Murphy Art. Elliott Master Painter By David Harris
Murphy Elliott's futuristic oil paintings can be found winning awards in international art contests, featured in space magazines and adding color to the National Space Society's website.
But in Plant City, they know him as one of the best house painters in town.
To understand Murphy's art, you have to understand Murphy's personal history – his genius, his childhood, his passion for the future of the human race – and how those elements add up to spectacular and prophesying oils on canvas painted at night, and homes and offices immaculately painted during the day.
Murphy Elliott's parents placed him in foster care when he was five years old, along with his older sister and two younger brothers. His dad was a house painter, but when Billy Graham channeled the power of the Almighty and apparently cured his tuberculosis, he took to fire-and-brimstone Pentecostal preaching to big-tent revivals. His mother waxed theatrical, too, but her flavor was burlesque. The marriage didn't last.
Murphy's foster family realized he was gifted, especially in mathematics. But his talent for drawing got him noticed when he started school in the second grade at Elizabeth W. Murphy private school. His teacher was impressed with a photograph-like sketch of a rotary telephone Murphy handed her. Murphy went out to recess, and when he returned to the classroom, the drawing was gone. The teacher felt bad for his loss. He was so proud and needed the attention. She looked at the black board that stretched 12 feet wide and offered it to Murphy to draw a scene of Christmas.
He looked up at the board and smiled at the blank canvas, relatively monstrous to his small frame. He wasn't intimidated. He was electrified. Murphy took to colored chalk and began a mural of the Three Wise Men arriving at Bethlehem on camels under the North Star. He commenced to fill the vast canvas with chalk and detail and the love for the holiday that can only be expressed by a kid who wants nothing more than to be with his parents on Christmas day. His teacher and the rest of the 3,000-student school were awed by the artwork. School administrators arranged tours so all of the teachers and students could see Murphy's mural.
Murphy remembers waiting with his sister and brothers for weekend afternoon visits from his parents at the children's home they felt they were sentenced to. A philanthropist bequeathed the home as a stable environment while parents worked out their individual problems. Parents were allowed visits weekend afternoons. Every weekend the Elliott children would wait, watching other children's parents arrive, visit and leave. Sometimes four, six, eight weeks would go by, the Elliott children left waiting for an unfulfilled hope.
“And that torture comes through in all of my art,” Murphy says without hesitation, sipping coffee at his kitchen table in his home warmed by his wife and daughter. He is comfortable with his own psychology after years of self-examination through his art. “Even 'Solitude', the first painting I did when I was in school. It's a painting of a man in prison, with his back turned toward you reading a Bible. He is solitude, alone.”
He explains that his art is born out of a his cosmic imagination fueled by a mathematical perspective and need to escape, not only the confines of an imprinted childhood prison away from his parents (and worse, not knowing what he did wrong to deserve it), but to escape the confines of this planet with its limited space and resources. “And I looked up to the sky to find God. When I didn't find him, I kept going.”
His art launched into the cosmos “at the speed of imagination” when his attention was captured by President Kennedy's announcement that Americans would land on the moon and return safely before the end of the decade. The collective goal of the United States inspired Murphy. He wrote every state capital and chamber of commerce to ask about their contribution to the effort. The response overwhelmed Murphy. A stack that stood taller than him affirmed that not only were all states involved, but many countries were joining the project. He realized the power of humankind looking beyond the restrictions of their countries' flags to a cooperation that benefits the entire race.
His mind remained with the stars as he earned a degree in architectural engineering at the age of 16, a union of his mathematics and artistic talent. He won a scholarship to Philadelphia College of Art the same year winning first prize with an oil on canvas called “Solitude”, which was displayed at the Brandywine Museum of Art.
Murphy worked with ILC industries with the engineering department on several design projects. ILC industries worked some of the complex engineering on space suits and portable life support systems used by the pioneer Apollo crew. The experience was challenging, but it entrenched his passion for space travel. He met John Glenn, Allen Sheppard and Whalley Shirra, whom all touched down on the moon, a physical connection to space.
After graduation he didn't go to art school. To avoid the draft, he joined the Navy and served submarine duty on the Eastern Seaboard. When his enlistment was fulfilled, he crossed the continent and went north to the west coast of Canada, settling in Vancouver, B.C. He thought he would leave as soon as it got too cold. It never did.
The temperate intercoastal waters protected from the Pacific Ocean by Vancouver Island kept Vancouver B.C. reasonably warm all year, and he fell in love with the mountainous beauty carved for millennia by the north Pacific. Then he fell in love with Wendy Waterman, marrying her in 1974. A married man needs to make a living and painting was his passion. He followed in his father's footsteps and began painting houses to put food on the table and build a family.
He approached his career painting houses as meticulously and methodically as he did his oils on canvas. He poured his heart and talent into a business with the mission of being the best: neat, efficient and economical. He combined a combination of traditional techniques with modern coatings, sealing his projects with a quality look for a long time. He attended the Provincial Vocational Institute of British Columbia and earned his journeyman papers in 1978. Another 10 years building a large, recurring client base and a reputation as a paint expert, he received his Master Painter status.
Murphy sits holding onto a cigarette he rolled himself to save money. Politely, he doesn't light it until he can't stand to wait anymore. “I do what no one else wants to do. I come into your house, move all your furniture, gift wrap it all in plastic. Not even dust gets to them. All my sheets are canvas with rubber backs. According to Murphy's Law, I prepare everything for all that can go wrong,” Murphy says in a quiet voice you have to strain to hear. He makes a small sphere with his hands, illustrating the delicacy of his process.
“People will see me preparing for the paint job and they already know 'This guy knows what he's doing.' Then they usually leave and let me do what I want to do.”
The Vancouver, B.C. community embraced Murphy as their resident painter. Paint stores had him on speed dial to answer technical questions from a field-seasoned pro. Some of his work was featured in the Canadian “Better Homes and Gardens”. The World's Fair Expo chose him to paint three pavilions in 1986.
A thriving painting business left little time for oil and canvas, but Murphy's futurist visions of life in space drove him to complete two paintings a year depicting space scenes, asteroids a reoccurring theme. Since the space race of his childhood, the journey to the stars represented more than just an enigmatic new frontier, but an allegory for the potential of human advancement through cooperation.
“We need to establish long-term goals as human beings. The rewards will be worth it.” Standing in coveralls laced in house paint, his glasses reflect the massive canvas hanging in his hall titled “The Pirates in the Que”. He explains the space colony scene with scientific detail, “After you mine the asteroid, you can live in them and mine the next one. Just seal off an area and create an atmosphere and spin it a little to create gravity.”
He stares into the scene as if it was a road map, not only of planetary cooperation but what to do when we get there. The work is dated 3006. “In a thousand years, this piece will be relevant.” He challenges the viewer to find the four cloaked ships and his hidden signature masked in the rich detail of mined asteroids and pirates pillaging the profits. Murphy stares at the deep blues and vast voids in the painting. He looks as though he wants to jump in.
But he won't. After his discourse on the future floating in space, he looks around comforted by the trinkets of his home. “I get motion sickness. I'm fine if I'm driving, but in the passenger seat, forget it.”
In the late nineties, Murphy made more time for his art. He became a member of the Federation of Canadian Artists and an active member of the Vancouver Artists Council. His first art show at a local gallery was called “Just Originals”, and he sold all 12 paintings within two weeks.
Life was good. Business was good. Murphy painted more than 12,000 homes and businesses throughout the Vancouver area. But in 2001, Murphy's family ties, now primarily around the Gulf Coast of Florida, called him away from Canada, family in tow, to the Sunshine State. Their son Christopher later moved back to Canada after he graduated from Plant City High School.
“It was quite a change. Quite a challenge.” His wife Wendy says as she wipes off her kitchen counter after serving fresh brewed coffee and rich chocolate cake. “To be honest, I was the negative one in the family, at first.” Wendy was born and raised in Canada. “I am enjoying getting to meet Murphy's family. And there are good things about Florida, but I miss home.” Her face says she misses home a lot.
Their daughter Samantha is 21 and still lives at home. She emerges from a back bedroom on her way outside for a smoke. She slows to listen to her mother talk about Canada and the move. Murphy acknowledges her and points to a vibrant lion painting hanging over the fireplace, which she painted. She shares her father's pride in the piece and can see a future in her art, too. “She is up-and-coming,” Murphy smiles.
“It ain't easy starting over at 50,” Murphy says, thumbing through a sofa full of original pencil drawings. Some are commissioned and some are of celebrities to show off his talent and solicit more portraiture work. He wants to trade walls for canvas and paper. The toll of painting for more than three decades has taken its toll, physically. Going up and down ladders all day can wear a body out, but he isn't hanging up the painter's cap yet. “Painting houses, man, I make good money.” His father finally retired from house painting recently at 80 years old, after a triple bypass surgery forced him to retire.
And he is good at it. He is building clientèle in Plant City, one satisfied customer at a time. Scott Hines is a successful Tampa home-remodeling contractor and already had his own list of preferred painters. When the time came to paint his own up-scale home, he wanted the best. He called his best painter on the list, and Murphy, a new guy that his mom raved about.
“In comes this guy, and as soon as he started, I knew that this was a man who knew how to paint,” Hines said. He isn't sure if he knew that Murphy was also an artist at first, “I am really interested in Murphy the house painter. His art is just a plus.” Hines' son commissioned Murphy to do a portrait of the Hines family as a house-warming surprise. Hines said sometimes Murphy shows up to the job with his art and shows it to the other contractors. “They all just love it. It's beautiful.” Murphy has the talent, and he is building a market. He is a member of the Plant City Art Council, a founding member of the Plant City Artist's Association, he joined the Brandon Art League and the newly formed Brandon Arts Council. He even won 4th prize at the 2006 Strawberry Festival for a painting called “Starberry Nova”.
“But in two years, I only sold two paintings,” Murphy says he is letting go of the local artist scene. “It just isn't going anywhere. With the high vendor fees, the city was making all of the money. They just wanted to pull a crowd and didn't care about the artists.” He says he is looking towards Lakeland and its higher tourist traffic and growing art show scene. “The potential in Lakeland is tremendous.”
Murphy makes his money daily and paints at night for himself. “They are for me. They are all for me. I pay for them all. For the future.” He has a message woven into each of the more than 100 snapshots of the future he has painted in the past few years. He sees asteroid mining as a stairway to the stars. He feels petty squabbles about religion and borders seem moot when there is so much to be accomplished, together, to move into our collective future.
Embracing current technologies, his new marketplace is the Internet. He has more than 24 Web site listings that offer his work for sale and make connections with other artists around the globe, from how-to-draw tutorials to social network sites for artists, “All to get my work out there.”
The National Space Society sponsored a world wide art contest for their 2008 “Space Settlement” calendar. Murphy won a spot for the month of April with a piece called “Inside Orbital City.” One of the prizes for winning the contest came from Beyond Earth Enterprises, a company that rockets personal belongings from DNA to a recording of a favorite song into space. Murphy has packaged 20 3 inch by 3 inch oil paintings to be launched soon.
Murphy says he wants to paint full time, but “People just can't afford to buy my paintings right now. It's high-tech art for skyscrapers and office buildings.” He is building clientèle for his portraiture business and could eek a living with his art, but his eyes dodge the question of a set date to retire from painting houses.
He may want to keep his night hobby of traveling through space with his brush pure, without the pains of monetization. He may want his fantastic scenes untethered to fashion or current trends in thought, telling of a future of cooperation and prosperity, without the message being blurred by a price tag.
The paintings are for sale now, but the buyers are not consumers, they are futurists, buying into Murphy's dream of life in space.
It swirled in space and found a way, To Murphys cave of gold.
In more than one dimension. Into a waiting fold.
One dark and stormy morning, A pencil for a tool,
Murphy clutched its Quantum tail And grabbed its inner jewel.
Once and forever captured, By Murphys special gift,
Through his line and color, Our dreams are set adrift.
Written by Jacquie Schmall
Murphy Elliott joined Fine Art America on January 14th, 2008.