Honors alumna pursues dream career

August 10, 2022 - Sydney Bowler

Laura McKenzie is not one to shy away from new opportunities.

As a past linguist, current artist, and digital nomad holding three degrees and certificates, she’s always looking for her next chance to experience something new.

McKenzie is passionate about traveling and has spent a good portion of her life exploring different cultures.

“I’ve never lived in any place longer than three years at a time,” she said. “I’ve lived on three continents and in six states by now, so I’ve always been on the go.”

McKenzie graduated from the Honors College in 2000 with a B.A. in Art History. After working as an au pair (in-house helper for childcare) in Italy for a year, she returned to Michigan State University to attend graduate school, receiving an M.A. in Applied Spanish Linguistics in 2004.

She originally majored in Studio Art before switching to Art History, she explained.

“I earned two Dean's medals of Honors in my undergraduate time. One for outstanding student in Italian, and the other was the Geraldine Potchen Award for Studio Art,” she said. “What's funny is my life since then has been all about those two things: Linguistics and Studio Art.”

For the past 20 years, McKenzie has moved around the world with her husband and children working as a linguist.

“But art was always there,” she said. “Whenever anybody asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was always an artist.”

The white sand and turquoise waters of Okinawa, Japan put the thought of being an artist in her head again. There, she also received her undergraduate certificate in Japanese, furthering her expertise in linguistics.

After Okinawa, she moved to Hawaii and knew she had to start creating again. She elaborated, “It was like this impulse where I just couldn't stop.”

Pursuing Art as a Career

Painting by Laura McKenzie

In her 40s, McKenzie made the choice to pursue her dreams and start selling artwork.

McKenzie currently resides in Miami, Florida and loves the interesting and diverse community. This is also where she first launched her online art venue — Laura McKenzie Gallery — last October.

“You don’t have to be living in one place and working at one specific gallery to sell art, and so I started realizing these changes were taking place in the art world, and things were becoming a lot different,” she said.

All her artwork is inspired by nature — more specifically the oceans she’s had the chance to live near, as well as the Great Lakes.

“I grew up on a farm near Kalamazoo, so I was outdoors a lot of the time and that is just a part of who I am. I started painting in Hawaii and everything that came out were these white colors, turquoises, teals, and all these colors of the ocean,” she said. “I think that's something you just absorb living in these places.”

She explained that one of the perks of working for herself is having direct communication with her collectors. McKenzie learns about what's important in her client’s life, what experience they’re looking to create in their home or space, and what specifically drew them to her creations.

“Most people don’t buy art because it matches their couch… most people buy art because it moves them in some way and they have an emotional connection, so how fortunate to be working for myself and having that communication with clients myself,” she said.

Her website also features a blog where she explores her passion for writing. 

Diving Deeper into Past Research

One of McKenzie’s recent blog posts on the work of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was inspired by research she completed in 1999.

During a summer internship with the Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Commission, she had the opportunity to dive deep into Wright’s work and see some of the homes he designed and built in Kalamazoo.

What started as a brief research project turned into so much more.

“The research took the entire summer,” she said. “My mentor, Pamela O’Connor, and I just were so into it. We started our research knowing that Kalamazoo County has eight Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian homes, and our research expanded as we learned more about them.”

These homes were introduced after the Great Depression and were smaller and more affordable than most of his designs, she explained.

McKenzie was fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright’s work years before her research project began. The first home of his she saw was the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids.

“Now that's more of a high-end, prairie style home for more of a wealthy class,” she said. “But that's the thing, if you’re an architect, it's hard to design homes that are more affordable for more people.”

These families did a lot of the construction themselves, making their own cement blocks and putting them up. McKenzie had the opportunity to speak with many of the original owners during her internship.

She added that at the time, these homes were revolutionary, and are thankfully still standing to this day.

“After I finished my research, there was just so much there that the Historic Preservation Commission did a tour to the public, and it was really well attended,” she said. “The only reason I ended it was because the summer term was over, and I had to go back to Michigan State for the fall, so there's a lot more in here that could be done.”

McKenzie admits that Wright’s work has influenced more than just her writing. His use of horizontal lines is something she can see in her paintings.

“I feel like subconsciously, that has worked its way into my art. A lot of the things I do have that same similar shape and form,” she said.

Twenty-three years later, her research came back around when Michael Desmond, professor of architecture at Louisiana State University, reached out to the Michigan State University library for a copy of her work. 

Advice for Aspiring Artists

McKenzie urges those who want to pursue the arts to find their mentors and community.

When she first became interested in the industry, she was told art is fun, but it's only a hobby. But this is not the case.

“When I was at Michigan State, I wasted opportunities. I had some amazing painting professors, and I was doing well, even winning awards, but I didn’t understand that the arts could be a career,” she said.

She believes students these days are not only smarter about finding mentorship and recognizing opportunities, but also have more resources to succeed.

“A lot of my opportunities that I still remember came from the Honors College, because being part of the HC gave me the opportunity and flexibility to craft a really individualized undergraduate experience,” she said. “My advice would be to find a mentor.”