By Noma Faingold
Up until the middle of June, is the favorite time of year for artist John Musgrove. He wakes up before dawn, gets in his car and hits the road. But he usually does not go very far – maybe from his Inner Sunset home to the Outer Sunset, where he might capture the quiet beauty of the horizon facing Ocean Beach. His most desired shots, however, might actually be a row of pastel stucco houses lined up next to a row of cars.
No people. Exceptional lighting. The ordinary.
“It’s light, but there’s nobody around,” says Musgrove. “When I take the photograph, I’ll try to compose it the way I want it.”
Musgrove’s work has a way of making the viewer notice what is barely noticed. His refined paintings have realism, but he says he has evolved a more minimalist approach, with some abstraction. He edits things like cars out or changes colors to fit a desired look. For example, his work “Relics” depicts a blue mailbox next to the back sides of two newspaper dispensers, one yellow (that San Franciscans will recognize as The Chronicle uses and one red, the SF Examiner). There are no details. They just look like rectangular boxes. The background is grayish, meant to look like a sidewalk or maybe something more ambiguous.
“The everyday, it’s just what appeals to me,” Musgrove said. “I’ve painted the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge more than a couple of times and they are beautiful. But I just like the daily life. The ordinary elements of the cityscape.”
Musgrove names Edward Hopper as his biggest influence. Even though he earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Florida, Musgrove never dreamed he would be painting full time. Most of his career was spent as a commercial artist/graphic designer. He moved from Florida to San Francisco in 1980 with the woman who was to become his first wife. His daughter from that marriage, Hazel Rose, is a songwriter/poet/musician/rapper living in Los Angeles.
In 2001, Musgrove was laid off from a startup, where he was working as a user-interface designer. He admits he took that job hoping to cash in on stock options.
“I was doing it for the money,” says Musgrove. “When they were laying off people, it became clear it wasn’t going to be a big winner. At that moment, I was really happy to be set free.”
His wife, Christina Murphy, who is the founder and principal of a recruiting firm, became the breadwinner and Musgrove went from what he refers to as “dabbling” to painting full time. He takes care of a lot the daily family needs, such as driving daughter Ivy, 17, where she needs to go.
“I’m the domestic guy that does all the cooking, going to the store and driving,” he says.
In San Francisco, which Musgrove fell in love with at first sight, he is “not making a living” at his art. He sells his work at the annual Open Studios, an occasional local gallery show, on his website (musgrovepainting.com), word of mouth and commissions.
“I am super lucky. Christina made me the man I am today,” he said, referring to his second wife. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without her.”
Musgrove has lived in the Sunset for 19 years, yet never tires of discovering new cityscapes to paint.
“I love the aesthetic of the architecture, especially Art Deco. I see beautiful compositions everywhere,” he says.
Even though San Francisco has changed a lot since he arrived nearly 40 years ago, Musgrove still loves what the City has to offer.
“It’s kind of unfair to compare it to other places,” he says. “The culture, the beauty, the diversity and the progressive values. I appreciate that I gained a foothold when regular people could still do it.”