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Omaha Magazine

The Art of the Gesture

Mar 03, 2020 04:15PM ● By Sarah Wengert

Mary Murphy is moving. She’s moving on—from the 1929 house on the tree-lined midtown street where she lived for 30 years and from her eight-year art studio home at the Mastercraft Building. She’s also moving in—to a brand-new, lakeside home out west and to her new studio at Thrive Space in Waterloo, Nebraska.

“I’m very influenced by my environment and experiences,” said Murphy, acknowledging a curiosity in how this dual change of scenery might affect her ensuing artwork. “It will be interesting to see how I react in my work to being near farms and the big Nebraska sky unblocked by trees and buildings.”

Crucially, amidst all this motion and change, Murphy also persists in her skilled artistic gestures, continuing to build on a colorful, compelling body of work. Murphy, who works primarily as a painter, often incorporating mixed media, pairs an encyclopedic understanding of technical skill and art history with a deeply intuitive approach. 

Speaking of movement, Murphy finds “the gesture” absolutely central to art.

“Who was the artist who said, ‘Art is all about the gesture?’ It’s all in the way you move your hand, in the gesture you make,” she said.

That artist was John Marin, who said, “Art is just a series of natural gestures.” Murphy takes this concept to heart in her work, as she creates mini worlds for the viewer to inhabit and explore, carefully considering where the eye might move and what the viewer will uncover.

“It’s almost like an archaeological dig,” she said. “I want the viewer to be an archaeologist in finding buried treasures within my work.”

Indeed, excavating the layers of Murphy’s work is a treat of unabashed colors, slightly offbeat characters, ever-emerging supporting details, and an overall sense of movement. Her work is expressive, emotional, and encourages the eye to linger longer, finding new elements just before one might turn to look away.

“I merge representationalism and abstraction in a very expressionistic way. My work is about drama and escapism; my people are beautiful, but with an edge,” she said. “There’s always a main character in my work, but what’s surrounding it is just as important because it keeps your eye moving. I want viewers to want to come back to it often to find different nuances. I like ambiguity and distortions—I find them more interesting to look at.”

While Murphy does consider her audience’s journey, she works entirely for herself, more out of need than choice. She’s even asked herself if art is still where she wants to invest her time, continuing to spend days alone in her studio.

“The answer is ‘yes,’ because I didn’t choose art, it chose me,” she said. “I think painting is like writing a poem rather than a biography because when you start it you’re not sure how it’s going to end. As an artist, I know when it’s done. It’s a good feeling because a painting has a life that’s inevitable and once I feel that a piece is inevitable I can stop working on it.”

Mary Murphy and painting view from above

Murphy, who’s enamored with art history, has taught art at every level from elementary to university. She began her own art education with an encyclopedia that featured panting. As a little girl, she was so fascinated she’d take the volume to bed with her so she could marvel just a bit longer at the incredible artistry.

“At that point, I hadn’t been to a museum yet and was stunned at how painters could use just the viscosity of oil paint and make these beautiful pictures that were 2D but looked 3D,” Murphy recalled. “I just thought it was the most amazing, inspiring thing in the whole world. I suppose it would be like a dancer seeing the ballet for the first time or a musician hearing Mozart for the first time.”

Murphy’s father made art as a hobby and together they’d draw and paint, later taking classes at Joslyn Art Museum where Murphy is now a docent. As a child, she would illustrate her book reports, which the nuns at her Catholic grade school put the kibosh on because, they said at the time, “Girls don’t paint.” When Murphy’s layperson sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hupp, actually encouraged her as an artist—entering Murphy’s work in a contest, which she went on to win—it meant a lot to the budding talent and she made up her mind to forge a career in art.

Murphy, in turn, has inspired countless other artists while working as an art educator and serving as a mentor. 

“I think a solid background in art history really helps artists grow into their own work,” she said.

Former student and family friend Jennifer Reed-Bouley, Ph.D., and director of the theology program at St. Margaret Mary (where Murphy was her art teacher) said in an email she appreciates others’ talent and perseverance, a trait she shares with her mother.    

Murphy was a close friend of Reed-Bouley’s mother, Ivel Reed, who passed away in December 2015. She said when their family moved to Omaha in 1981, Murphy and her mother worked together to decorate the family’s home.

“Mary created beautiful and large pieces of art for our family room, living room, and other areas of the house,” she said. “Our family cherishes those pieces. When I look at them even today, I value the ways in which  the colors, shapes, and movement in the pieces remind me of my mom’s capacity to perceive vivid beauty and joy in art and in life.”

Murphy said she takes inspiration from creators in various genres of art, including poetry and music (she paints to everything from classical to Metallica). She interprets the entirety of the world around her. Her work is a mosaic of pop culture, news, film, people she encounters, and other common stimuli.     

“I structure my paintings and drawings in layers, formed by successive mark-making, to create a new description of my environment—be it nature, pop culture, film, poetry—and then I try to get my eye and hand in sync. Action and reaction. Image, process, gesture, mark, and meaning,” she said. It’s as if she grinds the coffee beans of daily life, then brews them into a pot of brilliant paintings, her artistic eye reflecting the world back onto itself. “Life and work are not so separate. I see an image in a newspaper or magazine that attracts me and I know I can transform and reinvent it into a painting.”

Murphy loves pop culture, from high brow to low brow, The New Yorker to reality TV divas.

“It really runs the gamut, but from these various human stories that I encounter every day, I collage everything that interests my eye,” she said. “I guess if I wasn’t so visual and intuitive, I couldn’t make the imagery I make. It would probably be more minimal, but my work is very maximalist, very baroque.”

As Murphy nests in her new studio, which she moved to in December 2019, she notes the good energy of the space—and there’s one really cool, full-circle reason why it must feel so good there to this former art educator. Like the Mastercraft, Thrive Space is a repurposed building. In its former life, it was DC West Middle School, and Murphy’s new studio was once the art room.

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This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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