Breaking The Surface With Artist Eileen Murray

Breaking The Surface With Artist Eileen Murray

By Anna Horsnell


In exclusive conversations with the artists from The Prow Gallery, Breaking the Surface delves deeper into the personalities and passion behind the artistry. Our sincere thanks go out to each artist for graciously sharing from the heart. 

Eileen Murray


Where does your artistic emphasis on domesticity originate?

When I was a child, I experienced a recurring and oddly comforting dream. In the dream, there was a white clapboard, two-story house, and a sidewalk that divided the front lawn in half. The significance of this dream is augmented by a related childhood experience involving a family road trip across Canada. Somewhere in Quebec, I remember looking out of the passenger window and being mesmerized by the brightly coloured houses whose architecture was so foreign to me. Suddenly I saw the house from my dreams. The house looked plain and peaceful to me, and left me with the feeling that I somehow belonged there. I simply gazed at the house as we drove by as if fully absorbing its physical form. Interestingly enough, I never had the dream again! I have always had a keen interest in houses. I probably should have been an architect.  Finally, Mom loves to decorate as does as did her mother. I think I process my childhood experiences by creating domestic space within my work, although I don’t consciously have specific memories replaying as I paint. I do however find myself remembering certain colours or shapes or tchotchkes from past memories.

Culture certainly plays a role in the shaping and vision of home. What part do gender and femininity play in those interpretations?

Within my practice I play with notions of my personal understanding of the feminine using bold, garish colour and lavish brush marks. I think my experience of growing up in the 80’s has something to do with my attraction to excess in my work: think Madonna, Bowie, Boy George and Adam Ant, big hair, big accessories and neons. I loved the 80’s. The other cultural phenomenon that is of interest to me is the notions of nostalgia - how marketing companies use nostalgia to sell home renovation trends and push for the excesses of our personal spaces. Somewhere along the cultural line, houses stopped being for shelter and started announcing our cultural value and belonging. I don’t think home decoration in today’s society is a particularly feminine one nor is gender a determinate for how one chooses to dress their home. But it is important for me to explore both femininity and gender in my practice, partly because it allows me to negotiate my own familial histories, and perhaps more importantly, it engages with the history of still life and interior/domestic space painting. This genre has been largely dominated by male painters who did not run households or set a table for dinner. They were voyeurs in the realm of the domestic, recording perfection without the responsibility of what would have been seen as gender specific duties.

How do you approach the ageless subject of florals to create something uniquely your own?

The first time I saw a painting by Winslow Homer, it amazed me how the painting disintegrated into colour and brush marks as I got closer to it. It was amazing. When I paint, I start out loose and airy and big, and as the painting develops, I find it very difficult to stay loose. I have this absolute need to keep painting and picking and refining. Over the years, I have developed some ability to walk away sooner and let areas stay looser while working other areas into more refinement. Flowers are a tough gig to pull off; the subject has been explored for centuries and I think that’s why it’s one of the most difficult genres to paint successfully. I don’t want to imitate work that has been made before, but I never forget that work. It’s impossible to be a contemporary painter and ignore the history of painting itself. I paint like I dress - like myself. I take little things from paintings that I have studied and I use them in my own personal interpretation. My style has always been quite fluid and I think that ‘fluidity’ is a great way to describe my painting overall. It shifts just as a bouquet of flowers shifts from life to death.

You’ve experienced your fair share of grief over the years dealing with the loss of loved ones. How do those very real emotions influence or perhaps fuel the art you create?

The subject matter of my practice has never really shifted in response to grief. It seems that my interest in the domestic is deeply rooted. I know after the loss of my husband I couldn’t be moved by colour. It was actually quite terrifying because I love bold and intense colours, and I communicate to myself and to the viewers of my work using them. I don’t know exactly when, but one day I was playing with crayons in a sketchbook and it happened. I could feel colour again and I was so full of joy. I think my palette is possibly more subtle than it once was. Maybe that is a natural progression. Maybe it’s my response to being quieter in my life, or maybe it’s the calm before the storm! 

In your years of professional study, which professor or subject stands out in your memory as having made the greatest influence in your artistic development?

I have two. Dagmar Dahle was my painting instructor throughout my BFA - she taught me how to think about painting. Allyson Glenn was my mentor throughout my MFA. She is an incredibly skilled painter, and she taught me how she painted and I learned to paint how I paint.

Would you briefly walk us through the creation process of one of your paintings?

I generally start by cleaning my palette and fighting with every demon that has ever presented itself in my life. Ha-ha. Somehow that process quiets all the ghosts and I enter a very present space where I think about a picture or a memory or a pattern or a painting or a flower, and I start making marks. In the painting “Winter’s Dream” for example, I knew that I wanted to paint a cat similar to Pierre Bonnard’s cats so, I made up a domestic space in my head where the cat could be, and it grew into an interior. I think of books or plants or arrangements or furniture that I either have or have seen, and I make up a ‘room’. It’s all very abstract and intuitive; I don’t sketch ideas out beforehand. As I work, I respond to each part of the painting and make changes until it reaches some state of cohesiveness. In the end, it becomes very technical and not about a cat or a room or a still life. It  becomes completely formal. I look at balance, space, colour, mark making, variety of shapes, entering and exiting the picture plane, warm and cold, and how I hope a viewer will travel through the painting. I hope they drift in, and then are kicked out, and then back in again and again and again. 


What is one misperception you find the general public has about artists? 

I think many people think that being able to draw or paint or make music or write is a gift or a natural born talent. It’s not a gift. It is a skill that takes years and years and years of practice to get good enough to realize how much you still have to learn.

If you were a colour, what colour would you be?

I think I would be a different colour everyday! I’ve always had lower energy in mid-week so I believe I’d be green on Wednesdays, mellow, low key and slow.  Every Sunday, I like to think I won’t paint at all. I think I will nap and read and let my studio be empty. It rarely happens. I find myself sitting in front of my easel pretending not to become engrossed. So, on Sundays, I would be pink - fresh, playful and full of life. The other days, I can’t say for sure. All I know for certain is that I would never be brown or beige or taupe!

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