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Alumni Studio Visit: Mary Murphy

Mary Murphy is a painter based in Philadelphia and New York. She earned a BA in English/Writing from Barnard College, an MA in Art & Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and an MFA from Tyler School of Art. She also studied at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture and the New York Studio School. A solo exhibition of Murphy’s work, Hybrids, was on view at Hillyer Art Space in Washington, DC this past February, and new work will be exhibited in a solo show December at Playground Brooklyn in Gowanus. Her work will also be seen with SHIM/ArtHelix at Aqua Art Miami in December.

1. Describe a typical day in studio.

Usually I get in around 11. The first thing I do is change clothes, which puts me into “work” mode, and put in my earplugs. Then I’ll turn on my studio lights, sit down with my journal, and look at the piece I’m working on. Generally, I work on one piece at a time, although there are exceptions to that. I’ll look at the photo of the piece I took the day before on my phone, ruminate about what needs to happen, and in what order. Maybe I’ll jot down some notes in my journal; these could be about the work but sometimes they’re about feelings – often I don’t know I have the feelings until I express them on paper. Somehow recording them through writing makes them available to me in my work. There’s a very deep connection to my feelings and to memory when I’m working; for me, painting is a vehicle for working through experience.

The works I’m doing right now – very large colored pencil and oil pastel drawings – demand a lot of focus. I’ll work for about 3-4 hours in a concentrated way, then take a break, eat lunch. I’ll try not to do anything, like get on social media, that will take me out of the zone. Then it’s back as soon as possible for a few more hours, but that initial session is often the best, so I try to prolong it. When I’m in flow I have no idea how long I’ve been working. When I feel myself getting tired, I push on a bit, knowing that usually my best work occurs during the last 15-30 minutes when I’m trying to bring it all together enough for the next day. Taking the photo of that day’s work is a kind of closing ritual.

2. Walk me through your process. What are some of the parameters or problems you set up for yourself within your work?

My current work begins with images of a sibling taken from a commemorative family photo that I’ve manipulated digitally. When I began this work, I tried to realize the manipulated image in paint; but the space was too complex, and I found myself drawing to try to articulate it. This led to drawing directly from the computer screen, which offers far more detail; in fact, the abundance of detail has led to a kind of hyperreality in the work.

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate that drawing functions in multiple ways for me in these pieces. The initial gesture of moving pixels around online with the mouse is one kind of drawing. Another takes place when I project and trace the main lines of the image onto large sheets of paper. Then I draw through the physical image with colored pencil trying to find the “living figure” within the digital outline, to understand the spatial as opposed to lateral dimensions of the work: why are the edges the way they are, how did the forms come together? As I’m doing this, I’m beginning to use oil pastel to create space through areas of color and light, the final stage of drawing. So, although I consider my images paintings in terms of involvement, scale and surface, there’s lots of different kinds of drawing involved. I think that’s in part a legacy from the Studio School and the emphasis that’s placed here on drawing as foundational to other forms of art-making. Drawing has so consumed me and transformed my work over time that it has replaced painting in my process. Most recently, though, I’ve begun yearning for the viscerality of paint again.

The main problem I’ve set for myself in my work is how to give witness to the human condition, with particular emphasis on what for me is the reality of constant, infinite and unpredictable change. For this reason, my works are spiral, not linear. The vehicles I use for this are the abstracted human figure, the combination of illusionistic and digital spatial languages, and my own feminine, erotic experience. Contradiction is a big part of the work, which moves from photographic realism to painterly abstraction, from external facial topography to intimations of internal anatomy, and from masculine object to feminine subject. That’s why I call this series “Hybrids”: everything in this world is part of something else; life is a continuum. Distortion in my work is a metaphor for change, for something in the process of becoming something else. My images depict a moment before that choice is determined, when options are equally available. Because it focuses on transformation my work is fundamentally about hope and time: no matter where we are in our lives, the possibility of change, of options, always exists. We are never fully complete; we are always becoming.

3. What do you keep in the studio for inspiration? Reference material, artist monographs, music, fiction, found objects, foods etc.

Besides books on art and artists in my personal canon – Rembrandt, Renaissance Sienese painting, early Cubism, Leonardo, Gorky, Surrealism, Richter, Lucien Freud, Guston, El Greco – I keep the original family photo that is the source for the image of my sibling that generated this body of work. It represents my connection to my family of origin and the deep feelings that I’ll probably always have regarding that part of my experience.

4. Do you listen to anything while you work?

I used to listen to music more than I do now – everything from Seventies folk and rock (Springsteen, Led Zepplin) to jazz (Miles Davis, Kind of Blue), classical, especially Chopin etudes, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach recordings of solo pieces for cello, and contemporary classical composers like George Crumb and Arvo Part. For a time, I really got into Gregorian Chant and Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium, sung by the incredible Tallis Scholars. But now I find I can’t listen in the studio. It’s one more distracting thing. I try not to mult-task even at this level; it doesn’t work for me. I wish I were able to play music or the radio or even tv in the studio – it would allow me to indulge my true passion, watching the Philadelphia 76ers! – but I just don’t have that kind of ability these days. I find I’m more likely to put on white noise (ocean waves), which in comparison to anything I’ve mentioned, sounds a little sad on paper. But listening to the ocean completely takes me out of the real world and it’s just me and the work and the waves; it’s very primal and I can feel myself gradually letting go, relaxing. That’s what it takes. I don’t know if that’s due to the frenetic pace of life now or to my own struggle to stay grounded within it.

5. How did studying at the New York Studio School influence your current studio practice?

Being at the Studio School was powerful for me in many ways. It gave me a tangible experience of an art community, and really allowed my understanding of art history and particularly painting history to acquire a context. There was (is!) such a healthy respect here for painting and especially, as I mentioned, drawing. That has influenced my commitment to painting – broadly defined – as my primary mode of working over a time period that has seen the influence of many other new genres. Mainly, it provided a living model of how to be an artist that focused on studio immersion and art history.

6. Are there any upcoming shows or projects on the horizon you would like to share?! And where can people see your work in person and/or digitally?

Right now, I’m on a three-month artist residency at Brooklyn Art Cluster in Gowanus, which ends December 31st. As part of my residency, I’ll be having a solo show at Playground Brooklyn, located at 540 President Street, #BR. The show runs from December 2 – 29th with an opening on Sunday, December 2nd from 2-4:30. It would be great to see other NYSS alumni or current students there!

I’ll also have work with SHIM/ArtHelix at Aqua Art Miami – part of Miami Art Week – this December 5 th-9th (www.aquaartmiami.com). To see more of my work, readers can visit my website, marymurphystudio.net.

Snapshots From NYSS

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