PARIS — While he would never call himself a Renaissance man, for local artist (who sports other titles) Murad Saÿen, it’s all about being in tune with one’s surroundings and paying attention to detail.
The accomplished painter, world famous knife maker and published author quietly resides just off Paris Hill with his wife, Abby, whom he credits for saving his life after a crumbling marriage. He doesn’t usually like to talk about the accomplishments he’s achieved during his 72 years, but does so with the hope that his stories will breathe some life into his Norway painting class.
Saÿen’s birth name is Frederick but his Sufi name is Murad, which he received while living out in California in 1973. He noted Sufism is an ancient mystical path that predates Islam by about 2,000 years – where “devotees seek knowledge of the Divine via direct experience, and this can come as a result of doing practices, praying, or simply being present to the moment and place.” And there are Sufis in every culture, he added.
“It is the underlying knowledge that there is nothing that is not divine,” he said. Sufism tells its followers “listen to your heart and pay attention to beauty, harmony and love, and the rest will work itself out,” Saÿen said.
But before there was Murad, there was young Frederick, who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. This is the same city his great-grandfather six times removed, Richard Stockton, hailed from, and Saÿen noted proudly Stockton signed the Declaration of Independence. It could be said that the rebel streak runs in the family.
Saÿen began making art at an early age.
“I have been an artist all of my life. [I] started painting at age 6. It has been an on and off love affair,” Saÿen says from his dining room table where his paintings line the walls.
One of the room’s painting, “Ollie and the Stars,” shows his grandson holding a jar full of lightning bugs, which illuminates the young boy’s face and hands. But Saÿen notes the lighting in the room doesn’t do the painting justice and shines a flashlight to show the piece’s luminosity and other details.
Saÿen got the painting bug from his mother, who was an amateur artist. One day, she handed him a Whitman’s Sampler box filled with tubes of paints, turpentine and oil and he went to town on his first painting. He later emerged with a painting depicting an Messerschmitt BF-109 airplane used during World War II surrounded by “a blue, puffed cloud sky.”
Little did he know that this painting – and his love of World War II history – would come into play later in life in the form of a novel and other paintings.
After removing himself from prep school in his junior year and then attending Princeton High School, Saÿen said he “became a drunk, totaled two cars in a year,” and tried to atone for that by joining the Army. He believes he had a guardian angel looking over him while in the military, as he had orders four different times to ship out to Vietnam and never went.
“At 19, I knew I was going to get a lot of people killed. Even if I did everything right, I am still going to get a lot of people killed,” he said, noting he was grateful it never came to that.
After the Army, he went to college on the GI Bill at Pennsylvania University, where he minored in painting and photography and received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy of ethics in 1970. He did one year in post-graduate study through the University New Mexico’s MFA program, before calling it quits there.
“I walked away and went to California on a motorcycle and became a hippie,” he said, which is where he took up painting seriously once again. Saÿen was influenced by a number of famous painters, including Rembrandt, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Thomas Eakins and Johannes Vermeer and uses a number of their techniques in his own art.
As he grew up, Saÿen’s close proximity to New York City showed him the not-so-pleasant politics of the art world.
“I was painfully aware of the modernist world in which people like Andy Warhol were calling all the shots,” he said.
This made a lasting impression on him, which inspired him to make art available to everybody, as he teaches painting classes in Paris and Falmouth and art for home-schooled students in Auburn.
“Part of what art is for me is to get people out of the thinking realm and into the feeling realm. They [those running the modern art world] are cultivating the notion that you are the outsider,” Saÿen said.
Saÿen’s studio, or “the dungeon,” as he calls it with a smile, is in the basement of his and Abby’s home. Portraits and close ups of people he previously painted make a continuing collage along the walls. Brushes in old spaghetti sauce and other jars are abundant, as model airplane parts and glue are stored on shelves next to bullets – as Saÿen is a lifelong competitive shooter and firearms instructor.
He still paints in oils to this day and easily explains why.
“Oils are so much richer than acrylics. Acrylics look like plastic because surprise, they are plastic,” Saÿen said. “There is no limit on what you can accomplish with oil paints.”
And he always paints on panels and not canvas because “it bounces.”
These days, his artistic process is much more than simply painting from a photo.
“This has become my favorite method of painting, which is basically imagining something and putting together the elements to make it real,” he said.
This includes shooting multiple photographs and choosing the best elements from a number of them to create a final image, He also creates dioramas – complete with miniature items such as a metal wood stove Saÿen painted himself – to capture the scene of the painting.
His current painting features a local 17-year-old at her family’s farm while she hangs a sheet on the laundry line with three goats behind her as the sun sets over the mountain. In real life, the sheet was a salmon color, which Saÿen said was too much, so he changed it to a lighter blue in Photoshop. Her brother helped get the goats in place – as one of those photographs was used for the backdrop – while Saÿen took photographs of his sister and the setting sun.
“The light was gone 45 seconds later. That’s what photography does. In 250th of a second, you record more information than the eyeball can in two hours,” he said.
So far, he’s put roughly six or seven hours into the new piece of work.
“This grass is about a third of where it is – only her face is near finished. … So my job is to bring [her] to life,” Saÿen said. “Every painting, the goal there has to be some kind of narrative that pulls you in and makes you connect with it.”
Last year, he received won the Over 60 competition sponsord by The Artist’s Magazine and the Artist’s Network and had other two paintings were chosen from more than 7,100 as finalists in the annual competition. They were “Shaker Interior No. 3,” “The Waiting Room” and “Country Store at Night,” respectively.
Saÿen’s path to becoming “a world famous, literally legendary knife maker” had humble beginnings. After hitchhiking around Europe for a year, the California hippie followed his first love to Ithaca, New York. While she attended Cornell University, he landed a job with the Ithaca Youth Bureau.
After two years of working there, he realized the program wasn’t helping teens find employment. And a broken buck knife on a camping trip helped him figure out how to better help local youth. He wanted to fix his knife so he bought a book on handmade knives and “a huge light went off in my head.”
He contacted Therm Incorporated, which makes turbine components in Ithaca, and proposed launching a knife-making program partnership between the company and Youth Bureau. Company officials obliged and donated all the tools Saÿen needed to teach the trade to local teens.
“We got a cover story in Gun World and lots of orders and suddenly we had a business,” he said.
He added the business was called Black Oak Knives and he and the students put out and black and white catalog. Some of the teens went to work for Therm afterwards and one even retired from there.
But after a while, it was time for Saÿen to leave Ithaca and start on a new adventure.
“I really liked Ithaca [but] it was too tame for me. I love the wilderness, I love the woods and I love being outside. Even though Ithaca has a lot of that – you’re always on someone’s land or it’s posted,” he said about his decision to move to Bryant Pond in western Maine in 1979.
Saÿen met another Sufi named Don Fogg of Auburn and they formed a knife-making partnership.
“He loved making blades and he was very good at it, and I couldn’t wait to finish the blade to start the handle,” Saÿen remebered, noting all of the pieces they crafted together were fully functional. “You can say, ‘Oh it’s art,’ but it’s art with an edge. … Knives are interesting because they are energetic. People react to them.”
Locals called his place “Hippie Hollow” and there he built his own knife shop and worked in that trade for several years until he picked up his camera and paint brush once again.
Saÿen said he’s been aware of climate change since the late 1990s, which is when he began writing a blog about it and other environmental issues.
“You can’t treat a planet like this and not expect things to change,” he said. “We are a pox on the planet, that’s clear.”
This helped lay the groundwork for his two novels he wrote “about the trouble we’re in.”
“Above and Beyond” is his novel about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I decided PTSD is damage to a person’s soul – scars on the soul,” Saÿen said. “I feel PTSD is about forgiveness – self forgiveness, human forgiveness.”
The novel – which he penned before he learned about his cousin, Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was a German night pilot – is set during World War II.
“The protagonist flies a Messerschmitt … Messerschmitt means ‘knife maker’ in German,” Saÿen said about the German WWII bomber. “His friend, then girlfriend, then lover, then wife – she knows Hilter was evil from the beginning. He just wants to fly. He is in Hitler’s youth doing the glider program.”
The main character is wounded twice and sees the horrors of the Holocaust.
“It’s the progressive realization that he’s on the wrong side,” Saÿen said.
And this is what happened in real life with his cousin Sayn-Wittgenstein, who flew bombers on the Russian front.
“Some people will say, ‘He was a friggen Nazi.’ No, he wasn’t. He was a German officer who felt like he had a duty to his country and felt like he could abdicate his duty,” Saÿen said.
His second novel is called ‘Skana,’ which is still a manuscript.
“It’s about a fisherman and a Kwakiutl shaman trying to save the Pacific Ocean from dying,” he said.
Saÿen plans on coming back full circle to his writing roots in blogging. While he previously wrote about the doom and gloom of the environment, he’s trying to find positive things to focus on. Saÿen agrees with professor and environmentalist Guy McPherson – who runs the blog “Environment Bats Last” – that there is already too much damage done to the planet.
They’ve both adopted “the band on the Titanic point of view” that since humans have already passed the point of no return with the environment, people should be kind to one another and see “each day is an opportunity.”
For more information about Saÿen and his work, visit https://murad-Saÿen.pixels.com/.