Ned Mueller | Bright Prospects

Ned Mueller’s paintings shine with his innate joy for life

By Norman Kolpas

Ned Mueller, Crested Butte, Autumn, oil, 11 x 14.

Ned Mueller, Crested Butte, Autumn, oil, 11 x 14.

This story was featured in the May 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  May 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

In an isolated valley just east of Crested Butte, CO, a turquoise-and-purple stream winds through meadows that have turned yellow-green and orange thanks to the chill of autumn. In composition and color alike, CRESTED BUTTE, AUTUMN, a recent impressionistic landscape by Ned Mueller, feels vibrantly alive. It’s a celebration of the pleasure that the 76-year-old artist takes from the world around him.

Less than five years ago, due to an unexpected physical challenge, that same world seemed bleak. The more optimistic prospects he feels today reflect not only Mueller’s indomitable character and determination but also a chance encounter and the vivid new hopes it has brought to his life.

The natural world around him has always held allure for Mueller. Born in Milwaukee, he was whisked off to Montana by his parents almost before he could walk. As far back as his memory reaches, he loved to draw, and his parents constantly supported and encouraged his efforts. “My dad was a frustrated artist himself,” he recalls. From his mother he heard stories of his great-uncle Arthur Putnam, a celebrated turn-of-the-century sculptor known for monumental figurative and animal works found throughout California. “Art is kind of in my genes,” he says with a modest laugh.

In kindergarten in Bozeman, MT, Mueller’s talent was recognized by his teachers, who asked him to draw Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas Santas to decorate the classroom walls. Later, to amuse himself and his school friends, he progressed to battle scenes featuring cowboys and Indians. At Boze-man Senior High, he was the cartoonist for the school newspaper, and when he struggled in English class during his final year, the teacher gave him extra credit for illustrating her workbook.

After high school, he enrolled in Montana State University, opting for the architecture program because the art department there focused on modern, abstract work. “I couldn’t relate to that,” he says. “But I could draw well and was good at math.” Following the first year, however, Mueller left with some friends for San Francisco, where his parents had also recently moved. “My friends and I rented a big house down near the ocean, got jobs, and ate crackers and drank beer and just had fun for a year,” he says. He continued to draw, and eventually his father suggested the time had come for him to apply to a serious art school, pointing out that he should aim for the very best, where his fellow students would represent the level of competition he’d face in the working world after graduation.

Mueller applied to, and was accepted at, the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, eventually earning a scholarship and completing its rigorous two-and-a-half-year course of study. “They really loaded the homework on you, and if you didn’t reach a standard, they asked you to leave,” he recalls. Not only did he thrive, Mueller was eventually asked to teach Saturday drawing classes for high-school students, as well as substituting for his own drawing teachers when they were out sick.

From the start of his course of study, Mueller’s goal was to become a professional illustrator, following in the footsteps of his idols, the great mid-20th-century magazine illustrators Austin Briggs, Dean Cornwell, and Norman Rockwell. “That was the kind of art I’d been exposed to in my life, apart from maybe one famous fine artist, western painter Charlie Russell,” he says.

After graduating in 1963, however, Mueller faced another, more pressing challenge: How to deal with the military draft and the Vietnam War. His solution was to enlist in the Marine Corps Forces Reserve. But early on, he became critically ill with pneumonia and ended up with a medical discharge.

Back in San Francisco, he did freelance illustration work while getting back on his feet, and he spent the next couple of decades developing a solid career as a hardworking illustrator—first freelancing in New York City before settling down in the Seattle area. He eventually found steady work as a staff illustrator at an industrial-design firm, while continuing to freelance at night. He married, had a son, and moved to Renton, about 12 miles southeast of Seattle. His creative working life was steady, if somewhat uninspiring.

That all changed one day in the early 1980s. “I stopped into a western art show,” he recalls, “and started talking to some of the artists.” This led to a realization: “Western art has a lot of illustrators in it, because of the subject matter and the realistic styles. And I thought to myself, ‘Wow! They’re doing things I’d love to do and making a living at it,’” he says.

So Mueller tried his hand at some paintings with similar subject matter, and he succeeded. He went on to earn invitations to exhibit in some of the most prestigious shows in the western art world, including the National Academy of Western Art and its successor, the Prix de West; The Russell; and the Masters of the American West. Gallery owners asked to represent his work. Art lovers began to avidly collect him, and he expanded his subject matter beyond strictly western themes to encompass more varied landscapes, harbor scenes, and figurative works. He gave notice at his job and turned his attention to being a full-time fine artist.

With the work ethic he’d learned at the Art Center, Mueller dedicated himself to refining a new set of fine-art skills. He took workshops from contemporary realist masters Bettina Steinke, Harley Brown, Richard Schmid, and Sergei Bongart. “They taught me through their demonstrations and their critiques of my own works to keep improving and always strive for quality.” Mueller’s efforts soon found recognition through memberships in some of the top professional artists’ organizations, including the Plein Air Painters of America, the Portrait Society of America, and the American Society of Marine Artists; he became the only artist from the Pacific Northwest to have bestowed upon him the designation of Master Signature Artist by both the American Impressionist Society and the Oil Painters of America. He’s also particularly proud of having helped launch the Puget Sound Art League, for which he served as president, and to have been a 25-year member and two-term president of the Northwest Rendezvous group, which was resurrected last summer by the Brinton Museum as the Bighorn Rendezvous Art Show & Sale.

Despite all the recognition, Mueller’s reason for pursuing fine art has always remained a simple one. “I’m not driven by any special philosophy,” he says, “other than the fact that I love to draw and paint and create pictures.” His success has enabled him to pursue subject matter around the world, with visits to Mexico, Guatemala, Portugal, China, India, and Vietnam—painting not just landscapes and waterscapes but also towns and people. “I love all the color, the culture, and the characters I see,” he says. “I like doing a whole variety of subject matter.” Playing with a familiar turn of phrase, he adds, “I want to be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of everything.”

That wide-ranging goal seemed entirely achievable for Mueller until five years ago. One day while moving a cooler filled with ice, he aggravated an old football injury from childhood. He elected to have back surgery, which went awry. “It left me with nerve damage,” he says, resulting in chronic pain and permanently hindering his left leg. “I’d had such a full, active life traveling around the world, and suddenly I couldn’t hike or run. It was really tough adjusting to it.” At the time, divorced for almost 18 years, Mueller gave up on any hope of having a relationship again. “I didn’t want to be a burden for anyone,” he says.

But about a year after the surgery, he accepted an invitation to travel to the town of Wexford in southeastern Ireland to be a special guest artist in a plein-air painting event. While there, Mueller met Karen Scannell, a local artist who served on the committee that organized the gathering and looked after the visiting artists. Not long after, she visited Mueller in the Seattle area. Romance blossomed.

“It’s wonderful to be in love at 76,” Mueller says. “Karen’s a sweetheart, pretty special, and she’s really made a difference in my life.” They’ve since made visits back and forth, staying with each other for months at a time. “And I’m thinking of moving over there,” he adds. If he does, no doubt he’ll find plenty of artistic inspiration, as evidenced by the small study PASSAGE EAST, which depicts the harbor of a fishing village just across the River Barrow from County Wexford. “They have these extreme tides there, and when the tide was out it left wonderful patterns of mud and boats leaning at different angles.”

Today Mueller anticipates a bright future and limitless possibilities for his art. “I’m always looking to find something a little bit different to paint, to keep growing as an artist,” he says. “For me, the process and the passion have always been more important than the money. I’m not getting rich, but I’m having a pretty enriching life.”

Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR;

This story was featured in the May 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  May 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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