Artist Snapshot: Ricardo José Mujica

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.

Ricky Mujica interview
Ricky Mujica in his studio, 2021

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember, but it got serious for me when I got accepted into New York’s High School of Art and Design.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
My mother was excited about it. Being an artist was her unfulfilled childhood dream. She came from a small village in the Dominican Republic. There was a local artist in the town who had studied abroad. He taught the neighborhood kids how to draw and paint, and they in turn cleaned his studio. My mother was his best student, and he taught her how to paint. When she was twenty, he submitted her work to a major art institution in Europe. She was excited to find that she not only got in, she had won a full scholarship. When she told her mother, her mother said, “No, you need to stop with this art stuff and learn how to cook and clean so you can get a man!”

In those days, especially in Dominican Republic, women didn’t have many opportunities or choices. My grandmother, out of love, was afraid my mother would get too old to find a man and end up desolate. She made my mom give up on her art.

My mom never forgot that and it stung for her, for the rest of her life. Every once in a while, my mom would pick up a paint brush and she did terrific work. I used to watch her paint.

Because of her experience, she was always very supportive of me and my brother. Both of us became artists and she was always very proud of that. She always supported and provided comfort for us through those tough times.

Who are your favorite artists?
It’s hard to narrow it down, but here are my top twenty because I can’t exclude any of these. Rembrandt, Velázquez, Käthe Kollwitz, Robert Motherwell, Rubens, Tiepolo, Diebenkorn, Sargent, Sorolla, Peder Severin Krøyer, Abram Arkipov, Ilya Repin, Vermeer, Mancini, Anders Zorn, Hans Hofmann, Basquiat, Matisse, Carpeaux, and Rodin.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
That would have to be Robert Motherwell. Something about what he does really moves me. Especially his series “Elegy to a Spanish Republic.” Something about the shapes and forms that I find incredibly attractive. If I had been an abstract artist, I would have followed in that vein.

Art book you cannot live without?
Art inspiration: The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. Art technique: Andrew Loomis, Creative Illustration.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Passion would have to be number one. Every single artist I mentioned above has that in spades.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
Yes! I believe that is an essential possession for any artist across all genres, from the most conceptual to the most hyper-realist.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
Musée D’Orsay in Paris without a doubt.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
Sargent–Sorolla at the Petit Palais, Paris (exhibition catalogue). I was literally floored.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
Computer scientist/programmer, maybe an actor

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
I have several. In high school my best friend, Mark Texiera, influenced me and introduced me to Max Ginsburg and Irwin Greenberg. He, according to Max, was the best draftsman he ever had as a student. I learned a lot from him. But more importantly, his passion inspired me. We challenged each other to fill every page in a sketchbook, front and back, in a month, every month. I ended up filling a sketchbook every two weeks. He filled one up every week! Damn him! Ha ha!

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
How the business of art really works. There is how you think it works, and there is how it really works. Had I known what I do now, I would have made many different choices while I was young and able to make those choices. Most importantly, I would have learned to stick to my guns and not compromise.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Sargent’s Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. It’s his Mona Lisa. It has everything, mood, emotion, power, humanity, psychology, color, and more. It’s enthralling and captivating. And it’s the height of retinal painting, in my opinion. The other is Vermeer’s Lacemaker. It’s a tiny painting and the last time I saw it, at the Louvre, I stood in front of it for two hours. I could not believe anything could be so sublime.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
People watching. Seeing how they interact. Watching how they go about doing the things they do. Trying to guess their inner story. I love seeing the way the light affects them. I love analyzing the beauty of the human machine. I love the unexpected color changes in the human form. I love people with all their quirks, warts, defects.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Yes. 70s music of all genres and great jazz singers of all time.

What is the last gallery you visited?
Forum Gallery. There was a wonderful group show.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
French Renaissance painter Simon Vouette. The flow and movement in his paintings foreshadows Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock. His figures are full of life and animated. They are foreshadowing Rubens and Delacroix.

What art materials can you not live without?
Anything I need to paint in oils.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Yes, I try even though it isn’t always possible as life gets in the way. But I try.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
In the 90s after we picketed the Whitney Biennial, I was so disillusioned that I turned to show business and musical theater and stopped painting professionally. I would do watercolors and some oil paintings, but more like a hobby than a profession. That was several years.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
Lol, I run to my studio if I can! Else I draw and make notes on anything I can. Tissue paper, napkins, my smartphone….

What are the questions that drive your work?
I want to make a case for beauty. More importantly, the sublime. What is the sublime? As far as I’ve been able to figure out, the sublime is beauty on steroids. It allows you to cry externally while feeling pleasure inside. Shakespeare did it with Hamlet and Othello. Goya did it with horrors of war. Käthe Kollwitz did it with her drawings, and Gericault did it with Raft of the Medusa.

When you are exposed to these sublime works of art, you might end up crying, but you feel great inner pleasure as well.

For me, the sublime is family and humanity. It is those special moments that we take for granted or we miss. A loving glance between a child and its mother. A tinge of sadness between two people who might never see each other again. The happiness of love, and the sorrow of loss. That is “the sublime” to me, so far. I’m still trying to answer this, but I continue to explore.

What is the most important quality in an artist?
Passion and perseverance. Without those two things, why bother? Van Gogh had that in spades. No matter what life threw at him, (and life not only threw the kitchen sink at him, it threw in the whole bathtub!), no matter his personal doubts about his own work, no matter what loss or unrequited love he suffered, he never stopped looking at art with wonderment and enthusiasm. Reading his letters, you find, he never lost that passion.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
Those things are too numerous to mention. I’m gonna be sixty this year, and I’ve been painting for forty-five years, yet I still feel I have a whole world of art and conquests that I haven’t even begun to tap. Onward!

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
The best thing is the ability to surpass the gatekeepers. To get your work out to the world. To interact directly with your patrons. To feel you are not alone.
I am a representational, figurative artist. Not sure I would call myself a realist, but I’m in that vein. When I was coming into my own as an artist, I felt so alone. As far as I knew there were just a handful of people in the world doing what I wanted to do. Max Ginsburg, Irwin Greenberg, Harvey Dinnerstein, Burt Silverman, Charles Pfahl, Nelson Shanks, Aaron Shikler, Odd Nerdrum, Claudio Bravo, David Leffel, Ron Scherr, and a few others. The internet has allowed me to realize that there are more! Many more! That I have a family out there.

Aside from the artists I mentioned, the internet has taught me there is the Schmid School, the Ingbretson Boston schools, the Spanish schools with Antonio Garcia Lopez and Galucho, the Chinese and Russian schools with Zim Lin and Mogilevtsev, the Florence Academies, and the Jacob Collins schools, the Philly Nelson Shanks schools, the Odd Nerdrum schools, the whole California neo-realism schools, the Graydon Parish post-contemporary realism movements, Vincent Desiderio, Steven Assael, Annigoni, Ted Seth Jacob schools, and many more. And the internet and social media has brought us all together letting us know we are not alone. I’m not in a vacuum anymore. I wish I would have had that support and family when I was twenty-five and pounding the pavement from gallery to gallery, disheartened and exhausted.

This is a great time to be the type of artist I want to be. Social media and the internet are to credit.

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