Can you tell us a little bit about how you started out in art? Did you gravitate towards it early or have any artists in your life as a youth?
As a child I didn’t like school, I was a really quiet kid, too shy to even raise my hand in class. I went to a small catholic school taught primarily by nuns. Drawing wasn’t exactly celebrated in this atmosphere and I was often whacked on the knuckles with a ruler for drawing when I was supposed to be doing math or something equally boring. Growing up my dad also loved drawing and would draw these hilarious comics that I thought were wonderful, he hated Richard Nixon and would often draw these hideously spectacular caricatures of him on scrap paper which were always lying around the house. He had spent a year at The Chicago Art Institute after WWII on the GI Bill hoping to be a commercial artist, but couldn’t afford to continue and got a job selling Studebakers, then refrigerators then fell into being a union organizer; art fell to the wayside. I guess looking back I was both inspired and encouraged by him.
When I was in high school I had this quirky art teacher named Mr. Smith, he looked like the grown up version of Harold in “Harold and the Purple Crayon”. He was pretty influential really, liked my work, even though it was pretty different, even back then. He got me a job when I was 15 at a local art gallery where I framed pictures, and did things like research artist histories I was taught how to clean and restore old paintings. The couple who owned the gallery were fairly odd, had no kids and became quite fond of me. I was introduced to the fact that there were all these different kinds of jobs in the art world, while also learning about and becoming fascinated with many artists and art history. I went to see all the shows I could at museums and sometimes galleries. I remember seeing a Modigliani in the Phillips Collection when I was 18 and openly sobbing.
When I went on to college my intent was to become an art conservator, I wanted to work in a quiet basement of a museum listening to mix-tapes on my Walkman, cleaning old paintings, discovering new colors and secrets under the old paint. When I realized I hated the chemistry and math required my plans changed.
I then changed my major to Drawing and Painting but my weird drawings were dismissed by my
professors as childish and frivolous. I then switched to graphic design (too technical) and finally 6 years later I ended up in Art History.
All this time I had continued working for galleries in the Los Angeles area and worked with some really amazing artists, and it’s only now that I realize the impact they’ve had on me as an artist. Anyway, I eventually worked my way up to gallery director and curated some pretty cool shows, knew lots of cool people, but overall still felt pretty unfulfilled. Eventually I had some majorly crappy things happen at that time (a whole other story) and was compelled to make some pretty major life changes.
A few years later I was married, had a baby, left Los Angeles and returned home to Northern California and started drawing again seriously. So that’s when I really started in art, I mean as an artist. I was encouraged by friends to start showing my work (Christine Benjamin being one) and so, now, here I am.
Your paintings are childlike in nature, although the compositions and use of color betray a level of sophistication hidden just below the surface. The humor as well is mature, tackling subjects such as love, heartbreak, loss, evil fantasies and the triumphs and tragedies of our daily lives with the innocence and lighthearted frankness of youth. How did you come to this pairing of your personal artistic style and your unique way of looking at the world?
Nicely put, thanks. Yes that’s my intention. My style grew out of my love for the innocence of children’s drawings, the work of outsider and untrained artists as much as my disdain for most realism, artists with skill but no moving ideas. My early paintings were just about composition and color I loved fitting things together on a small scale and layering color over color, but at some point I realized that my energy was put into painting something stylistically, and not enough thought was put into the subject matter. As I grew as an artist my subject matter became more important on a personal level and I began painting about life experience, my observations on human nature and yes my sometimes evil fantasies. (Which btw I find to be a very healthy outlet in dealing with anger). The titles also played a part, sometimes an emotional situation would prompt a phrase that would stick in my head, and I’d work out how to illustrate it. Some early collectors of mine, Jeffrey and Jennifer Martin, were the ones that suggested that I write my titles on the mats and now I feel that the titles are a big part of each piece. I’m a bit of a word nerd and so the amalgamation of words and pictures just downright delights me. I’m not sure if my way of looking at the world is all that different, but I’m honest about it, I don’t hide things or keep things inside, I laugh at myself and sometimes inappropriately at others, I savor sadness and I appreciate goodness. I’m pretty much an open book… a raw and bloody open book.
I think the evil fantasies are some of my favorites! It’s great because we’ve all had those kind of imaginings so when we see it we instantly relate, it’s really universal. Your work really seems to be expressing what it is to be human. Tell me a little bit about your current show, The Weird and the Wonderful at KALEID. How did you and Christine come up with the concept and what were the thoughts you wanted to express with this body of work?
For our show Christine and I wanted to find a place that our works aesthetically merged rather than have 2 separate solo shows. We’ve know each other for about 15 years and we’ve always been aware that our work compliments each other especially in use of color and their sort of comic book feel, even though they’re pretty different from one another. Originally we thought of the “Wicked and the Wonderful”, but then I just felt like the wicked one! So the weird came into it and that’s something we both do, but again very distinctly.
On my side of it wanted to capture moments both bizarre and heartwarming and strike a balance between the two. I’m very careful not to get too cute, I hate when people say “awww” while looking at one of my pieces even though I’m fully aware that some of my work certainly tugs at them pesky heartstrings. I want it to go deeper that that, I want every piece to illustrate a moment that one can relate to personally even if it’s symbolic.
You did a collaboration with Christine for the show as well. Was this your first time collaborating with her? How did you feel about the experience?
Yes! This was the first time. We had decided that we’d meet on Friday mornings and do some collaborative work, we had tons of ideas, but when it came down to it we did our invitation piece “The Weird and the Wonderful” featuring self portraits and we did the photo booth each of us taking half. It was more difficult than expected for me. I tend to like things really rough and messy, layers peeking through, pencil lines showing etc. and when I’m alone that comes easy to me. Christine on the other hand is a technician, a truly skilled painter, so even though you try not to compare, I found myself being lulled by her beautiful stylistic way of painting, as opposed to my more primitive approach. I had to snap out of it as the allure of the pieces we did together is our stylistic differences and how we meld yet stand apart from one another. Other than that it was just awesome hanging out with her.
In addition to your paintings, you also are showing some work in ceramic and some fabric dolls. How did you get interested in translating your work into these different mediums? How do you like working with these different materials?
I’ve always loved working with clay. I occasionally do project work for an architect that includes a lot of handmade tile and mosaic work. I’m currently working on a big slab clay and mosaic mural for a middle school. The sculptures are fun to make and I love to be able to see my work in a different way. Clay is interesting because it can be so unpredictable, it’s always a surprise when it comes out of the kiln. I’ve tried throwing pots and such, but I totally suck, it’s just way too technical for someone with a short attention span like me. The hand-building allows me to express my work in that naive style, like I do with paint.
The dolls were kind of different for me. They started as an experiment, but the response I’ve gotten from them has been wonderful. The concept of dolls in general I think is a strange thing, which is certainly something I think about when I make one. I never liked dolls as a child, I was a certified feminist tomboy even at like 6 so I was always against anything that was marketed to only one gender. As children girls want dolls to mother, but adult girls might like a doll which was more of a boyfriend, a substitute teddy bear, an adorable friend. Different from the kind of dolls an adult male might want. So I started out just doing boys, I call them my boyfriend dolls, and in creating them I think about what kind of boyfriend someone would want, nerdy, muscle-y, conservative, whatever. The next step is capturing that in a single character, which is usually a fun challenge. And yes, I started making girl dolls too. I can’t say I love doing them, as they’re pretty labor intensive, especially the stuffing part, getting into all their tiny bits and all, but I love when they’re done, they become someone. They also tie into a folk art tradition which is such a big influence for me. I love that they’re lopsided and unsymmetrical and scream handmade.
I really love how whatever medium you are working in, it’s always clearly a Murphy piece! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
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