My grandmother used to tell me that when I was little, they lived right on the bay, and I used to spend a month with them every summer. She told me “when you were very little, you would terrify us, because whenever you first got here you would just run and you would go as far as you could out to the water. We couldn’t stop you, you would swim as far as you could swim and then finally you would come back in your little polkadot swimsuit.”
She would always ask me why I did that, and I used to tell her that I just wanted to know that I could. I wanted to know where that barrier was…
And I want my paintings to capture that spirit. I think I’m always trying different ways to see if I can make people curious.
I like to use materials in such a way as you don’t know quite how they were made. I want the materials to be a little bit… like they just happened. So maybe that’s part of it, I want people to experience that sense of “where is this, how did this happen, how did that mark get made?”
With a laugh as vibrant as her scarlet red hair, Erin Murphy is 24-year-old painter based in Nashville, Tennessee. Raised in the South, art-schooled in New England, her sculptures and paintings have a depth and soul that is mirrored in her persona: warm and inviting, but full of challenge and an unexpected somber truth.
I use a lot of colour layering, and I think it’s part of the mystery of painting, I think with one layer it’s pretty straightforward what happened, but once you get a little deeper, and it has a lot of history, then it becomes harder to discern what came first and what came after. I want people to be able to dig through them a little bit.
Erin graduated from Art School in December 2011, and was given a short residency in New York, and recently has again become a full time painter. But she hasn’t always had that privilege, and still struggles to make a living from her work.
It’s always been easier for me to promote other people than myself. That’s still something that I’m navigating. Because even when I do start negotiating successfully, then I just feel kinda bad about it. Like, we shouldn’t be talking about these things!
After my residency, the school that I went to offered me a full time office job, with benefits, doing fundraising for art, so I went back to Baltimore and became the annual fund coordinator for almost two years… which was eye opening!
I was so lucky to have that job, because it was really important me to be able to support myself financially – going home was not an option. But I had no idea what to do with a painting degree! Like… I can waitress!
I think being in fundraising took me from not being able to talk about money at all. It was just helpful to know how those things work. But I just realised that I wanted to work in other spaces, I wanted to work with other people who didn’t all have the same degree from the same college.
Like when I was working at the sculpture park in New York we had people come with crazy ideas! They’d never been to art school; they were just really passionate about art.
Then I knew these people who were “career” artists and they just seemed tired… They didn’t have that same fire.
Having spent what she considered too much time around academia, Erin knew that further studies were not what she wanted to pursue. Instead, she went on an educational pilgrimage of her own.
Travel was something I had wanted to do since I was an exchange student in England. I met these two girls who were travelling from Australia, and they were travelling for a year, they were just backpacking. And it was like everything I never knew I had always needed to be doing.
So that was in the back of my mind, and then one of my really good friends who lives in London emailed me saying “I’m getting married in two months in Toulouse, and I really want you to be there.” And then I got a phone call, like the same day, that my studio burned down, like actually burned down and everything was gone!
And I was like well if I don’t have a studio, and I have a lot of money saved… I know I wanna do this… So it was a month, a month between me quitting my job, I bought a backpack, I packed up all my stuff and sold everything I could sell.
And my friend’s wedding actually got cancelled, so then I was in Europe, with no plan whatsoever, and it just turned out to be amazing!
Then I went to South Africa to do a residency. It was good for me to just be that free… to not have all these things that I was pretending. We fill our lives with all this stuff, all these obligations, and all of that fell away. I tried to make art, but also just see a lot of art.
Whatever medium we work with, for artists, there is nothing as valuable as being surrounded by new stimuli. Architects, musicians, poets and filmmakers, we all draw on the environment and spaces around us. Erin’s time travelling and seeing art and nature across the continents gave her a new direction for her work.
In Ireland, I got to paint in a cave, which was a dream: a weird dream of mine! I’ve got a documentary on caves, and before I left I was actually making paintings for it. I was making these tar paintings, and then sort of carving light out of them.
And then I started reading this documentary on a caver, and he talked about how caves and darkness and the “deep” places in the world are the last unexplored places on earth. They’re the only places that we can’t really see, like we can’t even really infrared map them to see what’s down there, so there are these guys who are extreme cavers.
And even though it’s some people’s worst nightmare, it fascinates me that people want to explore those caves. I think people want to explore for the sake of exploring – I think we’re curious because we’re curious.
In school we’re given this narrative that people explored because they wanted gold and they wanted wealth. That’s like people who travel for business, but then you have cavers, and they’re like “we just wanna see how deep it goes. It could be one mile, it could be 20 miles, but no-one will know until we risk our lives to swim to the end and discover exactly how many miles.”
It’s kind of a crazy concept that people would devote their lives to just seeing how far something went, how far they could get, and I think it’s a really beautiful metaphor, for life or for humanness – they just wanted to see. I think it’s kind of a personal narrative for me.
Erin’s studio is a wonderful mess; the tell-tale sign that the artist who dwells within is alive with creativity. Her show “Quoting Nature” just finished in Baltimore, and she is busy preparing and experimenting for a show in Nashville in September.
Under the canvases, pallettes, paintbrushes and frames, I spot Van Gogh’s book of letters…
Van Gogh? Oh he’s just so painfully sincere. A lot of people don’t realise he was a pastor before he was a painter. He just had too unusual of a personality, and was too revolutionary with his ideas probably.
He just kept making things, although he was never well received. And now he’s huge, and we look up to him and we realise what a brilliant draftsman he was, but at that time the only person who would buy his work was his brother.
I’m less talented, but equally driven… that’s what I like to think… with the same dogged spirit.
Sometimes when I’m not selling work and I’m not showing, and I can’t figure out what to do with what I’ve made, I start to feel like I’m not contributing to society, to other people – like, I must not be making something that other people need, and that makes me feel really frivolous. It makes me feel really selfish, like I’m wasting other people’s time by making those things that are cluttering the world.
So I think that reading someone like Van Gogh you awaken the tiny voice in the back of your head that says “Maybe they don’t make sense now, but maybe someday people will really appreciate these.” And maybe that’s why I’m so compelled to sit here and make them.
Erin’s works really do contain the mystery and the depth and the quotes of nature that she hopes them to hold. In front of her work, I feel like I have to hold my breath – that at any moment, the deluge of nature’s strength will pour out of the canvas and be unleashed into my being. Her daring, fiery reds, her untameable wild blues, her turbulent winds or her still, still waters. It is at times like these when I long for a house with empty walls to fill.
There is nothing like seeing them in person and being able to read into their layers, but please go and visit her website and take a moment to breathe in their reflectiveness, their questions, their vastness.