Vibrant and vivid

Laura Murphy explores art, a part of her heritage.

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Having a renowned painter as your father and a writer as your mother, one is bound to develop an interest in the arts. That’s Laura Murphy’s story. Her father, Stan Murphy, was one of the Island’s premier artists in his day (his work is still highly collectible), while her mother Polly was a poet and writer who worked for the Vineyard Gazette for many years. However, although she considered pursuing painting in her early years, Laura Murphy chose a different life path, and has only recently started exploring her artistic side. 

Currently a series of Murphy’s paintings is on display at the West Tisbury library. There’s a nice simplicity to her landscapes in oil. She has her own view of a scene, often playing with color and/or perspective.

For example, a view of the road alongside Farm Pond shows a whimsically huddled cluster of evergreens along Beach Road in the distance, with a series of telephone poles jauntily bending this way and that — providing punctuation to a cloudy sky streaked with quickly executed blue brushstrokes. 

In her interpretation of a scene that her father revisited over and over in his career, Murphy has chosen a vivid red and purple palette to heighten the color of a favorite field behind the family homestead. The autumn grass is shown in deep orange shades, while the focal point, a large beetlebung tree, shows off its splendor in glowing crimson against a purple and pink sunset. 

“Playing around with color is a challenge to me,” says Murphy. “I have to ask myself to be brave about it. Sometimes I decide that a certain color looks better than the real color.”

Born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard, Murphy was in her early 20s when she first thought of trying her hand at painting. Her father, who had already made a name for himself at that time, offered to mentor her for six months. Rather than providing instruction per se, Stan Murphy gave his daughter a space to work and art books to study, while offering up weekly assignments that allowed her to explore different media such as pastels or oils, and different perspectives like self-portraiture or plein air painting. “In the morning I was working as a farm hand at Arrowhead Farm,” recalls Murphy. “In the afternoon he would give me a project, and then critique my work.”

Although she gained a lot from the experience, Murphy decided not to pursue an art career at that time. “What I think happened is that it became pretty clear that that wasn’t my direction,” she says. “It wasn’t anything he said or did. He just gave me that time to figure it out.”

Instead, Murphy left the Island for nursing school and a specialized midwife program, and then began a lifelong career as a certified nurse midwife, working in hospitals in Philadelphia and points around Massachusetts for more than 20 years. 

When Murphy eventually returned to the Island in 1999, she took on the position of VNA public health nurse, serving all six Island towns. “It was great because I got to go back into homes I had been in as a young person,” she says. 

Murphy’s memories of growing up on the Island include sitting around the table listening to her parents discuss art and culture with other Island artists, including famed Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton, who spent summers on the Vineyard with his wife Rita. “She would knit us hats,” recalls Murphy. “They were just real people in our lives.”

All of that immersion in the art world has certainly had a lasting impact on Murphy’s life. And though she put aside her own pursuit of painting for decades (although she dabbled a bit over the years) while she worked and raised her son, she still finds that the time she spent studying with her father has left a lasting impression. 

“When I went back to trying to figure it out for myself, I felt like that experience was a really good basic education,” she says. “It lasted over the decades, with my not ever really using it seriously until now.” 

Paintings by Laura Murphy will be on display in May in the West Tisbury library community room The art show is free and open to the public during library hours, 10 am to 6 pm, Monday through Thursday, 10 am to 5 pm, Friday and Saturday, and noon to 4 pm on Sunday.

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