(Kristin Eberts) [Order this photo]
"I have friends that are now spending their lives in prison," he said. "I could have easily been with them if my mind hadn't been focused on my art."
McCrae now lives in Sikeston, Mo., and owns an airbrushing studio. He is the featured artist at the O'Tenem Gallery in Cape Girardeau in February. His show, "Urban Fusion," is based on his experiences growing up in urban Milwaukee as the oldest of five children raised by a single father and on the three years he and his family spent homeless in Ohio.
McCrae's father was an art teacher for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America while the family lived in Milwaukee. After school, McCrae would often join him in meetings. His father also had a T-shirt screen printing business, which fueled McCrae's interest in art.
He visited his uncle in New York and watched him use airbrushing to create T-shirt designs.
McCrae decided to follow that path and began working out of his basement, on a corner and eventually in a music store. He used his skills to earn money for his family and to stay out of trouble.
While still based in Milwaukee, McCrae began traveling to trade shows to promote his art. During a stop in Memphis, Tenn., he met a Cape Girardeau airbrush artist with a store called Airbrush Dreams. He said he visited Southeast Missouri to consult for the store owner and liked the area. He offered to buy the store, but the owner declined. McCrae was back on the road a few months later when the owner called and had changed his mind.
McCrae moved to Cape Girardeau and ran the store for several months before he decided he was better suited to working in a private studio where he could paint on commission rather than create pieces to sit on the shelves of a store. He found space in Sikeston and renamed the business Missouri Airbrush.
McCrae's works include paintings, T-shirts, detail on cars and sports equipment. He finds customers through his website, www.missouriairbrush.com, and a booth at the SEMO District Fair. McCrae said the show at O'Tenem marks the first time he will display his personal work, which he describes as things that relate to him as an urban artist.
McCrae said the most important aspects of what he does are not only to create, but to inspire. He especially focuses on working with young artists. Before moving to Southeast Missouri two years ago, he worked with the Boys Club of America teaching art in Milwaukee. In Sikeston, he has taught at the YMCA and said he hopes to work with the Boys and Girls Club in Cape Girardeau soon.
McCrae said art has opportunity and power to change lives.
"I'm one of those people who can honestly say that," he said. "There have been many instances in my life growing up in an urban environment, where I was that at-risk youth that everyone talks about, but the art and creativity kept me occupied."
He wants to pass on a lesson his father told him.
"He would always tell me that it's OK to associate yourself with people and be friends, but know when it's time to walk away and do your thing and let them do their thing," McCrae said.
Lyndie Kempfer, a founder of the O'Tenem Gallery, met McCrae through local artist Randy Hays and was impressed by McCrae's ambition to work with young people. After talking with McCrae, they agreed he should do a show for Black History Month. McCrae created several new designs for canvas.
"I thought there's not a lot around here like what he can do to represent the African-American community," Kempfer said.
Kempfer said McCrae told her about decisions he made when he was young, how he could have ended up on the wrong side of the law but didn't.
"Malcolm came to me and talked about kids and wanting to let them know they can be more and make a better decision, and I knew the show was something I wanted to see happen in the community," she said.
"When I look at Malcolm, he's like a hero to me. Heroes are people in this world who inspire you to be more than you are. They are the ones who encourage you to succeed and show you that you can be other than where society and stigmas put you."
McCrae said he hopes the show will be an event that brings people from different backgrounds together.
"Art does that," McCrae said.
"Urban Fusion" debuts with a First Friday reception at 5 p.m. today at the O'Tenem Gallery. It will remain on display through February.