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All I Want for Christmas is…Art!

Spoiler alert: This post is shamelessly self-promoting.  Well maybe not shamelessly. Okay yes, shamelessly but not in the bad sense of the word.  Of course we want to promote Chris’ work with the ultimate goal of selling it; there’s certainly no shame in that.  And what better time to reach out to his biggest fans than the holiday season? So if you’re looking for a unique gift made by a local artist that will make a beautiful addition to your home or office, you are but a click away from a Christopher Murphy original.  Take a look at the works below.

The sizes and prices vary making it easier to find the perfect gift.  There are some that are postcard size while others would fill up a wall nicely.  If you’re in the Charleston area, stop by Havens Fine Framing where Chris displays his work, most of them already framed. You can also buy his work as a print (a poster, basically) on this website.  With all of these options, why not give the gift of original art this season?  Happy holidays everyone!

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Artists = Good Decorators

As I write this, Halloween is just around the corner (and as you read this, it will have just been over).  We love Halloween in our house; it’s the beginning of the holiday season and it’s a fun night with friends, dressing up in our favorite costumes, and eating TONS of candy.  What’s not to like? We’re lucky because our neighbors also like to celebrate Halloween. We are far from the most decorated house, but we do our best. And by we, I mean Chris.  He does it all, usually, and this year is no exception. He uses his talents that would otherwise go towards his latest painting and makes the front porch look festive and spooky. This is one of the many instances in which I’m very grateful to have an artist for a husband.  I have a hard time with creativity, but it comes so naturally to him. He and our son designed the jack-o-lantern and carved it last weekend. He trimmed the Carolina midnight, which is near the front door and needed to be trimmed anyway, and added the scraps to the decorations.  He tore up a sheet and used it to make tentacles. He picked out the wreath and door mat at Joanne Fabrics (it was my idea, however, to wait until close to Halloween so they would be on sale). All of this will let the neighbors know to come and get some candy at our house and will hopefully make them smile and help them to enjoy the holiday.  Yes, sometimes it’s really wonderful to have an artist in the family. Happy Halloween!

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Anything you can do I can do better

To find inspiration for this month’s blog, I began reading a book Chris recommended, Abstract Painting: Concepts and Techniques by Vicky Perry.  It was on the first page of the preface that I found just what I was looking for.  She included a quote by Clement Greenberg that I immediately thought was brilliant and was totally jealous that I had not thought of.  He said “…the onlooker who says his child could paint a Newman may be right”, but “Newman would have to be there to tell the child exactly what to do”.  He was referring to Barnett Newman who, according to his Wikipedia page, was a major figure in abstract expressionism.  The quote hit home so well because the criticism “My five year old could have done that” is perhaps the most common one Chris hears.  It’s one of those things that’s definitely not true, yet difficult to put into words exactly why. The crux of the comment is that the skill and expertise in a figurative painting is obvious whereas in an abstract painting, it’s equally obvious that there is neither mastery nor technique.  It’s just a bunch of paint on a canvas that is moderately pleasing at best and void of talent at worst. What this idea gets so wrong is that there IS technique to abstract work (as the book excellently demonstrates), but it may not be obvious. To prove my point, let’s look at two works, one by an actual five year old, and another, one of Chris’ latest.  Here is what a five year old is capable of.

It’s not the best photo,but you can see my son and me and our house.  Cute, right? By contrast, below is one of Chris’ latest.

Both artists completed their works using an easel, acrylic paint, a paint brush, and an idea of what they wanted to express.  The similarity ends there, however. I don’t mean to demean my son’s creation in this exercise (it was a birthday present to me, after all), but rather to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the my-kid-could-do-that criticism.  No. No they could not. It may not be readily apparent, but the technique, skill, mastery, and training that all come together in an abstract painting are absolutely there.

If there are any five year olds who can get into an art school, this may not apply to them.

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I ♥ Tori

“She knows what’s going on

Seems we got a cheaper feel now

All the sweeties are gone

Gone to the other side

With my encyclopedia

They must’ve paid her a nice price

She’s putting on her string bean love

This is not really happening

You bet your life it is”

 

The above are lyrics to my favorite Tori Amos song, “Cornflake Girl” from 1994’s Under the Pink.  Can you tell, from these words, why it’s my favorite? Isn’t it obvious what the lyrics mean? In a word, no.  Nope. Not at all. To this day I’m not sure what they mean, really. Song lyrics are like that. They are subjective, which means people see the meaning they want to see in them.  The same song can be truly meaningful to two people for completely different reasons.

 

The same is true for abstract art.  It’s subjective. People literally see what they want to when they look at it.  It may be the same vision the artist had when creating it or it may be radically different.  In the same way people can connect with weird lyrics (and let’s face it; many of Amos’ lyrics are downright cryptic) people can also connect with a piece of abstract art.  That’s either frustrating or freeing. The comment I often hear about Chris’ work is “But – what IS it?”. Those are the people that tend to get frustrated by the lack of anything figurative in a piece.  On the flip side are the people who enjoy the experience that a piece of abstract art can give them. It doesn’t matter that it’s not defined by the artist because it’s a collaborative experience. What does it mean?  You tell me. Personally it’s why abstract art is my favorite. And it’s why Tori Amos has been one of my favorite musicians my whole adult life. Even if I don’t think her lyrics mean what she does, I still love her songs.  

 

When creating a painting, Chris says he imagines his works are like classical or instrumental music, without words but full of emotion and feeling.  So…what does the piece below mean to you?

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Thanks a lot, Google

 

I watched a segment of CBS This Morning that featured art created by robots.  Art. Created by robots. Artificial intelligence, to be specific. Programmers at Google have figured out how to “teach” computers to make art.  In test after test, people failed to consistently recognize the art made by computers from art made by people. Without being able to identify a specific emotion, I felt an immediate uneasiness about that fact.  And as I continued to watch the piece, it seemed like the computers were making what would typically be categorized as abstract art. Now it’s personal! People couldn’t tell a Pollock from a Dell. Really?!? So in addition to other artists, Chris has to factor in computers giving him a run for his money?  If there was any job I thought was surely safe from competition from our ever improving AI, I thought it would be anything artistic, anything that takes a soul to create and a soul to appreciate.  But apparently not. Apparently, all you have to do is break down the brush strokes and colors into computer-ese and a computer can produce work that rivals best sellers. In fact, they can become best sellers themselves; the segment touted that one computer-created piece sold for more than $16,000.  That’s wonderful; now that computer can afford to take its family on a nice vacation. So now my uneasiness is turning into anger. What gives? Why would somebody do this? And it wasn’t just painting; there are programs in which computers can create pieces of music. A couple of movie makers used it to create small pieces of background music for their films.  If they need a 10 second piece to accompany a short scene, they can have one in no time. No musician required. Don’t worry, they assure me, this won’t replace musicians, but rather allow artists to get a little boost, an easy fix out of a tough spot. These types of programs can help with writer’s block, for example. This simply does not sit well with me. There are some things we should not use machines for, some things that must be created with our hands, hearts, and minds.  Could a computer really create this?

Absolutely not.  Actually, yes. Okay, technically yes, but so what?  A computer can’t look at it with you and appreciate it.  It can’t tell you what inspired it and what emotion it was feeling while the work was being created.  It can’t tell you how it felt when the piece was finished and where it’s next inspiration is coming from.  Once I had (mostly) finished writing this, I went upstairs to tell Chris about it. He had just finished working on the above painting.  I held his hand and we admired it together. He felt proud that he had made it and I felt pride in him.

Take that, Google.

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Collusion (the good kind)

One of the best parts about being a parent is getting a front row seat to watching a person grow and become who they are.  When our son was a baby, we marvelled at all the milestones; his first smile, the first time he rolled over, when he learned to clap, his first word, that amazing look he gave me when I picked him up from daycare that said “Mommy’s here!”.  As he grew older, we began to look for traits that we could trace back to us. Certainly he gets his blue eyes and blonde hair from Chris, as I have neither, but he got my straight hair and he has the Kinney eyes. This is the wonderful stuff that we get to see up close, each and everyday.  There is sometimes doubt as to which of us may have passed down some of his talents, but for certain, he has gotten his artistic ability from the Murphy line. Just like his hair and eye color, there is no way he could have gotten it from me. On a Sunday morning in June, I went to the studio and found the image below.

It filled my heart.  What a wonderful sight!  It is not the first time these two have bonded over art and I know it won’t be the last.  It’s impossible to predict where our son’s talents will take him in life, but the thought of him growing up to be like his Dad is always a happy one.  

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Just Like Bob Ross!

How is a painting created?  How does a blank canvas become a work of art?  If you’ve ever found yourself pondering these questions, we invite you to keep reading to get an idea of how Chris creates his pieces. (Spoiler alert: It’s not at all like Bob Ross.)

The first step is to decide how big the piece will be.  Sometimes, this requires assembling the canvas. Other times it’s as simple as acquiring the piece of wood.  No matter what the size, he must prime the piece with gesso to make it ready for the first layer.

The next step is to create a color scheme.  Chris decides what colors he wants to work with.  In this case, it was purple, blue, and yellow. Once those are on the canvas, it’s time for the composition.  He must arrange those colors in a way that is visually pleasing.

Third, he finds collage pieces he can include that would blend well with the work.  Chris uses a wide variety of objects in his paintings, anything from toys to pictures to sand.  In this case, it was the scraps of paper below.

The next step is integration.  He blends the color scheme with the collage pieces.  He arranges them on the canvas taking care to place each item in its proper place.

Next comes the layering.  Chris adds more paint and occasionally more collage pieces, but mostly it’s about layering paint to make sure everything ties together.

One of the last steps is assessment.  Is it done? This is perhaps one of the hardest steps for any artist.  This is also where I come in, quite literally since I’m usually called into the studio at this point and asked “Do you think this one is done?”  If the collective answer is Yes, then he lets the paint dry and begins thinking of a title. If the answer is No, then we talk about what’s missing or incomplete.  He may repeat any or all of the steps described above. It might simply be blending in one corner, or perhaps toning down the brightness of one color. In this example, he knew it was finished when it looked like this:

 

The very very last step is to come up with a title.  Chris decided on “Universal Appeal”.

And that’s it.  There may be no happy little clouds, but he always ends up with a piece he can be proud of!

 

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A Pink Masterpiece or a Pepto Bismol Disaster?

Perspective is a major theme in my blog posts, and this post is no exception.  I am borrowing a story from the late, great Jeanne-Claude, wife and one half of Jeanne-Claude and Christo, the famous environmental artists.  Chris and I had the pleasure of meeting them at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. in 2007 while promoting their latest creation.  She told a fantastic story about the installation titled “Surrounded Islands” in Biscayne Bay, Florida. (For copyright reasons, I won’t include a picture, but you should take a look: http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/surrounded-islands).  Not surprisingly, people had extreme reactions to this piece and they tended to be polarized; they either loved it or hated it.  Jeanne-Claude described her interaction with a man who, at the debut, asked if she was the artist responsible. “Yes”, she answered with a little smile, a small reflection of the pride she felt in creating it with Christo.  “Well I think it’s terrible! It looks like someone spilled Pepto Bismol all over the ocean!”. It’s not hard to imagine the smile slowly disappearing from her face. She related that she apologized to the man for her art’s offending him and tried not to internalize the negative comment.  A short while later, another person asked her the same question, was she artist responsible? Again, and this time without the smile, she answered that she was and steadied herself for the criticism. “I think it’s wonderful! It looks like someone spilled Pepto Bismol all over the ocean! How beautiful!”.  I imagine her smile was back and bigger than ever. I wondered, listening to her tell that story, how it could be that two opposite conclusions could be reached from the exact same experience. But that’s the cool thing about art. There’s no right or wrong. You just create and hope that it makes you feel good.  The fact that someone else may get joy out of it is a bonus. When someone likes it so much they buy it, that is a day to celebrate.

Check out the painting below, “Primal Order”.  On a scale of “My 5 year old could have done that” to “Shut-up and take my money!”, how do you rate this one?  It’s got a lot of pink in it…

 

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Perspective

Some kids couldn’t care less about what they wear.  Clothes to them are simply part of life, and an insignificant one at that.  Our son is not one of those kids. The clothes he chooses are of the utmost importance, and what goes on, and more importantly, what will never go on, his body is the source of more than a little frustration in our house (specifically in his room most school days).  To get out the door, make it to school on time, and to maintain a decent amount of sanity in the morning we compromise – a lot. We let him wear the same pants two days in a row and hope that teachers and other school personnel are too busy to notice. We find one pair of pants which aren’t’ too “crinkly” and one brand of socks that touch his feet but not in a bad way and we buy multiple pairs.  We hug him and rub his back and empathize with how awful it is to have to wear a shirt with a tag in it. As he’s gotten older his pickiness has subsided somewhat, but there are still times when there is simply only one pair of pants he could possibly even consider wearing and how in the world could we not see that? A few weeks ago, these were the only pants the universe would allow him to wear.

Since we had so much experience in compromise we agreed to the pants and hoped nobody would judge us for it (at least not too harshly). They are too short for him, he has been wearing them for at least two years, they have holes in both knees (which I have patched but still), and he had already worn them over the weekend.  They are literally the worst pair of pants he owns. Once he had gotten dressed and I was free to rummage through my own closet to find something to wear he came and sat down on the floor and explained his choice.  “I love these pants. They are really comfortable, they have cool stripes down the side, and you can put your fingers in jail!”. He showed me how he could entwine his fingers in the patched up holes. They are the exact same pair of pants, but we saw them completely differently.

Perspective is so important.  Perspective is everything. Below is “Make it Rain”.  Please enjoy it anyway you like.