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25 Dec 2015

Success Squared: Debra Ann Mumm Finds Synergy—and Detractors—as Both an Artist and an Entrepreneur

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Debra Ann Mumm. Debra Ann Mumm.

In the arts world, Debra Ann Mumm—president and founder of the family-owned business Venus Studios Art Supply, in Palm Desert—is an oxymoron.

She’s a successful artist. And she’s a successful entrepreneur.

In the industry, many art galleries and supply shops close within months of opening. However, Venus Studios is celebrating its fifth anniversary with an art expo in January—and the business has not stagnated; in fact, it has expanded. Venus’ expansion about three years ago led to a significantly larger gallery space, an increased number and variety of courses, private areas individual artists can rent, and an art-supply store that carries the latest materials and is the only store in the desert where some products can be purchased.

Unfortunately, artistic purists and entrepreneurial purists alike bash Mumm. The artistic purists claim that Mumm sold out and is now a lesser artist. The entrepreneurs impugn her efforts because she lacks the singular focus demonstrated by the best entrepreneurs. In other words, Venus Studios has too many individual and seemingly separate initiatives.

Mumm laughs at both groups. She would tell, quite bluntly, the entrepreneur complainers that their criticisms are without merit. For example, Mumm sees Venus Studios’ public-murals wing, PLANet Art, as offering practical solutions to big-picture issues. The artist asserts that murals and other large-scale works foster communication and build bridges that are not possible with traditional written and spoken language.

Whether or not explicitly articulated by Mumm, her and her studio’s socially responsive initiatives are based upon three powerful business models and theories: “synergy,” as discussed by systems theorists; “collective unconscious,” or images, concepts and beliefs that are contained within every culture; and the fundamental gestalt psychology principle, “The sum is greater than each of the parts.”

Mumm says she’s a “lifetime doodler” who has always made art. Before founding Venus Studios, her professional title was “trained materials specialist”: She explored the surface and subsurface interactions (chemical and structural) between specific acrylics and non-acrylic surfaces.

Over the past few years, Mumm’s artistic vision, like her business, has increased in scale. She’s moved from small-scale canvases and paintings on found objects to larger works with defined presences.

“Inner Dimension” is a dreamy piece. By connecting the organic with potentially hard-edge geometric forms, and by using light-to-medium blues and greys on a highly textured object—a wood plank, probably a found object—Mumm produces a clearly 21st-century piece with a 1950s retro sensibility. Both the palette and organic forms are vintage 1950s, while the easily missed purplish-blue grid floating in and out of the other objects and shapes moves the work forward some 50 years. “Inner Dimension” could be hung over a sofa and not be called “sofa” art: Each visit to the piece reveals something different and fresh.

The otherworldly qualities of “Just Beyond” (above right) make it hard to find a frame of reference in the visual-arts arena. Some elements seen reminiscent of the transcendental movement; however, Mumm’s harsh backlighting makes the piece’s inclusion in a modern offshoot or reinterpretation of the works of the transcendental painters of the 19th-century Hudson River School impossible. The otherworldly qualities seem better-suited to the transcendental school that came from New Mexico’s early modernists.

The best fit, however, is probably not the visual arts, but contemporary Gothic and horror literature. On some level, Mumm—a voracious reader who in December rolled out a new blog—may in some way be channeling contemporary novelists, like Stephen King, in a visual format.

Two icons of American innovation and business meet with Mumm’s “Smith and Wesson Meets Westinghouse.” However, the meeting is not pleasant. The front door of an old Westinghouse refrigerator hangs on the wall. By highlighting and exaggerating the discolorations, dings and dents, Mumm makes it easier to recognize the obvious. The emotional impact of the piece becomes evident once the perforations are recognized as multiple bullet holes, quite possibly caused by a Smith and Wesson gun.

In contrast, a childlike sensibility of freedom and hope is present in “Taste the Rainbow” (below). Created from an old, partially broken wood pallet, the wood’s textures remain; however, they support and do not conflict with the overall composition. In lieu of removing or repairing the broken slats, Mumm reinterprets them. Ultimately, they add an almost sculptural quality, especially when they are a foil to the shadows they create.

Going forward, Mumm sees herself doing more writing as she continues to paint with found objects as her primary canvases. Meanwhile PLANet Art continues to thrive as she talks with other desert businesses and cities about murals and other large-scale projects. For example, she recently worked with the Westfield Mall on a mural project.

Venus Studios Art Supply is located at 41801 Corporate Way, No. 7 and 8, in Palm Desert. The shop and gallery are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday; and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday. For more information, call 760-340-5085, or visit www.venusstudiosartsupply.com.

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