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Portrait of a retired artist

By Barbara Whelehan ·
Friday, January 20, 2012
Posted: 6 pm ET

I firmly believe everyone is dealt certain gifts, which they should develop for the betterment of their own lives as well as that of the community. If we're lucky, we can base our livelihoods on these gifts and enjoy their fruits during retirement.

At age 77, artist Thomas Muhl exemplifies someone who has done just that. He has reached a point in life when he can turn blank canvases into rich expressions of life's beauty whenever he takes a notion. Forty-five of his works are on display at Miami's Futernick Family Art Gallery through the end of January.

The Dance

The Dance, copyright Tom Muhl

When I viewed them earlier this month, I was struck by the dazzling effect of the body of his work -- whimsical landscapes, vibrant still lifes, carefree dancers, pensive musicians. His palette of brilliant colors mirrors the richness of his own life. And though the works on display exude optimism, they belie an earlier phase of Muhl's life that's characterized by sorrow and danger.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, Muhl's talent was discovered in high school, where he drew unflattering caricatures of his teachers in the classroom. He was saved from expulsion by his art teacher but recruited as a young man to the art studio run by the Hungarian army.

While there, he produced billboard-size propagandist portraits of the political heroes of Bolshevik history. He recounts his life story in his book, "Retouching Stalin's Moustache."
In it, he describes his family's dramatic escape across the Austrian border following the 1956 revolution, and he recounts his experiences as a survivor of Fascism, Communism and, yes, capitalism.

When he arrived in the United States at 22, he found work as a graphic designer and writer in the advertising world, where he toiled for 35 years, winning awards for his work.

View from my room

View from my room, copyright Tom Muhl

Did you enjoy doing that? I asked him. "Yes and no," he replied in his characteristically ambivalent way.

Helping students understand history

"Yes and no" is the same response he gives when asked if he enjoys retirement. "On the one hand, I enjoy not having to get up in the morning and drive to work every day and get into traffic. I didn't enjoy that at all."

On the other hand, he wouldn't mind the extra income. For retirement planning, Muhl didn't have access to a 401(k) plan at the advertising agencies he worked at. He doesn't have a pension. Toward the end of his career, as creative director for Saatchi and Saatchi, he was paid well for setting up advertising offices in Hungary after the fall of Communism.

He was able to save most of his earnings over an eight-year period. He later used the savings to purchase corporate bonds with decent yields and has been living off that income, along with Social Security. The bonds are maturing, though. As a conservative investor, Muhl shuns risky stocks, but CD rates are pathetically paltry these days.


Pieta, copyright Tom Muhl

Muhl says he enjoys retirement because he can paint whenever he wants, selling the occasional piece to supplement his income. But his passion also extends to volunteer work. For the University of Miami's Holocaust program, he lectures and counsels students about his survival of the Holocaust. Eight of his works are permanently on exhibit at the university depicting scenes he remembers as a child, including "View from my room, 1944" and "Pieta, 1944," both shown here.

The children depicted are self-portraits of the artist. About "View from my room," Muhl says: "The boy sitting in front of the mirror is me at age 10, alone in the apartment for days looking out the window, witnessing Jews being killed and herded to the Ghetto."

Tom Muhl doesn't get paid for his work at the university, but all the same, he is driven to doing it and feels enormous satisfaction, enriching the lives of others by sharing his experiences. That's payment enough for him.

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Diane Harrington
January 27, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Really nice story -- both the man's tale and the writing.

Jennie Phipps
January 20, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Beautiful work. Wonderful story.