Ash & Dirt, Rise & Fall: The Work of Jerry McLaughlin

 Jerry McLaughlin and Rebecca Crowell

By Samantha Matcovsky

Have a conversation about materiality and mortality while staring at the ash, dirt, wood and cold wax that make up the art of Jerry McLaughlin. Do this and welcome the challenges and empathy McLaughlin offers – the same kind he must embrace in order to produce the work. With over 20 years spent as a Pediatric Critical Care Physician in the Bay Area, McLaughlin facilitates a delicate balance that directly reflects moments of meditations throughout his experience.

McLaughlin’s highly textured works are composed of natural materials (i.e. ash, dirt, etc.), and it’s these elements that comment most on his understanding of what it means to rise and fall, gain and lose, grow and crumble. Depth within McLaughlin’s pieces is seen in mystifying shades and in what could be seen as the space between cracks. When looking into a piece from say, his series Savage Beauty, on which he begins his statement with “Impermanence is a fundamental truth of the universe. Loss is the human experience of that truth,” we as viewers are posed with our most insecure personal preoccupations and our most sincere philosophical quandaries.  

I recently sat down with McLaughlin to discuss his current practices and hear more about what informs his body of work.

SM: I really wanted to start off by touching on the newest work that you’ve put together for the Primal Inquiry series and your current exhibition at DZINE Gallery in San Francisco. How did that series come about?

JM: As I’ve thought about my bigger, darker work over time, I came to realize when I create these, I’m exploring the deeper questions that I think all people ultimately ask themselves – about loss, beauty, a lot of the deeper kind of fundamental philosophical questions that humans encounter. To me, Primal Inquiry is a way for me to have an overarching series that continues over time. As I create groups of work within that series I can explore more singular questions.

One of the questions that has come up for me in the last 6 or 8 months is “What is the nature of the self and how does that relate to consciousness?” Part of this is spiritual and philosophical, but part of it is, frankly, just the scientific and medical aspect of what the ‘self’ is. What is this notion of us perceiving our mind separate from our bodies? Is the nature of consciousness - “the self” - real, and are we all connected as a result of this transcendent aspect of ourselves? People have asked that for centuries. I frankly don’t know what to do with it. 

Jerry McLaughlin, Inquiry (III), 48 x 60 in. From the series Primal Inquiry.

SM: It seems in this new work you’re dealing with much larger, universal themes than in some of your previous, more personal series. How do you go about trying to translate these incredibly complex messages into the physical realm?

JM: Well, I don’t think I have any concrete answers for this. In fact, the more that I plug into this the more confused I am. What’s really beneficial for me in thinking about my previous work, or even my current ideas, is time, and space, and an environment that is conducive to shutting out all of the noise that fills us – the news, entertainment, our friends, traffic, our jobs, whatever it is. What that really translates to for my process is creating that kind of space in my studio where I can explore these questions without the noise.  

What I hope to give people in my paintings is at least - even if it’s brief - a time and space to stop and consider whatever they want to consider. They don’t have to consider the self. They can consider anything they want. But I want to create a space where noise goes away and you can think about those deeper things. 

Jerry McLauglin, Inquiry (V), 60 x 60 in. From the series Primal Inquiry.

SM: I think it is fair to say a lot of your work is emotionally dark and gritty. When you go into these meditative spaces, does that lack of noise go hand in hand with intentionally experiencing the dark emotions that we don’t always want to feel, or is that something that comes about on its own?

JM: I think it’s a little bit of both. In my “out-of-studio world” I’m a really happy, joyful, joking kind of person. It’s not that I don’t have deep conversations with people, but ultimately, I feel like these kinds of questions are things we all face individually. We can talk about it, we can write about it, we can paint about it, it really doesn’t matter - but we all face those questions alone, just like we all face our own mortality alone. That is the most universal experience, since everything ultimately revolves around mortality. If we didn’t die, none of this would matter. We wouldn’t have to ask these questions at all because we would have forever. However, since our time is finite here, we do feel this sense of urgency to at least explore, if not try to answer, these questions.

I find that fact not necessarily to be dark in the sense of it being sad or scary, but it is certainly somber. These are serious and heavy questions, and that’s kind of the way I want my work to feel - heavy. They’re somber and complicated. But that doesn’t mean you can’t think about them for an hour and then go out and laugh it up. I think it’s a balance of the two, but for me, painting in that space is where I can really get into these questions and feel them in their most tangible way. 

 Jerry McLaughlin with his work

SM: I know in your profession as a Pediatric Critical Care Physician you deal with life and death scenarios and are constantly confronting mortality in your patients. Is it your intimacy with these tragic events that has made your art practice really focus on working through these deeply troubling and intense emotions and experiences?

JM: There are certain kinds of medicine where you confront people dying on a regular basis, and what I do is one of those — I confront children dying. It’s an interesting experience because I’ve come to realize death is not hard on the dying or the dead because they’ve already moved beyond it. Death is hard on the people who stay behind. At this point, it’s not as difficult for me to deal with the child actually dying as it is to sit and be with the family who is losing their child. It is the worst thing that you can possibly imagine, but I can’t get wrapped up in all of that if when I’m trying to do my job, and so that often kind of gets tucked away and repressed.

At the same time, it forces me to confront mortality on quite a regular basis, and it means that I do think about my own mortality fairly frequently. Any day could be the day that you wake up and get diagnosed with some terrible terminal disease, or any day could be the day you wake up and get hit by a car. That awful stuff happens all the time. To me, it helps get past these fears by thinking about them. People who don’t think about it are really more afraid. The more I think about it, the more it just seems natural and it makes it okay. That doesn’t mean I think it’s fun, and it doesn’t mean I want to die, but welcome to the universe! This is how things play out. My job forces me into these confrontations with mortality in ways that I think most people will never be forced into.

SM: You currently have an exhibition at DZINE Gallery in San Francisco showcasing your latest work. How did you connect with them and how did the show come about? 

JM: It was really a happy surprise through social media. I had been encouraged to get on Instagram for a while, but originally I was really skeptical and didn’t want to have to manage all of that. Now I’m so glad I did because it has created so much opportunity for me. The curator of DZINE’s shows saw my work on Instagram and had been following me for a while. He reached out to me and asked if he could bring the gallery’s owner over and do a studio visit. I was like, “hell yeah!” So they came over and explained they were having a show in the fall about material and the relationship artists have with their specific material. He was really interested in my use of cold wax and thought it would work well not only aesthetically in the show, but also because it’s a medium not too many people are that familiar with.

Jerry McLaughlin, Inquiry (II), 30 x 60 in. From the series Primal Inquiry.

SM: I’m glad you touched on your use of cold wax. You are known widely as one of the foremost advocates of the cold wax medium, and have actually written a book about it. How did that come to be? 

JM: It happened fairly quickly and it has evolved even in the last year or so. I was working with cold wax for a long time before there was really any information out there about it. I realized that for any other form of art I can think of, someone’s written books about it. When it came to cold wax, there was just nothing, and I said to myself “well, if I want this book, I’m sure there are plenty of other people who want this book, so I’m going to write this book” However, I needed someone with more knowledge than me and someone with name recognition. Rebecca Crowell, had been doing this kind of painting for at least a decade and she was the perfect person to help put this together. I reached out to her and asked, basically, if she wanted to do it with me. Initially all I got from her was a very lukewarm “good luck.” I talked to her a bit more and eventually convinced her to let me pitch her the full idea. That was really the beginning of it.

"Cold Wax Medium: Techniques, Concepts & Conversations" by Rebecca Crowell and Jerry McLaughlin. Available at

The experience of writing the book was incredible. It allowed me to share an accumulated knowledge of over a hundred artists from around the world who were using the medium in very different ways from Rebecca and me. Some were painting very representational, nearly photorealistic work with the medium, some were doing three-dimensional things with it — people were just doing all of this stuff that we frankly hadn’t even thought of. They knew a lot of things about the medium that we didn’t know. That forced us to think more deeply about other people's work and other people’s process in an attempt to digest the information and communicate it to others in an educational and understandable manner.

My research into the medium, and being positioned as some sort of authority on it also forces me on a regular basis to look at what I’m painting and really ask myself “do I have as good a handle on this as I feel like I need to”. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no, but it has hands down been the biggest contributing factor to me evolving as an artist. Teaching classes and writing this book has really forced me to go deeper than I think a lot of artists might ever go because I always feel the need to rise to the occasion.

SM: What’s next for you? 

JM: I’ve been exploring some smaller scale work, work that is more geometric, more focused on shape, value, and contrast. And since poetry is very meaningful to me I want to continue to use that as inspiration. In fact, I have a joint show based around poetry with Rebecca Crowell at Jennifer Perlmutter Gallery in Lafayette, California next fall. We are thinking of creating some works inspired by local Bay Area poets and their writings. WM


You can catch McLaughlin’s latest work in person as part of the show X Materia, up now through April 26th, 2019 at San Francisco’s DZINE Gallery. More info available at More of McLaughlin’s work can also be found on his website


Samantha Matcovsky

Samantha Matcovsky writes about art. 


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