Peggy Murphy is a Seattle painter and University of Washington alumnus whose passion for the materiality and physicality of the creative process yields fantastic, fascinating gestural abstractions. Nature, understated symbology, and intriguing suggestions of hidden stories all coalesce into a beautiful body of work that has been shown at ArtsWest, Phinney Center, Pratt Gallery, Seattle Design Center, and Shift Gallery, where she is currently a member.
In our chat about her current work, which is on view at Shift Gallery through August 27, we talk about life and death, control and chaos, and the almost-sacredness of blue.
You’ve described your current show, Song to the Moon, as a plea, or a bargain with the uncertainty of your world. Of all the terrible things happening these days, what would you most like to see fixed?
Uncertainty is such an inevitable part of being human. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a little more evidence or a lot more faith that there was a soft landing to whatever befalls us?
Absolutely! When you say “befalls us” are we talking about death? What’s your take on the idea of an afterlife?
I was trying to answer that question pretty broadly, but I guess I was thinking of any situation where fear of the outcome prevents us from really being able to move forward with confidence and fully embrace life—yes that would definitely include death!
Your show title Song to the Moon is from Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, are you an opera fan? How would you encourage someone who finds the genre a little difficult to access?
I am an opera fan. Opera music is great, but it is the visual aspect that makes it so accessible. Go to a production or watch a video—it's a big genre with something for everyone!
And what music do you like to paint to?
I always listen to music when I paint. I have a studio at home, have a great sound system, and can turn up the volume. Often music is what drives me into the studio rather than painting. I listen to everything, but I lean towards classical.
You’ve mentioned that painting was a way of controlling chaos, and I think we can all relate to wanting at least one space in our lives where we are the captain. In your painting practice, do you feel that you have complete control?
Chaos is a beautiful part of making a painting. In the early stages of a painting I revel in it. The challenge and problem-solving involved in reining it under a certain amount of control is really what drives my process. My sense of uncertainty during the last few years has led me to perhaps exercise a bit too much control, and I hope in the future I can let a little more of that chaos shine through.
It’s a fascinating relationship, the emotional temperature of the world at a given time, and the art that comes out of that moment. What is your favorite art movement?
I don’t really have a favorite movement or artist. I’m always surprised at what piques my interest at different times. SAM’s Royal Paintings of Jodphur exhibit (quite a few years ago) dazzled me, and I often take a detour to SAM while downtown just to visit Cleveland Rockwell’s Smokey Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.
Can you expand on the role of nature in your work, and what about it inspires you?
For many years, I worked in the field of horticulture. It is still a big part of my life. Botany, gardens, growing—the little “close-to-home” version of nature is probably my major influence. I always think I want to paint landscapes, I’m so envious of plein air painters. I try, but it just doesn’t click… yet!
I remember your 2016 show, Epictritic Memory, at ArtsWest, and your new collection at Shift also seems unified by a color theme. Do you consciously lean into color moods for more unified showings, or are your color selections more like a slow continuum?
I work on multiple paintings at one time, so it is just practical to have a similar palette between the work. The work in Song to the Moon seemed to demand the rarified, almost-sacredness of the color blue. Blue is a color I don’t know well and never use with such a broad hand. I used so much blue in these recent paintings that it almost seemed to act as a neutral.
What do you love about our world today? What are you most grateful for?
Oh gosh, on a good day, the whole big beautiful mess of it all—and in a pinch there is always music.
Song to the Moon runs through August 27 at Shift Gallery, 312 S. Washington St, Seattle. Open Fridays and Saturdays 11 am to 4 pm, or by appointment.