Cincy is Creative: NKU professor Kevin Muente says, 'I love to paint and I love to teach"

Cincinnati and the greater Tri-State region are home to people who excel in artistic and other creative disciplines. Each Sunday, we focus on a creative individual who is bringing new perspectives to our lives and enriching our cultural diversity.

Who: Kevin Muente

What: Painter, professor of art at Northern Kentucky University
Where: Studio in his home in Erlanger, Ky.
Latest: American Gothic, 48 x 36 in., oil on canvas
Greatest: Only time will tell

“I work from life, from photographs, and from invention to hopefully awaken the viewer’s soul…. Light, place, and environment are my muses. Finding and capturing the magical unbelievability of a place and making it seem real in paint is of paramount importance.” -Kevin Muente

Aspiring artists can learn a lot from painter Kevin Muente --not just about technique, but also about how to write an artist’s statements in plain English and build a satisfying career that balances the drive to create with the need to earn a living.

Muente loves his job as an associate professor of painting at Northern Kentucky University. Having a good job also frees him to produce the type of paintings he wants to make, not necessarily those he knows he can sell. The freedom to take risks as an artist has helped him develop a distinctive style that he describes as “narrative, figurative landscapes.”

He started out doing pure landscapes, then added people to the scenes two or three years ago. Some of these staged, cinematic paintings are displayed in a Sag Harbor, NY gallery that specializes in narrative figurative portraiture and contemporary landscapes.

“The paintings I’m doing now are high intensity in terms of the dramatic interaction between the figure and the landscape,” Muente said. “People don’t necessarily have to be interested in art to respond to my work, because we’re all humans and we all have conflicts in our lives. My paintings tap into some of that.”

Many of Muente’s paintings verge on the surreal. He deliberately creates them to make viewers stop and think: “What is about to happen?”

The paintings are slightly ambiguous, so the “narrative” could go in a number of directions. Muente hopes the paintings keep viewers guessing and coming back for another look.

In a world in which people are constantly exposed to moving images, slowing down to contemplate a painting—a frozen, motionless moment in time—can be a welcome change of pace.

Movies as muse

Muente gets some of his inspiration from watching films, observing how cinematographers pan over a landscape to set the mood for the action to come.

“All sorts of movies inspire me,” Muente explained. “Some of the paintings from my Raft series were inspired by Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.”

When Muente scouts landscapes for future work, he shoots between 200 to 400 photographs. For some projects, he creates storyboards that use historical paintings or films as references. Winnowing dozens of photographs down to the one or two that will form the basis for his next painting can be an arduous process.

In 2006, some of Muente’s paintings were featured in “New American Paintings,  a juried, bi-monthly publication that reaches thousands of collectors, curators, galleries, and art enthusiasts. After his works appeared, Muente received calls from galleries interested in showing the work.

Now that he no longer has to actively seek gallery representation, Muente can focus more intently on his painting. He paints in a studio in his home in Erlanger, Kentucky.

“I just finished a painting on Tuesday,” he said. “I haven’t had to chance to photograph it yet, and the painting is still wet.”

An outgoing artist

Muente is not reclusive by any means. He likes being active in the Cincinnati arts community.

After earning a bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in 1994 and working in some art-related jobs, he earned his Master’s of Fine Arts degree in painting from the University of Cincinnati in 1999. He taught art for two years at Missouri Western State College and returned to the Cincinnati area in 2001, when he accepted his current position at NKU.

He has served as a juror for Summerfair Cincinnati . Since 2002, he has been participating in the “Artists Reaching Classrooms” program that the Taft Museum of Art conducts in local schools.

After the students create their own art pieces, Muente teaches them that writing an artist’s statement doesn’t have to be intimidating. Nor does the language have to be lofty and convoluted. After explaining the elements, he encourages students to write him a letter talking about their art. After they have spent a few minutes writing letters, the students realize they have actually drafted their first artist’s statements.

In October, Muente was one of four Cincinnati-area artists selected to receive an Aid to Individual Artists (AIA) grant from the Summerfair Cincinnati arts organization. The $3,000 grants are given to support the creation of new work.

Muente has accepted a few commissions for paintings,

but is careful to write a contract that makes it clear that he will remain true to his style.

When asked what he considers his greatest work so far, he is hard pressed to answer. Shortly after he sold three of his paintings—“Union Creek,” “Winter Morning,” and “New Year’s Day”—other people expressed interest in buying them.

He realized he could make more money if he painted variations of those three paintings, but the idea just doesn’t appeal to him: “I try not to make the same painting twice.”

Nor does he make and sell giclée reproductions of his originals. So when a painting is sold, what happens to it next is beyond his control. The only painting he might wish to have back someday is the figure painting “Potential of Loss” that depicts him carrying his aging dog through a field.

Advice to aspiring artists

Muente believes a steady day job can be the best muse of all.

“If you are particular about what you want to paint, then maybe you have to design a lifestyle so you can paint what you want without worrying about making a living from it,” he said. 

Even a day job unrelated to art can be artistically fulfilling if it allows you to paint what you want.

“A lot of my students do find ways to stay connected to art,” Muente said. Some work at museums or healthcare offices where people appreciate art’s healing influence. Even when making art in their spare time, they surround themselves with influences.

Muente’s progress as an artist confirms that it is indeed possible to figure out you love to do, then make it your life’s work. He says, “I love to paint and I love to teach.”

More about Muente

The artist is represented by three galleries:

  1. Richard J. Demato Fine Arts Gallery in Sag Harbor, NY

  2. Heike Pickett Gallery in Versailles, Ky.

  3. Gross McCleaf Gallery in Philadelphia

One of his larger landscape paintings can be seen at the Marta Hewett Gallery at the Pendleton Arts Center in Cincinnati.

This September, some of Muente’s work from the Richard J. Demato Gallery will be included in a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida.

CONNECT: Kevin Muente’s website

Follow WCPO contributor Eileen Fritsch on Twitter: @EileenFritsch .

NOTE: The previous version of this article identified Muente's dog as "Olive." Her name is Olivia. Also, Muente's job title is professor of art, not associate professor of painting.

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