THE HEALING POWER OF THE GIANTESS: AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST MEG LIONEL MURPHY

Meg Lionel Murphy, “Prevail,” The Untitled Space, New York

Artist Meg Lionel Murphy is constantly thinking about bodies: how they heal, how they’re affected by their environment, how they present themselves, how they become sites for violence and pain, how they assert power. Her paintings, which often revolve around giant female-presenting bodies, stand as colorful, maximalist tributes to embodiment and empowerment. Surrounded by flowers and pill bottles, her figures consume their environments, invoking their own power through their massive forms.

Lionel Murphy’s paintings are directly influenced by her own personal experiences, as she copes with debilitating PTSD from severe domestic violence. She works out of a little blue shack in a junkyard on her family’s property in Wisconsin, where she paints detailed, vivid works on paper and panel depicting heartbroken giants that magically grow larger, stronger, and scarier than the world around them. Her work has been featured in a number of exhibitions including “Interior Violence” solo show at CoExhibitions Gallery (Minneapolis), as well as group shows at Public Functionary (Minneapolis) and at the Other Art Fair (Los Angeles).

After leaving a career in publishing to focus on painting, Meg eventually moved to rural Wisconsin to focus on her art without distraction.The Untitled Space gallery is currently presenting an online exhibition of her latest artwork, and she is busy in her studio working on her first in person solo show to open in 2021. We chatted with Lionel Murphy about making art during the pandemic, isolation, trauma, and the aspirational nature of her paintings. 

Artist Meg Lionel Murphy in front of her studio in rural Wisconsin.

Your bio states you work out of a “little blue shack in a junkyard in rural Wisconsin”. How does that environment factor into your process?

I do feel that working here is the closest thing to living inside one of my paintings. I like letting the chaos of my surroundings slip into my work. My studio sits amidst ancient tractors, sailboats, buses, and a bunch of twisted plastic, glass, and metal. The objects tell me stories of their past lives as they rust and settle into the land.

Do you think you’d be a different artist if you lived somewhere else?

I’ve been obsessively painting giant women for 5 years now. Before rural Wisconsin, I lived in both Minneapolis, MN and Portland, OR. Before Covid 19, I was travelling a lot to see art in New York, LA, and Miami. The themes have been consistent no matter where I live. Everywhere I go, I imagine my giants are with me. So actual buildings and landscapes do enter the work. In Portland I tended to paint roses into all corners of the paintings, and after visits to the Pacific ocean I’d paint grand seascapes. Here I am fixated on wild prairie flowers and abandoned farms.

What brought you to Wisconsin?

I am living in Wisconsin for many reasons, but I like to say that for now, it feels like a safe place to lick my wounds. I can afford to be an artist here. I grew up here. Wisconsin’s roots cut deep into my memories. Some of my worst experiences happened on the property where I now work. It is incredible to be here as an adult with agency and a sense of safety, and finally come to terms with what it felt like to live in a very conservative small town as a young girl. It is not unlike growing into a giant and returning home to find I don’t fit into any of the old buildings. I feel like a stranger and a local at once—and that seems to be a powerful perspective for image making. I originally thought my time in Wisconsin was temporary, but rural Wisconsin is quickly disappearing. And since I am from here, it doesn’t feel quite right to ignore it and run away. Being here is as interesting as it is painful. I am learning so much. And as long as that feels right, I’ll stay.

Meg Lionel Murphy Exhibit Artwork, The Untitled Space, New York. Left: “Battlefield II,” right: “Pill”. 

How has quarantine shaped your creative process? Do you relish in isolation or miss any sense of collaboration?

I’ve been isolated here for a year and half now. In some ways I am closer to my friends living in cities because I might as well live across the country—they couldn’t see me safely, even if I lived down the street. Many opportunities and shows fell through due to Covid 19. I miss seeing art. I miss showing art. I miss meeting new people in real life through art.

How do you interact with social media as an artist? Does it provide worthy inspiration and feedback or can it become a distraction?

I am painfully shy and posting to my Instagram feels like pulling my own teeth out with pliers!

Where does the spark of motivation to sit down at the canvas most often come from for you? 

A better question might be, Where does the spark of motivation come to be an adult with a full life outside of painting? Motivation to paint is just in me. Constantly. I do it every single second I can, every day, and have since I was a toddler. It is obsessive.

“When I paint, I am in my body fully. I have ownership of it.”

Meg Lionel Murphy, “Interior Violence,” The Untitled Space, New York

What subjects inspire your work? 

The images are pretty and colorful, but the idea of violence haunts me, and I try to etch that subject into even the pinkest of paint.

Your paintings often project a sort of hopeful future where female-presenting bodies prevail over, or consume their own traumas. Do you see visual art as a way to project your aspirations for the world?

I’m here painting visceral postures of autonomy that can only come in a world where women’s bodies are unconquerable. That is not our world. I’m trying to imagine what the surrealist expression of safety might feel like—and safety feels like more of a fantasy than the giants.

What is it about giant feminine figures that’s so appealing to your artistic vision?

The world I’ve made is bright and colorful. The womxn are unashamed of their bodies and of their femininity. The femme clothing and decor are not trivial. They are not merely signs of weakness, excess, or decoration. They are tools. Tools that root us in our bodies and our homes.

Meg Lionel Murphy Exhibit Artwork, The Untitled Space, New York

Themes of PTSD and gender-based violence run strongly throughout your work, and you’ve spoken about art as therapy. How does the healing process intertwine with the painting process?

When I paint, I am in my body fully. I have ownership of it. My body has been taken from me on more than one occasion. Held tight. Held down. Punched. Kicked. Used, not for pleasure but for power. To make themselves strong, men have sought to make me weak. I have been told in physical, digital, private, and public spaces that I am insignificant. Living in my body now, is next to impossible. Demands of daily living are sometimes insurmountable. The internet and the miracle of liberal higher education was not potent enough an antidote to the toxicity of my loving but brutal upbringing steeped in a deeply rural brand of poor conservative catholicism. My education in the most American of values—power—was to be brutally beaten, over and over again in my own home, and for what? Dominance? I could do nothing right: dressing, cooking, bathing, eating, shitting, sleeping, and cleaning were all wrong. In the workplace, men repeatedly used similar tactics to show me my mind was all wrong. When I am in a room with new people, all I can think about is my body before them, vulnerable and ready for pain. But when I am alone, painting — I am at peace.

Who are some artists that inspire you? Who do you look to visually and who’s  artistic perspective do you admire?

When I was little I was obsessed with Georgia O’Keeffe (fellow Wisconsinite), Frida Kahlo, and Mary Cassatt, because they were the only women artists I knew. When I got to college I was obsessed with Kiki Smith, Kara Walker, Ana Mendieta, and Yoko Ono. I’ve recently become obsessed with Leonora Carrington, Lee Krasner, and Faith Ringgold. When I was just starting out, Jennifer Davis from Minneapolis inspired me with her talent and drive—she made being an artist look attainable. And now I am just in awe of Nina Chanel Abney, Laura Berger, Bisa Butler, Robin F Williams, Hiba Schahbaz, Pace Taylor, Rebecca Morgan, Dadu Shin, Jenna Gribbon, Amoako Boafo, Kristin Liu-Wong, Hayv Kahraman, Devan Shimoyama, and Laura Callahan (I could go on, and on, and on, and on). I admire Virginia Woolf’s mind more than anyone else’s—so I would say it is her perspective I admire more than anyone’s. She saw the world in all its beauty and pain. I feel her words deeply. Her suicide haunts me.

Meg Lionel Murphy, “Pills and Poppies II,”  The Untitled Space, New York

What do you hope viewers of your online solo show with The Untitled Space take away from the collection?

I want my paintings hung as ruthless good luck charms. Especially for those who have experienced pain. I made many of the works during quarantine, especially the ones with veils. The women in them are mourning but surviving.

What can we look forward to from your forthcoming solo show in 2021?

With our governments failing, economies broken, and inequality more crushing than ever, bodies feel even more fragile. Bodies feel surreal. I am paying close attention to how bodies are treated in art right now. I am painting bodies obsessively. Holding each limb with a deep care and reverence for our fragility and humanity. I’ll use the entirety of this next year to build a solo show for The Untitled Space. I will be examining this rural place from all angles, as I hold questions about whiteness, gender, sexuality, class, sacrifice, pain, sickness, loneliness, and most of all—violence and its haunting memories.

Meg Lionel Murphy, “Now,” The Untitled Space, New York
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