I became acquainted with Phil Musen and his art in Forsythe Park one lovely afternoon last November in Savannah, Georgia. Strolling through the park and heading toward the fountain you’ll notice his paintings set up on a park bench. Phil is very welcoming and friendly, much like the southern town where he lives. I was struck by his paintings and bought a print of a cat sitting on a bench playing a guitar.
We call it the Phil Cat painting in our home, affectionately, because of the name “Phil” painted on the cat’s guitar and because it reminds us of Umberto, our cat, whose memory we cherish dearly. It hangs in our kitchen.
I reached out to Phil for this interview and we had this wonderful chat. His slight southern accent matches well with his warm and kind nature. I’m glad I had the opportunity to meet Phil that sunny day in Savannah. His art is playful and joyful, and I’m happy to share our conversation with you.
When did you discover your interest/talent for painting?
It actually took me a really long time to feel comfortable with painting, but I think I found I had a knack for it in high school, but I’ve always drawn to it. Art has been a lifelong thing, it’s the one thing I could do, it’s one of my oldest memories. I have these big glasses on, I can’t see very well without them, so as a kid my first choice wasn’t to play catch or go outside, my first choice was to draw. I would draw at the table and sit real close to the table and draw. Drawing was the most interesting thing to do, and when I got glasses in fourth grade, I was like, wow, there’s so many different leaves on the trees I had no idea…
What was your first art creation?
That’s a great question, I almost draw the same things now than I did when I was little. The first things I drew were monsters and animals, basically just like blobs with emotions.
I grew up in Boston, but I lived here in Savannah for 15 years. I’m a real lucky guy. My parents are like you can go to college, anywhere you can get in. The hard part for me was getting into a college. I went to the Savannah College of Art and Design and I graduated in Spring 2009.
So, you decided to stick around after graduation?
By the time I graduated college I had a girlfriend who was from Georgia and I still have some friends who live in Savannah and every time I try to move away something has pulled me back. There was a time where I thought I wanted to move back to Boston and live closer to my family, so I tried that for a brief window of time and it just isn’t the right place for me. As a kid I said as soon as I could move out of Boston I would – everyone is so cold and mean there. I really love the people there but everyone’s so abrasive and everyone’s so charming down here. I lived in different parts of Georgia, Alabama, and Savannah always pulls me back. It’s such a wonderful place and it welcomes me and it’s really the perfect place for me and I appreciate it.
The city is designed for humans, it’s not meant for the modern world, its designed for people who rode a horse around at most, the historic part, so when you’re walking around it, it’s really magical. And it truly is a magical piece of land because when Ogelthorpe settled it hundreds of years ago it was a native American burial. It was clear and it was special sacred land, “oh this land is clear already, we’re going to take it” same old story, but it was always a special place I think. It’s crazy, when you walk around here when the sun is setting you get intoxicated just by the beauty of it.
Do you normally set up in Forsythe park?
Yeah, there’s the fountain there.
Oh yeah, the flora and fauna is really important to me, I love nature, I love learning about nature, I work on a bunch of farms so I’m really interested in plants in general, and I really try to draw the live oaks and the palms, and I like to draw the animals around here that I specifically interact with that are unique, like rattlesnakes and armadillos.
I do a ton of different things and they all have their place. The mermaid series, all the green paintings I did. That’s basically a comic book. I had an idea for a story and my girlfriend had broken up with me at the beginning of 2019, and my heart was just destroyed. I was just walking around Savannah so forlorn all the time, and I would park my car near the park and just walk all the down to this coffee shop on the other side of town and just have these really long meditative walks, a cup of coffee and the baristas were very nice to me, and eventually I started forming this story in my mind, and that was like a metaphor for our relationship, and I just created these characters that represent myself, my girlfriend and other real people, like Brawn John, Smitty, Meercat, and in my mind I was imagining this story that was in parallel to my relationship with my ex. And it was really cinematic, and I just chose to display it with a certain number of pictures. Each picture is an important moment in the story.
And I do other things, I draw the cats. And the reason why I draw the cats is that people love them so much. They make people so happy immediately and it drives them wild.
Hold on I want to show you one of them. Phil leaves to go and get this wonderful painting.
I’m really proud of this one right here..can you tell what that is?
It’s like a cat bat.
Exactly, it’s a monster cat, bat cat, and I love how happy these make people. It attracts them immediately and I’m trying to make a living, and it makes them happy and they buy it. Honestly it sounds so dry and heartless when I say it like that.
Well you have to make a living, right?
Yeah, my friend gave me some advise when I younger, because I loved this musician name Django Reinhardt. He said Django Reinhardt was a gypsy jazz musician…what’s gypsy jazz? It’s a kind of music that has to grab people immediately draw them in and keep them entertained, so I was like how can I do that with painting, so when people are walking through Forsythe park there are a ton of other artists, you got to distinguish yourself to get their attention, and you can sell them prints, and that’s why I paint the cats, and really I paint lots of whimsical characters because it’s just a bunch of fun.
I tell a lot of people this thing. I was like, what is going to get people’s attention, what do people love the most? Cats. What would a cat do that would be really fun? Play a guitar, a ton of people like to play a guitar. So I had this painting of the cat playing a guitar in a purple room, it’s off of a video of Paco de Lucia, and I was like this kitty looks too sad, I’m going to put this kitty outside, this kitty looks like it wants to go outside, and so I painted it out in the park on a bench, here you go, it’s happier now, it’s got sunlight on it, a little happier anyway, and as I was almost done finishing that painting a little girl came up to me and she was 6 years old about, and she said I like your paintings but you know what would make this painting better though – is if the cat’s name was on the guitar… I was like, that’s the best idea I ever heard. She was like what’s the cat’s name? Mamma mia, I don’t know so I wrote my name on the guitar. That really does make a lot of people laugh and brings a lot of joy to people.
What can you tell me about the stories you paint – like the one you showed me earlier, and the mermaid one I saw on your Instagram?
I finished the mermaid story and I was like I really enjoyed doing that, I felt that it pushed me as an artist. It helped me to be more ambitious and I think it improved me technically as an artist, so I really enjoyed that. And I hope to make a book of my mermaid paintings soon. And it wasn’t that long before I finished that story that I was working on another one in my mind, because my mind was working that way. And this is before COVID-19 and everything. Based on the way the world is going it’s not hard to imagine some kind of post apocalyptic scenario. Climate change, unbridled growth in a finite pool of resources, climate-environmental destruction, economic collapse. I feel like these things are just imminent and might happen within a few generations if people keep doing the same things they’re doing now, if they seriously don’t address climate change, especially. And so I was imagining just for fun, what would happen if something really awful happened to the whole world, and a lot of things collapse, what would happen? I kind of took it in this crazy direction, well obviously the world would be overrun by zombies, werewolves, and vampires, that’s probably the first thing that would happen. All my favorite bars would shut down and I’d have to grow a bunch of vegetables in my yard just to stay alive, and of course it would still be hard to get a girlfriend, probably even harder.
You got to laugh at your self when life is crazy, and you get sad and people leave you and stuff, you got to get through it and you got to make yourself laugh, and I always try to laugh at myself, it’s just me, it helps me. The same way I did with the mermaid story, the way every important moment is a picture, I started imagining this crazy post apocalypse with me being a slightly older man living in Savannah but everything is messed up. Little did I know a few months later I’d get to have a little practice in a mini apocalypse so I’m working on this story now and that’s essentially it, it’s me slightly older living in a collapsed world, with a real prominent streak of humor. And I don’t know when I’ll be done with it, I’m not going to post any pictures until I’m done with it. It might be a year from now, but that’s ok. I have it all storyboarded out, it’s just a matter of making the paintings that takes a lot of time.
So the guy behind the bar is a vampire?
It’s definitely in progress, but there’s me sitting at a restaurant. When I grow a beard, I look really scraggly, and you see that hat, I love to wear that hat when I garden, it keeps the sun out of my eyes. That’s me and wolfboy. Wolfboy is this young mislead boy who lives with me, and he’s a mutant, part wolf, because of whatever – something happened, nuclear fallout or something and a boy turned into a wolf or a wolf into a boy, I’m not really sure. I live with him, I seem to attract these young mislead guys and they latch on to me, and I’m their big brother or their dad even, and this happens over and over again in my life, I usually have someone who’s like a wolfboy, so that’s me a wolfboy and I’m getting really old and crotechedy and wolfboy’s keeping it real, and we’re at a restaurant reading a menu and our server is a zombie…
And he’s wearing a Covid mask!
He’s wearing a Covid mask, exactly. And there’s so many questions here. Is my character even cool with being served by a zombie, wolfboy looks like he really wants something, the zombie looks like he’s been tired of us already, there’s another zombie in the back making a sandwich.
I love seeing the actual painting, it’s so beautiful.
Oh yes, paintings are beautiful. I sketch everything out first. And this whole story is pretty much sketched out in this sketchbook right now. And before Covid I would go to a bar, hang out with friends and just shoot the shit, and come up with ideas, and ask for their ideas, close friends, people I trust, I tell them what I was thinking and they give me suggestions, and work on the story every night.
Who or what are some of your past and present inspirations and influences? What style or artists are you drawn to?
It’s really important to recognize things that inspire you that aren’t paintings or other painters. Of course I’m inspired by other painters, I love the works of Lucian Freud, Egon Schiele, Allison Schulnik, Dana Schutz, to name a few, I really love their work, Salman Toor, I could go on and on…Other things that inspire me are like friendship, allegorical things really inspire me – I love folly, and when I see folly happening in real time, I get butterflies, just like… a fool! What a fool to be doing that! Just how can I describe this situation, you see somebody go out who’s trying to pursue somebody who doesn’t care for them, it’s just folly, or people who are really vain and narcissistic, that’s pretty allegorical. Instances in real life inspire me, and stories like that too. I love Greek mythology a lot, it’s like every story is trying to outdo the last one in folly. And emotion really inspires me.
Can you walk me through your process as an artist? On a typical day that you are going to paint what’s your setup? Do you have something in mind before you start?
When the economy was better and not during coronavirus, my schedule was really consistent, I was only doing one thing. Now it’s just a shit show everyday. I wake up, I go walk someone’s dogs, I go deliver McDonalds to like a 100 people… I’m a super sketchbook heavy using artist, it’s a great place to brainstorm your ideas and its really great to see all your ideas, it’s like a journal, like a diary, you can reflect back on them and go that was a great idea, or that was a horrible idea. Maybe you do it when you’re drunk, you sketch and then in vino veritas, you look at it the next day and go that was a great idea, that was a shit idea. So definitely with my stories I sketch stuff out and work on composition and then with the cats I go on the internet and find the cutest pictures I can find with cats, and then I go to the park and sit with all these cat pictures and then I find one and then I paint that cat doing something, sitting in a hot tub, or playing a saxophone or something. And I kind of put two things together, cute cat, saxophone – put it together. With a simple background, maybe add a palm tree real quick. Like wrap it up, this thing’s got to go, I got to sell this. Wrap it up. Next. You got to paint fast to make money off of it.
So how fast do you paint?
Really fast, for the things I paint. I try to paint a la prima, which means all at once. And that means you’re mixing your colors on the canvas as you’re painting, you don’t mix on a palette. And it takes a lot of practice to do that but once you figure out how to that that you can paint a lot faster.
What median do you typically use? How large are your paintings? How long does one piece take?
I like oil paint, it’s more beautiful. It has a pearly finish to it. It also subliminally attracts people, because it’s so beautiful on its own. So yeah, I like oil, and it takes a little bit longer to dry but it doesn’t really take that much longer. It’s just a bit messier, but it smells better. It smells a lot better. I hate that about acrylic paint, you know acrylic paint, instead of oil, you move the paint around with water, and you have a cup of water and rest your brush in there when you’re not painting, and then over time a lot of paint residue accumulates in that cup, and the smell of the paint in that cup is just foul. Where in contrast the smell of oil paint is addicting. I’ve probably have eaten a lot of oil paint as well. Probably trace amounts every time, it’s all over me all the time. I love the stuff.
Painting and drawing is an essential part of my life. It’s meditative and therapeutic for me. I don’t know if people know this about me, but I’d be willing to tell anybody, there’s times when I’m making a painting and I’m working out something really deep inside me, especially with these stories I’m working on. And they’re really reflective and really personal. There are times when I’ll be painting and it’ll make me cry, because it’s tapped me so deeply into what I’m feeling. And people are like wow, the emotion is so good in your painting, I’m like you should fuckin’ see the emotion outside of my painting, it’s pretty damn intense.
Have you seen a progression or change in your art over the years?
Yeah definitely, I like to say I’ve improved a lot as an artist, and I’ve been making a lot of art seriously and with intent since I was a child, but I see that I’ve improved. I went to college for painting, I have a degree in painting and it’s funny I thought I was really hot shit when I got out of college. I was like ah man I can fucking paint anything, and those last few years when I’ve been out in the park painting way more, I’m like wow, I can smoke my former self now. I paint so much more and I technically got better, and I think progression as an artist has way more to do with technical skill and I do think I get hung up on just thinking about technical ability. The better way or the more important way I’ve improved as an artist is now I try to have more of a narrative, more of an intent and purposeful narrative in my paintings. And sometimes I really focus on the story that’s contained within the frame of the picture, or even if it’s a piece of ceramic, what’s making this story aside from the creature. He shows me the creature he just got back from the studio.
It’s a wall mount, it hangs on the wall. It’s not just a character, it is a character but it’s more than that because I think this character is asking a question. Like what’s happening right there. So wherever you put this piece you can create a question in your own space. And I think about that stuff now a lot more in my artwork. And I want every piece of art to stand well on its own. I don’t think I knew how to do that very well when I started painting, and in college, but if I did do it before it was not consciously thought about. Maturing as a person and maturing as an artist has taught me to think about that.
Where do you do your ceramic work?
There’s a clay studio in Savannah run by a really great artist, Lisa Bradley, and she is a really great ceramic artist, and she shares her passion by teaching classes, and then once you take enough classes with her you can use her studio and pay her hourly to use her studio. I’ve taken classes with her and now pay her to use her facilities. I make a lot of ceramic plates.
The ceramic plates are so fun because I really just focus on painting on ceramic with those so I have to do really really quick paintings, and I love that.
Where do you sell your art besides online or in the park?
Right now I sell ceramics in a coffee shop called Cup to Cup Café, in Savannah on Ogelthorpe and Abercorn, and the’ve been really good to me and they have my ceramics for sale on their counter, and that’s really helped me during this time. They’re helping me sell my art, and before coronavirus I was participating in a street fair every month, run by the art district in Savannah where there are all these independent art businesses. And a lot of time people see my stuff online and on Instagram, they’ll message me and I’ll just mail them something.
So how did you get those people in the coffee shop to carry your stuff?
I probably drank like a 1000 cups of coffee there, and the people in Savannah are really close knit. You came here when there are tons of tourists, Savannah has millions of tourists that visit it every year, but the city itself has 150,000 people or so that live in it, it’s not the biggest city ever, it’s got a lot of small town vibes, people that live here, we pretty much know each other, we’re familiar with each other. They know me, we’re friends.
Does an artistic gene run in your family?
Yes, absolutely. My grandmother was a painter and she taught me a lot about art and drawing when I was a little kid. Not only was she a great artist and a great painter but she taught me. And she didn’t treat me like a kid when she was teaching me, she died when I was 14, but she would talk to me about art in a sophisticated way at a young age. And I think a lot of people miss that with kids, if a little child has an aptitude for art they can understand it in a really sophisticated way at a really young age. She did that with me, I’m grateful. My mother’s a musician. She plays violin and piano. My older brother is really good at drawing, and I wonder how many of my ancestors were artistic, it’s hard to know. Like a lot of strong opinions, pretty interesting people, if they weren’t necessarily a painter they were crafty and independent.
100 percent. It’s such a great city for artists. I have some experience being an artist in Boston, and Boston has a shit load more residents, the greater Boston area, and technically a ton more artists, but when you’re an artist there, it’s really hard to get around. Everything is separated by these rivers and bridges, there’s all these different parts of the city and they’re segregated from each other, and it’s really hard to go out to shows there and coordinate with other people, to drive anywhere it’s like horrible traffic. For my experience being an artist in Savannah versus Boston, it’s equal if not better. We all have so much more access to each other, and people are so kind and want to help each other out more. And you can go make Art outside, it’s super easy to sell your art on a park bench, it’s like a $10 permit from the city. In Boston if you want to sell your art on a park bench you have to have all this insurance, it’s such a huge block. If I had to buy all this insurance to do what I do now I probably just wouldn’t do it.
And there’s the school there.
What’s your tattoo?
It’s gonna make me seem narcissistic. I got this in 2012, this tattoo is about friendship and love and about the best summer I ever had with my friends when I was younger. That’s how we acted just like crazy little bunnies running around and flying around at night. That’s what this drawing is supposed to represent.
Somebody contacted me, I had a show in Boston, and somebody saw my paintings and were like we don’t want to buy a painting, but we want you to design us a tattoo, and I was like darn, I never thought about that, but if I was going to design a tattoo, it would be this. And so I sent them this drawing and I was like that’s crazy, nothing’s ever going to happen with that. He sent me a photograph a week later of that tattooed on him on his chest with blood dripping out of it fresh, I was like oh my gosh that looks really good, I’d like to have that tattooed on myself one day, and so when I could I did.
If you could showcase your art anywhere you wanted where would be the ideal spot?
I love showing my art so much in a park, on a park bench. It is the most raw unfiltered experience. And I love how much little kids will see my art cause little kids will come up and tell me exactly how they feel about it. When a kid runs over to my bench and grabs one of my paintings and “Mom!! Look!!!” There’s like literally no better feeling. They’re like “Squirtle!!!This guy did it!!!, I love that, and I love just getting constant feedback, and meeting people.
You must talk to hundreds of people when you go out there and do that gig, to get all those opinions and to see people’s reactions, I love it. And my second choice, because I can’t bring really vulgar work out, stuff that might have nudity or violence, like R rated, PG13 even, you can’t bring that or anything political to the park. You can but it really kills your ability to make money, like I have pictures of Donald Trump, I have these political paintings, there’s like Donald Trump as a toad, and Nancy Pelosi as like a little frog, Mike Pence as a frog, and I have other ones where Trump is like Godzilla smashing a city and stuff, and I tried putting them out before and people just kind of avoid me because they think I have a chip on my shoulder and I want to get into some political argument or something. I really don’t want to when I’m at the park, so for more personal work or more thought provoking work there’s a local gallery in the art district in Savannah and it’s called Sulfer Studios, and they have a gallery space and all the artists that live here that take art seriously, if one of us has a show there we all go. And if you really want to be critiqued in the town by all the artists you live with love and admire, work with, you’ll have a show there. That would be my dream, to have a big show there and have everyone come and give me their real opinion on it. That would be cool.
How easy is it to finagle a show like that?
It’s not that hard. At this point I could probably do it, I’d want to show all these mermaid paintings there, I wanted to do like it was before where everyone can go and pack the space out and all look at the work together, and I want to have like a big party, and I just don’t feel like we can do that right now.
So is everything like still pretty much shut down?
That’s the thing, I don’t know if you heard but Georgia is kind of marching to the beat of it’s own drum, we’re the first state to go back into phase 2, and a lot of people, including myself thought it was premature, and so in a lot of places in Savannah especially in places like downtown you can go in a restaurant, or go into a bar, I went into a bar yesterday to get a hamburger with my friend, cause he wanted a burger and we were trying to find a place that was open and make us a burger. Everyone was sitting at the bar, people came up that didn’t even know me and they’re like Hey… and they’re like hugging me…Mamma mia, nobody had a mask on, they’re were all these elderly people, I was the youngest person by 20 years there. And I was like, man these people don’t care at all. And then more downtown at least the servers are wearing masks and stuff, people are going inside and eating inside without masks on here…
Are there any tourists coming down?
Yeah, there are, they came as soon as they could. People have packed up the beach, there’s less overall, there’s less tourists, definitely no international tourists. And people are being more conservative with their money, less people buying frivolous art in the park, less of that. And you can look at the statistics, and it’s clear as day for all those willing to see that COVID-19 is on the rise in all the states that opened early and it’s a whole different can of worms, isn’t it?
The last time I set up in the park was St. Patrick’s day. When things first shut down I stopped painting completely. I was in the park on St. P’s day and I already felt that I shouldn’t be out there, cause I was like okay this is getting real, the SCAD students were walking around looking at their phone and like, everything just got cancelled. We all have to just go home right now. When that happened I didn’t think to hard about it, I just packed up all my stuff then and there, put it in my crates, brought it back to my car, and I went to the liquor store and bought an enormous bottle of whiskey, and I just got out of painting mode and I just worked on my garden for two months, and didn’t paint at all. I think I took my sadness about coronavirus I think I took it out on my art, like, it’s your fault, in some kind of crazed way, and when things started opening back up I started doing other things like Uber eats, and dog watching, and selling my art online, and gardening, trying to eat all the food out of my garden, growing potatoes and stuff…I stopped drinking so much and I remembered how much I love painting and I have fallen back in love with it in the last month or so…that bat cat is the first cat I painted since St. Patty’s day and I was painting two cats a day.
I worked on farms for six years and I think one year I only painted one painting. Crazy. In 2013 I only made one painting. It was a really good one, I remember, it took me a long time.
Anything else on the horizon?
I want to make a book of all my mermaid paintings, but like a true crazy person I said I was done with the series, but because of the lockdown, because of COVID I’m actually making more to that story now.
In my opinion I have an idea of the story in my mind, but it’s really weird because when other people look at it, depending who they are, in terms of their gender or political orientation, different people think the main character is different. Some people think First mate Phil is the main character, some people think Smerlina is the main character, some people think Brawn John is the main character, and it kind of more depends on who’s looking at the story. And I really presented that way too, I really didn’t want to narrate it or overly narrate it, I just wanted to give people facts, each picture it’s like something is factually happening, and you pretty much as the viewer have to connect the dots, and that’s how I want it to be. Obviously, I think everybody can agree, some people shipwreck on a bunch of mermaid islands, and there’s some interactions between the people and the mermaids.
And they’re so green. Is there a reason why you did that color scheme?
I think I’ll bluntly say I was inspired by a painter named Salman Toor, a really really excellent painter, and he did these paintings recently that were mostly in green, and I said gosh that’s so fantastic, what the hell, I had no idea that could be so powerful, they just started with me trying it out, and then I realized it added a lot of power to it, giving myself a really limited palette, and I said okay I’m going t take these strict palette rules that I started with and keep them for the whole series. The palette was I used a veridian hue by Whinton, a lemon yellow by Windsor and Newton, and titanium white, so it’s 3 colors, all the paintings I’m only using three colors of paint. I think every now and then a dot of dirty paint got in there from somewhere else but barely. It’s really restrictive but Salman Toor inspired me to do that. He’s a living artst, I thought not even that much older than me, he might even be younger than me, who the hell knows, but he’s damn good!