by David Kozinski
Retired business executive Mike Muir (aka Mike Byrne) and screenplay writer brings to his painting the same high level of energy and wide-ranging interests that characterized his career in business and everything else he has undertaken. His debut exhibition, at the Manayunk Roxborough Art Center (MRAC), is titled “Eclectic Inspirations” and will feature at least 24 of his oil paintings. The opening reception for this show will be Sunday, March 6, noon to 3 p.m. The gallery is located at 419 Green Lane (rear) in Manayunk. Muir’s studio, packed with nearly 300 finished works, is testimony to his diligence and passion for visual art. Although there is a continuity of style in his landscapes and portraits, his generous canvasses — 2’ X 3’ or larger — vary greatly in subject, coloration and texture.
Several of Muir’s works recall his childhood in “Bonny Dundee,” Scotland. In his “Scottish Lighthouse” paintings, the beacons rise atop forbidding cliffs and contain oblique autobiographical references. When Muir, now 67, was only a few months old, during World War II, his 24-year-old father was lost at sea.
His British Navy destroyer, the HMS Mahratta, was sunk by U990, a German submarine operating with the “Werewolf” wolf-pack group in the North Sea, the hazardous body of water by which Dundee is located. Muir attributes some of his gifts for visual art and the written word to his father, who was also an artist and whose wartime letters to his family were eloquently composed and moving. He honors his father’s memory by using his name — Byrne — to sign his paintings.
From his boyhood, Muir — who believes he is not related to John Muir, the “father of the environmental movement” who was also born in Scotland — remembers “sitting in my grandfather’s armchair drawing pictures of horses and trains.” Although he only began painting in the last 10 years or so, he has been drawing all of his life and has bound volumes of over 1100 of his pen and ink works. He has not studied art formally, but a lifetime of practice in drawing has more than compensated for this, as his ease with the human figure demonstrates.
“Tea Grannies,” for example, exemplifies this fluency; depicting a group of six colorfully dressed, elderly ladies seated closely together, conversing or sipping from their saucers. The image of women, gathered for tea, is a natural subject for an artist who grew up with eight maternal aunts, some of them not that much older than himself. He fondly remembers living with his grandmother in the mid- and late-1940s and that she sometimes “read the tea leaves.”
Muir’s mother remarried and moved to Canada when he was three years old. He remained with his maternal grandmother for about five years. His mother and stepfather returned to Scotland for two years and then moved the family to Canada, where he grew up in southern Ontario. He was quarterback of his high school football team and participated in sports such as wrestling, hockey and boxing. Muir left college to begin working for Household Financial Corporation as an account representative and within 18 months became a branch manager. He met his wife, Marie, in Toronto, and they were married in 1976. They now reside in Blue Bell.
Repeatedly recruited and promoted by a number of companies, Muir eventually became Chief Operating Officer, Executive Vice-President, at Diversified Title and Escrow Company, later acquired by Trans Union. In 1988, as Vice President of Strategic Planning and Marketing for Avco International, he was transferred to the company’s headquarters in Orange County, California. Business travel took him around the world; to Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Spain, among other places, and he was sometimes able to bring his wife, Marie, and their three children with him. All the while he never stopped drawing what he saw and remembered.
His painting of Dublin, Ireland’s celebrated “Temple Bar” places the primarily bright red façade of the public house at a slight angle to the picture plane, suggesting the lively atmosphere and sensory stimulations to be found inside, as do the brightly lettered signs on the pub’s exterior advertising tobacco, live music and “The emperor of malt liquors, Guinness.” The corrugated roof of a “Provence Farmhouse” adds texture to the amber structure, seen in middle distance, while a lush field of French lavender stretches across the landscape’s foreground.
Muir admits to working quickly, which is surprising considering the detail to be found in much of his work. Initially, he sketches in pencil onto the canvas and then begins with the bottom layers of paint. “It might take me eight to 10 hours of actual painting to finish a piece,” he says, “and I sometimes work on more than one painting at a time.” He much prefers oil paint to acrylic, which he finds dries too fast, while the oils allow him more flexibility in his choices.
Although Muir’s inspirations are indeed eclectic, the artist acknowledges Canada’s “Group of Seven” landscape painters of the 1920s as early influences. “And I marvel at the paintings of Van Gogh, Cezanne and El Greco; there is so much passion and energy in their work. And of course, there’s the genius of Michelangelo.”’
While officially retired since 2007, Muir still does some consulting work. He not only fills his days with painting, he has also written 17 screenplays. “There are only a few agents in the entire country who will even look at screenplays from unknown authors,” he notes, “but I love movies and find the writing a challenge.” He particularly admires the screenwriting of Paddy Chayevsky, but also cites poetry as diverse as that of Dylan Thomas and Leonard Cohen, and Shakespeare’s plays as literary loves. “My all time favorite is ‘Spoon River Anthology’,” he notes, referring to Edgar Lee Masters’s free verse dramatic monologues about a fictional Midwestern town.
For more information about Muir’s exhibit, visit www.manayunkartcenter.org or call 215-482-3363. “Eclectic Inspirations” will run through March 27. The gallery is open Saturdays and Sundays, 10 to 4. Admission is free.