The southernness of Tanya Murphy’s art
  • An early oil painting by Reba Dickerson-Hill
  • Mother & baby painting by Carlos Lopez Ruiz
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    Auction Finds

    Artist Tanya Murphy’s early painting of her mother

    The artist had written her name large and clear in the customary bottom right corner of the painting. I instantly recognized the signature: Tanya Murphy.

    Could it be the same Tanya Murphy whose works I had seen for the first time at an art exhibit and sale four years ago, and whom I had met a year later surrounded by her beautiful paintings in a booth at the Harlem Fine Arts Show in New York?

    This painting – hidden behind others at the auction house – was way different from the melding of photos and paintings in her most recent works. The new ones evoked a feeling of southern roots tied to families and heritage. This one was more figurative and straightforward.

    Tanya Murphy

    A partial view of a painting by artist Tanya Murphy of her mother resting. She painted this image when she was in high school.

    It was the same sense of beginnings that I got a couple weeks ago when I came across an oil painting by another Philadelphia artist, Reba Dickerson-Hill. The landscape painting was entirely different from the later works of the artist, who had mastered a Japanese block ink technique called Sumi-e later in her career. I assumed that it was one of Dickerson-Hill’s earliest works.

    Several years ago, I had stumbled upon another high-school painting by a Philadelphia artist named Ed Jones at another auction.

    Intrigued by this new Murphy painting, I decided to email her to see if it was one of hers.

    “OMG,” she wrote back. “Yes, Sherry, it is one of my early works and I am so happy that you found and purchased it. I am about to cry. I was 17 and I was a great young painter!!”

    I was happy to hear that Murphy had painted it, but I also wanted to know more about the origin of the painting and her early years as an artist. So she agreed to an interview, and here’s what she had to say:

    Tanya Murphy

    A full view of the painting of artist Tanya Murphy’s mother, Flora.

    What’s the background of the painting?

    I guess I was about 16 or 17 years old and I was going to an art magnet high school (at) Overbrook High School (in Philadelphia). I was there through 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th grade.

    I believe that painting was acrylic on paper. At that point, I was doing paintings of my family. It’s a painting of my mother. She was sleeping or resting, which she used to do every evening after she got off from work. She was a single mom, and that was one of the things that she did.

    About her mother:

    Her mother’s name was Flora Murphy, and she worked at Provident Bank at the time. Tanya is the middle child between a brother and sister.

    Did your mother know she was being painted?

    (She did.) I was always drawing and painting, and it was no big deal for me to say, ‘Let me paint you or draw you.’ I probably have it (the auction painting) in my sketchbook and I can probably tell you exactly the date when that was done, if it’s not dated. I don’t remember dating my work back then. (The painting is not dated.)

    I kept a sketchbook of everything I did in high school. I did a little sketch and wrote the date as if it was a homework assignment. I don’t do sketches anymore, but I did sketches back then. I was drawing and painting all the time. I’d just come home from high school and paint in the evenings.

    Tanya Murphy

    Artist Tanya Murphy, along with her signature on the auction painting.

    What was your first drawing?

    I remember my first painting. I still have it. The high school pieces, I kept for myself. It was a still life of fruit and fabric on a table. That was the first painting that I ever did and that would’ve been about 10th grade.

    Before that, I was doing drawings, and I drew very well but I wasn’t skilled with painting and mixing colors and things like that.

    Did you take any art classes before Overbrook?

    (She had taken no official art classes.) Actually, I was sewing a lot. I was making clothes for myself and for my doll. In fifth grade, I’ll tell you a little story:

    I entered a contest and one of my pieces ended up in a big show at the Civic Center. It was a cityscape. It was a drawing, and I wore a two-piece suit that I made. (She had entered the drawing in a contest at her school and won.)

    In elementary school, my teachers did not believe that I did the art. So I oftentimes was disqualified for things in third grade and fourth grade. I was disqualified for quite a few contests, because they thought my parents helped me. So I had to have a note saying, ‘No, I didn’t help my daughter with the drawing.’ But by that time, they already had a winner.

    I never had a special class or special teacher, so it wasn’t until high school that I had to make a decision about whether I was going to be a music major.

    I left out the music. I was sewing, I was singing, and playing the piano a little bit by ear, (and) playing the violin, actually being trained to play the violin. In school they used to give you lessons and instruments.

    By high school, I had to decide if I was going to go for drawing or if I was going to go for music. I decided that I loved to draw more than I loved to play the violin. I applied to an art magnet school and that’s when I became seriously trained in art.

    Tanya Murphy painting

    A mixed media by Tanya Murphy.

    How did the magnet school work at Overbrook?

    Overbrook had the one large school but in that school there were several – for lack of a better word – departments. There was an art department and that art department had a whole wing. There was the music department. There are a lot of great musicians who are my friends who went to school with me, like Pieces of a Dream. They went to the music program and I was in the art program. Will Smith, I believe, was in the music program. So we were all there.

    Are there other artists in the family?

    My brother inspired me a lot because he used to draw comic books – DC and Marvel Comics. So he naturally knew how to draw, and I picked it up. I just naturally knew how to draw. I actually thought everybody knew how to draw.

    My mother’s brother can draw, too. He lived in the South and I didn’t see him that often, but every now and then I could see that he could draw, too. He also plays an instrument. It’s a very creative family I have.

    How did this drawing get away from you?

    Let me tell you what I think. I had my first show at 17 years old at the bank my mother worked at, Provident Bank at the time, 52d and Market Street. And I also had a high school show at Pinn Memorial Baptist Church in Wynnefield. They allowed us to sell our artwork from high school our senior year. I do remember selling quite a few pieces at the Provident Bank show. I remember selling still lifes and selling a nautical piece. I don’t really remember selling that (auction) piece. A family friend could have bought it, but I really don’t know.

    Twenty years ago, I had a list of people who bought the pieces from high school.

    Tanya Murphy painting

    “Men of Color to Arms” by Tanya Murphy.

    Your style seems to have evolved since that painting was done

    Certainly in 30 years a lot has changed. At that point I was really doing studies all the time. I was just learning how to use acrylics and the subject matter was very personal. I think my work is still very personal as far as subject matter goes. You evolve and learn, and you use everything you know to come up with new styles.

    I went to college and I studied painting. I studied photography. I studied printmaking – etching and lithography. After college, I just began to use photography as my sketchbook, so my camera became my sketchbook as opposed to drawing everything.

    A lot of that had to do with having a small child. It was a lot quicker … to take my camera and go out into the world. Over time, it evolved into a mixed-media form. I think I did about 12 years of photography, 15 years of painting, and mixed media is what I go back to, as far as high school.

    Do you still do traditional paintings?

    Yes, I’ve done some paintings. My last paintings were done in 2000, 2001- 2003, oil paintings on canvas.

    Your theme of family seems to have stayed with you

    Yes, and that hasn’t changed.

    Dating the painting I bought at auction:

    That piece, she said, was done around 1981-1983. “People who have my recent works will ask me about purchasing my early works.”

    So, I was lucky to have found this one.

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