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Volume 1, Number 1

Alumni Achievement Winner Matthew McCoy
Takes Theme Design to the Next Level

Superman has X-ray vision. Matthew L. McCoy has artist’s vision. Ever since he showed up dressed in his U.S. Marine Corps uniform with his hat under one arm and his portfolio under the other, the faculty in the Department of Visual Arts has known he was going to make a real impact in the world.

After serving five years as an illustrator and designer in the Marine Corps, McCoy was ready to learn all he could learn.

A native of Cobb County, he came to Kennesaw State University to check out the visual arts department. It wasn’t his only choice.

He also considered Georgia State University and Savannah College of Art and Design, but he quickly determined that the faculty at KSU had the energy and, more importantly, the skills to teach him what he wanted to know.

“Matt was one of the better students I’ve ever taught,” Assistant Professor of Art Ayokunle Odeleye said of the 1993 graduate. “He was particularly interested in knowing what I knew—in drawing out everything his professors could teach him.”

McCoy’s drive and professionalism helped him stand out amongst a crowd of really excellent artists in his classes, Odeleye remembers. “Most of the students at that time were really high achievers and hard workers, but Matt was a heavy hitter.”

Art has always been important to McCoy and his family. He is proud to note his artist grandfather knew Walt Disney before Mickey Mouse became an international superstar. In many ways, McCoy feels he’s carrying on a family tradition with his work as a theme designer. He is often joined by his brother, August, who also attended Kennesaw State.

Theme design is not a field you often hear about but its effects can be found almost anywhere you go—trade show booths, retail spaces, church interiors, malls, museum exhibitions, colossal amusement parks, anywhere that design can be used to tell a story.

McCoy has worked in all of these areas in the last few years. His work incorporates commercial design, set design, architecture, fabrication, lighting design, audio and visual production and anything else it takes to tell a story within a space.

McCoy began working as a theme designer even before he joined the Marines. Just out of high school, he created designs for arcades. When he was still a student at KSU, he landed a job with Mountasia/Malibu Grand Prix creating facades, murals and rock waterfalls for 15 locations around the country. He spent his weekends and spring breaks working on these projects, flying home just in time for classes.

“My professors never let me slack off, no matter how tired I was,” McCoy recalls. “In fact, they pushed me and inspired me to work even harder.”

 




McCoy helped design the Superman area at Six Flags Over Georgia.

McCoy credits his professors for setting a good example as professional artists themselves. “The faculty are all working professional artists as well as terrific teachers. Ayokunle Odeleye, for instance, not only teaches countless hours, he also creates wonderful public sculptures.”

McCoy also is grateful to Professor Roberta Griffin and Assistant Professor Joe Remillard for helping him find his style as an artist. “Matt already had the discipline required of a professional artist and he had tremendous talent,” Griffin says. “But he was very tight, at first.”

His initial blockage led to one of those classic breakthrough moments, which he recounted when he accepted one of the 2002 KSU Alumni Achievement Awards. “Roberta Griffin tied my right hand behind my back,” he said, “and forced me to paint with my left.”

Although Griffin doesn’t literally tie up her students, she says making someone paint with the opposite hand often helps release ingrained inhibitions and frees creativity. Not only did the technique have this affect on McCoy, it helped him discover that he had been trained out of his natural left-handedness. He is now ambidextrous, using both hands to create themed empires out of the fertile soil of his creative mind.
In the last six years, much of that work has been on display at Six Flags Over Georgia. As a contractor, McCoy has been able to work closely with the park while maintaining his independence as a businessman. He and his colleagues are responsible for the entry plaza of the park, from the cobblestone walkways and arcaded store fronts to the Looney Toons interior of the gift shop. He also designed and co-managed park-wide expansion projects in the production of the Batman and Superman areas and shows. While he can’t claim responsibility for the park’s groundbreaking roller coasters, almost anything else you see (street lamps, signage, benches, vending stands and building exteriors) probably came from him. McCoy knew there were a lot of bases to cover going into this business. That’s why he also studied theater design with Ming Chen, associate professor of theater, at KSU. And, although he stresses the importance of a college education, he has learned a lot on the job.

“Whatever the job calls for, I want to know how to do,” he says. So, while he often hires experts to complete the work for plastering, molding or lighting, he also learns the craft himself. “I’m your typical jack-of-all-trades and master of none.”

He is a master, however. McCoy takes his work and his career very seriously. He is active in his professional organizations and he frequently visits KSU classrooms to share his insights with current students. Recently, his team was awarded a Red, Hot & Gold Award from the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, a kind of Oscar of the theme design world. McCoy participates in conferences and communicates frequently with colleagues about the future of theme design. He is always on the lookout for the next big trend.

McCoy is also always ready for a challenge. When he proposed to create Native American exhibitions for the Funk Heritage and Bennett History Museum, the curators were a little concerned that most of his design work had involved various Looney Toon characters and comic book superheroes. They weren’t sure he could handle exhibitions with thousands of years of history. Undaunted, McCoy, in his unique fashion, let them know that he was an historian, too. He recited for them the entire history of Superman and Metropolis, starting with the fact that Metropolis was proposed as a real city near Niagara Falls almost 100 years ago.

McCoy got the job and quickly learned as much about Native American history as he already knew about the Superfriends, Melvin the Martian and Bugs Bunny. That’s just his style. If he can imagine it, he can do it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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