Oneonta Artist Captures Essence
of Our Region Using Spray Paint
By IAN KENYON
On a 2015 visit to San Francisco, James Mcilroy stopped to observe a work by Austrian urban and graffiti artist, Nychos. The split animal anatomy in a spray paint medium left an impression on the curious Mcilroy that opened a new thought process—and inevitably would result in a major public artistic contribution to the community back home in Oneonta, bringing new life to the historic Ford Sales Building on Market Street.
“This was before I was doing any kind of serious painting,” Mcilroy recalled. “I was so impressed by the scale and started to pick the process apart: ‘okay, Nychos sketched this first and then came in with a flat color here and separated the values and did a complementary color scheme here’.”
A native of West Carthage in New York’s North Country, Mcilroy has lived in Oneonta since 2005, first as a student at SUNY Oneonta and now as a notable figure in the region’s artistic community, together with his wife, Elizabeth.
Subject to a creative muse from the start, Mcilroy points to a collection of influences from childhood to today—exposure to museums and concerts, enjoying the graphic arts elements of playing in bands and going to skateparks, awaiting the school’s perennial Scholastic Book Fair to discover and collect the latest installment in the “Goosebumps” series known for its eye-catching covers, and two years in the BOCES visual communications program. Artistic guidance continued on at home, with home life helmed by his mother, a student of fashion design, and his father, an award-winning abstract wood sculptor.
Shortly after that 2015 trip, Mcilroy embarked on his first solo debut in Oneonta at the Roots Brewing Company.
“My first completed works were the portraits I did at Roots in 2016. I had participated in other group shows, but that was my first truly solo gig—including paintings of Tesla, Einstein and Katherine Hepburn,” he said.
Expanding on his process and influence today, Mcilroy explained, “My creative process is based on the knowledge I’ve built through years of study and learning from the great artists. I am far from where I want to be, but receiving quality critiques from artists I admire and constantly trying to reverse engineer concepts is a smart method.”
His medium of choice, Mcilroy noted, was a natural fit.
“Spray paint for me is just a medium. It’s fast and you can get a nice airbrushed look when blending.”
He cautioned there are seasonal challenges, the obvious downside being the fumes, and said wearing a mask in the heat can get pretty intense.
Expanding on major influencers and his own style and approach, Mcilroy pointed to a personal list developed through years of study: the VACVVM collective, Aaron Horkey and Ken Taylor, Greg “Craola” Simkins, The Weird Crew (Nychos, DXTR and others), John Singer Sargent, Filip Leu, Rodrigo Melo, Charles Burns, Ernst Haeckel, Alphonse Mucha, James Jean, Emily Ding, Lauren YS, Alex Grey, and Jane Kim, among others.
With regard to street artists, Mcilroy underscored Nychos, ROA, Phlegm, Ron English, Shephard Fairey, Swoon and, “of course, Banksy.”
“Copy the greats, just don’t take credit for things that aren’t yours,” Mcilroy encouraged. “Try to create what’s in your head with your hand. Lectures, books, and seminars are important, but really it’s getting out there and doing it.”
An active member of the area artistic community, Mcilroy cited additional influence from his peers.
“There are so many wonderful local mural artists that inspire me. Carol Mandigo, Jennie Williams, Richard Barlow, Cynthia Marsh, the talented artists and teachers at CANO, Hope Von Stengel, Jim Maloney, Jamie Banes, Lindy Lapin, and a ton of others who have really helped me—including Kaytee Jean from the City of Oneonta—and I’m forever grateful,” he said.
Mcilroy credits the foundation of his works to the “Doodle Grid” technique, a method for transferring imagery onto large surfaces without the use of a square grid or a projector. Not exclusive to one single method, he embraced the technique in 2020, sketching nearly 1,000 animals on “Surprise Boxes” for his wife’s Oneonta store, The Underground Attic.
He said, “That really helped me gain confidence in my skill and it was a lot of growth in a short amount of time.”
On that momentum, Mcilroy hosted an exhibition of freehand drawings of animals and filigree in white colored pencil on black Bristol board at the Community Arts Network of Oneonta Gallery in 2022.
Captured in his 2022 video, “Paint the Whole City,” that year ushered in the perfect culmination of inspiration, technique, subject and medium. Building off previous experimentation with spray paint in outdoor settings, Mcilroy found partnership with landlords and opportunity in remote locations to further his style.
It was ultimately the partnership with the City of Oneonta that catalyzed his larger artistic feat, as he explained: “This recent mural journey all started with the mural on the Ford building. The city put out a call for an artist to propose a mural design to help the space until the building’s scheduled demolition—a temporary installation if you will. The budget was $1,000.00, most of which I spent on paint and a ladder, but honestly they could’ve offered up anything. It was more the permission I was looking for!”
Thus inspired, Mcilroy’s work continued beyond the original scope of the Ford mural. At his request and at his own expense, the City of Oneonta approved Mcilroy’s continued expansion of the Ford mural. Additional opportunities came up that now complement downtown Oneonta’s aesthetic—a door commissioned by Peter Clark Student Rentals next to the Autumn Cafè and the woodpecker on the door next to the Oneonta Parking Garage. Later in the year, Mcilroy was approved to expand his work with two murals on the CANO Wilber Mansion Studio building.
With a resounding portfolio of work, Mcilroy notes that, nowadays, it’s pretty easy to get mural gigs.
“But, as all artists starting out know, if you don’t have the experience it’s probably going to be hard to get the gig,” he added.
Mcilroy said his work is expanding beyond Oneonta now.
“This year has been great,” he continued. “I’ve painted for businesses in Cortland, Saratoga and Burlington Flats, in addition to the 13 public murals in Oneonta. I want to lay the groundwork for other artists in the area to be able to go out and paint large-scale work.”
While he intends to go where the art takes him, Mcilroy underscores that Oneonta is home and his works are part of a larger story he seeks to tell.
“The murals really came from travels around the world with my wife, seeing the wonderful street paintings and the stories they convey. I want to bring that same element here, to offer a positive influence and contribute to the human experience.”
In addition to wanting to bring more visitors to the area—students and travelers alike—Mcilroy seeks through his works, chronicling environmental impact and local wildlife, to spotlight Oneonta on the larger Catskills map.
“It would be cool to create a ‘mural map’ and bring people to explore these awesome little communities,” he explained.
True to his craft, Mcilroy summed up the experience and impact of the process: “I love that art can be a bounce point to trigger new ideas. That’s the fun of art and truly the genesis of free-thought.”
Great story! We are so lucky to have James and Elizabeth in our city – they are a brilliant creative couple.
I love the paintings on the old Ford Bldg. It makes the building look so much nicer with the animals. I love the scene on the CVS building going down Market St. So pretty to see a picture instead of a blank wall. It would be nice to see more wall paintings. Congrats to the artist.
Thanks to the artist – we need more scenes like this around Oneonta.