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College alumna shares art, inspiration behind work

| Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Saint Mary’s acts as a blank canvas for many students to make their marks on the world. For College alumna Nancy Murphy Spicer, this took on a more literal meaning. Following her graduation in 1979, Murphy Spicer embarked on a career in modern art, leading to her speak at Vander Vennet Theater on Monday afternoon.

Originally, Murphy Spicer said her work was mostly abstract, but when she got her mid-career Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she focused on portraiture. Murphy Spicer said she found inspiration for most of her new series “The New Brag” from the Instagram accounts of the people she knows.

“These are images that the subjects, in most cases, have constructed themselves. I have encountered them and felt the desire to bring them into the realm of painting,” she said.

A majority of the portraits in her most recent series feature women. She focused on representation and honoring the women who influenced her while she was at Saint Mary’s and after, she said.

“I have been trying to create my own art history and genealogy ever since I was in a lot of art history classes,” Murphy Spicer said. “You will learn about a lot of male artists. I found it hard to imagine myself into being an artist.”

Murphy Spicer displayed a picture of her finished master’s studio. She noted a piece of writing in the right-hand corner of the artwork and explained how a moment at the College influenced the piece.

“[The writing] comes from a letter my father wrote me while I was a senior here at Saint Mary’s saying, ‘I’m concerned for your economic viability.’ I was like, ‘What is he talking about? Oh, he’s worried. He’s worried I’m going to be broke,’” Murphy Spicer said.

She said this concern from her father may have been warranted, but Murphy Spicer went on to sell and show her artwork across the globe in places such as the Carroll and Sons gallery in Boston, RAUMX in London and 18m Salon in Berlin.

She not only commented on the origins and nature of her work but also her views on the pursuit of art. She discussed her accomplishments in order to reinforce the idea that art can be a social enterprise.

“I really do think that this idea of the lone artist, let’s just get rid of that, you really are always trying to do so many different things, and I can remember that I went through a whole phase before I had children, ‘Is having children going to destroy my art life?’ That is a big question for women,” Murphy Spicer said. “After I had my daughters, I had this language that they are like rocks tied around my feet and wings on my back. I could not live without them.”

Both of Murphy Spicer’s daughter, who are now adults, are featured in her latest work.

Murphy Spicer said she changed the focus and motivation of her work while in graduate school, which she attended as an already-accomplished artist.

“I was in a good grove,” Murphy Spicer said. “I obviously thought I knew what I was doing, but I wanted that to be disrupted, so I went to graduate school. One of my first professors threw me off, she said, ‘Make it literal, make it clunky and tell the story of your life.’ I just wanted to vomit.”

This change caused her work to become more literal both visually and in meaning as it became focused on figure instead of shape and color, she said. Murphy Spicer cited her involvement in the 2016 Clinton campaign as a form of motivation for her more recent artistic work.

“It took a couple years for me to work my way into this work. The work also resides in a very specific cultural moment,” Murphy Spicer said. “While this work was going on, there were daily news reports that are a constant reminder of the profound rape culture that we live in. I just felt like I had to make something to help myself survive and remind me that we have power that we can stand in our power.”

Later in the lecture, Murphy Spicer shared another piece of her inspiration — a poem speaking of using art to create an escape from the world.

“I really needed to create a world that somehow had more possibilities in it than the world I was,” she said.

Murphy Spicer will be displaying her work at Saint Mary’s as a part of her class reunion in June.

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