top of page

Brushing Against Shadows: Exploring Racial Identity with Jeff Musser

In this interview, journey into the intricate artistic realm of Jeff Musser. From a blend of painting, drawing, and collage to engaging in social practices, he shares the evolution of his creative process. Explore his unique approach to problem-solving, especially when delving into historical contexts, creating a dynamic interplay between planning and improvisation.

2024-02-02

Joana Alarcão

Can you start by giving us an overview of your practice?

My practice is a combination of painting, drawing, collage, and intense historical research. In the last few years, there has been a new element of social practice where I actively engage with people outside my studio and outside the traditional gallery/museum space. But I wouldn’t quite call myself a “social practice” artist. 


You have a very unique creative process. Can you delve further into the processes you follow from the beginning of a work to its completion?

When I am making work about a particular time in history, say late 18th Century Colonial America, I have a specific idea in mind, there is a particular goal to get to. I then sketch out the composition, build it with collage and drawing, and add & subtract until I get something I want to paint. I will also intentionally leave blank spaces in the composition so I have to solve it while I am painting. I like to have a plan when I work, but also have to leave space for improvisation. This often creates a lot of frustration when I am in the studio and I can't at the moment figure out how to fix the problem I have created for myself…but problem-solving in the moment keeps me sharp.

 


Painting by Jeff Musser.
A True Citizen Is Someone Who Can Clear Occupied Land. Or Put Down A Slave Rebellion by Jeff Musser. Image courtesy of Jeff Musser.

Your work strongly leans on the process of college as the foundation for your paintings. How does this technique influence the narrative and visual language of your final artworks?

For the first 6 months I was living in China, I wasn’t able to, nor did I have the room to paint. I did however have a desk and scissors and glue. China is an onslaught on all the senses! I had all this new stimulation coming at me from everywhere from so many different sources, that I had to do something with it. That is where and how collaging became a building block for me. At first, I was using images from Chinese magazines and my own photos as the visual building blocks, but then when I moved back to America and transitioned into what I am doing now, I started looking at different American-related sources.

 

The exploration of your white racial identity is a central theme in your work. Could you discuss how your experiences in China and the political climate upon your return to the US have shaped your artistic exploration of this identity?

Even though I was a minority in China, particularly in the city I lived in for the first year, I was treated as though I was special. It’s really clear that Westerners, particularly white ones, have a special, almost magical status. I was paid to attend parties and pretend that I worked for the company that was hosting the party, because there is this belief that foreigners, specifically Western white foreigners, add a special kind of “class” to an event. It was a way to earn extra money, but it was verrryyyy weird and I stopped going after a while. When I contrasted that with how my darker-skinned coworkers and friends were treated by Chinese people, it was very apparent that being white played a big role in my treatment. But that contrast wasn’t news to me, it is something that I have known since childhood. And yet it’s different when you go overseas. You can see the contrast so clearly when you are not in America. It’s easy to overlook in the US because the majority of the country is white, so you can just live in the bubble. One can’t do that in China. Even observing the way Chinese people treat each other, you can clearly see that there is societal disdain for people with darker skin, fuller lips, and smaller, flatter noses. Some of the seeds of what I am doing now were planted in China but didn’t really start to grow until I returned to America in the Spring of 2016. The political shift in the US to a Donald Trump-style Republicanism was shocking to see, but also not surprising, given we had elected Obama. All of the above plus the resurgence of white nationalism to the mainstream fueled what I am doing now. 

 


Painting by Jeff Musser.
I Can't Risk Drowning For You by Jeff Musser. Image courtesy of Jeff Musser.

Your artwork examines both the historical and personal dimensions of whiteness. How do you balance these two perspectives?

There is the historical dimension of whiteness that has changed over time. Americans, and I think a lot of the world, just classifies “white” as one group of people, but that’s not how it was say 100+ years ago. There were different classes of whites; some were the “right kind” of white and some were “non desirable” Europeans that were not considered white. It was this nonsensical hierarchy that was first set up by the English in 1681 and then was expanded and modified according to the times and the economic needs of the United States various European powers. So I make work that tackles that, but I also examine what was happening to my family during these historical shifts. For example, some were able to transition into being “white” but lost their connections to their culture in Europe. Other members of my family because of skin color and being labeled “Indian” were now targets of the newly minted “white “family members. That’s one of the many insidious things about the concept of whiteness, it forces you to take sides. Once you are given this membership, you have to pay steep membership dues, one of them being, that you can't associate with or love people that are labeled “other” and still be a card carrying member. This rule has been broken down over the last few generations, but as recently as the 1970s, in many parts of the US, marriage across racial lines was illegal.


The personal dimensions examine how being white has affected me, how I have navigated through the world with the benefits of it vs how it has made me cold and hollow and judgmental.


The way you develop the concept of race as "something that is normal" is quite interesting. How do you use visual elements like invasive plants and native fruits to challenge conventional perceptions of race and identity?

The idea of race is just that, an idea. It’s not a reality, it’s a construct made by powerful people who wanted to exploit other people for profit. And yet this idea does have real world consequences for all of us. Race is treated as fact, part of the natural order of things, it’s kind of invisible and yet it’s everywhere. Not even the “natural world” is truly natural, so that’s why I use certain types of plants in my work. The floral world of North America, Brazil as well, in its modern form has been shaped by colonialism. For example, I depict a lot of “English Creeper Vine” in my art. The vine is a common plant found all over America, usually marketed as a garden accessory. But English Creeper Vine if left to grow in the wild, will decimate all native plants it encounters. If you have it outdoors, you have to constantly prune it. And because English Creeper Vine was transported here from Europe generations ago, very few people know it is a highly invasive species. 


So playing with the way we view things in nature, playing with the idea of “This is just the natural order of things,” is a way to talk about the construction of race without it being obvious.

 


Painting by Jeff Musser.
One Day, Even A BogTrotter Like You Might Be Capable Of Self Government by Jeff Musser. Image courtesy of Jeff Musser.

Your goal is to evoke "constructive discomfort" within yourself and your peers through your art. How do you envision your work sparking conversations about whiteness and the history of white supremacy, and what outcomes do you hope these conversations will lead to?

I good first step is to just get the conversation going. So many people, usually in my experience white people, have a REALLY difficult time with the subject of race or racism or white supremacy etc. That’s one of the many ways racism has affected us as a whole, it’s given us the ability to walk through life, mostly ignorant as to HOW we are able to walk so carelessly through life, never having to think about our skin color. That’s not the reality for non-white people. So again, a good first step is to just get the conversation going in my white peer group, either in real life, or inside the viewers head about how they think about race or how being white affects the way they move through life. If done right, art in any form has the ability to cut through all the layers of bullshit that we put around ourselves and grab us by the jugular. It can force us to pay attention to something that is right in front of us that we either can’t or don’t want to see.


I had a conversation with someone years ago about how the label of white has changed over time. He was a white guy, mid 40’s, and seemed rather annoyed at the questions I was posing. So to get the ball rolling, I tried something out.

Me: Where are you from?

Him: Ohio

Me: Ok. Where is your family from originally?

Him: Ohio.

Me: I mean before that, where is your family from?

Him: My family moved there from Pittsburg (Pa) when my great grandfather got a job in a factory. I think it was in the 1880s.

Me: Great. What I am asking is where is your family from BEFORE they came to America.

Him: Ireland I think.

Me. Perfect. Do you speak Gallic?

Him: No.

Me: Do you have any family that you speak to in Ireland on a regular basis?

Him: No.

Me: Do you know any Irish recipes that you could make without using google?

Him: No

Me: Do you celebrate any Irish Holidays? St. Patricks day doesn’t count.

Him: No

Me: Ok. So, you don’t speak the language of your ancestors, you don’t have any connection to the country of Ireland, you don’t know the culture, you don’t know the food, basically you don’t have ANY connection to Ireland. Have you ever stopped to ask why that is?

Him: I guess they just wanted to be American.

Me: Exactly. But what does that MEAN? You’re a white guy, like me, but what is our culture? What is our heritage? Our ancestors wanted a better life for themselves and us, but do you think they would have willing given up their culture for us to have a better life? Or do you think perhaps they were pressured into it?


At this point there is a long pause, maybe 10 seconds, and I know I have him. He answers with, “I have never given it much thought.”


His response and the conversation we had afterwards was very enriching, he even thanked me. Plus I didn’t even get into the negative way America viewed Irish immigrants for generations. And while I don’t have the whole equation figured out quite yet, if I can get people to ask questions or think of questions that didn’t occur to them prior to viewing my work, then that’s a win.

 

Your involvement with "Coming To the Table" indicates a commitment to social activism through your art. How has this collaboration influenced your artistic direction and approach, and what insights have you gained from engaging in dialogue about racial wounds and healing?

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from “Coming To the Table” personally is that honesty, I mean REAL honesty, can go a long way. As I said earlier, most white American don’t feel comfortable talking about things related to race, I think for fear of saying the wrong thing. If one says the wrong thing, then one can be labeled racist, which is basically a social death sentence. And that feeling of being ostracized is part of the system of oppression that keeps itself in place. If you never say anything to the contrary or leave it to other people to say/do something, then you feel like you are powerless, and nothing really changes. Which is how the system is designed. Admitting that you’re feeling ashamed about a racist thought you had or something that you said without thinking, is a sign that you’re onto to something new. That “new-ness” and the extreme discomfort that comes with it is the only path to growth. I have dug deep and admitting some ugly things and actions with the wonderful people from “Coming To the Table” and I grew tremendously. My thinking is, If I am willing to be vulnerable about confronting my own internalized racism through my work, then other people like me might be able to as well. 

 


Painting by Jeff Musser.
Absorbed Into Neutral by Jeff Musser. Image courtesy of Jeff Musser.

In your perspective, how do you envision the role of art in fostering societal change and healing, especially in the context of addressing the United States' history of racism and white supremacy?

Again, this is the part of the equation that I don’t quite have figured out. Art is a very powerful tool for change, but I’m not so idealistic as to think that a painting I make will change policy. Maybe there are other artists who are that powerful, but I’m not. I go through serious bouts of depression…to the point that I feel like I have totally wasted my life being an artist, especially around the subject matter that I am dealing with. But for anything to change, the problem must be faced, and America at large doesn’t like to acknowledge that there is a problem. I do think that seeing another way forward with art is helpful. Showing people possibilities or different ways of being can be helpful, showing people that you don’t have to be a prisoner of this system. The first step is painful, and that pain will be with you for a while, but just on the other side of that pain is where the gold is. Your full humanity awaits you on the other side. And the journey is worth it. Maybe that’s how art can contribute, it can make the journey a bit easier. 

 

Lastly, what platforms, books, and artists do you recommend to our readers?

There are sooooo many ways to go deeper into this subject. Here are some good starting points.


Platforms:

https://comingtothetable.org 

https://www.bu.edu/antiracism-center/ 


Books:

Stamped From The Beginning -Ibram X. Kendi

How To be Anti-Racist-Ibram X. Kendi

The History Of White People-Nell Irvin Painter

The Wages of Whiteness- David R. Roediger

Working Toward Whiteness- David R. Roediger

Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts-Aruna D’Souza

Seven Days in the Art World- Sarah Thornton


Artists:

Kerry James Marshall

SWOON

Titus Kaphar

Angel Otero

Kehinde Wiley

Cai Guo Qian

Zhu Jing Shi

Cheyenne Randall

Zach Williams

Shaun Burner

Frankie Gamez


Find more about the artist here.


Cover image:

One Day, It Will Become A Currency All Its Own by Jeff Musser. Image courtesy of Jeff Musser.

unnamed (9).jpg

Before a painting becomes a painting, I use my photographs of family members, friends, my own drawings, and historical source material, for example, from the US Library of Congress, to form a collage. For me, the value of making collages comes from stitching together images as a kind of fabric, extracting information and then providing that cumulative information as a totally different package in the form of a painting.

I have always known and felt that being white was a special kind of existence, but the notion that my racial identity was a construct with benefits and biases that I could examine through my art, took on a special kind of urgency when I moved to China in early 2013. My deep examination of my white racial identity intensified when I returned to America in 2016 right before the election of Donald Trump and only deepened in the summer of 2020.

My current work aims to examine whiteness from two vantage points. One aspect is an objective historical view: why did the term “…Freeborn English and other white woman” first appear in the Colony of Maryland in 1681, how was whiteness linked to being a real American, and how the label of white has morphed over time. The second aspect is a subjective micro view: how has whiteness affected my family, what was lost when my father’s side of the family morphed from being “Undesirable, Swarthy Swiss” in 1817 to “Proud White Southerners” who fought for Confederacy in 1860, who in my family was never allowed to be white, and how my white identity has negatively affected my personal outlook on the world.

I also examine and deconstruct the notion of race as “something that is normal.” For example, many of the plants depicted in my paintings are invasive species, but because they were brought to North America from Europe so long ago, these plants now seem common and normal. Contrasted with invasive vegetation, I mix in common fruits and vegetables that are native to America or were originally from Africa and Asia.

One of my goals with these paintings is to introduce constructive discomfort both within myself and among my white-identified peers and social circles with the hope that a deeper conversation on whiteness and the traumatic history of white supremacy can be had.

In conversation: Mark Lawson Bell

In this interview, delve into the captivating journey and innovative creations of Mark Lawson Bell, a visionary artist whose story unfolds from the rural landscapes of Cornwall to the vibrant streets of London and beyond. Discover how his childhood as a naturalist laid the groundwork for a multifaceted career spanning photography, sculpture, and creative direction. Join us as we explore the inspirations, challenges, and triumphs that have shaped his remarkable trajectory in the world of art and design."

In Conversation: Natalia Kapchuk

In this interview, step into the world of Natalia Kapchuk, a Contemporary Artist, Eco-activist, and Philanthropist, where artworks become a powerful dialogue between Earth's beauty and human impact. Journey through her artistic evolution, from childhood inspirations to environmental revelations, as she crafts a visual narrative echoing the ongoing struggle between nature and humanity.

bottom of page