Ryan McCormick is a student here at Seattle Central who has been taking art classes for about a year. He spent several years as a professional chef, working for Seattle’s very own legendary chef, Tom Douglas. Ryan sat down with me to discuss why he left the grind of the culinary world and his plans to try and make the world a better place through art, music and food.
Even though I denied it at the time, I think that subconsciously I saw culinary arts as a way to bridge a working-class career and an artistic ‘something’.
The following has been edited for content and length.
Tell me a bit of your history with art and why you left your career as a chef.
“If I was still working full-time as a chef it would be my seventeenth year. When I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw cartoons and do stuff like that and my family was really encouraging. Even though I denied it at the time, I think that subconsciously I saw culinary arts as a way to bridge a working-class career and an artistic ‘something’. Culinary arts is something people take really seriously. I used to take it really seriously. It was a good match. It can still be pretty artistic, but the bare bones of it you’re trying to make money slinging hash any which way but loose, and there’s 1% that gets to be cool and artistic and all that bullshit but the vast percentage is just there wrenching their nuts and burning their fingers.”
“I wanted to go into something more philanthropic. I’m not getting any younger. “When I’m more successful I’ll do all this stuff,” that may never come so why don’t I just do all of that now. What I really wanted to do was open up a business that would help my little brother. He’s a multiple non-violent felon, but because he’s got three felonies he can’t find a job and has all sorts of psychological stuff and is still in recovery for drugs and alcohol. There aren’t really a lot of programs out there that help facilitate people that are coming out of these high-risk situations to prevent their recidivism. I wanted to do something along those lines but I haven’t had the gumption or the time or taken the time to open that business. I found a group called FareStart so I started working with them. I was working with Tom Douglas before and I was so tired of all that jazz. FareStart does what I wanted to be doing and the work itself was great. I met so many different people and I trained tons and tons of chefs and volunteers, but the politics are so bad. I just want to feed the hungry people and help these people out. I got burned out and then I burned myself out again on the thing that I wanted to do. But during that time I had an opportunity to work with a lot of differently-abled people, people with Down’s syndrome, and train them how to do tactile culinary stuff. That was so moving to me. I love teaching and I’ve always wanted to be a teacher or a career student. I want to be an artist, a career student, a chef, an entrepreneur, all that good shit all within the next couple of years. So I always wanted to be a teacher to do special education. That’s always been really inspirational and it’s a good goal and I want that to be my next step. Like I did with culinary I’m pursuing an honest career in art or music or whatever and I want to piggyback that onto a master’s degree in teaching, focusing on special education. I’m working my way towards that goal.”
“All you need is a bachelor’s degree to pursue teaching. I can start out with the little kids and work my way up. I’m also really into linguistics so I want to facilitate communication between autistic people and their loved ones. It’s an issue of communication. Their brain is organized in such a way that they communicate this way and they can feel this way and there’s no way to communicate to you how they’re feeling. People like that really thrive when they’re doing tactile things and push-button communication can bridge those gaps. It’s not a new field. People with Asperger’s can’t express how they feel with their thoughts and their words and their facial expressions but can show a card of how they’re feeling, happy, sad or whatever. That’s much more effective and clear, a satisfying form of communication for both parties. That’s like my Ph.D. thesis, how to communicate. It’s like the big picture and I’m just kind of stumbling figuring out a way to get there.”
Like I did with culinary, I’m pursuing an honest career in art or music or whatever and I want to piggyback that onto a master’s degree in teaching, focusing on special education. I’m working my way towards that goal.
Do you still enjoy drawing more than painting or are you still exploring what you’re passionate about in art?
“I’m a little better at painting than I am at drawing, but I love sketching and making art in the minute whatever the medium is, I want it to be creating ‘right now’ and it’s always a forward process. The best thing about drawing is that you can do it anywhere and my favorite medium is wax pastels. Crayola brand is my favorite. You can’t go wrong with a good Crayola and you can take ’em anywhere. I got a huge bag of these old crayons and I’m gonna take ‘em all through a cheese grater and put ‘em in between wax paper and melt them all into leaf shapes or something like that. I remember doing that back in kindergarten. I’ve been carrying around these crayons for this as an art for like ten years, so that’s gonna happen.”
Tell me a bit about the series you’re working on now.
“So I have a little cat, she’s a tabby. Her name is Mabel. I drew a picture of her one day and I really wanted to like focus on technique with this series. As I said, I like a la minute art, like splish splash whatever, as long as it looks cool. It’s fun as long as it conveys some emotion. It’s fine but what I really admire about so many classical painters and artists, especially like abstract artists, is they can totally do this square and can also totally paint a perfect portrait or draw this super accurate street scene. That is like the classical training that lends credibility to your more abstract art. So I had this dream about pursuing that. I have this photograph that I’m working from for the series and I’m trying different styles of reproducing that photograph in these different stylistic ways and ultimately culminating in this photorealistic large canvas piece. I think of the other pieces as more intricate sketches that help me work out the lines or work out the colors of this giant photorealistic oil painting.”
Besides working on your technique and building your skill set, do you have a message behind most of your art or are you just doing it for the joy of art itself?
“Yeah, it’s just really about the joy of art. Again it’s about communication. I enjoy making art and if I make a piece that can find a way to actually reach somebody, whether they see my vision or whether they see something else in there, that’s really the goal. Any piece that I make is just some sort of expression and really the art is all about me having fun, but if somebody wants to pay me a bunch of money, that’s great too. But that’s [what] all artists dream. I wanna make someone cry with this red paint, you know?”
Have the classes you’ve been taking here helped open up a different avenue of processes that you weren’t expecting to develop?
“I started out taking a drawing class and I’ve been with the same instructor, Yulia Chubotin, for the whole four quarters I’ve been here. Basically, a year, starting with drawing and ending with three painting courses. I think being able to do that really allowed me to develop a process. So now when I come in and paint I have a zen process I like to go through. I have a setup mode that I get into. If I don’t do that I can still paint, it’s just part of the whole thing, getting ready it’s like ritualistic. It’s all for fun.”
Getting that initial transfer degree is like my training wheels. After that, I really gotta be ready to kick ass.
In five years, where do you see yourself?
“Ideally, part of my journey will be finding a way to incorporate some art therapy into my technique. Working with these different people with different needs, again it’s something tactile. The issue with pursuing a degree in art therapy is that you also have to do some clinical stuff. I just went to have my degree audited and thought next quarter I was gonna have to take algebra three or whatever and I was thinking, “OMG, this would be like my third time to try and take algebra and failing,” but I took logic like three quarters ago. The advisor said, “looks like you already have your math credit so that’s out of the way,” and I was like “WHAT?!? Hold on, I already got my math credit?” So I was pretty excited about that.”
“I was a terrible student and part of this whole journey for me is developing academic rigor and studying habits and doing homework. I don’t want to make the mistake that I always made historically, like even when I was in high school and I didn’t have a lot of guidance. I always wanted to take the hardest classes regardless of the fact that I couldn’t even really pass them. I wanna be the smart guy, I wanna do the hard stuff, and just fail fail fail. I always end up putting myself in that position but I don’t wanna do that with my career. I want to learn the lessons now. When I’m ready to pursue my master’s degree and really buckle down, that’s why getting that initial transfer degree is like my training wheels. After that, I really gotta be ready to kick ass. Because I don’t want to go to UW or UW Tacoma and waste time and money. I don’t have time and money to waste.”
“I went straight to culinary school, so I always wanted that more academic style of college. I think when I first went back to community college I wanted to do all these things and explore all this stuff. My girlfriend was really supportive but reminded me that this has to ultimately coalesce into something or you don’t get funding. I want to take a piano class with my current music instructor and maybe a voice class or another art or design class to wrap up that whole thing and then I can focus on getting a music degree. I think honestly I’m in that career because I love music and I want to do something with music and I want to be able to do something to make money. I want to be able to facilitate something to pay back the old student loans I have while taking on this larger journey. I also have ideas for businesses I wanna start. I want to have a farm not too far outside the city but out far enough that you’re away, like a dude ranch and we’ll have sheep and ducks and little dogs. They’ll come and work in the garden and we’ll show them how to make our own lamb sausage and they’ll get this whole culinary journey living a farm experience for a week. I was dreaming about it last night. We can do duck eggs, duck egg hollandaise, and then I’ll make lamb ham…”
“Why not be healthier, why not have everybody be healthier? I’m excited but it’s so hard. I’m also struggling with quitting drinking and smoking. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’m at the point in my life where I want to be healthy. I haven’t taken a break from these things ever and so I’m trying to do that. And my girlfriend isn’t working right now, so I’m trying to pay rent for both of us and there’s stress. It’s ok, I’m better for it because I feel better and feel more accomplished. When I drink I can’t accomplish anything. I can work really hard and then get tired and go to bed. That’s all I can do. I just know that if I want to accomplish things, that can’t be a part of my life right now. I don’t have the time or the money for it. I’ve never just had a drink with dinner. I was just thinking about that. My entire life I’ve always drank to get drunk. I’ve never had the experience that it’s a cultural thing. It’s part and parcel to being a chef. We’re all getting blasted. I’m a chef that’s what I do. I’m also struggling against the concept of the artist’s muse. Artists have to be mentally ill or have these huge flaws in order to get their emotions out, but I don’t believe that. I believe it’s the case in these special circumstances where the artist destroyed this person and they still live on in perpetuity. Like Jackson Pollock, alcohol killed him and his girlfriend or wife. There’s this idea that you’re subject to the muse and you have to have this thing to be creative. I think a lot of talented people kill themselves because they’re trapped in that state where they think they can’t do this when in reality it’s you and your talent, not this magic powder or fairy dust creating your talent. Oh no! What am I gonna do with all this powder? You told me this was magic!”