Jeff Musser

Jeff Musser……What can I say about his art, his accomplishments, his challenges and experiences that he couldn’t say better himself? The answer is nothing.  He’s intelligent, talented and insightful. He lives it – Breathes it and understands what is required to do so.

We can all learn something from his life experience and advice.

Ryan: Are you originally from Sacramento?

Jeff: Yes, East Sacramento to be specific.

Do you have a first memory of creating “Art”?  A moment you realized – this is what I’m going to do.

I don’t know it they could qualify as art, but I recall making drawings around age 7. The drawings were comic book characters, action figures, fighter jets etc. I was just reproducing them as I saw them, but I developed decent drafting skills that I still use. It wasn’t until I was about 13 that I realized,

“Yeah this is it.”

Once the Dust Settles

What was your art experience at the high school level?

It was amazing, which unfortunately was rare, at least compared to the experience of my peers. A teacher saw what I was doing as a freshman and said, “Oh no, you don’t belong there, let’s get you transferred to advanced art. At first, I was very uncomfortable and intimidated because I was in a class with all seniors. I thought their attitudes would be, “Who the fuck is this kid?” but they were all really nice. This same teacher also saw how invested I was in just making stuff, that you know, it wasn’t just something I did to pass the time. She and my parents are the reason I am where I am as an artist.

When did you attend ‘The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’ and how was your experience there?

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago seems like a million years ago! Compared to what I’m doing now, style wise, it was a million years ago. I had fun, made some great friends that I’m still close with, made lots of bad decisions, and partied way too much. I actually wish I had painted more.

I know you start your painting process by making a collage. Can you explain your process from the collage to the finished painting?

I don’t sketch much in the traditional pencil or charcoal way so collages are my “sketches.” The act of physically cutting and pasting images together into a real collage, rather than assembling images together on a computer, is slow and perhaps archaic, but that’s the point: it’s not instant, allowing me to take my time and appreciate the creative process. Once I start the painting, some things from the collage “sketch” stay and some things don’t, it depends on what I’m trying to get in that moment. The final product is usually much looser and painterly than the collage.

Flower Bomb

I see a lot of emotion in your work and you seem to be open about your own emotions and experiences.  What would you say is the main thing you try to convey in your work and is it therapeutic for you?

I’m in my head WAY TOO MUCH, so painting helps me stay present and get out of myself.  The few years before I moved to China, I started to put my anxieties into my work, or the very least tried to purge them through the work. I have terrible depression and insecurities about many aspects of my life, so painting, along with meditation help.

A lot of people experience these same feelings.  It’s great that you have a creative outlet to alleviate the stress.

In 2015 you were featured in a contemporary art book ‘Point Suite’ – How did you get involved with this book?

The publisher is someone I know from my time in Chicago. She approached me a few years before 2015 when the idea for the book was just an idea.

In 2014 you represented the United States in the Shandong Art Biennial at the Jinan Art Museum.  Was this something you had to submit for or were you selected?

I was on my way to Shanghai when the gallery owner emailed me the news! The day before someone from the museum had stopped by the gallery and wanted to know if they had any American Artists; and just like that, I was in.

Memories Of Shanghai That Have Long Since…

You spent a couple years in China and had a six-month residency at ‘Dawang Cultural Highland’ in Shenzhen.  How did you get the residency and what affect did it have on your work?

I did some research about different residencies on the mainland through a website called China Residencies. It’s a great resource for artists interested exploring their work process in other countries. I found the email of the director at Da Wang, we exchanged a few messages, I applied, and then I waited. Once I got the confirmation email and signed some paperwork, I was packed and on a plane 2 weeks later. My work became a lot looser and brighter as a result of my time there, even though the paintings I made during that time are terrible.

Do you plan to return to China -or maybe a different country?

I’m not sure if I will be gone for years at a time like before, there are projects I want to do that are much easier to complete here in the states, but I will return to China at some point. There are residency opportunities in Shanghai that I would cut off one of my toes for!

The Last Two Years

“The Last Two Years” is stunning! It was the first painting you completed in China.  You’ve mentioned the transition to China was a little chaotic.  Can you describe this transition and how it manifests in this painting?

Even before I had the culture shock of China, my life was in shambles. It’s such a cliché, but a relationship ended in late 2012, I was a complete mess, and I really didn’t know what the fuck I was doing or where I wanted to take my work. Some of that carried over when I first landed in China and the doubts were then amplified with not knowing the language, no support system, no network of friends, doing a job I had no experience doing. The first few months I was constantly asking myself, “WHAT HAVE I DONE?!” There are hardships with having to start over, but there are a lot of benefits as well. All the jagged shapes, the paint drips, the faded tattoos, the disjointed figure all reflect me trying to land on my feet.

The Painting: “I am Finally Done With You” Is a piece you painted while on your residency.  Can you briefly describe your motivation here?

Finally letting go of all the feelings of inadequacy I felt in the relationship I mentioned above.

I am Finally Done With You

You’re in a number of public and private collections, Including Oprah’s collection! Do you have one you’re most proud of and how did you connect with Oprah?

I a feel a sense of pride every time I sell work, even if it’s only a print, so every collection I’m in brings me joy. The Oprah thing happened like most things in life, I was in the right place at the right time.

You recently painted a mural in Sacramento for ‘Wide Open Walls’.  How was that experience?

Excruciating! But that’s only because it was a typical Sacramento in August and I was under the gun to get the mural finished in ten days. I was exhausted by the time it was over, but it was fun.

Do you think Sacramento has a healthy and thriving art scene?

Yes and no. Yes, in that there is a solid group of artists here who are making great work, pushing forward, making waves, collaborating etc. But to truly have a thriving art scene, there needs to be monetary support – Plain and simple.  Artists can’t pay rent with compliments or words of encouragement or promises of “This will be great exposure for you.” Artists need to be paid for their work. People also need to realize, that they don’t need to have lots of money to be an art patron or collector. The simple act of just buying a $100 print can have an impact on someone. The city also needs officials who are willing to take risks and not just for big ticket “look at how cool we are” projects. Unfortunately, Sacramento isn’t there, and in my opinion won’t be for at least another 20-30 years, but it has come a long way since I was a teenager.

Well said.  I totally agree and think most people feel the same way.

I Was Happy Until They Showed Up

Are you still doing tattooed portraits and can you talk a little about what inspired you to paint them?

Unless it’s a well-paid commission, I don’t do tattoo portraits anymore. When I was going through that phase of my work, I explored why people chose to express themselves in such a permanent manner and made a few self-portraits where I was covered in tattoos. It was also at the time when tattoo culture was coming into the mainstream, but I didn’t see it in contemporary art.

Your list of accomplishments is impressive.  You must have learned a lot through all your experiences.  Is there anything you can say to aspiring artists that might help them avoid mistakes?

There is so much I could say, but I will keep it to three things I think are key: #1 If you are not prepared to make being an artist a lifelong commitment, save yourself time and money and find something else. If you are not prepared to keep going with your work NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS, don’t even bother. That may sound negative, but I have seen too many of my peers hit a few road bumps and they give up. Instead of just dusting themselves off and getting back into it, they get bitter. Most of the people I graduated with from Chicago don’t make work anymore.  Being an artist is a very rough, challenging life, especially if you come from a poor or middleclass background. You have to have the drive – “I know all the way down to my bone marrow that this what I’m supposed to do with my life,” in order to be an artist. I have a few friends in Los Angeles who have this kind of attitude. One is an actor just turned 40 and so far, he’s had a killer year as far as roles go. But he had A LOT of lean years where it would have been easy or even logical to hang it up and get a comfortable job. Another friend is a comic book artist who recently did some work for Marvel that was featured on Agents of Shield and as a result, he has the opportunity to make his own full length show. But it was the same deal as my actor friend; he was grinding FOR YEARS with little to no recognition or monetary upside.

Dawn of The Dying Day

#2 Don’t be afraid to change your style or message or technique or even medium. Complacency is a dead end. If you feel in your heart that you want to make fabric sculptures, but you’re known as a painter and your dealer is telling you it’s a mistake, that the move would upset your collector base, fire that dealer immediately and just go for it. It may or may not be monetarily successful or even well received by the public, but you will have grown immensely from taking that risk and you won’t be left with the dreadful, “What if…” scenario inside your head.

Jeff Musser – Wide Open Walls Mural

#3 Networking and helping other artists is key. Hopefully art schools and universities, if they haven’t already, will offer courses on how crucial it is to for artists to make connections with people. This one was a tough one for me to learn because I thought the strength of my work would carry me through to people. But through trial and error, I learned that talking with people about my work, business cards, and events/parties are vital. For those that say, “Well I’m not good at that sort of thing or I’m terrible at networking etc.” I say, get good at it! You don’t have to be like a pushy sales person, but if you’re not excited or willing to talk about your work, why should anyone else take an interest in you? The other key component is being of service to other artists in whatever way to you can. Offer to help hang a friend’s show, take someone to the airport, volunteer with an arts organization, recommend an artist you like when a collector visits your studio, volunteer on a grant panel, share exhibition opportunities, write someone a letter of recommendation, form a crit group, etc. The ways to help other artists are limitless. If people know you as a person who is genuine and generous, they will be more inclined to assist you. Many opportunities have come my way simply because I showed up and I asked, “What can I do?”

Jeff Musser – Wide Open Walls Mural

What do you have on the horizon? Any upcoming shows or Exhibitions?

No scheduled shows, but I am working on a new body of paintings, a few murals, and some other projects.

Cool.  Thank you for taking the time to talk to me and share your experiences.  Can’t wait to see the new work! 


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