Plenty of artists would kill — metaphorically speaking — to have the opportunity William Munch has created for himself. In December of last year, the 47-year-old painter opened a gallery storefront and working studio on Henderson Boulevard. Tucked inside a popular South Tampa strip mall, Studio Munch (pronounced "monk") is a stone's throw from the busy Outback Steakhouse. Five days a week, visitors can pop in off the street to purchase oil paintings in Munch's signature expressionist style or a collection of his poems.
Inside the 1,000-square-foot space, painted a cheerful yellow and lined with his paintings, visitors can also watch the artist at work. In a small room that doubles as storage space with a chair and an easel, a well-stocked mini-bar and a stereo, Munch channels his muse. A paperback copy of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, reference books on Van Gogh and a supply of Munch's favorite CDs — mainly selections from the 1960s and '70s — round out the stock of inspirational materials. (The music in particular plays an integral role in his work, but more about that later.)
For Munch, there's no agonizing over when (or whether) a gallery owner will green-light his show. No splitting sales 50/50 or 60/40. And no one telling him, "Hey, those landscapes are selling like hotcakes, why don't you make a few more? In blue." Since Munch is the boss at Studio Munch, he does as he pleases. Sounds pretty good, right?
So how did he swing it?
Forty years ago in Valley Stream, N.Y. — a village on Long Island near the big city — Munch was a little boy saddled with a famous artistic last name and a grandfather determined to impress upon him the importance of culture with a capital "C." Regarding the famous name, Munch declines to say whether he has a blood relation to Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter of "The Scream."
As for the grandfather, he was a decisive influence, Munch says. A music educator and Ph.D. who could play just about any instrument placed in his hands, John M. Smith made sure his grandson appreciated the arts. When he wasn't playing sports, the young Munch listened to the works of Prokofiev and Wagner at his grandfather's insistence and learned that art had a history populated by great individuals and their contributions to society.
But Munch was a creature of his own era. While he maintained an appreciation of the historical greats, the rock musicians of his day — Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison — quickly became his heroes, Woodstock his Renaissance. He began to pen poetry in his teens and looked up to cult poet and novelist Charles Bukowski.
After maritime college and a stint in the Merchant Marine, Munch went to college again to study communications and hoped to become a writer. He lucked into a job as a copywriter at an advertising agency, where he found a way to combine creativity with commercial success. Before turning 30, he cofounded an agency called Donaudy Munch on Long Island.
As the agency grew — and won a slew of awards for its creative endeavors in TV, radio, print and environmental advertising — Munch increasingly dedicated himself to painting and poetry during off hours. He moved on from the firm he cofounded to start a wireless Web venture with another partner, then became the CEO of yet another Long Island advertising firm a few years later.
By July 2006, he'd had his fill of the business and decided to move to Florida with his family to a house on Davis Islands where his two children could grow up amidst sunshine and relative calm. (His son, William Blake Munch, 10, recently had a show of his own artwork at Sip, a coffee shop on the island.)
The time was right for Munch's next venture: opening Studio Munch.
In December, the gallery's doors opened. Since then, Studio Munch has attracted about 10 to 20 visitors a week — 50 to 100 people during openings — and has sold more than two dozen paintings to a combination of new and established clients in Tampa and New York, Munch says. Offerings include large-scale, big-ticket oil paintings of landscapes, fish and portraits of his beloved rock stars, as well as smaller paintings on paper. But besides having a venue to sell his artwork, one of the biggest benefits comes from sharing the experience of art with visitors who come in off the street to talk with Munch or watch him paint.
"When you're involved with ideas and creativity on a daily basis, it's just a remarkable existence," he says.
The Dead Rock Star series of paintings, as Munch calls it, is his strongest body of work and accordingly holds center stage at the gallery. Bob Dylan, coiffed with a frenetic pink-and-blue afro, orange harmonica ready at his lips, is a stroke of genius; Janis Joplin peers out from a pastel haze of brush strokes; Johnny Cash, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Marley each show up in portraits distinguished by a visual style tailored to the subject's personality. (The series also includes a few writers of rock star status, like Bukowski and Edgar Allan Poe.)
The marketing guru in Munch sees the paintings hanging on the walls of a Hard Rock Café, but the greater priority is paying homage to the cultural greats of his time, whose work has shaped his life. "I wouldn't want to paint something I don't know," he says, tapping his chest.
For his latest project, Munch turns a critical eye inward, creating intense self-portraits that paint a picture of the artist as an angst-filled soul — an impression you'd hardly get from meeting the perennially calm and collected Munch.
A series of seven, one for each day of the week, bears the title Seven Day War. In a flash of creative insight, he hatched the idea of asking three friends — one from his merchant marine days, another from his days as an ad exec, and a USF psychology professor who has become a devoted fan — to respond to the paintings with original short texts.
Ever the marketer, Munch plans to make the series into a limited edition book for sale at the gallery. After all, creativity is his business.