of an homage to their work than anything else,” he says.
As for why he chooses monsters for his pieces, McMahon feels like the creatures are a tribute to his childhood and his father.
“That’s what I grew up with,” he says. “My dad was a very avid monster guy. He had all the old Marvel comics like Where Monsters Dwell and Dweller From the Depths. He was huge into everything Godzilla related. That stuck in my mind.”
McMahon doesn’t see his monsters as scary, but as rather cute. He watches cartoons, Japanese animation, and searches for weird looking animals to get inspiration. He wants to people to love his monsters, and maybe even feel a connection to the creatures. Monsters to him are just really misunderstood.
“Godzilla is a tragic story,” he says. “Godzilla is not inherently angry or inherently destructive. It’s just the fact that he’s big. He strolls along through a city and leaves a swath of destruction, but maybe he was just out for a stroll and doesn’t realize it.”
Whether or not you too feel bad for Godzilla, there’s no denying that McMahon’s monster are pretty adorable. We’d let them hide under our beds anytime.