Birds dominate the artwork of Deirdre Murphy, but so does the storytelling tradition she inherited from her Irish ancestors. As she moves from painting to painting, now hanging at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, she explains that the birds—the hawk, the pigeon, even the little resin sculptured bird that repeats in different poses in her newest paintings on paper—are characteristic of the oral tradition of Ireland.
“Birds, being in multiple places, on land and in the air, have a different perspective and each tells a different story,” she says, pausing by the oil paintings of hawks she observed years ago in her South Philadelphia neighborhood and, more recently, on the grounds of Haverford College near her Ardmore home. “I started to do research on how birds see—my father was a scientist so I’m a total nerd–and I discovered that birds have prismatic vision. Where we see the color red, they see 20 shades of that red. Their optics are extremely sophisticated. It gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘bird brain.’”
So, her realistic hawks fly in the midst of a flock, not of other birds but of shards of color. In other paintings, there are color wheels. A pigeon (“They’re not rats with wings, they’re doves,” she insists) flutters among magnolias, magnolia leaves, and bands of disparate hues. And in other works not on display at Shipley, she paints the wheeling of birds, called mumurations, black as silhouettes against a colorful often abstract sky. Those “Sky Paintings,” as she calls them, are installed now at Philadelphia International Airport, in the hallway between terminals C and D above the moving walkway.
““I think one of the singular things about Irish heritage is our love of nature. What do they call the Irish who left Ireland? Wild geese?” she says smiling.
Murphy, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, traces her love of birds, and probably her artistic ability, to the Irish grandmother who “always had about 20 bird feeders up” and was an inveterate knitter. “I’m sure I got the small handwork skills from her. She was an amazing inspiration.”
Murphy is not a Philadelphia native. Born in New York, she led the peripatetic childhood of the daughter of a grant-dependent scientist father and an academic mother, whose earned a PhD in English and Irish literature. The family lived in Paris, Manchester England, Australia, and in Memphis, TN, where he father worked as a leukemia researcher at St. Jude Hospital. He eventually established his own lab in Dayton, Ohio.
She traces her Irish roots to great grandparents who emigrated from Achill Island in County Mayo. Not coincidentally, she’s applying for a residency at the Ballinglen Arts Foundation on the north coast of Mayo, a family-friendly artist retreat where she would be accompanied by her artist husband, Scott White, and their two children Liam, 10, and Fiona, 5.
A year in Japan after high school set her on the path to become a Japanese translator “but I knew I needed to go to art school,” she says. She graduated from Kansas City Art Institue with a BFA and got her MFA in painting from the University of Pennsylvania.
It was the right move. Murphy has won numerous awards and grants for her work, including the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts Fellowship in 2004, a Leeway Foundation Award, and serves as artist in residence at Vermont Studio Center and Pouch Cove Artist Residency in St. Johns, Newfoundland. She’s had six solo exhibitions in Philadelphia (including the current one, running through March 10 at Shipley School) and numerous group exhibits in New York, Delaware, Minnesota, and Oregon, as well as in South Korea and Italy. She’s represented by Gross McLeaf Gallery in Philadelphia.
This week (February 26) she is scheduled to guest on Articulate, the WHYY series with Irish-born host Jim Cotter.
Her newest works, paintings on paper she calls Sky Mirrors, explores the patterns of the constellations (she incorporates Libra—her astrological sign–and a small resin bird sculpture, turned to a different vantage point in each “so its gaze is everywhere”) and how they resemble the flocking patterns of birds—murmurations again, but in a chart form, in great swaths of a single color.
It’s clear that the story they tell is also the one of the artist. “It’s their ability to see from a different vantage point that intrigues me,” she says. “As an artist, my primary job is to see the world anew for myself and to present that to the viewer.”
As the mother of young children, she acknowledges, part of the birds’ appeal is that they’re not tethered to home—or even to one plane. “I am in awe of flight,” she admits. “I’m jealous of their ability to walk on land and fly in the air. I’m just a landlubber! But I think of myself as a visual problem-solver so they offer me a whole array of possibilities to explore.”
You can see more of Deirdre Murphy’s paintings at her website.