Born in rural St Thomas, McLaren went as far as the 6th grade in primary school, then left to take up an apprenticeship in coach building. At the turn of the century this would have been a viable profession but with the introduction of the motor car after the 1920’s McLaren’s skills became redundant.
For the next few years he did casual work but then returned to farming on his father’s land in St Thomas. His interest in painting developed out of a need to do more and he surprised himself, family and his neighbours with his own talent. In the years to come he would enter fine arts painting and drawing competitions with increasing success, finally coming to the attention of the Institute of Jamaica and the National Gallery of Jamaica who encouraged him to exhibit.
Unlike so many of Jamaica’s self taught artists, McLaren is more of a folk painter than a visionary. His work is not guided by any need to communicate spiritual or mystical belief, instead he is interested in the simple depiction of everyday life. Here, the term ‘naïve’ or ‘haptic’ might be an apt nomenclature for his talents. Subject matter is rendered in almost childlike simplicity, but the thinking behind each work is far from immature. Often the messages within his works are simple affirmations such as “Life is what one makes of it”…the statement that underlines his favorite of many self portraits.
As an alternative to formal training, McLaren developed his own techniques for resolving compositional problems of colour, form and distance in his work. Dark outlines are used to distinguish one form from another, colour is often applied straight from the tube, and although perspective is employed, compositional relationships are rarely accurate. But none of this matters in the face of McLaren’s objective, which is to render what he sees in detail. And, as if to compensate the viewer, McLaren fills his work with minutae that is both an aid to understanding and also entertaining. In this way, his works take on an important documentary quality showing us aspects of life in a Jamaica that has changed significantly. The Jamaica, that McLaren depicts is sealed in time and harks back to an era when downtown was orderly (Parade Square, 1970), when white gentlemen and women waltzed in each others arms, and when black people only attended their balls as musicians and waiters (Dancing in the Ballroom, 1978). PA-S