Art Posi+ive: Illustrator and Graphic Designer Morgan McConnell
"The Nest," selected for the 2008 Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life campaign.
When Victoria-based graphic designer Morgan "Dangerboy" McConnell gets the rare chance to design something exactly the way he wants, it almost always includes a bird, a nest, a tree or some moss. This is a man who loves nature. But he also likes to inject elements of grit and edge into those designs, which gives his work a unique look and feel. "There's a fine line between incorporating the outdoors into your art and becoming someone who paints flowers all the time," he says.
While growing up, nature was a constant in Morgan's life. His family moved around a lot -- by the time he was 15, he had lived in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Richmond. But wherever they lived, his family spent weekends at a cottage or exploring the local wilds. During long walks in the woods, his parents would point out the inhabitants of the forest and describe what made each creature or plant interesting, unique and/or edible.
It was the 38-year-old's lifelong fascination with wilderness that inadvertently set him on the path to becoming a graphic designer. After graduating from the University of Victoria's marine biology program 15 years ago, he landed a contract as research associate at the marine sciences station in Bamfield, a tiny town on Vancouver Island's west coast. When the gig was up, he wanted to stay in this enchanting little piece of paradise, so he took the only available job -- looking after the marine station's website.
Morgan quickly taught himself the basics of web and graphic design and liked the way technology ramps up the speed of the creative process. "You can go on a tangent and just follow your brain," he says. "I found that way of working to be really harmonious for me, as opposed to sitting down with a paintbrush and trying to paint something for days or weeks. I don't have the patience for that."
A year later, Morgan moved back to Victoria, where a friend (another biologist-turned-graphic artist) helped him land a design job at a local software development company, at the height of the dot-com boom. "We were the crack design team," he recalls with a self-deprecating laugh. "We listened to loud music and wore ponchos to work, because we could, because we were artsy designers. We couldn't believe we were getting paid to have such a good time together."
Then, in 2000, Morgan's mother passed away from complications associated with long-term alcoholism and a series of unsuccessful abdominal surgeries. While alive, she had often talked to him about the life-enriching benefits of visiting far-flung places and experiencing different cultures. Decades earlier, his mother had travelled the world while working as a model and radio DJ.
Morgans design for the Victoria-based cupcake company Night Owl.
Morgan chose to honour her by using the small inheritance she had left him to recreate her youthful adventures in his own way. After travelling through Asia for six months, he spent a year and a half working as a freelance designer in Sydney, Australia. He also earned spare cash, or sometimes a place to stay, by performing as a fire dancer -- a talent that later led to a successful audition with Cirque du Soleil and explains his pseudonym, Dangerboy (it was his stage name). "I first saw fire dancing in a nightclub in Victoria," he says. "It's a mesmerizing blend of martial arts, dance and fire. I quickly immersed myself in practicing it and joined a troupe of young queer performers when I was living in Victoria, before travelling. We all taught each other and grew together."
Not long after arriving in Australia in 2001, Morgan found out that he was HIV positive. At the time, he feared the social stigma of the illness and that it would make meaningful relationships even harder to come by. It had been difficult enough to meet potential partners back in Victoria's small gay community, where he had already felt like a misfit. "I was raised to be the kind of kid who goes out and turns over rocks, looks for crabs at the seashore and picks mushrooms," he says. "That was more my identity than fashion or music or any of the things that a lot of people seem to find important. It wasn't until I experienced larger cities like Sydney that I realized I wasn't weird. There are all kinds of ways of being gay." He was quickly adopted by the poz community in Sydney, which showed him that HIV doesn't have to be a stigma, nor does it mean an end to love, fun, community and happiness.
A heathy and accepting poz community was one of the reasons why, upon his return to Canada in 2005, he decided to settle in Vancouver instead of returning to Victoria. Shortly after relocating, he met his future husband, Gordon, who shares his love of the outdoors. The couple got engaged under a solar eclipse in Turkey and exchanged wedding vows on a remote beach in Bamfield. The ceremony wrapped up with drumming, fire dancing and a late-night sweat lodge on an isolated beach, complete with whale, otter and eagle sightings.
The couple moved back to Victoria several years ago, partly because Gordon was offered a job there and partly because it felt like the right time to be around family again and lead a simpler life. Morgan now designs for an eclectic assortment of clients, including politicians, musicians, a gay porn producer and a Christian book publisher. He also regularly works on AIDS awareness campaigns -- work he considers meaningful and important. In 2008, he designed a limited-edition label for Polar Ice Vodka, as part of an annual AIDS awareness campaign that raised $50,000 for the Canadian AIDS Society.
That same year, Morgan won a competition to design the promotional material for the national Scotiabank AIDS Walk for Life campaign. At the time, it was a little nerve-wracking, he admits, because it meant coming out to the world as an HIV-positive designer. He wasn't sure how people would react. He worried about being defined by his illness, being seen as HIV-positive first and an artist second.
Instead, there was an outpouring of appreciation for his design of a crow perched in an almost-lifeless tree, holding in its beak a red AIDS ribbon, which flutters in the direction of a patch of new leafy growth. Many people were so moved by the dark yet hopeful image that they contacted Morgan, asking for signed copies. "It was a total shock," he says. "That was definitely a very powerful moment for me."
At the moment, Morgan feels conflicted about his future professional path. Sometimes he thinks about switching careers so he would have more creative energy at the end of the day to work on his own projects. Working as a designer often requires compromising your own vision to satisfy your customers, Morgan explains. On the other hand, he learns new skills and styles by constantly adapting his work for others. "So, when the time does come to create something for my own enjoyment," he says. "I have a much deeper well to draw from."
To view more of Morgan's work, visit www.dangerboydesign.com.
Jennifer McPhee is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to The Positive Side. Her work has also appeared in numerous publications, including Chatelaine, The Globe and Mail and Childview.
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