Purposeful art: Stan Murphy’s Island in transition

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A self-portrait of the artist.

Art that endures shares at least one thing in common. Ancient Romans called it res ipsa loquitur — the thing speaks for itself.

Specific works, like the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David and the Bible come to mind. We don’t have to know the artist, the culture, or his or her times to get the meaning. The meaning is in the work, and we understand it.

There are also artists who have produced enormous bodies of work over a long period of time with precise focus. Aesthetes as reporters, if you will. We have come to appreciate the messages — painted, written, and photographed — about this Island and its people produced by a handful of artists over long periods of time, decades of time.

Photographer Alison Shaw, Painter Ray Ellis, fiction writers Philip Craig and Cynthia Riggs are good examples. And then there is Stan Murphy, whose remarkable and unmistakable artwork spanned five decades here in the second half of the 20th century.

Mr. Murphy (1922-2003) spent the second half of the 20th century painting the Island’s people and places in a straightforward, representational style that captured the culture of a disappearing way of life here. He has long been a popular artist for private collectors and in public spaces here, and the appeal of his work continues to grow as the Island has changed, replacing the old ways and culture. There are exhibitions of his work here at least on an annual basis, in and out of season.

Guest curator Nancy Kingsley, who organized a Stan Murphy retrospective at Featherstone Gallery in 2016, said, “I believe Stan Murphy is among the most significant artists that the Island has produced. Stan Murphy painted Vineyard people in a remarkable way. He was a meticulous draftsman … The fishermen, farmers, and families of his paintings are very personal expressions of his intense attachment to his subjects.”

On Sunday, April 2, at 3 pm at the West Tisbury library, Stan Murphy’s son, David, will present 400 slides with more than 50 years of his father’s images of landscapes, flowers, and portraits.

The images convey Stan’s artistic development, breadth of subjects, and give a glimpse of how some parts of the Island looked years ago. Learn about Stan’s work with oil, acrylic, lithographs, pencil, crayon, wood, and metal. David Murphy is one of Stan’s four children. He is currently a librarian at Duxbury Library. David was inspired to show his presentation at the West Tisbury library when his sister, Laura Murphy, overheard West Tisbury library patrons discussing and wondering about Stan’s oil painting of the West Tisbury selectmen that had been temporarily hung in the library (now hanging in the West Tisbury town hall). David hopes to address the community’s curiosity and provide more information about his father’s work.

Via email this week, David Murphy said, “I have added a few images of paintings for which I did not [originally] have images, that people have been kind enough to send me. One is a striking landscape, done in the 1960s, of Herring Creek in Aquinnah at dusk with great white herons, quawks (black-crowned night heron) and colorful bushes.

“I have heard others talk about my father’s ability to capture the essence of the land, a person, or flowers. Perhaps he continues to be popular because the 50 years that he painted here were also during the Island’s transition from a community of farmers and fishermen to one of second homes. My hope is that people who don’t know of Stan Murphy will find out about him and tell others,” he said.

Mr. Murphy was evidently a fan of res ipsa loquitur. In more than 50 years of painting here, he attended only two exhibitions of his work, the second at age 80 after a friend talked him into it.

The event is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.