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Featured Artist: Lisa Muller

S&H editor Ben Nussbaum spoke with Philadelphia-based Lisa Muller about plateaus, process, and avoiding preciousness.

Ben Nussbaum: You were established and successful as a ceramics artist, but now you are mostly a painter. After developing so much expertise in one medium, why start over in a new one?

Lisa Muller: I guess I could put it that part of developing an expertise is it can feel like a plateau. Maybe as an artist you’re always on a search. If you feel like you’ve come to the end of that part of your search, you sometimes have to turn the whole thing on its head. Exploration seems likes a really common word, but you do have to feel that you’re exploring. At least I do.


A professor I know said, you keep reaching for the thing that isn’t there. The object that you make is never it. You have to keep reaching beyond that idea. That’s what getting out of that medium meant for me. That I could keep reaching beyond it.

Ceramics is an amazing medium and offers a tremendous amount of just raw possibility, and it has a lot of rules that have to do with chemistry and physics. Kilns and firing and the process of bringing what is essentially chemicals and water and earth into stone. It’s very process-heavy. I needed to get to a place where I could act more quickly and spontaneously. So in other words, less procedure.

What is your main medium now?

Well, it’s mixed media. I use acrylic with collage and I work on that with oil and cold wax, mostly. The idea is that
I mix translucency into the oil paint and layer on top of the acrylic base. I make an entire abstract painting first, and then I build the narrative over that. And through the narrative reveal the abstraction that’s beneath it. Pencils, markers, crayons, oil pastels, that can all come into it.

In the way that I paint, my decisions are so reversible or build-on-able that I don’t have to make decisions that are based on science. I don’t have to say, well, I would put green there, but that green is going to react with some other chemical there and create black ... which is how glazes work. It was so not straightforward ... with painting once you know some very basic laws, the rest of your decision-making can be very free.

How do you know when you’re done, when to stop building?
Well, there are rules that I try to adhere to that aren’t mysterious, and there are some mysterious parts too.

It could be done when it’s powerful from a distance. When the graphic of it has a sort of imbalance, an imbalanced balance, that reads from across the room. When you can’t see any detail but you get the pow of the overall graphic, the composition. But when you’re close there’s a lot to dig into. It can be kind of seductive in a real visceral way. That’s the technical definition of finished for me.

The mysterious part probably has to do with things about my personality or just who I am. I don’t even know. It just has to have a certain feel that I look for that’s very hard to describe. That feel, to me, is the thing that keeps it mine.

“I could fall into a place where I’m just drawing eyelashes. That’s not where I want to be. I want to be looser than that.”

How many paintings do you have going on at one time?
Oh, many. I’m not a one-at-a-time painter. There are so many stages. It’s often just for practical reasons, like I need to let them dry. It’s also for reasons of—this is not a word—de-preciousing them. I could fall into a place where I’m just drawing eyelashes. That’s not where I want to be. I want to be looser than that. Having multiple paintings going lets me shift sideways when I feel like I’m getting into that place, or when I’m stuck.

Is being prolific something you value?
Yes. Yes. I do. At any given moment there’s a backlog of multiple ideas in my head—images and feelings and thoughts—and I have to keep moving those out or they would get gridlocked in there. To keep creating is a way to clear my own head ... you really need to keep work coming out in order to keep a clear head.

Is being prolific something you value?
Yes. Yes. I do. At any given moment there’s a backlog of multiple ideas in my head—images and feelings and thoughts—and I have to keep moving those out or they would get gridlocked in there. To keep creating is a way to clear my own head ... you really need to keep work coming out in order to keep a clear head.