Jeff Muhs is a contemporary American artist known for both his paintings and sculptures. His work is truly amazing. The paintings are beyond captivating and there is certainly something special about his sculptures. You can’t just glance at his work, because if you do, the glance turns into a stare. It makes you think as you have to figure out what you are really seeing.
I had an amazing opportunity not only to meet the artist but also to visit his studio. When I parked in his driveway, I knew right away that I was in the right place. There are many beautiful sculptures decorating his backyard and driveway. The studio itself is very clean, colorful and spacious. Big bright colored paintings hang on the walls and sculptures staged in different parts of the studio make you want to walk from one wall to another and absorb as much as you can. There is also 50’s inspired modern furniture, chairs, and tables that were made by Jeff Muhs. He is certainly a man of many talents.
You can read my interview with the artist below and check out the photographs that I took of his studio, so you can be as impressed as I was.
Can you tell me about your background, how you started with painting and sculpture?
I’m from here, was born in Southampton hospital, born and raised in this area. My father was a hunting and fishing guide, so I was always out on the water with him, sunrise, sunset, my whole life. So this natural area became the inspiration for me, artistically. My father was also a wood sculptor, and he got me started doing that very young — wood sculpting — but I was always drawing and painting. It was just natural for me to go on to pursue that at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, and then come back here to paint.
And you came back to Southampton to open your studio?
I’ve had a number of different working studios out here, and this is one that I built myself, just to suit my needs and working style.
So what about your studio? Is there a tool that you can’t live without? Is there something that you always have to have?
I don’t know if it’s an answer to the question, but I make a lot of my own tools. I make different kinds of brushes and customize them. I made all the handles, and I trimmed the edges of the brushes the way that I want them. The painting is designed to facilitate my work, and the easels that my paintings are on, I make. So those are the tools that I can’t live without. I make some large brushes too, for bigger paintings.
Would you be able to tell me a little about your paintings? They look like porcelain, or almost like marble.
Well, some people would say they look like stone or marble. There’s a couple of things that make them look like that. One is the finish of the canvas, a polished stone-like quality, and the other thing is the process in which I paint is really akin to a natural process, like the way that marble is naturally formed. There’s a similar thing happening in my paint, although in my paint it happens within a couple of minutes, not formed over millions of years like marble, but there’s some process at work that is similar. That’s what makes it look like that.
How long does it take you to paint a picture?
It can take anywhere from twenty minutes to a month to make a painting. Most of the time is just spent looking at them — that’s working on them, looking at them — what’s to see, what’s beautiful about them, and how to enhance that, or make that work for the next painting.
What do you think your paintings are aiming to say?
They’re made to point out the real beauty of nature. They’re what I see and what I appreciate, taken and distilled out for a single image so that other people can see what I see.
Think of it as a reflection in a puddle. You can walk around and not even notice a reflection until somebody points it out to you. It’s something I’m trying to do in painting, is to bring attention to that. Even myself, only seeing reflections consciously in photographs, it’s hard to explain, but if you think about that, you’ll see that I’m right.
Where do you get inspiration for your paintings?
My inspiration is this area. It’s known for its beauty and its quality and its light; we’re surrounded by water. From earlier paintings or a certain type of painting that I did — which is like a landscape painting — to these most abstract paintings, the subject is always the same: light, color, space. I think of it, this is the same as landscape painting, just distilled and rearranged, but the subject is really still the same.
Are the paintings heavy?
They probably weigh about sixty pounds or so.
Can you tell me a little bit about your sculptures?
I’ve always been a sculptor. I’ve worked on a lot of different sculptures and paintings for that matter, done a lot of different styles and a lot of different mediums. I started young as a wood sculptor, which I did for all of my childhood to young adult life, and then I kind of stopped doing that for about fifteen years or so, as I was concentrating on painting and I was developing my career as a painter. Then, when I built this house, I was using concrete to mix some of the countertops and I said listen what a great material this is, and I started doing sculpture in concrete. For the last 12 years, I’ve been sculpting primarily in concrete. You might have seen a couple of pieces out in the garden, and there’s a couple pieces in here and through the hallway.
So I came back to sculpting 15 years later — now I’m sculpting in a completely different way, different medium, different mission for the work if you would, and I’ve been exploring this medium for now 12 years.
Then the sculpture that you saw out front, the boat, that’s the very last thing I did. I’ve been gradually trying to work on a bigger scale with my work. And the concrete, I’ve gotten up to pieces that were seven or eight feet tall; they weighed 3,000 pounds. So with concrete, I’ve kind of reached my limit for that. This piece, which to fill my desire to work larger, is made of fiberglass, which is lighter and more manageable, and allowed me to work on that scale. So that’s my latest thing, which is again, completely different from what I’ve done with any of this or anything I’ve done before. I’m starting anew.
Where do you find inspiration for your sculptures?
With the concrete, the inspiration was really the material and finding new ways to form it to get more interesting shapes. This sculpture is probably about the tenth one, maybe even twentieth sculpture. I’m gradually seeing what I can do with concrete and how I can develop shapes and make it interesting. Every time I make a sculpture, I say wow, this is really interesting; what if I did this with it? So the material process is what has been inspiring the work.
Do the sculptures take long?
They can take long. It’s mostly setup, and you know, then you pour the concrete and you wait, but there’s a lot of setup.
What about the boat sculpture outside? How long did that take?
That took about four months to make. That’s a really large scale project. It involved a lot of disciplines. I had to bring people who were fiberglass specialists, and metalworkers, because there’s a steel frame inside of it.
Can you tell me a little bit about your career? Did you have any struggles?
It’s a strange thing to do, to pretend to make a living from art. Say, like in the music industry or the film industry, there are lots of musicians. How many of them make it to the part of the pyramid that they actually earn a living, and to what degree? For me, it’s always been about it being successful enough to keep doing it, and to do it in a larger capacity — larger meaning producing more work, producing better work, producing new work. I’m successful when the work supports my ability to do that. I’m fortunate enough to be in a place where people appreciate art and can own art. Our proximity to Manhattan, which is the center of the art world, has allowed me to participate in that because people come. Anyone who’s in the art business makes their way to the Hamptons, and then they see my work here. It’s a good place to have a career as an artist.
Do you have any advice for young artists trying to make a career?
Perfect your craft. You have to have your artistic voice. If that’s strong, and you are happy with what you’re making, that’s important first, I think.
You have to keep working, keep making work. There are lots of ways to have a career as an artist. Some people do everything but making art and have great careers. There are lots of ways to go about it. My way was to do the best work that I could, and then get seen.
What is your dream goal with your art?
My dream goal with my art, back to what I was saying, is to form work to provide the ability for me to make more and better and bigger work and keep doing that. So my goal is to be self-sustaining, which it always is to a certain degree, but if I was showing more work, and selling more work, then I’d have the ability to do more than what I do now. So that’s always the goal, with the work, is to just be able to keep doing it to a greater degree, all the time.
Which current art trends are you following?
There’s a lot of artists working out there, all over the world. With the advent of social media, you can see current styles of work, which I think emerge from the chaos of everything, naturally. I’ve noticed artists who are doing something extraordinarily similar to my work, without having ever seen each other, but it’s a product of the total environment, that certain currents will rise up. There is a current with it that has emerged over the past five or eight years that I feel I’m apart of. It’s like, if you ever hear, great inventions of the world were arrived at almost simultaneously on opposite sides of the world, like the phonograph, or electricity, or the automobile. They arrived almost at the same moment, independent of each other. That’s what I’m talking about, in the currents of the work. And a couple of artists in particular, that I now have a correspondence with, because it’s like seeing a reflection of what you’re doing in someone else’s work. That’s an interesting thing. I guess that would be how I understand trends in art.
Do you do any of the summer art fairs?
I’ve been in most of the art fairs that come out here, and around the country and the world.
Are there any art shows you’re planning on doing this summer?
There is a tentative show that will be coming up next month in East Hampton. It’s not set yet, but it’s a possibility, at Damion Roman Fine Art in East Hampton. It’s not confirmed, but it’s a possibility for next month.
Is there anything that you would advise summer visitors to see on Long Island?
There are lots of beautiful places. They say that the Hamptons have been overbuilt in the last 30 years, but all the places that I’ve found beautiful are still there. You might have to look a little harder for them.
One of the most beautiful places is the drive from Hampton Bays to Westhampton. Heading west at sunset is just one of the most beautiful places. You can probably say that for anywhere from Montauk to here, but you don’t always get the drive right on the ocean like you do there.
So that’s one of my favorite places, anywhere on that stretch by the inland. They have some of the landscapes that are very unique to this area.
Do you have any restaurants or cafes to recommend?
In this area, I like the Canal Cafe, which is right on the canal. That’s a great spot, to eat on the water. My wife is the diner-out, I don’t care that much.
You can follow the artist on Instagram and if you are interested in purchasing his artwork, you can visit his website where you will get direct links to the respective galleries that represent his work.