By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
Cynthia McKinley is a photographer and a juried member at The Art League, the Del Ray Artisans and the Northern Virginia Handcrafters Guild, and exhibits her photographs across Northern Virginia and other parts of the commonwealth in a variety of art festivals.
But that only tells part of what has been a varied journey for the Mount Vernon resident, who spent 32 years working as a space systems specialist and national security space policy and strategy advisor before retiring in 2013 with the rank of lieutenant colonel. She was in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years and then spent another 12 years working at the Pentagon.
McKinley said she has been taking photographs since she was 10 years old, and with a job requiring her to travel to places as diverse as Colorado Springs, Colo., Germany and the Diego Garcia military base in the Indian Ocean, she has seen plenty of things to fuel her creativity.
“Wherever I went, I would usually have my camera in tow and would take pictures of all the things that inspired me, things that I could capture from an inspirational point of view: imagination, determination, freedom, serenity, eternal bonds, gentle souls, heritage, wonderment,” she said.
And with her camera, McKinley has captured some stunning artwork, including in 2008 when she traveled to Cape Canaveral in Florida to watch the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour on mission STS-126 to deliver equipment and supplies to the International Space Station. She described it as a “nice bookend” to her career, having previously been involved with the space shuttle launch as a member of the support staff.
“Anybody that’s involved in space systems, no matter if it was [from a] national security perspective or through NASA or even the commercial sector, the space shuttle was a thread that ran through everybody in one way or another,” McKinley said. “Having that in my early career and then going down to the actual launch in 2008, that was really an inspiration for me. And I was able to take some fabulous photos of the Endeavor spacecraft sitting on the launch pad the night prior to the launch and then being at the official viewing site on the night of the launch the next night.
“I got fabulous pictures that are very popular with a lot of different people, national security and civil space sectors, of the space shuttle going up.”
During her time in space policy, McKinley worked on projects like the United States’ National Space Policy and the National Security Space Policy, which was adopted by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency in 2011 to chart a path for the country to respond to the current and future space strategic environment over the next decade. But she still found time to pursue photography as a passion project.
“It was just natural for me to always have a camera in hand as I went through my entire career,” McKinley said.
Since retiring, she has built a diverse portfolio inspired in part by her previous career. She draws inspiration from a number of avenues, all to appeal to as broad a spectrum of people as possible and the way human moods can shift.
“What is unique is I have a very broad portfolio because I find there are a lot of things that touch people’s souls,” McKinley said. “Art is personal, so everybody is motivated by different things. Some people want to be inspired, some people want to look at things that inspire them, some people like using their imaginations for things, so they’re a little bit more abstract.
“Reaching out to people to touch them with photographs really means that you’ve got to find what it is that they value, and it goes back to that idea of the things that motivate us are unique and different.”
McKinley said her previous career lends itself very well to a section of her portfolio inspired by patriotism, given its strong connection with those who work in the same field as she did.
“Any time you’re in national security, you’re very patriotic and so I have a whole component of my portfolio that is about freedom,” she said. “A variety of images that relate to freedom. There’s those kinds of connections — inspiration and freedom components of my portfolio.”
It has been a busy time for McKinley as she exhibits her work not only in Alexandria but all across the region. By the end of this year, she said she will have exhibited at 17 festivals and shows including the Sugarloaf Crafts Festival at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, while she also has had some of her work displayed at Alexandria’s City Hall. She says she continues to be motivated by a desire to make her work appeal to as many people as possible.
“One day you might want to have something that relates to you from a freedom perspective, and you want to see a picture of a beautiful flag,” McKinley said. “Or maybe you want to be just serene, so you want to look at a picture of the sunrise over the ocean. I try to find those components, those essence of life components that touch people and inspire them and motivate them to go on about their days.”