How to be an artist.
Written by: M. Eileen Murray // @emurray67
During my childhood, I was always making something or creating ‘a’ something out of nothing. When I wasn’t raiding gardens or eating snow, I was knitting long scarves that were never quite straight; crocheting silhouetted ladies with pot holder skirts or painting ceramic Holly Hobbie dolls. I loved to feel things with my hands and against my cheeks – any things, normal things, like rocks, plants, fabric or fur. I had a collection of polished rocks, I buried dead animals, collected slugs and spent may hours under bleachers walking a flamingo puppet made from styrofoam, fleece and canning jar lids while my sisters figure skated.
I officially became a misunderstood black sheep (an artist prerequisite?) at the age of 12, when I was put into their ballet class. Being significantly larger than them, I couldn’t wear one of their sequinned dresses…instead, I had to wear a red t-shirt tucked into red leotards with the seams at the front and back (think 1979) …..
I had a lovely pot belly, no grace and just didn’t fit in…..an artist was born!
My teenage years were equally as horrible as that ballet class … if I wasn’t on the basketball court, at a bush party or in the smoking area (gross), I would be knitting a sweater in the hallways of my high school. I repeated every math class I had ever taken and was thrown out of physics and French. Now that I think about it …. I knew then that I would not be the second coming of a French Canadian Einstein. So, since I loved helping others, and I was a girl raised by working class parents in southern Alberta, I set off to nursing school in Calgary and got a diploma in … being knocked up!
Dammit, I knew I should have paid more attention in biology class.
At just 20 years old, broke and making the best of it, I married, had a girl and then at 22, a boy. To make ends meet, I glued every pinecone I could find together to make wreaths; I stiffened fabric bows and attached them to baskets, hung them over doorways and decorated bassinets. I glued dried flowers to sleigh bells and stuffed cans, baskets and boxes with baby’s breath harvested from ditches to arranged dried flowers in and adorn with -you guessed it – more fabric bows! I sewed Elves, toilet paper cover mice and quilts. I drove to and sold at every Christmas fair within 100 miles from home. I also sewed rugs… bears, cougars, wolf, beaver and buffalo. Did you know that buffalo hides are so big that one will cover an entire large living room floor!
My kids loved that…as I sewed the felt onto the permitter they would get rotated sitting in the middle of the hides. I had a cupboard that they would crawl over to for crackers and it seemed like Sesame Street was always on. Eventually, I returned to nursing school (LPN), had back surgery, trained to be an office administrator, endured divorce and left my home in the mountains for one on the prairies working as a conveyancing secretary.
I was 27 years old and tougher than cougar s**t rolled in gravel.
Eventually, I happily remarried and ran a gift/house decor shop in the town of Brooks, Alberta. I had begun making pottery and loved creating store displays and window arrangements.
I thought my thirties would be MY decade – a decade of fun and of creativity, of clay. By the time I was 34, I had sold my shop, my husband had lost his business and my step-son was killed. Topping it off, my childhood church was demolished and I suffered a breakdown.
When I came out the other end, I was looking to feel simple things on my cheeks again…
I enrolled in art classes at the Medicine Hat College, it was close to home and I had always wanted to learn how to draw. I loved it. I was so old; my classmates weren’t much older than my children but their sense of freedom and discovery was so empowering. I felt 21 (and not pregnant) again! After my first year, I applied to and was accepted to the University of Lethbridge Fine Arts Department. I signed up for my classes and one of them was painting. I had never painted anything more than a wall or the siding of my childhood home while hungover (not recommended). I immediately bought acrylic paints and decided that I should practice during the summer. My first painting was beyond awful. I tried to paint every brick, every leaf and every blade of grass in my back yard.
In the words of Austin Powers, I was tight….tight like a tiger!
It seems to me that life is like a roller coaster. Plenty of ups and plenty of downs. I finished my BFA degree with great distinction and began working for the school system back in Brooks. Great job, great people, but I wasn’t making art.
I decided to not return after a year and opened up shop as a photographer. As my business grew, my family shrunk and my young father died of cancer. Time went on and a few years later, I started thinking of taking on my Masters. I no longer was the student who’s work was a reflection of assignments. I had established a working studio and felt passionate about art making. I embraced a need to surround myself with the higher ideals of learning and of making something by hand. It’s right about then that I am told I have breast cancer.
What the hell…..I was sure my 40s were going to kick ass.
I had surgery in December, chemo through April and radiation was finished in early June. August rolled around and I found myself sitting almost bald in a lecture room at the University of Saskatchewan. Rather than sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I figured let’s get at it.
At the same time, my daughter was making wedding plans (I know, right!) and I became interested/concerned about the cost of setting up house for her. It made me aware of the marketing strategies that companies use to sell complete crap to home owners so I wrote and created my thesis exhibition around those issues.
I completed my MFA in Photography and Painting in 2012.
Five years later. I am a full time studio artist (AND grandmother x5!!) who paints with oil, acrylic, spray and chalk paint. I use any surface I can get my hands on but mostly canvas and inadvertently, the seat of my car, most of my clothing and all of my shoes. My studio practice is a contemporary inquiry into domestic space and its relationship to theatricality, spectacle, memory and nostalgia. It is a response to how the spectacle of consumer culture relies upon the home to embody a place of memory and imagination in order to demonstrate goods in a fashion that evokes ideas of the simple domestic times of yesterday, of nostalgia, and of a return to elegance. My work explores the manifestation of home renovation and decoration consumerism and its success at seducing society into the excessiveness of current trends like chandeliers, hand-knotted rugs, collections of tchotchkes.
I demonstrate excessiveness by painting large scale interiors (up to 18’ wide) that look as though you can walk into them. I loosely use the iconography of candelabras and chandeliers to illustrate the ideals of nostalgic elegance and bright chaotic colours to represent family drama.
I am interested in artistic processes where I have to use my hands to manipulate materials…… ceramics, sewing, fibre, glass and old school photography. I use these things to understand the world around me …. It’s my way of filtering experiences and discovering new ideas. I look at paintings like a puzzle: each piece of the puzzle responds to all the other pieces already put down and when they are put together well, they illuminate the intention I had within myself while creating it.
Next summer, I will spend 5 months at the Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics in Medicine Hat, Alberta. It will provide 5 months for intensive examination of ideas related to the material and process of ceramics and how these ideas and processes can help further disseminate my studio practice inquiries.
I am no longer waiting for MY decade to arrive. I am in my fifth one and have finally discovered that as long as I have a studio practice, I can navigate my world. When I make art, … I am present … and it doesn’t get better than that.
My work has been shown in public galleries in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The next exhibition of my paintings is scheduled for September 2018 at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie.
Me and my crazy crew….
As you can see, my children have long flown the coop and are busy making new chickadees for me to love. When I am not cuddling, I am painting in one of my two studios. During winter, I paint on a beach in Mexico and the rest of the time, I am in southern Alberta working away.
I hold a BFA with great distinction from the University of Lethbridge and an MFA from the University of Saskatchewan. I have exhibited in public galleries in Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC.
PHOTO by Rachel Boekel Photography.
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