Photo: Anthony Scarlati

Photo: Anthony Scarlati

Those of us who know and love artist Marilyn Murphy understand that jello is a particular passion of hers, although it’s unlikely she’ll ever make any, or even eat any, for that matter. She likes to look at it and think about it doing strange things, taking on inappropriate size and bulk, and then she likes to draw and paint it.

Jello is just one of her many preoccupations, and it is featured prominently in her prodigious work, as are numerous other fluffy desserts, DC-3 airplanes, diving figures, weird machines, spectator pumps, and clothing and hair from the 1940s. She enjoys things that drape, like tents and bedspreads, and floating things like clouds and bits of paper and balloons—especially if there’s something dangerous and menacing looming nearby, preferably a cane fire or a tornado.

The surrealist vision of another world she has created in her over 30 years as an artist and educator comes from her feverish imagination and dreams and her formidable intellect. She is a healthy sense of play married to a fierce work ethic, combined with a genuine creative talent. Above all else, Marilyn Murphy is a storyteller. But her medium of expression isn’t words—it’s images she draws with pencil or paint.

She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was parochially educated, and attended Oklahoma State for her B.F.A. and the University of Oklahoma for her M.F.A. in art. She had a nice, middle-class upbringing in a family that prized education and learning. She is a Professor of Art at Vanderbilt University and has been represented for 28 years by Cumberland Gallery in Nashville. Owner Carol Stein says, “Marilyn has it all—technical proficiency, a unique vision, and a provocative approach to her art.”

Since her father worked for American Airlines, I assumed he was a pilot. Not so, I learned when I sat down recently with Marilyn for this interview. It was her mother who was the pilot.

Was your mother a big influence on your work?
Both my parents were: my mom was incredibly creative, and my dad is intellectually curious and made me feel that I could accomplish anything I wanted to do.

Mom trotted my brother John and me to every open house at the factories. I went to an open house at a Wonder Bread factory when I was a kid. She felt like it was a way for us to learn and to nurture our curiosity. It was a great way to become an artist.

You enjoyed the factory tours when you were little?
I loved them.

Most people don’t. You do know that, don’t you?
They don’t? I love them. I’ve been on tours to all the factories: Standard Candy, Jack Daniels, Frankoma Pottery, American Airlines, Liberty Glass. There are some great factory tours. Perhaps, if I decided to not be a professor anymore I’d give factory tours.

I did a series based on factories and images of power. I started doing drawings and paintings from images in U. S. Steel reports from the 1940s. Then I went from images of man-made power to other images of power—natural images like storms, lightning, tornadoes and fires—elements that work on us.

They can be symbolic of the human experience: In my painting Oasis there are two green tents and a pool, and there’s a big cane fire in the background which is actually a controlled fire. But will the fire reach the tents and the pool? Is that truly an oasis? Or will the fire burn the tents? It’s power and mystery. There’s a lot of that in my work.

Talk about power and mystery then. Where does that come from?
Well sometimes those images of power and mystery come from my dreams. I dream a lot about architecture. I love to dream. A recurring dream is finding new rooms in my house. Peter Frank the writer called my work “lucid dreaming.” The thing is my dreams are very clear, and I have all my senses going. I have so many visual ideas, and I have to get them out. That’s why I have to be an artist.

That’s interesting. So you’re driven, compelled.
Um, yes. Really visual images are my first language. I didn’t feel comfortable with words. I was shy and a little bit nerdy when I was young. I also found I could get better marks on book reports if I illustrated them. When my nun in the fourth grade made us do 25 book reports, I thought I could do less writing if I drew pictures. But I probably spent more time on the drawings than most of the kids did writing.

You just finished that “conductor” drawing. How long did that take you?
It’s 30 x 22 inches. Let’s see. I’m guessing it took about 60 hours.

So about a week?
Two weeks. Because I was also teaching during the day.

One thing I’ve always liked about you is your well-developed sense of play. You must have gotten “plays well with others” on your report card in elementary school. Can you talk about that and how it influences your work?
No matter how hard I work at my art, it feels like play. In fact, I’ve done quite a few images over the years, and the people in them look like they’re playing games.

Those people lawn bowling into the cane fire.

You have a lot of teaching images, too. Like the woman in Van Gogh’s ear. What do you like about teaching?
It’s great fun to open people’s eyes to see the world in a new way.

I first started teaching in the fall of 1980. Vanderbilt at that time was pretty homogeneous. Now it’s become much more culturally and intellectually diverse. The students are from all over the world with many different backgrounds, socio economic, religious, cultural. It’s interesting.

What has being at Vanderbilt done for your career as an artist?
Vanderbilt has been very supportive of my work with grants and research leaves. The university provides a rich intellectual climate with visiting speakers, exhibitions, and scores of colleagues who are doing incredibly interesting work in their own fields.

I got a grant from Vanderbilt to document the architecture for my work in Napier, New Zealand, a town destroyed by an earthquake in 1929 and then rebuilt in the style of art deco. They also have some patterning influenced by Maori design. It’s right by the ocean, so beautiful.

Can you see in your students those that will be good artists and those that won’t?
Occasionally, but not always.

What have you not done that you want to do?
Go into outer space, particularly the moon.

You’re joking.
I’m completely serious.

Are you afraid of anything?
Not really. If I was I wouldn’t have become an artist. I decided when I was in the fourth grade I wanted to be an artist. Both my parents were supportive. Of course I’ve had setbacks. I’ve had rejections. But you can’t take it personally. Well, you can. But that would be the end of you.

What are you going to do when you get older?
I’ll still be an artist, and the older I get, the better I’ll become. If people don’t like it then, oh well. When I was in grad school, my work didn’t have the fashionable look. But even then, I knew it was folly to follow fashion, because by the time you realize it’s fashion, you’re too late to be on the bus.

What do you think about jealous people?
I don’t.

Do artists have hard lives?
The great majority of artists have a full-time job like a graphic designer or teacher, then go into the studio to work long hours to create their art. It is great to live your life with a passion that goes beyond yourself. It would be harder for me not to be an artist.

What makes a good artist?
A passion to create and an articulate voice.

What percentage of your time is making art? What percentage is self-promotion?
Mostly making art. A good day for me is drawing or painting from seven in the evening to midnight.

Do you just work, or do you watch TV?
I listen to CSpan. It’s just interesting stuff in the background.

You’re at the height of your game, and you’re in a good place. You have always been generous with your time and your advice and help. What would you tell young artists just starting out on a career?
Being an artist is a great life—you can spend a lifetime learning. The more you travel and read, the more you experience—good and bad—the more interesting your work becomes. As an artist, you will be able to go to all sorts of places and meet all kinds of interesting people. If an artist in Nashville has a triumph, it makes us all better.

Marilyn Murphy’s need to explore how and why things work, her love of the surreal and things that fly and flip, her fascination with odd mechanical objects, weather formations and, yes, even jello, surprise and delight us. Likewise, her skill as an artist allows her to carry this vision.

As gallery owner Carl Hammer said, “Murphy’s control with the paintbrush is equaled only by her superb drawing technique. And her bewitchingly surrealistic drawings are all the more compelling due to their eerie, enigmatic, fifth-dimensional story-telling effect.   Both reassuring yet unsettling, Murphy’s intriguing visual scenarios are magical in their improbability yet scorchingly insightful, challenging the viewer to rethink the reality of any given situation.”

by Linda Leaming

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