*Photo Nicki Evans
What Baytown resident Jim McDonnel can do with pencils is pretty amazing.
What the pencils have done for him is perhaps more amazing still.
The walls of the home that McDonnel shares with wife Cindy are covered with art and much of it is his work.
A self-trained artist, he works in pen and ink and in acrylics, but his favorite medium is pencil.
Born in Alice, Texas, McDonnel spent his earliest years in south Texas, but moved to Barbers Hill when he was in high school. He graduated from Barbers Hill High School in 1974.
Life led him to work in a chemical plant. He was employed by Dow Chemical in Freeport for 23 years while he and Cindy raised a daughter. When he retired, they moved to Baytown, but retirement didn’t suit him for long. He soon went back to work full time in a Baytown chemical plant and works there still.
"I guess I started really drawing in junior high," McDonnel said. "I wasn’t paying much attention in class. Instead I was always drawing soldiers and such."
It was the Vietnam era, after all.
Those schoolboy drawings evolved over the years. McDonnel discovered that he really loved creating art. He tried painting, found that he really likes working with acrylics but always returned to what got him started … drawing with a pencil.
Of course the pencils he uses today aren’t the No. 2 Ticonderoga he probably used in junior high and he’s not doodling on the edges of notebook paper. But the works he’s created with art pencils and paper are a natural progression from those early works.
About two years ago, McDonnel was diagnosed with cancer, an advanced case that required chemotherapy, followed by surgery.
He is doing well now, but went through a very rough time.
"It’s been tough, but my art gave me something to focus on besides being sick," he said. "When I was too sick to do much of anything else, I could still pick up a pencil."
With that ordeal behind him, he is back at work and enjoying time spent with his three granddaughters. He especially enjoys working on art projects with them and has discovered that they seem to share not only his enthusiasm for art but also some of his artistic talent.
He recently taught a couple of art classes (as a visiting artist) at his granddaughters’ school and enjoyed that immensely, he said.
He shuffled through stacks of his drawings and pointed out favorites on the walls of his home, expressing regret that he doesn’t have too many examples of the work he did in his younger days.
"I gave so much of my early artwork away and I wish I at least had copies of some of them," he said.
Nowadays, he does make and keep copies or prints, whether it is a drawing he does on commission, something he creates for a nonprofit group to auction (he does a lot of that) or drawings he does for himself or family members.
He’s been drawing a lot of beloved pets for people, often people he connects with on Internet forums that he frequents.
"I put a couple examples of my work on there and people will get in touch," he said. "A lot of them want pictures of their pets … you know for a lot of people, their pets are like their kids. They especially want a special portrait of their pets after those pets have died. They send me a photo and I’ll work from that."
McDonnel likes that his art can make those people happy, but he especially likes it when his art can help out a good cause.
One of his drawings recently brought in about $4,000 at an auction for the nonprofit organization Wheelers for the Wounded, whose primary mission is providing a weekend of off-roading, camping and sometimes fishing to the people who were wounded or injured while serving in the U.S. military.
A fan of off-road driving himself, McDonnel was a founding member of Wheelers 4 Wishes, a local four-wheeling group that participates in the annual U.S. Marine Corps Toys For Tots Toy Run/Ride that features motorcycle enthusiasts and four-wheeler fans and takes place at the Pasadena Fairgrounds each year. This year marks the 17th annual toy run and takes place on Dec. 11. McDonnel created the art that will grace the event’s T-shirt this year, as he has done for four of the last five years.
"It’s neat to see all those bikers wearing my art," he said.
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