May 20th, 2023
In her peaceful, silvery paintings, Wisconsin-based artist Pamela Murphy captures a quiet moment in time, preserving an almost forgotten memory like fossilized amber. Through layers of paint, gold leaf, and textured canvas, applied, reapplied, and scraped away, she reveals the history of the canvas while enshrining the history of its subject. The quiet power of her work, however, lies in its dreamlike quality, where peaceful, muted subjects peer through the hazy layers of time, history, and collective memory.
Regardless of her subject, her work seems to elicit this sense of history, of remembering. Part of this is due to the fact that Murphy uses old photographs for reference. When she started working with vintage photographs, she would go to a rummage sale or antique mall in search of family photo albums. “It’s the whole idea of losing that memory, those past generations,” Murphy says, “especially if it’s in a rummage sale, because whatever doesn’t sell gets pitched in a dumpster and those memories are lost forever.” What struck Murphy was the sense that another’s family’s memories could feel so much like her own. She recalls, “I didn’t know these people or share their experiences but they all still felt very familiar.”
Murphy has always known she has wanted to be an artist. She played around with a lot of different mediums and a lot of different techniques before discovering oil painting. Her recognizable, highly textured style was discovered rather organically and unintentionally after a former professor’s offhand comment: “I was working with oil paint and one of my professors at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) made sort of a throwaway comment, but it made a lot of sense to me, and I’ll always remember it. He said, ‘If it’s not working out, just paint over it. Start over. Don’t get precious, and don’t waste any more time on something that’s not working out.’” Murphy took his advice to heart and, eventually, the paint on her reworked canvas built up so thickly that she couldn’t use the surface anymore. “So I started scraping off the paint,” she remembers, “and I thought, ‘well, I kind of like the way that this looks.’”
Now, two to three times a year, Murphy will fill up the walls in her studio with painted canvases. On each canvas, she’ll apply 2 to 3 layers of oil paint, about a quarter of an inch thick. She’ll let the paint dry for a few days, and then she’ll put another layer on. After a few layers, the canvas will hang in her studio to dry for 4-6 weeks, depending on the temperature and humidity of the season.
Murphy often prepares canvases in the summer, so that she can have the studio doors open for ventilation. When the canvases are dry, she soaks them for a couple weeks in large water barrels. After the painted canvases soak in water for weeks on end, she lays them back out on the floor of her studio and scrapes away the layers of paint. “When I started scraping the canvases,” Murphy remembers, “I thought about how that distressed and layered canvas had a sense of history, and it really went well with the vintage imagery that I was using.” In this way, both her subjects and her process honor a sense of history and time. Once she’s scraped these layers of excess paint away, intermittently unearthing the layers beneath, she then stores the rolls of canvas in her studio for later use.
This practice in patience and diligence lends itself well to her life outside of the studio as well. On a beautiful 10-acre farm on the tranquil peninsula of Door County Wisconsin, Pamela Murphy is busy cultivating peace and harmony in both her art and in her land. She describes herself as having dual careers: that of a full time artist and that of a full time farmer. These seemingly polar professions actually offer a cohesive balance and a symbiotic presence to her life and art. Both her artwork and her farm work is rooted in her sense of discipline and work ethic and extends to her dedication to process and in resurrecting forgotten times of generations past.
Her traditional homesteading requires the same patience and care as that of her artistic practice, but the yields are just as beautiful and bountiful: Fruit trees abound on the property, and in the summer, strawberries and raspberries ripen in bushels on the vine. Around her property chickens, geese, and Nigerian Dwarf goats – whom Murphy affectionately refers to as the “yard committee” – graze. Currently, it’s kidding season, and the additional care the baby Nigerian Dwarf goats require is offset by their delightfully playful spirit and occasional kisses to their caregiver. These dairy goats also provide Murphy milk for her to make her own yogurt, kiefer, soaps and shampoo bars. Her chickens provide countless eggs, most of which she sells at her nearby farmstand to the people in town. Despite the recent egg inflation, Murphy never implemented an upcharge on the price of her chicken’s eggs in a classic demonstration of Midwestern friendliness. Plus, her two large vegetable gardens provide a surplus that she is able to can and preserve for the winter months.
It’s an idyllic, charming life that pays tribute to the past while looking towards the future. It’s also a whole lot of work…but, just like her artwork, that’s part of what makes it all so beautifully invaluable.
Gallery MAR owner Maren Mullin discovered Murphy’s work while she was exhibiting in a two-person show with Nina Tichava at a gallery in Boston. “I feel so lucky to be represented by Gallery MAR,” Murphy says, “and I really love working with everybody there. It’s just a really, really good team.”
We’re proud to have represented the work of Pamela Murphy at Gallery MAR for nearly 10 years now and are thrilled to present you with all new paintings from her studio that are sure to bring a sense of nostalgia and intimacy to any space in your home.
We would like to extend a warm thank you to Pamela Murphy for her time and insights on her life and work. Stop by the gallery today to find more of her work or visit out website here.
Written by Veronica Vale