A Light in the Dark
Writer Amanda Christmann
Photographer Bryan Black
Walking into the art studio of James Muir’s well-appointed Sedona home, I can’t help but feel a sense of reverence. Gentle music is playing in the background, and deep fabrics and rich woods surround us.
Collections of books and art, including many of his own beautiful bronze sculptures, are thoughtfully displayed, and a large picture window ushers in natural light and a magnificent view of majestic red mountains.
Muir is world-renowned for his gripping bronze work. This year, the 33-foot-tall, “Christ of the Holy Cross” was installed at Sedona’s Chapel of the Holy Cross, and a life-sized installation called “Children” is on permanent display in the Auschwitz – Birkenau Holocaust Museum in Poland, to name just two of his many eminent works. He is one of Sedona’s most celebrated artists, and I’d had an opportunity to see a large selection of pieces at Goldenstein Gallery.
We sit slightly facing each other on solid yet comfortable leather chairs, and I dig into my satchel for a notebook and pen. I begin with the most obvious of questions.
“Tell me when you began your career in art,” I say.
He shifts in his chair, his piano fingers intertwined but restless, and a look of reproach plays in his eyes. I sense reluctance as, for the next few minutes, he talks about the beginning of his journey.
An attendee of West Point and self-described historian who grew up in Indiana, he walked away from a traditional career path at the age of 35 in search of something more.
Growing up, he explains, Muir had never been interested in art, but once he found his way to Sedona, he was drawn to the bronze sculptures on display at a local gallery.
They were good art, he conceded, but as he looked closer, the avid horseman noticed inconsistencies in their depiction. A horse’s ears were not in the position they would be in, for example, or the buttons on a Civil War soldier’s jacket were not historically accurate.
Still, he was mesmerized, and in a story nearly too implausible to be fiction, Muir experienced what he believes is divine guidance into the world of bronze art.
Having never touched a piece of clay outside of primary school art class, he began carving his first mold at 9 p.m. one fateful evening. By 3 a.m., he’d completed his first piece, titled “Parting Shot,” a small bust of a Cavalry soldier cocking his M1860 Colt .44 over his shoulder, the way it was done to keep the spent cap from becoming jammed.
Muir took the clay original to the foundry where he was working and set it on a shelf, waiting until the end of the day when his work was done to cast it in bronze. As it sat, the foundry owner stopped by with a friend, and without even trying, he’d sold a limited edition of his first artwork.
Muir shared that story, then reached onto a shelf to present me with the original piece. His eyes smiled as he examined it, as if he were admiring it for the first time. Then he shifted again in his chair, uncrossing and crossing his legs in the opposite direction, and his eyes wandered out the window.
“But I hope you’re not going to write any of that,” he says.
It is rare to find subjects who are not interested in talking about themselves. I was confused, and my face must have betrayed my thoughts.
He looked me in the eye for the first time since I’d arrived. “It’s not about me,” he says. “It’s about my work and what it says—the stories behind it.”
And with that, the real interview began.
“The thing that pervades all my life, and getting into this, is divine serendipity. The guidance I have received …” At a loss, his words trail off.
“I almost wouldn’t believe all of the things that fell into place had they not happened to me. All the while, I was being guided for a purpose—a purpose I never knew.”
Soft-spoken and restrained by nature, Muir is not one of many words. He rises and stretches toward a nearby shelf, extracting a copy of his book, “Lanterns Along the Path: The Allegorical Art of James N. Muir.”
This is the first time I’ve heard the term “allegorical art,” and as he flips through the pages sharing stories, I recognize that the phrase is entirely germane.
The book documents, in chronological order, the evolution of his work. The first years of his art, he explains, carried the theme “Courage.”
His early military training and West Point Code of Honor are prevalent in these works, which more often than not tell stories through scenes of war. They often portray heroism in one form or another, and an ideal repeated frequently in the annals of history.
“Rescue Under Fire,” for example, was created in 1980. It depicts a Cavalry soldier on foot being rescued by another soldier on horseback. They are taking fire and fighting valiantly.
In 1983, he cast “The Last Embrace,” a stoic husband and an emotional wife entwined for the last time before he goes off to war. His horse stands patiently behind them, his head bowed, seemingly aware of the moment.
Both are nods to the depth and breadth of human emotion, but they are also metaphors for Muir’s own spiritual journey.
Muir is nothing if not pragmatic, and I sense he is most comfortable letting his art speak for him. Still, he attempts to explain.
“Humanity—you and I and everyone else—functions on a day-to-day basis on automatic programming,” he says. “We have put these programs in ourselves and we tell ourselves they are true.” He pauses, measuring his words carefully.
“The things we tell ourselves about life are limiting. We are held back in our spiritual lives by not recognizing that.
“I don’t care if you are a homeless person struggling on the streets or a mega-millionaire, we all experience the same emotions: apathy, grief, fear, lust, anger and pride. To go beyond these emotions takes courage. To go beyond those emotions is to step into the spiritual world.”
That “going beyond” is what now defines his work.
“Every piece I capture is something allegorical: something positive and uplifting to the human race. I never do anything dark. The silver thread that runs through all of my work is truth.”
His face is animated, and his whole body relaxes as he explains: That truth, he says, must transcend common definition.
“Truth must be heart-centered. We have to question the beliefs we have and ask ourselves, ‘Is it really valid?’ Our entire political and socioeconomic system has developed on what we have been told is true, and to question that takes courage.”
Looking at Muir’s work, from his 12-feet high “Caduceus” to “The Holy Grail,” a stunning sculpture that depicts mediation and prayer (“The longest journey is the journey within,” Muir says of this work), there is an overarching energy of love.
His message delves deeply into spirituality. The ideals of liberty, justice and peace are all intertwined in connection with each other, and with divine source.
“Robert Schumann said, ‘To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts—such is the duty of the artist,’” Muir said with an easy smile. “Thirty-seven years ago, I never thought I would get to a point that, allegorically and symbolically, I was helping to bring light into the darkness, not from a hubristic sense, but through my struggles as a person.”
As if they were children, Muir doesn’t claim to have favorite pieces, but one that strikes him—and me—as particularly meaningful is a sculpture with a surprisingly recognizable face: that of Muir himself. At first glance, “Fences” looks like the depiction of a rancher taking a break from building fences.
The truth is in the details. Looking closely at his fencing tool, it isn’t the hammer side he’s been using; it’s the claw.
“He’s not building fences,” Muir says with delight. “He’s taking them down!”
Beyond tremendous details like the infinity wedding ring, the grain and texture of cowhide in the chaps, and the knots in the fencepost, “Fences” stands out among Muir’s other sculptures. While his other pieces subtlely reflect his spiritual journey, “Fences” is an allegory for his role in this life.
As music flows through the house, we take a brief tour so he can show me some of his favorite pieces. There is a peace about him now that was hidden when I arrived and I feel like I’ve learned what I needed from James Muir.
After all, this is the message he wanted to tell all along.