March 31, 2017

McKenzie Cullen: All dressed up with someplace to go!

When McKenzie Cullen was a student at Oregon High School, she had no idea what she wanted to do, though she had an interest in make-up, specifically special effects make-up in movies. “I didn’t know how to get into it, so I went to cosmetology school. I figured that would be a good step towards a wider range of makeup abilities,” she said. But she had always been interested in art and the great outdoors, too. Then she found her way to Kishwaukee College and through a series of classes, she discovered her passion: theatrical costuming or “cosplay.” This spring she is submitting her replication of the costume for the character Kili in the film The Hobbit for inclusion in the Student Juried Art Show.

“I kept my costuming on the down low. It's a hobby, and I didn't really feel anyone would care or that it was much to talk about,” she explained. “In anthropology, my instructor Sarah Koepke, allowed me to use cosplay as a social norms experiment. So just being able to write a report on my hobby and my experiences with it was greatly encouraging. Then I took metalworking and jewelry making and (instructor) Dan Connelly and he was supportive, too. I started taking art classes with Miles Halpern and he has encouraged my ability and has really loved the work I've produced for it.”  Suddenly, what seemed like a dream to McKenzie, was something that could become a reality.

McKenzie researches costuming in films that catch her eye. She said, “Any movie I watch that has interesting makeup or costuming, I always look for behind the scenes footage of how it was done. For me, with costuming, I love figuring out scale and detail.” For her replication of the Kili costume, McKenzie had to figure out how the cosplay professionals on the film created a costume that made the actor, six-foot tall Aidan Turner, look like the much smaller and stouter dwarf clan member he portrayed. McKenzie then adapted the same principles to create a costume that would work the same visual magic on her own 5’ 4” frame.

Using techniques she learned in her art classes, McKenzie distressed the leather, crafted metal studs and grommets, and improvised with artificial fur and other materials. The result is a stunning, life-sized work of art. She is thrilled to find herself able to turn her secret hobby into a possible career. “Until this semester my dreams of being in movie production seemed very far away,” she stated. “But with the help of my instructors, I feel it's very achievable at this point!”

Recognizing that she is pursuing a career goal that admits very few, McKenzie is also pursuing her other passion: outdoor education. After graduating from Kish, she plans to transfer to Western Illinois University to major in Recreation, Park and Tourism Administration. She has worked at White Pines Ranch in Oregon for the past six years. “Outdoor ed is a career that I can really get behind. I truly believe that what we do helps our future generations in being more open-minded, earth conscious, confident, and able individuals,” she explained.  She is exploring a double major in Theatre and minor in Art to prepare herself for any and all possibilities.

She noted that choosing Kish was an excellent decision for her as an undecided major. “Whether you do or do not know what you are doing, get to a community college,” she said. “Take a random course in auto repair, alongside a landscape design class. Take an anthropology class alongside an art history class or a religions class. Go learn about rocks in geology and then look to the stars in astronomy. Opening up our minds to possibilities is what encourages passion. And passionate, inspired individuals, are going to have lives far wealthier than those with just material wealth. And maybe, if we're lucky, we can get the chance to have both!”  

As McKenzie looks forward, what had seemed like a fun hobby has become a fulfilling path, one that will take her to Macomb and WIU next year and after that, who knows? The sky is the limit.  Her advice to students is simple, “Chase that crazy dream. Figuring out what you need to get there and then start running. Surround yourself with people who will encourage you, do your very best and success will find you in one form or another. That's what I have found in my costuming!”

For more information about Kishwaukee College, visit