Extra! Extra! Read All About It: Artist Uses Front Page for Canvas

Richard McConaghay plays 'muse' with the news

A newspaper is more than a newspaper to Richard McConaghay. When Mr. McConaghay looks at the proverbial ''daily rag'' he sees a canvas. For the past five years, the Morro Bay, Calif., artist has been producing pastel drawings on newspapers.

Calling himself the ''Daily Muse,'' McConaghay creates colorful works such as farmers drawn over the front page of the Omaha World-Herald, or prickly purple asters covering the Irish Independent, or a nonchalant juggler atop Investor's Daily. So far, he has been inspired by 200 newspapers -- including the Monitor.

McConaghay says he likes using newspapers because of their psychological role in society. ''When people read the newspaper, they like to get it as close as they can and then use it as a shield -- as some form of tactile protection from the bad news they are reading about,'' he explains in an interview.

Despite the often bad news found in the newspapers, McConaghay considers his own work upbeat: ''It's kind of simple and nonthreatening -- a fairly simple puzzle to solve,'' he says.

One of McConaghay's first efforts was of a formally attired man performing tricks with spotted dogs inside a circus ring -- drawn over the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

With the drawing, he hoped to capture what he imagines is the ''circus atmosphere'' of the financial district. ''It says something about how I felt about that mind-set,'' he explains, adding that it's his way of poking fun at the world.

The same can be said about the Investor's Daily drawing of the juggler who has six balls up in the air -- a feat rarely, if ever, done by real jugglers, who normally use five balls.

After his initial inspiration, McConaghay started looking for newspapers from places where he had been. Thus, his collection includes various Korean newspapers with drawings inspired by McConaghay's stint in Korea after he was drafted. One newspaper has a smiling blue-eyed Buddha, another a pug, a popular Asian dog.

Some of McConaghay's drawings are simply abstract images, reflecting his mood at the time. Buyers of his prints (he does not sell the originals) sometimes will write him to tell how the image relates to the paper or place.

For example, his drawing of Japanese fish, called koi, seems to amuse Japanese viewers in part because of the headlines in the paper (referring to two meetings between former politicians) and the configuration of the fish. ''To the Japanese it represents some sort of tete-a-tete,'' McConaghay says.

Other times the images are quite obvious -- from the koala over the front page of the Australian to the totem pole over the Klondike Sun. At times the drawings have a subtle political message, reflecting McConaghay's distaste for violence.

Below the Los Angeles Times headline ''Looting and Fires Ravage L.A.'' (May 1, 1992), he drew two heads -- one white, one brown -- kissing as they flow from one body, wearing a T-shirt that reads ''one heart.'' Generally, however, McConaghay prefers to leave the image ambiguous so people can form their own opinions.

From a color standpoint, McConaghay tries to achieve a certain level of contrast. A chartreuse sphinx looks out over a purple sky covering part of an Egyptian paper. All of the work has a sharp line -- there is no blurring of images or ideas.

The color combinations are all the more unusual because McConaghay is color-blind. His interest in art was stimulated when he was a child. As an Army ''brat,'' he spent a lot of time in Europe with his parents. ''As a kid, we lived in France and hung out at the Louvre the same way other kids hang out at the basketball court,'' he recalls.

As he grew up, he spent a lot of his time producing abstract art and becoming frustrated. ''I'd get scared and throw my paints away,'' he says. He would do guerrilla shows with ''wacky, experimental stuff.''

Then one day McConaghay was experimenting with color copiers. He liked the quality of the prints. At about the same time, he started experimenting with bright chalk images over newspapers. ''It was pure accident,'' he remembers.

When he merged the two concepts -- the color copier and the chalk images on newspaper -- he knew he had a technique that he could work with. ''At first it was like a joke, but as I did it more, it developed into a means of expression,'' he says.

Today, friends and collectors send McConaghay newspapers from around the world. If he does an image over the paper, he sends the donor a free print.

He has become a big newspaper collector himself. In New York, he spent $60 at a store that sells out-of-town newspapers. ''I find buying newspapers almost compulsive; they are very intriguing,'' he says. By adding artwork, it could be said, McConaghay makes them even more so.

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