Catherine Musham is that rare bird – an artist who thinks about her art. She can look with a critical eye on her creations and speculate about the meaning of the hybrid creatures that float through her surreal, symbol-filled paintings.
Not that she will try to tell you what they mean. Suffice it to say that Musham, who holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University in social psychology, can contemplate the hidden as well as overt significance of her work, which comes, she says, from her unconscious mind.
“My art is composed of messages,” she says.
“They are visual, and beyond the realm of linear thinking and words. They mean one thing to one person, and another thing to someone else.”
A tour of her studio, located in a log house in a neighborhood off Vero’s Route 60 corridor, is filled with dozens of the artist’s most recent paintings, dating back about six months B.C. (Before COVID).
The first stop is a screen porch that leads to the studio proper.
“I tend to work in series,” Musham says, indicating a group of eight acrylic on canvas paintings arranged at one side of the room.
She says that the colorful geometric abstractions, one very much like the next, were a “phase” that began last winter, when COVID-19 was starting to look like a world-wide problem.
At first Musham asserts that she “doesn’t know why” she painted these works.
Then she suggests, “I was trying to maintain some sort of control over my environment.”
Walking past a hand-painted sign that reads “Cabin Fever Art Studio,” Musham leads the way into a spacious room whose walls and rafters are made of unadorned logs.
She announces, “Here I got into the actual COVID,” and indicates a row of four small, square, acrylic on panel paintings propped on a nearby countertop.
In each of the four, a creepy little character makes an appearance. It has a strikingly imagined black and red head (more like a helmet mask) with a google eye placed on either side, like a bird’s. Its mouth, set in a thin rictus, reveals an even set of teeth, and its body, when portrayed in its entirety, is that of a gaudy lizard.
Musham explains that although she developed this particular character in previous paintings, it was not until earlier this year that she recognized the imp as a personification of COVID-19. Looking back at those paintings, she thinks the appearance of the creature in her art pre-virus was a harbinger of the misery to come.
Pointing to each painting in order, Musham says “he’s on the horizon here, and here two humans are getting a little concerned (the virus is standing atop the head of one of them). He infiltrates into everyday life, but he’s a trickster. Then in this one (the third painting in the row), COVID’s really gotten into making people sick and some are just terrified.”
The fourth painting depicts an exploding cloud of dust, from which three human silhouettes are being ejected into space as a female witness gapes in horror.
“In the final painting he’s finally taken over. There’s no people left,” she says of her bleak imagery, in which the COVID monster looms over a desolate landscape.
“And this is my real COVID series,” Musham says of the next group of large paintings on canvas, positioned in the southwestern corner of the studio.
“I really got into it this past summer. This was the first one, then I kind of developed it around that. A lot of this stuff is very political,” she acknowledges.
In one canvas, round human faces are superimposed atop what looks like a professor’s blackboard, which is scribbled all over with words that suggest the fear, confusion and misinformation that have accompanied the crisis, including “Chaos,” “Viral Load,” “Anti-bodies?” and “Try bleach or sunlight.” Little COVID molecules decorate the upper third of the painting. And yet there is a humorous aspect to the artwork; Musham’s message is both playful and frightening.
She admits to having tired of addressing the disease in her art.
“It’s just so depressing. I’m getting back to life’s creatures, and happier people.”
At this moment, the canvas that rests on her working easel is sectioned into areas of lavender, blue, pink and gold, above which mask-like faces and small buildings float: a house, a turreted church (or is it a castle?), a barn. One little yellow orb with several prickles sticking from its surface might be a viral mote, or it may be a representation of the sun; it’s your choice.
Says Musham, “I’ve always been interested in so-called ‘primitive’ art. I think my style is primitive, but I hope it is thought-provoking.”
What does she mean by primitive?
“I would say, the symbols and the archetype, what Jung called the collective unconscious. It uses unconscious material, but when it emerges as, let’s say, Grimm’s fairy tales, it becomes conscious,” she says.
Carl Jung was one of Freud’s young disciples, until he formed his own theories. Chief among them is the archetype, a concept by which he argued that certain powerful themes, beliefs and fears recur worldwide, through dissimilar cultures and far-flung eras. Archetypal images are symbols, pictographs or other elemental ways of portraying archetypes.
Early in her career as a social psychologist, Musham lived for several years in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she absorbed the artifacts of the ancient native cultures that were on display in that culturally rich city.
Musham directs our attention to “Deep Sleep,” a canvas she completed about 18 months ago, in which indigenous American imagery, as well as other symbolic forms and dream imagery, make an appearance.
An upright creature with a black cap for a head, frilly fins (wings?) and a ragged (tentacled?) lower half, is somewhat reminiscent of a Hopi kachina, a carved effigy of one of the many spirit-beings in that culture’s pantheon. Other of Musham’s creations in this painting include a seahorse’s body with a human eyeball for a head, and a bird that is part fish. Also included in the composition are what looks like a quiver with arrows, and a figure eight on its side – the mathematical symbol of limitlessness.
Concerning the kachina-like figure, Musham points out iterations of it in her other paintings on display.
“It’s kind of a space man here; there it’s something more of a fish. A lot of the shapes that look like animals get in there unintentionally,” she says.
“Even if I try to suppress them, they still come out!”