If you had set out, some time during the past two decades, to pinpoint Jim Musto’s creative identity, you’d have been on a confusing journey.
At a Hyannis Port gallery, you’d have discovered Jim Musto, a meticulous painter who rendered familiar subjects with photographic reality. At a Falmouth site, you’d have found Musto’s signature on abstract oils and nonrepresentational assemblages using natural and recycled materials. In Mashpee, you’d have learned Jim Musto was a chic interior designer who’d rescued almost two dozen Southport homes from cookie-cutter similarly. You’d also have heard women attach that name to a gifted hair stylist whose “magic wand” had turned them into a Cinderella.
Now a stalwart of the Falmouth Artists Guild and a stylist at Headlines Salon and Day Spa on Main Street, Mr. Musto can’t recall a time when he was not living in the variegated visual world his right-brain hemisphere opens up to him. In a recent interview at his North Falmouth home, he claimed he once told his 93-year-old mother, “You must have had a painful time delivering me, since I popped out of the womb carrying a paint brush.”
After selling his first two paintings, streetscapes from his hometown of Mansfield, for $25 for the pair at age 14, he spent his high school Saturdays riding the train north for classes at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and commuting south to attend the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
He might have found his way to an atelier in Paris, but his father, a Mansfield salon owner, insisted that he study cosmetology.
“He thought art was a wonderful avocation, but he knew I liked nice things and would need a way to pay for them,” Mr. Musto said. “I knew I could do both.”
For five years, the younger man followed up long days of class at Mansfield Beauty Academy in Boston with night school at RISD in Providence.
Eventually, he took over his father’s salon and ran it for 47 years, meanwhile continuing to produce award-winning art, launching a high-end interior design business with his wife, Mary Musto, and teaching workshops to help other artists become creatively “unblocked.” He offered adult education programs in art in the Mansfield and Foxborough schools and delivered Arts Lottery-funded lectures.
In the early 1980s, the Mustos began building their waterview house in North Falmouth, and soon the artist was showing his work to dealers on the Cape.
Because each gallery likes to maintain its own consistent aesthetic and market its own “brand,” the newcomer hit a stumbling block when he tried presenting to them the full range of his work. Strategically, he got his foot in the door by showing his contemporary, abstract work in one facility and exhibiting his photorealist paintings elsewhere.
He got away with his duality until both gallery owners decided to place ads in the magazine Art Review. There he was, represented by a gritty multimedia assemblage on the inside front cover and a fastidious realistic painting on page 4. Busted!
A similar confusion ensued when Mr. Musto won first prizes in both the realist and non-representational categories at a juried show in Plymouth. Years later, the judge, the well-known Woods Hole artist Sig Purwin, confessed he’d originally believed one of the paintings must have been mislabeled.
A decade ago, Mr. Musto moved full time to Falmouth and found his way into the Main Street basement that then housed the Falmouth Artists Guild.
“It was a damp, unappealing space,” he said, “with cement floors, cellar windows and not much light. But as soon as I got to know the artist guild members and felt their determination, I knew there was going to be a building.”
His faith was not misplaced. In 2009, after years of fundraising, the Falmouth Artists Guild moved into the Falmouth Art Center, their new state-of-the-art teaching and exhibition facility on Gifford Street.
Today, Mr. Musto exhibits the full range of his work there. He is also represented in Falmouth’s Chafin Gallery, the Rice Gallery in Mashpee, the Thomas Henry Gallery on Centre Street in Nantucket, and during three annual shows at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth. He has taught workshops at the Falmouth Art Center, and, along with another volunteer, Mimi Gregory, has helped for two years to stage ARTrageous, a summer cocktail party and silent auction that raises upwards of $30,000. Last winter, he ran an evening program where participants sipped wine and munched hors d’oeuvres while dabbing paint on a canvas with their eyes shut, playing at conducting avant-garde music with a paint brush.
“Painting to music is something I always do. If there is one thing that unites all my work, it’s the rhythm and flow of the music,” Mr. Musto said.
That unifying element is not lost on arts writer Deborah Forman, who is including Mr. Musto in her book “Contemporary Cape Cod Artists: On Abstraction,” due out in 2015.
“The experience of the music and the rhythm is something you can see in Jim Musto’s work,” Ms. Forman said in a phone interview. “The paintings kind of flow. The colors are soft, and you get the sense of undulating water.”
On the Saturday of his recent interview, Mr. Musto was grappling with a dead bush he’d brought in from his yard and debarked in preparation for turning it into a sculptural piece. Eventually a human form, or perhaps a goddess, will emerge from its branches. Around him were supplies of decaying plywood, driftwood, metal wires, fabrics, brushes, colored paper, construction debris and paints—oil, acrylic and metallic.
Indicating the surprising array of items, he explained, “I try to look at things not for what they are, but for what they could be.”
And the range of what they could be, when seen through Jim Musto’s eyes, is limitless.
Correction 4/10/14: Changed "Now a stalwart of the Falmouth Artists Guild and a stylist at Headliners on Main Street" to "Now a stalwart of the Falmouth Artists Guild and a stylist at Headlines Salon and Day Spa on Main Street"