Molly Murphy: Reservations Required
March 7 2008 - May 24 2008
Molly Murphy was born in Great Falls, Montana, and is a descendant of the Oglala Lakota tribe. She was raised in western Montana and attended The University of Montana. This comprehensive exhibition is featured in the Lynda M. Frost Gallery which is dedicated to showcasing the work of contemporary American Indian artists.
Artist-In-Residency: In conjunction with her exhibition and with the support of the Montana Arts Council, Molly Murphy will be offering a series of classes to the community during the month of April. Having embraced the rich history of Native American beadwork and the language of contemporary art, Murphy brings a unique set of skills and knowledge to the classroom. Murphy will be teaching a special 4-week beading and mixed-media workshop for middle school students, a Second Saturday Family Art workshop, and a Saturday afternoon class geared for teachers wanting to gain an understanding of Native American art and culture.
In addition to these classes, Murphy will also be meeting with the visiting fifth-grade classes for one week during the Fifth Grade Art Experience. During this time she will be in the gallery demonstrating her beading techniques and talking to students about her work and the connection to her Native American culture. Please check this newsletter's listing of Art Classes for more information on Molly Murphy's workshops.
Molly kindly agreed to the following interview with MAM Curator Stephen Glueckert on December 20, 2017
SG Can you briefly talk about your background, how you became involved in art, and who tutored your interests in beading?
MM Growing up I had no concept of art. Rich people had art; actually rich people had reliable cars and art. When I was small my Mother began to learn beadwork from a Cree woman with the last name Stiff Arm who volunteered at the Headstart I attended. From that point on my Mother always beaded. She started to teach me around age 7 or 8. By the time I was 13 I was making my powwow dance outfits. Even though I loved it and was good at beadwork, I never thought of it as art. And certainly never as a career. In high school and initially in college I was completely immersed in science. I planned on pursuing a career in virology or scientific writing and reporting. After a year in college and two years working in a virology lab at UM, I was still only 17 and in desperate need of perspective and maturity. I took a lot of time off and eventually came back to college enrolled in the art department. My initial goal was to work in furniture design, perhaps pursue a degree in architectural design. I was surprised that I fell truly in love with making art. I had thought an art major would be a hoop to jump through on my way to another goal, but it was surprising how intellectual and expansive the possibilities were. By my senior year, I had exhausted my giant food phase (every art student has some shameful imitative series) and was struggling to reconcile my culture with my education. However, I came to the conclusion that mixed media beadwork is the most authentic means of storytelling for me. The hybridization of technique, imagery, and materials accurately tell my story of mixed blood ancestry, contemporary struggle, and gender roles. And that struggle for authenticity is the core of my work. It would be a lot easier to paint or take pictures, but that simply isn't how my stories tell themselves.
SG Humor and irony seem to be an important force in your work, for example, the design of the athletic tee shirts. Can you talk about humor?
MM I once heard that humor is tragedy survived. When you have generations of tragedy you require prodigious amounts of laughter. Some things are too painful to say straight out and irony and humor temper difficult subjects. It is the tragedy that isn't survived that is unspeakable. Laughter and joking may be the only way through vileness and absurdity. The tee shirt series has a funny angle, but the sentiments are terrible. The t-shirts symbolize lost athleticism and identity, obesity, and diabetes. The guys who used to play basketball who are now wearing triple X shirts have gone from warriors to couch potatoes. It would be even funnier if they weren't in danger of losing their feet. Nearly anything funny in my work is pathos. And native people do not often confront each other directly. Criticism and censure come in the form of gently shaming someone not yelling about how wrong everything is. Genuine survivors often have very little patience for rolling around in their own angst.
SG At the same time as you deal with humor, there is a distinct direction in your work that is very serious, for example, the bandoliers, belts, and hairpins. These seem to serve as contemporary tributes to the past with a strong expression of cultural identity. Can you talk about the more serious content that seems to be present in these works?
MM The more traditional pieces are not necessarily more or less serious. To me, the exploration of color and shape is wonderfully uncomplicated but still a priority. When traditional crafts are your background the making of them is incredibly satisfying. To me, there is an innate playfulness in choosing colors and designs that are a part of my history. Working with beadwork designs and techniques that your ancestors, or in some cases, your family used is a privilege. I feel like I am having a conversation with women who beaded before me. In these more traditional pieces, there isn't always an obvious message, its more the media is the message.
SG As a Contemporary Native American artist, how do you keep traditional skills and contemporary expression in balance and create your own unique voice?
MM The transition from beadwork to artist has had some uncomfortable moments. Being known as a good beadwork is a very respected place in the native community. I am still uncertain how willing I am to use beads to create pieces that don't have beauty or are overly critical. From the time you begin to learn any kind of traditional art, you are taught to keep good thoughts, think about how this will be used, and remember that your work goes on to represent your people. I would feel a kind of deep shame if I made something that had elements of vulgarity or was tainted with the meanness of spirit. So, I have to find a way to use beauty and craftsmanship to begin a conversation rather than bludgeon the viewer with my opinions.
SG Do market pressures adversely affect your approach toward contemporary expression or the contemporary art world?
MM Even before art school, I felt revulsion at making objects for sale. You don't ever want to hold back your ideas or ability, yet buyers of beadwork often have patronizing attitudes with beaders. Since art school I have adopted a strict stance to do very few special orders, all commissions are at my artistic discretion, and I make no apologies for my work. I have gotten away from making any objects that could be considered trading post items. Not because I think trading post items aren't quality, but I know how little buyers value the work of those women. Not until buyers see my work as capital "A" art will I get a true value for my pieces. How often are painters told to value every painting by how many hours go into it? On the other hand, it amazes me how the native artists I have met have shown incredible support for my more modern, edgy pieces. So far, other natives have expressed excitement and encouragement at my new ideas and efforts.
SG How important if formal education and can you talk about both formal and informal education?
MM I feel that both formal and informal education are invaluable. Without a background in traditional arts, I would be floundering. I would not have a point of view or skills that were different from anybody else. Also, learning at a young age means that a way of thinking is embedded not acquired. Conversely, a formal education is necessary to be a part of the current art "conversation". I need to know about the media, history, materials, and vocabulary. The art degree has made my beadwork infinitely more fascinating. Before art school, my beadwork designs were less innovative and more often than not I lacked the experience and vocabulary to know why an effort was succeeding. Art school gave me permission to make mistakes. Formal education has also given me the skills to document, research, and write about traditional arts. I want to contribute to how tribal museums are storing and presenting beadwork.
SG What are your thoughts about passing your own skills onto the next generation?
MM As fewer and fewer women my age bead, I hope to encourage it. Part of that effort is putting new and exciting pieces into circulation and seeing who is intrigued enough to take up a needle. My daughter sits with me and has her small projects. Even if she never pursues it with enthusiasm, I will have given her the gift of teaching her to do and make instead of buy and copy.