In Conversation With Keavy Murphree

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Murphree creates ceramic sculptures resembling fantastical human faces and animal creatures. She is inspired by her childhood going to museums with her parents and life with her children. Murphree worked as an industrial designer for many years before opening her own studio in 2018. Her work draws on contemporary design and shows a deep reverence for folk and indigenous art discovered in the Americas. Many of those objects were imbued with the spiritual life of the cultures from which they originated. Murphree's ceramics, including vases, sculptures, and side tables, similarly seem inhabited by friendly and benevolent house gods watching over family homes. "D.H. Lawrence said, 'the human soul needs actual beauty more than bread,' and that's a quote that has run as an undercurrent throughout my life," Murphree says.  

Lauren Sands sat down with Keavy to discuss her background, inspiration and balancing creativity with the practical aspects of being a working artist. 

 

1. Tell us a little about your background and how you got into art?

I grew up in a house full of artwork on the walls and in books. My mom never throws anything away, so there were always supplies on hand to experiment with. I was making 'clothes' at 7 and quilting at 10, decoupage with old stamps, large paper mache animals, stuff like that. (I remember these projects b/c my mom kept them till they fell apart!) It wasn't until high school that I really got into ceramics. By the time college rolled around, I had opted for what seemed like the practical route so I could 'get a job' upon graduation. I studied industrial design, thinking I'd apply my sculptural instincts to functional objects. 

It sort of went like that. By the time I graduated, I could only imagine what interviewers were thinking when looking at my portfolio. 

It was appropriately titled "Vignettes" stitched through the front cover of the hand-bound book, naturally (ha!). It included a strange spandex headdress for 'dancing', black and white photographs from an architectural salvage shop, a fashion collection based on 'touch.' Those reading it must have thought: "YOU want an industrial design job!?" I guess I've always been more on the artistic side. My creative drive has always been at odds with my perception of the 'practical' thing to do. So finally, a few years ago, I decided just to make what I really wanted to make and without compromise. I figured out that all jobs have their groan-inducing parts, so I might as well choose something I love to do! While this seemed like a one-time decision, it's really a process of always checking in with myself when opportunities arise to make sure it's a 'hell yes!'

2. Your face jugs are so playful and whimsical; what is the inspiration behind them?

I was so moved the first time I saw face jugs from the American South. I thought the faces were sort of shocking, almost grotesque, while still being funny and charming. After that, I couldn't stop thinking about them and simply had to try one in my own style. I was experimenting a lot at that time with face relief sculptures and simple drawings, and something clicked when I saw the face jugs.

The tradition of faces on pottery goes back to Egyptian and Mesopotamian times and appears in many other cultures throughout history. There are conflicting stories of the history of American face jugs, but it's generally agreed that they were made by enslaved peoples in the southern United States. Then later adopted into a wider folk art culture.

My personal style is more simple and refined than those I originally saw in Asheville. It's really about the faces and other attributes for me. The fact that it's on a vessel is just happenstance. One of my favorite design-y quotes from the dutch designer Hella Jongerious is, "Who'd want to ruin a perfectly good vase by putting flowers in it?" The functionality is secondary to the aesthetics.

The collection for LES is an evolution of this original inspiration and started as a 'what if…..' experiment.

It's no secret I'm a fan of the clay extruder (think Playdoh Fun Factory). Using perfectly extruded coils is something I've long enjoyed using in my work. For this collection of work, I wanted to dig into that and use the coils to create a cohesive element across all the pieces. There is something really satisfying to me about the precise coil used in a fun and whimsical way. While all these pieces share the same type of 'hair,' I continued to experiment with the 'feet.' All of these vessels stand on the table a little differently. By the end of this series of 6 pieces, I finally settled on the base I like best. Thinking of each piece I made as an experiment or evolution helps my creative process, takes the pressure off, and creates a dialogue with the concepts and medium. Pushing the wavy hair beyond just a couple of pieces was a fun exercise to see what would happen in the faces. Mirame was the first piece, and Sir Baby was the last. I think Sir Baby's face is starting to give off some 80's Memphis vibes, and I'm here for it.

 

3. How do you come up with their names?

I love pet names, so that's a constant well of inspiration. I think my work is endearing, so I try to match the name in that way. I love the occasional pop culture reference, especially from music. I want my work to represent the inclusivity that I'd like to see in the world. I love to embrace the offbeat, the outcasts, the weirdos, so the names are an extension of that. 

4. Do you collect anything? What type of art are you drawn to in your own home?

My favorite piece of artwork in my home has been a part of my whole life. I grew up with a big, colorful abstract still life that my mom picked up in the '70s. It's full of bright oranges, a pink checkerboard, a big green vase, all outlined in red. I just love the mix of color and pattern! My mom gifted it to me when we moved into our current home, where it is prominently hung in our living room.

My very favorite pieces are near and dear to my heart– blown up B+W photographs of my children taken in the bathtub, my daughter's face surrounded by bubbles, and my son with giant scuba goggles and a snorkle hung above my bathtub.

I'm building out my art library and recently got a catalog of Barbara Nessim's illustrations called An Artful Life. I wasn't familiar with her work before, and it's been a fun one to flip through. 

5. What artists are you inspired by?

I love the way Kevin Sabo represents different groups of people in a bold, playful way. I'm fascinated by the recent scientific discoveries in gender vs. biological sex. I love how his work challenges gender norms, and the bright, bold colors and compositions don't hurt either.

6. Tell us a little bit about your routine. Do you do anything to nurture or feed your creativity? 

Most days, I arrive at my studio about 8:30 am before anyone else is there when it's quiet and still. I really enjoy the morning sunshine that pours in through the wall-to-wall windows. I take a few minutes to sketch, gather my thoughts for the day, and see what needs to be done. 

I've had to adapt to the ebb and flow of feeling really focused, inspired, and energized with the more wide-with-possibility, open nature of slower, less structured times. I used to feel a need to be in a work frenzy all the time, but I've started to appreciate the time to be still and dream more. One idea leads to the next when there is an openness to my day.

7. How do you balance the creative side of being an artist with business tasks?

Every day I tell myself I'll get caught up with all that in the evening. But every day, I do not do that. So about once every two weeks, I spend a day at home tackling administrative tasks in front of my computer. Sometimes I do it on the weekend. I also make a conscious effort to consider all aspects of what I'm doing as a creative exercise. Everything can benefit from a creative solution, especially when it comes to marketing and collateral. I remember sitting down with my bookkeeper one day and was astounded by how excited she was to solve a particular reconciliation issue! Can you imagine?! What a bore! Anyhow, I recognized in her that same spark of enthusiasm I get when I'm in the studio. It inspired me to approach the more mundane aspects of running a business with more zeal.

All that said, earlier this year, I realized that I could prioritize my studio time making things or working on all the other stuff. It had started to get difficult to do both. So I've been dabbling with outsourcing things I'm not very good at, and that's been the right move.

8. What kind of self-care do you find essential?

All winter, I take a long bath almost every night, as a cold-blooded creature might enjoy. I also really like making dinner most nights. There is something meditative and indulgent about spending the time to prepare a meal and then getting to enjoy the delicious results with my family. Speaking of meditation, that's something I should really do more of. I love the way it clears and resets my mind! The Headspace app has been making inroads into my routine.

I'm an introvert and really recharge with quiet time alone at home or in my studio.

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