By Gail McCarthy
---- — Michael McKinnell is accustomed to the public viewing his work as an award-winning architect, whose firm has designed buildings around the globe, from Boston City Hall to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.
Both he and Stephanie Mallis, a principal at the Boston-based Kallmann McKinnell & Wood and his wife, have another creative outlet; it’s their painting, which has been done behind closed doors.
Now, however, the two will unveil their art work in public for the first time ever at Mercury Gallery in Rockport, where they both reside in addition to their Boston apartment. In a coming-out-party of sorts, there is a free public reception on Saturday from 5 to 7:30 p.m.
“Taken together, the works are a visually stirring survey of colors and shapes, which often merge figuration and abstraction,” said Amnon Goldman, the gallery director.
McKinnell co-founded the firm in 1962. When he was a graduate student at Columbia University, he met Professor Gerhard Kallmann, and the pair submitted the winning design for Boston City Hall. He was 26 years old at the time. Other local buildings of the firm’s design are the Back Bay railway station, Hynes Convention Center and the Asian wing at the Peabody Essex Museum, in addition to buildings at numerous universities.
At the age of 78, the soft-spoken bespectacled McKinnell has a new-found liberty to expose his other talents.
“You gain the freedom at a certain age to do what you want, because you just want to express yourself,” he said.
Both artists point out that drawing is a key element in both architecture and art. In fact, both were the last two in the architectural design office to begin drawing on computer, preferring the hand-drawn method. They are now working on a project at Hebrew University in Jerusalem
Both also were painters from the beginning, as children, and both chose a more conventional career in architecture. Becoming an “artist” as a career choice has often been viewed as a risky business.
McKinnell was born in England and grew up during World War II. As school boys, he and his friends collected shrapnel from bombs. After his undergraduate work at Manchester University, he won a Fulbright scholarship for graduate study at Columbia.
He was always a fan of the French painter Georges Braque (1882-1963), who, along with Pablo Picasso, is known for being part of the Cubism movement.
“I could never afford one, so I learned to paint,” said McKinnell, an architect for half a century. “We had one of those white kitchen tables you could draw on and I would fill it up with drawings and then wipe it off.”
He did a lot of painting at grammar school; “At 16, I had my first show at the City Art Gallery at Salford.”
When he was young, he pondered the meaning of avant-garde.
“I always thought to be a member of a group that draws its name from the military was not something I wanted to be part of,” he said in an interview this week.
Mallis first studied design at Pratt Institute in her native New York City. She later worked for a decade at several architectural firms in New York City before she returned to school to study architecture. That is where she met McKinnell, who was her professor at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, where he worked for 25 years. He also taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mallis later would earn a Fulbright scholarship, and spent a year at Ahmedabad, India. She returned to become head of interior design for I.M. Pei & Partners.
Neither the artists nor gallery curator would categorize their paintings.
At a lecture many years ago, McKinnell described his firm’s work as a blend of memory and invention. “We believe neither in the iconoclastic gesture nor in conformity... Both acknowledge tradition but both are simplistic concepts.”
The same idea applies to the artwork of both McKinnell and Mallis, who live in Pigeon Cove where only recently they built a studio.
They are indebted to the gallery for taking them on in a show of their work. The gallery is known for exhibiting work of 20th century Expressionists, not necessarily living artists.
The artists talked about the spark that led to this show.
Earlier this summer, McKinnell badgered his wife to have some of her work framed, after which both were surprised at how the framing transformed the presentation of the artwork. Then at her urging, he had one of his works framed.
“I was rather surprised — and pleasantly surprised — that it looks a lot better,” he recalled. “On the way home we were driving by the gallery and as a joke, we stopped and I got out of the car with the painting and went into the gallery and told Amnon that he could get it now before it appears at the Whitney, and we both laughed.”
When the couple got home, the telephone was ringing. It was Goldman, who asked if he had more paintings and could he come see them. When he and his partner arrived, he did not expect to discover a treasure trove of artwork.
“I was flabbergasted,” said Goldman, because not only did he see more of McKinnell’s work but he learned about Mallis’ work and knew he struck gold.
Now hanging side by side on the gallery walls, their paintings dovetail as well as the results of their architectural work.
His subjects focus largely on still life as well as the local quarries. Her work is often outdoor scenes from their travels abroad or in Rockport as well as floral still life from their garden. She often will leave parts of the paper uncolored, much like a sculptor leaves some of the stone uncut.
McKinnell — honored by the Boston Society of Architects in 1994 and who served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 2005 to 2011 — is indebted to the gallery for holding the show because seeing it on exhibit has further inspired him.
“It’s one thing to have a little show of sketches with your students but to be asked to show in a gallery that exhibits works by artists like Joseph Solman is extraordinary,” he said. “Because of the way Amnon hangs the shows and his enthusiasm, we have both been able to see what we are doing in a different way. We are grateful. It has given me the enthusiasm and impetus to do more -- and for that I’m extremely grateful to Amnon.”
Mallis smiled when she described her husband’s reaction when Goldman took an Adolph Gotlieb painting off the wall and hung his painting.
“Michael said he would never forget this,” said Mallis, who described McKinnell’s work as cerebral. Meanwhile, McKinnell said he admires Mallis’ work for her instinctive flair.
“Her work is free and gorgeous and spontaneous,” he said. “It just bubbles out of her.”
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000,x3445, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go What and who: Paintings by Michael McKinnell and Stephanie Mallis. When: Opening reception, Saturday, 5 to 7:30 p.m. Where: Mercury Gallery, 20 Main St., Rockport. How much: Free to the public. Details: For more information, call 978-546-7620 or visit www.mercurygallery.com.