Relying on Line and Shape

"Getting back to the drawing board is always an important exercise"

Chris Mucci, whose drawings are featured in Creative Nonfiction #61, “Learning from Nature,”  was born in Connecticut and studied art at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Having formed an attachment to animals at an early age, and working primarily in acrylics and ink, Mucci creates drawings and paintings that center on graphic expressions of the animal as spirita entity. Mucci has displayed artwork in galleries, cafes, and publications in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, where he currently resides. To view more of his work, visit his website.

CNF: Your paintings and drawings are extremely intricate, with vivid colors, and they often include animal heads or abstract images, as found in CNF #61. What attracted you to this style?

Mucci: I became inspired to draw at an early age because I was very interested in animals. I became obsessed with birds, blue jays especially. My parents would get me animal encyclopedias and books on birds, and I would pore over them and copy the pictures. I loved the distinctive and intricate patterning of many types of animals—raccoons, killer whales, cheetahs, many types of birds. Patterning on animals has evolved to communicate many different things: in some species, to help individuate within a community. Patterning can be used to confuse, frighten, or deceive predators or prey, and I think that is a fascinating form of visual language. The patterning I use in my work I enjoy mainly for the sense of calamity or distortion. I’d like to confuse or hypnotize a viewer, in hopes of bringing that person out of themselves.

CNF: Creative Nonfiction uses only one color inside each issue. Was it difficult to limit your color options?

Mucci: If I am not doing large and brightly colored paintings—which is what I am mainly doing, currently—my preference is to do simpler line drawings. Choosing color can be a daunting task, so it’s a nice break to cut out color and simply rely on line and shape. Getting back to the drawing board, so to speak, is always an important exercise.

CNF: Did you have any difficulties creating work that is directly based off of text?

Mucci: It was difficult for me to work more illustratively. I have not done illustration work for a publication in some time, and I have not been drawing as much as I used to, so it was a challenge to get back into that mode. I appreciated that most of the texts were based on a specific animal that I could use to create imagery. My work, as of late, is centered primarily on the bust of an animal, and I didn’t want to just have five pages of animal heads in CNF, so I pushed myself to try some new compositional ideas.

CNF: Your artist bio says that most of your work focuses on “graphic expressions of the animal as spirit entity.” Can you expand on that? Is the idea based on your own spiritual practice?

Mucci: I would not say that the concept of my work is based on any spiritual practice of my own; but the concept does come from the idea of having a spiritual encounter. I relate my work to the stories and mythologies of people who come into contact with the spirit world during crisis. Oftentimes, the spirit world will use an animal representation to communicate with a person who is at a crossroads or has lost their way, to act as a guide, to relieve the person from their struggle. The Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, appearing sometimes as just a head, warning and confusing Alice in her wandering, immediately comes to mind. The Cheshire Cat is an archetype that I love. It is an archetype that always appears in dire moments as a trickster, or almost a kind of Zen master, to confuse the hero/ heroine out of themselves and onto a higher plane of thought.

CNF: You mention that you formed an attachment to animals at a young age. Is there a particular event that inspired this connection?

Mucci: Perhaps we all find a person or place or maybe even an object that grounds us to this world after we are born into it. For me it was our dog Sherlock, which was an old retriever/spaniel mix. My first memory is of him standing next to me. There is a language that I believe exists before verbal language. I assume that I was communicating with our dog on a more abstract or primal level far before I began communicating verbally with my parents. I think all of us who have or have had pets know that there is a kind of connection that people have with animals, which is very different than the connections we have with other humans. People with different sensitivities can tap further into these connections; maybe I was able to tap into them, as an infant, with our dog. It would explain my continued fascination with animals and certainly my fascination with wolves and dogs, which I tend to focus on in my work.

CNF: Describe your artistic process. Do you have any dedicated studio days, or do you work solely when inspiration strikes?

Mucci: My grandfather was an artist and he would refer to the “curse” of having to wait around for inspiration to strike. I am afflicted with the same condition. It is practically impossible for me to paint anything that I won’t paint over immediately if inspiration is not there. It is frustrating, and it is the reason I quit doing illustrations for magazines after I finished college. Oftentimes I would cancel deals with art directors because I just wouldn’t be able to finish jobs in time. I have come to understand and expect this kind of process, and I try to work with it the best that I can.

Working abstractly has helped me to combat the times where I can’t seem to find a path I like with a painting. I can often feel inspiration coming toward me from what seems like a great distance, like frantic energy running over the hills. I will wait months before I can complete anything, though, and I am generally only able to create a handful of pieces a year.

CNF: Have you noticed any significant changes in your work since you graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art?

Mucci: I would not say that I have changed too much since then. In college, I was primarily doing big, bright, colorful portraits of friends or famous people. I am still doing big bright portraits in a way; now, I am just using animals as subjects instead.

CNF: You spent time serving with AmeriCorps, working in urban Pittsburgh schools with inner city youth. Have these experiences influenced your work?

Mucci: In AmeriCorps, I was as a child mentor in KEYS Service Corps for a year. I was teaching an after-school art class and other enrichment programs with a group of colleagues in the South Side of Pittsburgh, as well as in the Hilltop in Allentown. Here I learned that being an artist enabled me to connect quickly with children, showing kids that drawing can create a safe space for them to open up. I do not think that the experience helped change my work, but my artwork, or being an artist, certainly helped me develop the work that I do with children.

I had worked a number of random jobs before my time in KEYS—landscaping, house painting, coffee shops—but working with kids affected me profoundly and gave me something that I felt I could pursue as a career. Children and creative people intrinsically have something in common, with the ways they view the world; both see the world as malleable, a thing to play with, existing to be changed and rearranged like clay. I try to approach the world of children from a perspective that teaches children to play with the world around them, to ask questions of the world, and to find qualities of the world that could be enhanced or made more interesting in the way that I think artists work to do.

CNF: You previously collaborated with local artists—jewelry maker Anya Weitzman and animator and video artist Michael Pisano—for a jewelry line entitled Roving Beasts. The goals of the collection are to ward off individual fears, such as social anxiety and dreaded interactions, to “externalize the ghostly beasts long gone, and turn them into armor in your battle against the beasts of today.” The pieces include complex abstract and animal-like designs that directly replicate your work. How did you become involved with this project? Had you done anything like this before?

Mucci: The Roving Beasts collaboration was unique. I had never had the opportunity to add my work to a project like this. Both Anya and Michael create work that I respect greatly, and I am lucky enough to say that we have been very good friends for most of my time in Pittsburgh. The three of us had been talking for some time about ways in which we could combine the work we do, and Anya approached Michael and me with the concept for the show. I think we all work quite graphically, and it seemed natural and easy to us to blend our aesthetics.

Anya began playing with the idea of adding some of my imagery to a new line of jewelry that she was working on. The work that Anya and I do is similar in that I think we are both playing with imagery that presents as a kind of graphic logo or banner that creates boldness or strength. Anya found drawings and patterns I had made and used them to enhance some of those qualities in her own work.

Michael and I work similarly in that we both imbue a kind of psychedelic quality to our work. He was able to take my flat—and maybe stiff—imagery, give it life, and have it breathing and sweating on a screen. Both Anya and Michael were able to take small things I had done and make them into something much larger and grittier.

CNF: What are you working on now?

Mucci: My current thoughts are to begin a series based on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I plan on doing four large-scale paintings of the four horses based on what each represents. Generally, when the number four comes up in legends, it makes reference to the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, west. And each of those directions can correspond with one of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The cardinal directions and the four elements each come with their own ideologies and meanings and color schemes. I would also like to have abstract pieces to accompany these works. It has been good for me to find a way to combine my interests in subjective and abstract works. Usually, my abstract pieces help to inform a lot of the patterning and coloring I use in my subjective pieces of animal heads, and I use them to help sketch out ideas and loosen up. I plan to start these works soon, for shows I have coming up next year.

About the Author

Sara Pierce

A fall 2016 editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction, Sara Pierce is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s creative writing program. She spent a year serving in AmeriCorps, driving a brightly colored bookmobile and sharing the joys of reading to underprivileged youth.

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