Note: I was an arts columnist with the Limerick Leader newspaper, publishing interviews, reviews and features for a general audience. This article was originally published on 04/02/2016.
“I’m proud to say I was rejected from every significant art exhibition in the UK,” Stephen Murphy told me when we sat down to discuss his experiences of being an artist. Typically the career of an artist goes in stops and starts and more often than not, those are sudden, unexpected, and totally different then what you’d have assumed. Cork born, Limerick based, and former Cambridge resident, Stephen Murphy exemplifies that as much as anyone. Like many others his career has been defined by many ups and downs, spots of luck, and near misses.
Murphy: “When I was working down in Cork framing pictures in 2007, I met Nicholas Fox Weber, the director of the Albers foundation. And he’d asked to see my portfolio – but I had refused him, twice. Now, back in 2007 you couldn’t carry your portfolio on your phone; it was a big physical object – about half the size of a door…”
Hayes: …twice the weight…
Murphy: … three times as ugly. But yeah, I couldn’t bring myself to walk over to the car, so I told him next time, next time. I was being very Irish about it all.
That chance encounter with Weber eventually led Murphy to doing a residency in the Albers Foundation. Albers is the Elvis of the theory and ideas about colour in art, so a residency at the foundation dedicated to his legacy certainly carries weight. This was an important influence on Murphy, as he commented, “generally speaking, colour isn’t something Irish artists do terribly well; we do green and grey and black and brown very well, but not cadmium red, permanent rose, and lemon yellow. My time there was a really great turning point for me because after that I noticed a lot of colour coming into my work.”
Murphy’s next big move was to Cambridge, where he worked as an artist technician at a school. As he explained, “I moved in 2009 and I remember listening to the radio – listening at home while painting, to Newstalk, I’d hear a lot about the recession in Ireland, but I didn’t see it in Cambridge at all; it was really protected, it was a real bubble”. The strongest memory Murphy has of Cambridge was his time working in education, as he says, “It was there that I moved from learning into education. The courses that kept all their students the longest were the art courses, the creativity courses. And I think that that is a bit of an insight, you’re doing more than just learning a skill, you’re having a fundamentally life enriching experience”.
Murphys biggest moment in the spotlight came in 2013. As he explains, it came after a long quiet period. “There was a big lull for a long time, where I really had to learn to deal with rejection”. Yet, it was when Murphy applied to the BP portrait award – one of the best attended exhibitions in the world – with a portrait of a transgender friend, who was in the middle of transitioning. This was a real high point for Murphy, as he said, “I’d been rejected the year before, of course. There were nearly 2000 artists who applied that year – and I was lucky enough to be one of the 55 who were accepted”. For now, Murphy is back in Limerick, doing an MA in LSAD in the newly established Merriman House research centre.