More like Rage Meal
Sacramento artist Jeff Musser is doing something that most artists only aspire to do: He’s making a living. Once a corporate drone who designed Happy Meals for McDonald’s, Musser decided to shove the suit-and-tie life aside for good and headed for the peaceful (if less monetarily abundant) life of a full-time painter. He’s done illustrations for American Idol, and he’s even gotten a commission to paint the canine friends of Queen Oprah Winfrey. Check him out at www.jeffmusser.com.
Where did you attend college?At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I didn’t start painting seriously until I graduated in 2000.
Why did you decide to start painting seriously?I was laid off from my bread-and-butter graphic-design corporate job, where for two years I designed Happy Meals. The last year and a half was just hell. It was a wake-up call, and I started painting again seriously.
It’s ironic that designing Happy Meals is—Not happy?
Yes.There is no “happy” in Happy Meal. It’s three months solid, 60-hour weeks to get it done on time, fighting to keep McDonald’s and the tie-in partner—which was usually Disney—happy. And then after the intense three months … you just start the whole process over again.
So after that you said, “I’m going to paint"?My parents always told me, “Just paint and you’ll figure the rest out.” But I eventually want to take care of them, buy them a house and so forth, so I figured I would be able to balance a corporate job in the day and paint at night. But that didn’t work out, so I just said, “Whatever I have to do in order to live, I’ll do it.” But I’ll never be creative for someone else during the day and creative for myself during the night. I’ll just do it full time and stick with it through the ups and downs.
While you were in Chicago, you painted Oprah’s dogs?(Laughs.) Yeah, I painted Oprah’s dogs. I knew someone that knew someone and just networked my way in, and it was a great opportunity. I thought it was going to be that silver bullet that sparked everything, but it was just another job. I got that big check from Oprah and did this painting, but I was still on food stamps.
So were you just like, “Hey Oprah, I think you need a picture of your dogs"?It was actually something that Oprah suggested. My paintings at the time weren’t really—and they still aren’t—the kind of stuff that most people would put in their living room. There’s stuff I paint in order to live, and there’s stuff I paint for me. She suggested it, and I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll do whatever you want.”
Now you’re here in Sacramento painting for a living. How do you make money?There’s stuff that I get commissioned to do: portraits, illustration projects, and then I sell paintings. I network, I hustle, I meet people, I hand out cards and I have a Web site. Whatever comes my way, if I feel I can do it, I don’t turn it down. And I watch my money very carefully. You sell a painting for, let’s say, four grand, which sounds like a lot of money, but it may take you three months to do it and you’ve got rent, bills, [food], car insurance. I paid off my student loans a couple months ago, but that meant not eating more than twice a day sometimes.
Are you hungry right now?No, I’m good.
Does it matter what the commissioned work is?There’s certain stuff I won’t do. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I did illustration for some American Idol commercials that were not at all my style, but it paid well and I’m in good with them now. So if they need something in the future they’ll call me.
What if the KKK asked you to revamp their logo?I’d have to create some sort of pseudonym. Dick Buster or something.
That’s an odd pseudonym.Yeah, it just came to me. I’d probably have to turn down the Klan.
Are you constantly learning, even without school?Oh yeah. Painting is one of those things that’s sort of like swimming; you can read about it, you can watch Michael Phelps swim during the Olympics, but until you’re in a pool doing it—pacing yourself and pacing your breathing—you won’t get any better at it. Painting is the exact same way. I’m really not going to be good until I’m in my 40s. I haven’t been painting 10 years yet. I’m OK, but I’m not good.
Do you wear a Speedo when you swim?Yes. Although I don’t look as good as [Michael Phelps] does. I look like a skinny, hairy 12-year-old.