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Artist Angela McClellan in front of her portrait of Chuck Berry at St. Marks Coffee House September 15, 2017. Photo by Khaleel Herbert

By Khaleel Herbert

When Angela McClellan isn’t fulfilling her duties as the Executive Assistant of Midrange

Systems Solutions Technologies Inc., or watching her daughter’s 5-month-old Rottweiler, she’s hard at work drawing portraits of celebrities.

Falling into the Art of Things

McClellan and her family lived in Wichita, Kanas–the “Doo-Dah” city. McClellan attended Curtis Jr. High, where she truly fell in love with art.

“In all of my art classes, whenever I’d get the chance on any project or assignment, I would move it to a portrait somehow,” McClellan says. “Or just something with lots of depth.”

In her advanced drawing class freshman year, McClellan recalls turning one of her assignments into a portrait of Actress Farrah Fawcett.

“My art teacher, Ms. Tate said, ‘Angie, I think that’s too much.’ I really hadn’t done it myself or attempted it. But I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” McClellan says. “It came out so good. The color, pastel pencils wasn’t all that great, but it’ll do it for a ninth grader. But the pencil side really came out nicely and she loved it.”

The next assignment, McClellan was instructed to draw still-life pictures of plants that Ms. Tate brought in. McClellan’s still-life pictures soared with flying colors. Ms. Tate was so impressed that she entered McClellan’s art into an arts and literary competition at Wichita’s Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center. She won a golden key award for it.

“I was just so happy,” McClellan says. “And at that point, I said, ‘I’m gonna keep doing my artwork.’”

Michelangelo, Frida Kahlo, Monet and Manet are McClellan’s favorite artists.

“Mainly, when I go back to the portraits I love most, it would be Michelangelo because they’re so realistic,” McClellan says. “There’s so much depth in them and his portraits are the ones that I began to draw from when I really got serious about these eyes have to follow you across the room.”

Leaving Doo-Dah City

In 1979, McClellan and her family left Wichita when her mother’s job at Metz Lumber Company relocated to Colorado.

“Metz Lumber had the bulk of their lumber yards here in Colorado. But the corporate offices were in Wichita and Derby right outside of there and my mother worked there at the time,” McClellan says. “Mr. Metz Jr. took all the families that worked in the corporate office and transferred us all to Denver.”

When McClellan graduated from Pomona High School, she went to the Art Institute of Colorado to study graphic arts. She only stayed for nine months.

“It was a wonderful experience. I did learn during the, what I call, the fine part of it–drawing people and their bodies, but I was still more focused on portraits which I’ve always loved doing,”

McClellan says. “But I learned so much about mixing colors and that really has helped me with my backgrounds because I can’t paint to save my life.”

McClellan picked up a job at the real estate company, Moore Relocation for a year. Metz Lumber went bankrupt and her parents wanted her to move with them back to Wichita.

“I had to have that talk with my mother,” McClellan recalls. “‘I’m not going back to Kansas with you all. I’m not a child anymore. I got a good job and I can’t risk my onward and upward’ and by that time, I liked it here.”

The Portrait Process

McClellan mostly draws portraits of singers, actors and celebrities that she most admires. She’s also done portraits of her friends and family.

“I do celebrities–people who I admire, either what they do and how they do it. Their acting ability. The beauty in their faces,” McClellan adds. “Of course a lot of singers and artists that I love: Biggie, Tupac, Rick James, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone. I love everything that Nina stands for.”


“I do celebrities–people who I admire, either what they do and how they do it. Their acting ability. The beauty in their faces,” McClellan adds. “Of course a lot of singers and artists that I love: Biggie, Tupac, Rick James, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone. I love everything that Nina stands for.”

Most of her portraits are done in ebony pencils and colored ink.

“The whole portrait itself of the person’s face is going to be in the ebony pencils because I love it. I get so much depth and black and I can lift out shades if I don’t go too heavy,” McClellan says. “Then I’ll go in with colored ink and acrylic paint here and there. Lately, and just because they’ve been flamboyant characters, the Rick James portrait and Big Freedia, I’ve put Swarovski crystals on them because that’s who they are. They’re very sparkly and sexy.”

It takes McClellan 24-36 hours to finish one portrait, which equals a couple weeks, taking one to two hours a day to work on it. Sometimes the results of her portraits come out differently than what she expects.

“It just turns out that way,” McClellan explains. “Like after the Michael Jackson portrait, I put the gold on him and to me, it came out looking like angel wings. I thought, ‘Oh, I just like that. How’d you do that, Angie?’”

McClellan says she always had a fascination with faces.

“I love faces. I don’t know why. I love to look at my artwork and other people’s artwork where I can go over in the corner and look at it,” McClellan explains, “and the piece is still looking at me. I love that. It gives me chills.”

McClellan explains why she starts with the eyes.

“My art teachers taught me, ‘Angie, you have to do the whole shape of the head and then go in.’ I tried it. I was disappointed,” McClellan says. “And I’m not saying anyone else is making that mistake by the way that they draw. They loved what they saw, but I said, ‘Ms. Tate, I wanna start this portrait the way I think I’m gonna do this, ok?’

“I draw one eye as big or as small as I want it and then I put a cross with a line going right through the pupil so I can get the other one leveled. But depending on the person, it may not be there,” McClellan continues. “But I know where that line is and how far up or down the other eye is gonna be. Some people have eyes that are a little bit farther apart, but all I do in the photo that I’m working with, I measure the eye–the width of it–and I see if that’s the exact same distance between the two points in the two corners of the eye and if it is, I just go from there.”

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Artist Angela McClellan standing with her portrait of Big Freedia near the St. Marks Coffee House in Denver September 15, 2017. Photo by Khaleel Herbert.

The Pain of an Artist

McClellan has overcome great amounts of pain in her life including alcoholism, divorce and losing her father.

“I couldn’t draw or I could only draw when I was really, really angry,” McClellan says. “I was not pleased with any of those portraits.”

McClellan was battling alcohol from 2006 to 2012. She received a wake-up call when she was charged with a DUI. “I was trying to please everyone–mostly my husband and to handle the pressure of two jobs and paying all the bills.”

“I was attending a monthly meeting for my second job where I consumed too much alcohol,” McClellan recalls. “I got into an accident somewhere along the way and ruined a wheel on my car. I was pulled over.”

Instead of attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, McClellan attended DUI classes for two years. For community service, she worked at APICS Colorado Chapter 81, the Association for Operations Management representing 55,000+ manufacturing, service and resource management professionals worldwide. This was also her second job. She also made regular probation visits to an Adams County officer.

Three months later, McClellan stood before her judge in court.

“I came from work and I went directly in front of him and I explained to him what happened,” McClellan says. “I said, ‘I’d been up in classes for a month. I’ve been paying my fines. I’m going to pay all the court costs today.’ I laid out everything that I was doing to get through this. He dropped all the charges, except for the DUI.”

McClellan kept her job at MSS Technologies Inc., going on 19 years now, plus her house and vehicle. She’s been sober since December 2012.

Then her marriage starting unravelling.

“Through his eyes, I didn’t go through the proper channels to quit alcohol–that I didn’t go to Alcoholics Anonymous,” McClellan says. “I didn’t want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous and I didn’t need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I did everything within the law that I needed to do to get through this.

“I kept having it thrown in my face, ‘You were the luckiest person alive,’” McClellan adds. “‘No. I’m one of the hardest-working persons alive is how I got through it.’”

McClellan and her husband went to therapy to work things out. But things weren’t improving.

She filed for divorce in 2016. She had to pay $30,000 because she made more money and all the assets belonged to her. Plus, $30,000 was the 50/50 mark for Colorado laws.

“My lawyer said, ‘You’re going to have to take out a loan, Angie, for $30,000 so you can pay him,’” McClellan says. “I said, ‘I would be good goddamned if I take out a loan to pay somebody that I’ve been taking care of for 19 and a half years.’”

The $30,000 came out of McClellan’s 401k and the divorce was final. McClellan wishes nothing bad for her ex-husband. She was married for seven and a half years, but has been together with him for almost 20 years.

On October 3, 2017, McClellan lost her father, Ernest McClellan. He was 74 years old. She and her family held services in Newton, Kansas. He was a welder for Prestressed Concrete Inc. in Newton, Kansas.

“My father was the most generous man you could ever meet. He would and did give the shirt off his back to anyone in need,” McClellan says. “I was very close with him as I am the oldest child. He would call me every Sunday morning at 7 a.m.”

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Artist Angela McClellan with her Acrylic Ebony Ink Originals Art at the Black Arts Festival in Denver’s Civic Park July 7, 2017. Photo by Khaleel Herbert.

Art Showcases & What’s Ahead

From January 2016 to April 2017, McClellan cranked out 15 portraits. She decided to have them displayed at the 2017 Colorado Black Arts Festival. This was the first year McClellan showcased her art at the popular festival.

“I said, ‘Ya know what? I’m going to get these framed and I’m going to get a booth at the Black Arts Festival this year,’” McClellan says. “I’m just so happy that I met the few people that I did and they want me to come back next year. I even sold a piece.”

Before the festival, McClellan’s art was displayed at other Colorado lounges and galleries including the Core New Arts Space on Santa Fe Drive in Denver, the Mynt Mojito Lounge on Market St. in Denver, the Colorado Plus Brew Pub and Taphouse in Wheat Ridge and more.

“Denver is so progressive that a coffee shop is an art gallery now,” McClellan says.

She hopes her work is showcased at the Smithsonian or Guggenheim museums one day.

“Or have me on Antiques Roadshow, where somebody finds my portrait in a pile of junk and says, ‘That’s Angela McClellan,’” McClellan says. “‘Very, very progressive Black woman. She divorced. She was just awesome. Beautiful portrait artist of all our time.’”

McClellan has her business, Acrylic Ebony Ink Originals, where she sells her portraits for about $600-$2,000.

“I don’t look at it as a business right now because I’m not living off of it or anything. I hope maybe one day to be able to live comfortably,” McClellan says. “But right now it’s just something I love doing and I just want to put it out there for people to see. And every so often, someone buys something and I’m happy with that.”

McClellan is happy making portraits, spending time with her daughter Aja (named after McClellan’s favorite album by Steely Dan) and Aja’s 5-month-old Rottweiler, Cabrini Green Vom Reese McClellan. McClellan is in the process of churning out 30 portraits for her next show at the Coffee at the Point in Five Points for the 2018 Five Points Jazz Festival.

You can see more of McClellan’s art at St. Marks Coffee House on 17th Avenue in Denver, her Nina Simone portrait at the Welton St. Café in Denver and her Facebook page:  

This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of the Denver Urban Spectrum: