The Smokestack provides a “low-barrier entry to art experience” for all ages in Westchester County

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Shannon McDonough, Founder of The Smokestack (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

Like so many small businesses born in the early months of 2020, Westchester native Shannon McDonough’s first “nomadic pop-up” art workshop was canceled. McDonough’s event, slated for late March of 2020, featured a charcoal instructor and was to be held at Uncommon Feasts cafe in Lynn, Massachusetts. The pandemic prompted McDonough to move back to New York to be close to family, and her idea to bring “a low-barrier entry to art experience” was put on hold.

“When I was putting together a project like this in Massachusetts, I was living in Salem, a city of 40,000, and home of the Peabody Essex Museum,” McDonough explains. Salem, north of Boston and just two hours away from Cape Cod, is notorious for artist spaces and studios. However, McDonough noticed that there were not many opportunities for people to get together socially outside of bars and restaurants. “I love bars and I love restaurants and I love great foods and hosting gatherings, but I also knew I wanted to do more in terms of art-making and the power of getting people together with common interests,” McDonough explains. “There’s something about that art-making experience that immediately ties people together.”

Nearly two years later, McDonough revived her business concept, with the intention of hosting artmaking experiences in Westchester. She crafted a single Instagram post explaining her business concept, The Smokestack, a pop-up art-making experience for people of all ages. The post was noticed by Tina Villaveces, owner and art director at Cross River’s Yellow Studio. (Yellow Studio is an alternative art gallery, shared workspace, and community for women). Villaveces invited McDonough to apply for an art residency at Yellow studio. McDonough was accepted with what she describes as a “limited” body of print artwork and “just a concept” for The Smokestack. “It felt like a lot of trust from someone I didn’t know yet,” McDonough says. Between the opportunity to launch her project at Uncommon Feasts and Villaveces' invitation to foster and develop The Smokestack at Yellow Studio, McDonough felt that lightning had struck twice.

Shannon McDonough and Tina Villaveces at Yellow Studio (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

As a student at School of the Holy Child in Rye in the early ‘90s, McDonough had observed an older classmate shooting slide film for her application to the Rhode Island School of Design. This moment provoked a barrage of internal questions for McDonough, “I didn’t know [an art education] was an option,” she says, and decided that art school was for “insiders,” or “people who, frankly, didn’t need to worry about making a living.”

McDonough’s opinion has dramatically changed since then. She has since met, befriended, and worked with a wide range of artists across every medium from literary, to visual, to performing arts. “I’ve worked with all sorts of people who make art and work different jobs, or artwork as their job. I’ve been studying this for a really long time,” she explains.

McDonough’s mantra for The Smokestack is simple: Just start. “I know that we all have things that we deem ourselves not good at, or we aren't comfortable doing. I’ve witnessed people in my life [who don’t] try, and whether they know it or not, I think it’s detrimental to their own experience and their experience with other people.” While The Smokestack will offer classes for all age groups, McDonough’s focus will be for “adults of all ages.” She acknowledges that after college, there are limited opportunities for adults to engage in artmaking activities and The Smokestack will welcome artists, “closeted artists,” and anyone interested in trying something new.

McDonough, a self-proclaimed creative dabbler, has experience in fiber arts, visual arts, and literary arts. She writes personal essays, table weaves, crafts needlepoint, paints, loves photography, and then some. Currently, she’s focusing on print-making. “I think that there’s something fun about learning new things and cross-pollinating across these different art forms,” she explains. Her mission with The Smokestack is to foster that creativity and experience with artistic endeavors in others. McDonough feels that her rich background in advertising, publishing, and academic publishing has given her the necessary expertise to execute this project.

McDonough's artwork (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

“One thing that The Smokestack can accomplish is creating this low barrier entryway into creating time and space in your week for an art-making project or program,” McDonough explains. In her experience working for a national art service organization Lifetime Arts, she learned that “the bonding that happens in an art-making experience or series of sessions becomes a part of what it means to be artists because it winds up being collaborative and supportive.”

McDonough is careful to distinguish her workshops from 'paint and sip nights,' which have grown in popularity over the past several years. [Paint and sip events are] “geared toward a good laugh with friends, which is beneficial, but almost [feel] geared toward an unnecessary achievement of having this finished product that's recognizable by others as artwork, but not really, in my opinion, the point of art-making. The thing that I am most interested in is helping people get back to that place we all experienced as children,” McDonough says, “when we were happy to be making and less concerned about outcomes. The act of creating is what is important to health, self-actualization, and sharing a bit of oneself with others.”

McDonough hopes to move things beyond one-off experiences and “to a place where people [can] remove some of their own self-induced barriers to art-making.” While McDonough acknowledges that many of these roadblocks to taking part in creative projects are practical, due to time constraints and other responsibilities, she feels that art is a vital component of personal well-being. “The reality is that like anything good for us, if we can figure out how to do it in a way that is enjoyable, it will become part of our lives in a much more meaningful and probably permanent way,” McDonough explains. “It’s so hard to do this on your own.”

The Smokestack workshops will include crossover from one art form to another. For instance, prompts and visual aides, including art prints that McDonough has created, will be used for essay inspiration in Smokestack writing workshops. “The blank page is very hard for all of us, and it’s the same in visual arts as it is with literary arts, but once you give someone some parameters or something to which they can react, it becomes much, much easier,” McDonough says.

The Smokestack will offer classes in every area of artistic expression, from visual arts classes like painting and block printing to fiber arts classes, literary arts, and performance arts. McDonough will teach the classes where she feels most proficient but will call upon her “goldmine network” of creatives that she has developed over the years for their expertise in other areas. Perhaps most vital to The Smokestack, though, is the community it will offer.

“The personal gratification that people get out of completing a work, whether that is something they write, perform, or create visually or digitally that they can share is certainly very gratifying,” McDonough says. “But the reason to do this is as much to be a part of a community of artists that are peers to you.”

McDonough is committed to creating an environment that is a low commitment in terms of time and money. “I’m envisioning that The Smokestack will be Incorporated as a Benefit Corporation for profit, but with a community focus,” McDonough explains. “Meaning that there will be a way of attracting funding for community education accessible to all, and also providing experiences for people who have the means to invest in their own art-making process.” The Smokestack will operate as a “nomadic” art experience, for the time being, with events held at Yellow Studio and various locations across Westchester County. “I feel really confident that [starting with] the nomadic model will work and give me a chance to plant these seeds in different communities around Westchester,” McDonough says. In the future, she hopes to operate out of Smokestack-owned storefronts. She wants future spaces to have a permanent home in northern Westchester, with easy accessibility to southern Westchester.

A series of block prints (Benjamin Allen / HudValley Photo)

The Smokestack’s first casual workshop will be an art card block print workshop on August 18 at Yellow Studio’s happy hour in Cross River from 6:00-8:00 pm.

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