As a public school arts teacher, Jaianna McCants loves her job, but sometimes it can feel less than gratifying.
“It’s hard in public school when you’re in a class of 40 and only 10 of them really are passionate about it,” says the 25-year-old North Mecklenburg High School teacher. “I’m not saying that I dislike the job, but it can be draining some days.”
McCants has often wondered what it would be like to have the complete attention of a small class of students who all wanted to be there. This year, through a new workshop series aimed to better educate up-and-coming Charlotte-area artists about the ins and outs of the arts industry, McCants will be doing just that. The series is called Artnatomy, and will consist of three workshops for a class of 14 local artists, before wrapping up with an art auction at C3 Lab on April 27 in which each artist will have a chance to show what they’ve learned and turn it into profit.
McCants will accept applications to join the first series of workshops up until January 18, then she will announce the first class on January 30. Interested artists can apply at Artnatomy’s website.
McCants’ workshops will not simply be art classes like the ones she teaches in school. They will touch on different aspects of the art world, covering angles that range from tips on building a better Instagram following to how to get shown in a gallery or museum.
“That’s what our workshops are going to be based on is the business of art,” McCants said when I met with her at a Starbucks on a recent afternoon. “How do you actually make money off of it?”
McCants will spend February getting to know each artist and what it is each of them wants to get from the experience. From there, she will build assignments that are personalized to prioritize the goals of each artist.
In the classroom, McCants creates relatable projects for students who may not realize how often they engage with art on a daily basis. One of her favorite examples is leading a sneaker workshop for her high school students, building a shoe from scratch and then designing it artistically.
“If you think about it, somebody had to design your T-shirt, your shoes, your cellphone; there are art jobs out there,” she said. “I think the students just see that, ‘Oh, we’re coming here and painting a piece and that’s it,’ but I really try to make lessons more personal. I try to make art more relatable.”
While McCants emphasized that she will run her workshops differently from how she runs her classroom, there are aspects to her teaching style that she utilizes in both. When I asked which styles most naturally translate between the classroom and working with adults, she returned to the relatability issue, although with more focus on the business aspect.
“It’s like, all right, there are paintings on the wall, but what else could you do to expand upon that?” she said. “Are you going to sell T-shirts? That’s a common thing, but what else can you do to do more than just paint on the canvas? Can you turn it into a table setting? There are so many different options. So that’s my main thing, making it relatable.”
In the art world, where being a starving artist has long been a seemingly honorable route to take, it’s rare to find someone with such a passion for the business of art.
In fact, McCants’ path has been leading her to this for quite some time. As a child, she idolized her artist father. He would constantly be sharing his portfolio with her, and she began drawing at age 10 so as to create her own.
But in the end, McCants was a hobbyist in the arts; her true passion was for business. She went to UNC Greensboro to study design, and when she graduated in 2015, she went through a short “starving artist phase,” she said.
She worked at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture for some time, but eventually felt overwhelmed there and began looking for other options. “I was just feeling a little drained. I was doing like five jobs in one, but it was OK,” McCants said. “I was like, ‘Let me see if I’m good at helping others with art.’ So that’s how I came into art teaching.”
It was in 2016 that McCants began thinking about how she could turn her passion for teaching into something that could affect the Charlotte arts scene as a whole.
Along with NeOughta Sanders, a friend since their days attending CATO Middle College High School together, McCants began developing the idea for Visual Studios LLC, an arts nonprofit they launched in 2018 aimed at educating artists of all ages on lesser known aspects of the arts industry.
While McCants focuses on adult workshops like Artnatomy, Sanders will head up the Visual Studios youth programs, running mentorships between youth and local artists. Sanders currently works at a childcare center in Ballantyne and is a graduate student at Liberty University studying to become a school counselor.
Sanders has long been an amateur artist who said she painted and drew to keep herself busy. For her, art is a form of therapy that she believes can help kids who haven’t found that release yet.
“I’m really powered by the youth,” Sanders said. “I want to keep them inspired and help them figure out who they are before the world tries to tell them who they are, and art can really help with that.”
McCants and Sanders hope to open a physical space for Visual Studios later this year, but first comes Artnatomy, which is the first series of events hosted under the VS umbrella.
The name for the workshop series came to McCants during a discussion with her boyfriend about how one defines art. Somehow, the word anatomy came into the mix.
“Anatomy is the study of the inner workings of the body, so I was like ‘Well, why don’t we just focus on the inner workings of what art is?’” she said. “From art criticism to art business management, all of those things.”
Even with a focus on business, branding and the like, at the heart of Artnatomy is the art, and McCants plans to work with artists on presenting in ways that are sure to make the auction at C3 Lab on April 27 an interesting one.
Inspired by a recent trip to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. where she saw art presented in a multitude of ways — using shredded canvas and other innovative presentation techniques — McCants plans to help Artnatomy artists make each piece at the April show one that patrons can’t ignore.
“I’ll be pushing their abilities to think outside the box when it comes to displaying work,” she said. “I feel like just hanging it on the wall is just so whatever. What’s your purpose for it and why should people buy it? That’s how you’re going to sell it. It has to be interesting enough.”
And to add that extra inspiration for auction attendees, McCants will implement a savvy technique that’s sure to spur engagement.
Each ticket to the April auction at C3 Lab will serve as a $50 down payment toward an art piece in the auction, justifying the ticket sale for attendees and the increasing the chance that participating artists make their money back on the class.
That’s one way that McCants is already proving she’s good about minding other people’s business, and that’s not always a negative.