Marilyn Murphy is one of Nashville’s most celebrated artists. A Professor of art at Vanderbilt University, her work has been shown in more than 300 exhibitions nationally and abroad. Marilyn’s drawings and oil paintings create curious situations implying a larger story that often explores dualities, both formally and conceptually (safety and danger, peace and turmoil, fire and water). Currently, she has work on exhibit at the Siena Art Institute in Italy. In her own words:
“My drawings in graphite or colored pencil typically include one or two figures involved in an improbable action or working at some curious task. Many of the pieces in this series comment upon the act of seeing, the creative process or some aspect of human experience. Strong lighting and shadows create a sense of mystery while the identities of the men and women are obscured in order to direct the focus of the viewer toward their activity. Film noir, as well as magazines from the 1940’s and early 1950’s, including the instructional photographs in Popular Science, often inspire my work.
Growing up on the Great Plains, I often include the action of the wind in my work. Often the objects are beyond reach or curiously out of human scale to create a dreamlike atmosphere where the objects can be read as symbolic or actual.
The writings of Gaston Bachelard (1884-1962), particularly the books Air and Dreams and The Poetics of Space, have long resonated with my interest in dreamlike imagery. The pillows in the drawing Plumper could refer to sleep, domesticity, or the marvelous illogic of the dream state.”
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city with big skies and a lot of Art Deco and Mid-century modern architecture.
From my understanding, you were educated in Catholic schools. How did the nuns influence you as a artist?
Yes! I attended Catholic school from kindergarten though high school. It was quite rigorous academically. The nuns I had in high school were remarkable women and influenced me more as a person. My favorites split their summers between participating in the Civil Rights Movement and taking courses at the University of Notre Dame. In the fall, we would learn what they did in their classes then hear first hand accounts about Martin Luther King and social inequalities. Possibly the most important lessons I learned from them is to think for myself and to question everything. It was a great education.
When and why did you move to Nashville?
I was invited to join the Vanderbilt faculty, so I arrived in August, 1980. Yikes!
What is the greatest piece of advice you have been given? Do have any sage advice for young artists considering art as a career?
I received the best piece of advice from my favorite art professor in grad school. He recommended that I apply for the position at Vanderbilt. For young artists: there are two elements of art, the medium and the idea. As a strategy to remain involved and excited about one’s work for a lifetime, I often recommend to art students to find a particular process that they love, like oil painting, screen printing or animation, and where they feel most articulate. Ideas ebb and flow, so if you have a passion for a medium, that will get you back into the studio to noodle until you can work out the next direction for your ideas. The wonderful thing about art is that it takes a lifetime to learn and your work becomes richer as you have more life experiences.
For a person beginning to collect art, what would you tell them?
The art scene in Nashville is diverse and exciting. Sign up to be on the mailing list of the galleries, go to openings, ask the artists any questions you have about the work. Join the Frist or Cheekwood. Check the Nashville Scene to find out about exhibitions all over town even in the Arcade downtown or East Nashville. A young artist’s work is usually more affordable, but on the other hand, more established galleries will allow you to pay on time. As you learn about art and artists, your taste will develop and grow. Even though I can fill my walls with my own work, my husband and I also buy art. It can be like a tiny vacation to look up for a moment at an artwork that you love.
Do you have any irrational fears?
Clowns are a tad spooky.
What books can be found on your bedside table?
I just finished and loved At Home by Bill Bryson, The Paris Wife by Paula McClain, Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming, as well as long time favorite books to reread: Air and Dreams by Gaston Bachelard and Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments by Delamare and Guineau. I’ve just started The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims. As you can see, I love books!
You have a rigorous schedule as an art professor at Vanderbilt and your art is so detailed and takes many hours to complete. What do you do to relax?
Slip away with my husband, Wayne Roland Brown, for a nice ride in one of his vintage cars for lunch in Leiper’s Fork, take a walk at Radnor Lake or haunt used bookstores like Rhino Books.
Event most looking forward to attending in the fall ?
The opening of the exhibition of my artwork and Bob Trotman’s sculptures at the Huntsville Museum of Art on December 4th. It will be the initial show of the museum’s Connections series. December 3rd is the opening of the Small Packages exhibition at Cumberland Gallery, where I’ll have four drawings on display.
When you think splurge, what comes to mind?
Any fashion obsessions?
Wide belts, jackets of all sorts and all types of jewelry!
Where is your favorite place to eat in Nashville?
Favorite vacation spot?
It is hard to squeeze in a vacation since we both travel for family or business reasons, but my husband and I slipped off to Paris in May just for fun. We sat in cafes, walked in the Luxembourg Gardens and went to a few art galleries. We also love the town of Ubud in Bali and beautiful New Zealand.
If you were going to have a dinner party with friends, what type of food and music would you serve up?
Any thing my husband Wayne cooks is terrific, but I am much better at setting the atmosphere and the table! I may be an indifferent cook, but I can draw or paint anything in the kitchen including Dangerous Desserts (one of my series). As far as music goes, for a lively start to the evening I’d play Caravan Palace, then smoother grooves with Radio Tarifa (Rhumba Argelina album), J J Cale (Naturally album), Billie Holliday, Otto, and Wayne Roland Brown. For cleaning up, we always play Tom Waits a bit too loud.
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding friends, family and God)
My pencils, my music and my Macs
For more behind the scenes photos of this shoot, see photographer Ashley Hylbert’s blog: click here.