Murphy, Winnifred

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                                       WINNIFRED MURPHY
                                 Home becomes museum for her artwork
                                        By Derek Dunn


MIRAMICHI – It may be one of the best-known masterpieces of all time, but Vincent Van Gough’s Sunflowers has a small flaw, says local artist Winnifred Murphy. “I’m being really catty, I know,” she said, standing next to her painting of a vase full of sunflowers.

“When you say you don’t like a Vincent Van Gough, there is nothing else to do but paint it the right way.” Evidently the Dutch master’s vase was too ruddy looking, Winnifred said. Hers is much daintier.

That desire for smooth lines, delicate contrasts and simple forms is a constant in Murphy’s work, which covers almost every room in her Water Street home. “People that come here call it an art museum. I don’t mind that one bit, I love it,” she said.

Soon her work will be on display elsewhere, too. She’s donating a large piece depicting Jesus with a lamb to the Mount Saint Joseph nursing home, in memory of her mother Jean MacDonald.

An avid painter for 35 years, Winnifred has worked in many places, from Toronto to South Africa, and has been taught by many skilled Canadian artists.

“I can paint for seven, eight hours and not even notice. I get right in there and live with the painting,” she said.

Winnifred took her first evening class in 1960’s Toronto. “I just wanted to get out of the apartment for one night a week. So I asked the girl in the apartment next to ours if she wanted to go with me.”

                          First teacher related to Tom Thomson

Together they set out to find a teacher. As luck would have it, they stumbled across Mary Telford, who had an opening for both. Telford recognized Murphy’s talents, and vice versa. “She was a fantastic teacher,” Winnifred said. “I’d always doodled and drawn as a kid, but painting is much more than that.”

Telford, niece of group of seven artist Tom Thomson, taught Winnifred a lot about perspective and techniques for creating depth. An artist can trick the eye into seeing depth by making objects in the background lighter than those in the foreground.

Tips students learn in art classes are similar to those taught in photography classes. Painters create a horizon somewhere other than the halfway point. A perfectly divided picture confuses the viewer. When the top and bottom are even, it’s difficult to discern which is more important.

Also, artists won’t paint an even number of objects. If trees are to go in the painting, the artist will draw an odd number. “I don’t know why, but they say the mind will automatically start counting if there’s an even amount,” she said. “Funny, huh?”

Another tip is to create asymmetrical paintings – to put the subject of the painting somewhere besides the dead centre.

But for every rule made one can be broken, if it’s done the right way. If you do it right and really capture the person’s essence, Winnifred said, no one will notice if you paint their skin a strange color at all. One of murphy’s favorite portraits painted by Telford was of a woman who happened to be green.

                          Learning portraits again after Africa

Having gotten the basics down in Toronto by 1972, the Miramichi native was ready for portraits.

That’s when she and her husband at the time moved to South Africa, which posed a whole new series of problems for her painting. “When I came back I had to learn how to paint white people. All the models we painted there were black.”

Winnifred loved the experience, learned a lot about the people, particularly the ones who posed for her at 25 cents a day. However, the poisonous snakes, spiders and scorpions helped foster a sense of home sickness. “I learned how to really do portraits there, building the picture from the skull up, but after two years was I glad to get home again,” she said.

She won’t teach people to paint portraits anymore, having realized some subjects take offense if the work turns out less than flattering. But Winnifed does portraits herself, taking inspiration everywhere, from magazines to greeting cards.

And she paints just about everything, from still lifes and landscapes to monochrome and animals. She painted a giraffe while in Africa. It hangs on the closet door at the end of her hallway. “You absolutely cannot get your head around the size of those creatures, even when standing near one. They are 20 feet of living being,” she said.

Perhaps the only activity Winnifred enjoys as much as painting is teaching people to paint. Those challenges don’t daunt her, either. Student ages range from 12 to 70 years old. “Teaching is the most satisfying feeling. When you see someone doing something they’ve never done before, and they walk out with a painting at their side, smiling from ear to ear. It’s the best thing,” she said.

                                       Husband sings her praises

Often the one smiling from ear to ear is her husband of six years, Waddy Murphy. “She’s really amazing, and not just at art,” Waddy said. “She bottles, sews, knits… she is really talented at a lot of things.”

The two met around the time Winnifred’s father, James ‘Short Jim’ MacDonald died. A carpenter in Chatham for many years, MacDonald asked his daughter to return home from Toronto in the late 1980s. So the mother of two arrived back on the river on Nov. 22, 1989, the day Allan Legere was caught by police.

Shortly after that she started taking lessons with Miramichi artist Joyce Johnson.

Today, she teaches herself. Winnifred has a class of 15 students – the most enthusiastic being her husband Waddy – who joins her in the basement for fun and relaxation. “I keep it light. If you’re not happy doing it, it’s not worth doing. That’s what I say.”

Her husband is one of her students. Waddy is a long time hunter, and has always loved animals, but had never contemplated painting. “She’s a fantastic teacher, if she can teach me to do a painting like that,” he said, pointing to a sweet fawn curled up in a frame, “she can teach anyone.”

But as exciting and successful as her life has been, Winnifred does have one regret.

“I wish I could have gone to university and gotten a fine arts degree. I really think that would have opened more opportunities for me.”


Source: Miramichi Leader – January 8, 2002

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