The Stan Murphy Retrospective

Stan Murphy, self portrait, oil on canvas.
He captured the Island’s people and places before they disappeared.

Stan Murphy’s work becomes even more precious to us as time passes. The longtime painter 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 now disappearing way of life here. A St. Paul, Minnesota, native born in 1922, Mr. Murphy settled on the Island in 1948, and spent more than 50 years painting the place and its people. He died here in 2003 at the age of 81.

Murphy’s artistic contributions will be presented in a retrospective show at the Featherstone Center for the Arts on County Road in Oak Bluffs from June 26 to July 13.

Guest curator Nancy Kingsley, who organized the retrospective, discussed her decision to curate the show. “I believe Stan Murphy is among the most significant artists that the Island has produced,” she said, comparing his work with that of Thomas Hart Benton, who was his friend. “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.”

Indeed. Mr. Murphy’s simple sketch of Gay Header Alfred Vanderhoop tells us about a man who has faced life directly, making his living every day from the land and sea. His oil portrait of West Tisbury selectmen Allen Look, Everett Whiting, and John Alley shows us workaday townsmen doing their best to be comfortable in the public spotlight.

The MVTimes’ Nelson Sigelman described the event in a 2002 story:

On Saturday morning, Mr. Murphy saw the collection for the first time when he went to the gallery by himself to line up the paintings and decide which ones would go where.
“So many of them I hadn’t seen for years and years; it was like seeing old friends again, some of them gone already, but it was a fascinating thing for me,” he said.
Mr. Murphy said the question of whether he would attend the opening or not “came up.” In the end, a letter from a friend convinced him he should go.
The last time Mr. Murphy attended a gallery opening of his work was 52 years ago, his first opening.
“After I was there, I said to Polly, ‘I am never going to do that again,’ and I didn’t.” It was a decision rooted in the essential honesty and character of the artist.
Mr. Murphy said, “What are people going to say? … They can’t say, ‘Oh boy, that really stinks.’ They are just trying to make you happy by what they say.”
He said, “You have to be a different kind of a person entirely to want to be there and to hear what people have to say, because guys who do that must believe what they hear. I don’t.”
Island resident and writer Nelson Bryant was at the exhibition that day and said, “He is a kind, loving, generous, and thoughtful friend. A first-rate human being.” Mr. Bryant observed that while none of those qualities have anything to do with being an artist, “it is nice when they are one and the same.”

Mr. Murphy shared those values. In 52 years as an artist, he attended only two public exhibitions of his work, the second at age 80, after a friend talked him into it.

Mr. Murphy painted regular Islanders at work. Here, the West Tisbury selectman Allen Look, Everett Whiting. and John Alley. The work hangs at the West Tisbury library.

Mr. Murphy painted regular Islanders at work. Here, the West Tisbury selectman Allen Look, Everett Whiting. and John Alley. The work hangs at the West Tisbury library.

In 1946, after four years of service in WWII, he attended the Art Students League in New York City, where he studied graphics, not painting, but he discovered Brueghel, Rembrandt, and other old masters in New York City’s museums.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Murphy’s wife, Polly (Woollcott), suggested they try living on Martha’s Vineyard, where she had spent her childhood summers, as a better place to live and work than the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan where they were living. The family moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1948.

Mr. Murphy worked at his art for years in a small studio behind his house on South Road in Chilmark. He declined to show his work in off-Island galleries, instead showing in the gallery next to his house, more recently the home of Kara Taylor’s gallery, located in front of the Grey Barn and Farm. The family moved to Middle Road in West Tisbury in the 1960s, but he continued to show his work at his gallery about every two years until his death in July 2003.
Stan Murphy did the seasonal work that Islanders did — banging nails, scalloping, lobstering — to support his wife Polly and their four children — David, Christopher, Laura, and Katharine — while pursuing his art. He hauled his own lobster pots into his 80th year, played golf, piano, and guitar. A duck hunter and decoy collector, he wrote a book on Island decoy carvers, “Martha’s Vineyard Decoys” (David R. Godine, 1978). Long since out of print, it is a rare and highly prized book among collectors.

Mr. Murphy painted the land in different seasons, and wasn’t afraid to try new styles and techniques; his work shows that he often suited the style to the subject. He employed whimsy, most apparent in perhaps his most-viewed work, a series of murals depicting Island life and the legend of Noepe, which grace the walls of the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven.

Featherstone visitors will also be treated to a different, wide-ranging perspective of Mr. Murphy’s work in multiple media at a special presentation on Tuesday, June 28, at 7 pm, when his son, David Murphy, presents a slide collage of the prolific artist’s work.

Fisherman Jim Morgan, courtesy David Murphy

Fisherman Jim Morgan, courtesy David Murphy

David Murphy, a 1972 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School and now head reference librarian at the Duxbury Free Library, spent several years assembling images of his father’s oil and acrylic paintings, crayon and pencil pieces, lithographs, wood carvings, and metalwork. He is using photographs and slides from his father’s collection, and he photographed paintings owned by family and friends.

“In the course of painting the people and the land for 50 years,” David told Arts & Ideas recently, “Stan captured the Island, I believe, in a time of transition from a farming community to a community of second homes. He was prolific in a wide variety of media and subjects. I came to do this as a result of a chance conversation my sister overheard at the West Tisbury library six or seven years ago. She told me that two women were looking at one of Dad’s earliest paintings (of the town selectmen), which hung near the front desk, and wondering who the subjects were and who painted them. I thought that if you lived here, it would be good to know that. Assembling the 500-slide collection took about two years,” he said, adding, “I’m interested in making people aware of this person who lived and worked on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Jack Shea writes regularly for Arts & Ideas and The Martha’s Vineyard Times.

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