When Northeast Harbor artist Jennifer Judd-McGee was diagnosed in 2010 with multiple sclerosis, she was terrified that drawing — a source of relaxation for her since she was a child, and an artistic passion that was rapidly becoming a career — would become too painful to keep doing. She couldn’t hold a pen or pencil for more than an hour before it started to hurt too much.
“It was really devastating. Things were just getting going for me, as an artist. But then I discovered paper cutting, and it was just such a relief,” said Judd McGee. “Just the way you hold the knife is, for some reason, so much better on my hands than holding a pen.”
Though she still draws when she feels able to, and her MS is under much better control today than it was back then, paper cutting has become the style of art Judd-McGee is most known for.
Her designs have been seen all over the country, in fact — she’s licensed them to the likes of Target, Hallmark, Land of Nod, Timberland and the New York City Transit Authority, as well as, more locally, Friends of Acadia and Portland-based Taproot Magazine.
Using an X-ACTO knife, she cuts precise, intricate designs out of paper, creating landscape and patterns often mixed in with words and phrases, utilizing both positive and negative space in her designs. Nature is one of the dominant themes in her work, with repeating images of plants, flowers, birds, clouds and other phenomena cropping up over and over again. Some of her larger designs can take up to 65 hours to fully complete.
Many of her designs are inspired by the landscapes of Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island. Her late summer visits to the Thuya Garden in Northeast Harbor result in flowers and birds appearing in her designs. A papercut illustration of an idyllic view of sailboats plying the waters of Somes Sound is one of her most popular designs, and is available as a print, as a card, and even as a needlepointed pillow.
Judd-McGee said she doesn’t start cutting or drawing with any specific idea in mind. She just picks up her knife or pen and begins.
“I don’t have a plan. I don’t have a pattern. I don’t think about it. I just start cutting and seeing what happens,” she said.
Judd-McGee now owns a tiny, immaculately organized shop on Main Street in Northeast Harbor called Swallowfield (also the name of her design studio) where she sells the many items featuring her designs — from cards and stationery, tote bags, cloth napkins, wooden trays, scarves, neckties and much more. She also offers a selection of gifts and homegoods from other artisans from Maine and beyond.
Though she’s been drawing for most of her life, Judd-McGee’s early forays were, as she calls them, just “doodles.” Growing up in Bar Harbor and later attending College of the Atlantic, which she graduated from in 1992, she always drew in the margins of papers, or in her spare time. She moved to Portland after college, where she lived for more than a decade, pursuing her other main passion in life — women’s reproductive health — by working for Planned Parenthood.
Around 2007, though, Judd-McGee’s “doodles” had progressed well beyond throwaway drawings, and into the realm of art. Encouraged, she began saving some of her favorite designs and making prints of them to sell on Etsy, which at that time was still a brand-new start up for artists and craftspeople.
“There was a lot more room on Etsy back then,” she said. “There were way less people on it, so it was much easier to get noticed … now it’s very saturated. It’s harder to stand out.”
Within a few years, her Etsy shop — also called Swallowfield — had emerged as a viable source of income. It also had attracted the attention of major national companies like Timberland and Hallmark, who at that time were scouting Etsy for interesting designers. Judd-McGee admits that those early years were full of major learning experiences for her, as an artist trying to make money off her work.
“I’m a total introvert,” she said. “I really didn’t know what I was doing at first. I didn’t know what I should be charging for my work. I was flying blind … I’ve learned a lot since.”
In 2010, she and her husband, Sam, and their two children moved from Portland back to their childhood home of Mount Desert Island. Not long after that, she received her MS diagnosis. That’s when paper cutting started to become her preferred medium, alongside collages utilizing paper, ink and pages from old books.
The paper cutting became so successful for Judd-McGee that a few years ago she purchased a digital laser cutter, allowing her to make things like laser cut wooden ornaments. It also allowed her to create a large gallery show featuring over 100 laser cut sail cloth flags, which in 2014 were strung through College of the Atlantic’s Blum Gallery.
She also now contracts with printers, fabric makers and other companies to make stickers, magnets, clothing, accessories and more, printed with her designs.
By 2016, Judd-McGee, who had for years contemplated opening a brick-and-mortar shop, learned that the tiny storefront at 104 Main St. in Northeast Harbor had become available. She snapped it up, and in June 2016 opened Swallowfield.
Rather than being a summer-only business, Judd-McGee stayed opened a few days a week throughout the winter. She also still does a brisk online business, and had a very busy winter after a paper cut print she created in response to the 2016 Presidential election became very popular among attendees of the women’s marches around the country on Jan. 21, 2017.
“I did not expect to be so busy this winter. I was able to donate money to a lot of very worthy causes because of it,” said Judd-McGee, who donated proceeds from the sale of the print to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, 350.org, Emerge, and The Standing Rock Legal Fund.
When she’s not helping customers at her shop, Judd-McGee can be found behind the counter at her shop, calmly, quietly cutting into paper, or drawing, if she’s feeling up to it. Though what was formerly simply a way to zone out and keep her mind occupied has now become a career, the impulse to create is largely unchanged.
“It’s meditative,” she said. “I just get into this zen state. It’s very relaxing.”