Artist Snapshot: Bill Murphy

Exploring the mind and habits of an artist in twenty-five questions.

bill murphy artist interview
Bill Murphy in his studio, 2016. Photo: Willie Chu
At what age did you decide to become an artist?

I’m not sure I ever made that decision. When I got to a “responsible age,” I needed to pick a field of study, and I applied for admission to art school at the School of Visual Arts. I eliminated everything I didn’t want to do and was left with art. After that, momentum sort of took over. 

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?

My mother was OK with it, my father not so much. He was a NYC cop who grew up in the Depression, so it was hard for him to understand what an artist did to make money—which is understandable.

Who are your favorite artists?

Such a hard question to answer because there are so many. In no particular order, here’s the first seven that come to mind (excluding contemporary artists or friends): Andrew Wyeth, Vermeer, Kollwitz, Whistler, Rembrandt, Edwin Dickinson, Velázquez.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Art book you cannot live without? bill murphy artist interview

Two books that I read as a student really stayed with me: The Art Spirit by Robert Henri and Hawthorne on Painting by Charles Hawthorne. A picture book would be the Selected Etchings of James Whistler, a large soft cover I bought around 1977 and took with me on many expeditions, including to Europe, to remind me the of the possibilities of plein-air etching. 

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?

Sincerity and authenticity.

Do you keep a sketchbook? bill murphy artist interview

I have a pile of various sized sketchbooks I will grab when I am going out to draw. More often than not, when working on location, I’ll take a small drawing board with some Fabriano paper. My most used sketchbook lately is my iPhone. With it, I’m able to record passing people and places, and return to them later on.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?

When I returned to New York from a trip through Europe, I noted to myself that The Met was probably better than them all.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?

In 1989, I was asked to work as a roving portrait artist for a stock market firm that had hired The Met for two evenings to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. I was assigned to wear a costume of a nineteenth-century French artist, as the major exhibit that time was the huge Degas show. The organizer arranged for me to view the exhibit – wearing my nineteenth-century costume – on my own before the festivities. I spent an hour with the great draftsman, all alone, not even a guard on duty. I don’t know if that was the best exhibit, but it was the most memorable one I’ve experienced.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?bill murphy artist interview

As a ten-year-old, I wanted to play for the Yankees, as most every other ten-year-old boy in New York in 1962. Later, I became interested in music and spent a lot of time writing and performing music. 

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?

When I was fairly young, I saw the work of Jerome Witkin and was deeply impressed. I eventually got to know Jerome personally and became friends. Not exactly what I think you may be asking, but a compelling friendship that was started in my youth. 

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?

I am glad I went to school where and when I did (SVA, BFA 1975). However, the instruction at that time, emerging out of the dogma of Abstract Expressionism, included almost no technical information for someone who wanted to learn to paint in a realistic manner. The emphasis was on concepts of creativity. Whatever I know about painting and drawing in a representational manner I taught myself — because I had to. 

What work of art have you looked at most and why?bill murphy artist interview

The portrait of Juan de Pareja in The Met. When I was an art student, the Met bought it for the then outrageous sum of 5.5 million dollars.1John Canaday, “Metropolitan Was Buyer of $5.5-Million Velázquez,” New York Times May 13, 1971. My teacher, Herb Katzman, mentioned I should look at Velázquez, to study the edges. I would go to the Met once a week for a year or so. But the artist I have studied the most would be Andrew Wyeth. With him, I feel a deep connection, fostered by living in the same country and at the same time. Like Wyeth with his Pennsylvania and Maine work, my work has focused on a specific place—the landscape around Staten Island and New York Harbor. So I look at his paintings with great admiration, especially as he continued to find inspiration in a few square miles of land. 

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?

I enjoy looking at the world. In the mid-nineties, I read The Artists Way by Julia Cameron, who gives assignments to help reinvigorate an interest in making art. One of these is to go on a “date” with your inner artist: go to a hardware store or a zoo or a field somewhere, and simply look around, with no imposed mission of actually drawing or painting. I realized that I had been instinctively doing this for many years before I read her book. This helps me to get interested, inspired. When I get inspired, I feel like I can do almost anything.

Do you listen to music in your studio?

No. To have music intrude into my work is a tricky thing. Almost never when the work is beginning, but sometimes after the work has found its footing, I will. 

What is the last gallery you visited?

The Winslow Homer show at the Met.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?

I’ve already mentioned Edwin Dickinson; to me he should be on equal footing with Edward Hopper. Another artist who deserves attention: Walter Tandy Murch. 

What art materials can you not live without?bill murphy artist interview

Paper and a pencil. Everything else is gravy, lol.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?

No. Life doesn’t allow that for me. Nor do I have something to say every day. I don’t work unless I have something to say, generally.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?

Probably a month or two, where personal life situations wouldn’t allow it.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?

Try to jump-start things. Take a walk by the Gowanus Canal, take a ride in the country, go to a life drawing session.

What are the questions that drive your work?

A philosopher once said that the only questions worth asking are the ones that can’t be answered. The biggest of those is: Who am I? Why am I here? 

What is the most important quality in an artist?

Sincerity. Truthfulness. Imagination. Authenticity.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?

Hokusai said something like at age 70, he was beginning to understand what drawing is all about, and by age 100 he hoped to make a really good drawing. That’s good enough for me.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?

I am overwhelmed with the number of really good artists I have encountered on Instagram over the past five years that I have been active. They live in all parts of the world, and I doubt I ever would have seen their work before the time of social media.

BILL MURPHY (@bill.murphy77) will be teaching a week-long workshop, Creating the Large-Scale Figure Drawing, at the Art Students League, September 12–16, 2022. His book Drawn From Life: Selected Works 1970–2020 is available for purchase online.

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