ST PETER’S Church on North Main Street is currently home to a joint exhibition which is something of a rarity.
While it is not uncommon for artists to co-exhibit, what makes this duel showcase unusual is that the two artists in question are husband and wife.
Mary and Stephen Murphy will display their work in Cork’s oldest church, now an oasis of culture and heritage in the heart of the city, upstairs on the Mezzanine of St Peter’s throughout the month of September.
It was not their shared love of art that brought the creative couple together originally however.
Mary and Stephen have always shared a passion for motor bikes. Mary’s family was involved in biking and she remembers the day that Stephen, on his VT 250 bike, called to her home to see her brother.
“I answered the door and he was standing there, handsome, dark eyes, deep red coloured leather jacket and I fell in love there and then,” she said.
Mary, originally from Blackrock, was aged 17 and studying for her leaving cert and Stephen, then 20, from Model Farm Rd, was a motor mechanic. Love blossomed and the young couple secretly got engaged before Mary left for Art College in Limerick later that year. The rest is history. The couple have three children, Jessica, Talia and Vincent.
Mary was always certain that she wanted to pursue a career in a creative field. Having completed a four year degree in Fashion design and post-graduate studies, she won the Irish National Designer of the year award. She went on to work in fashion in Paris and Milan before returning home to Cork and turning her attention in a different creative direction.
“I ran a successful traditional signwriting company for 16 years, hand carving and hand painting signage,” she explained.
Mary’s best known work from this period of her career is the Murphy’s Stout sign, depicting an artist painting the Murphy’s crest, which is still in use today in Cashman’s bar in Cork and other venues throughout Cork and Kerry.
Artistically, Mary went through various stages with her painting and then began to seriously explore unusual combinations of materials and textiles. Her award-winning portrait of Samuel Beckett, in pale greys, charcoals, black threads and hand-stitching, caught the attention of well known curator Trudi Van Dyke whose article in the American magazine, Fiber Art Now, counted Mary among the world’s top five fiber portrait artists.
Mary has gone on to exhibit extensively and has enjoyed media and press coverage at home and abroad.
Her art is primarily concerned with the human body and explores, through form and a variety of media, experiences that mould our bodies and indeed alter them.
“My work consists of a large body of studies which explore the classical nude. It’s about human existence, how we react to one another and the reactions we provoke in others.”
She liberally explores many techniques and media from oils, charcoal and pastels, to fibers, needles and thread. Mary uses the needle and thread to replace the traditional pen and paper in rendering the human frame.
“As an artist, I explore the human frame in line and form. I am captivated by its strength and flexibility. The study of sinued muscle, paper-dry wrinkles, bones jutting through skin and the play of light over them fascinate me.”
Stephen Murphy’s passion for cars and motor bikes equalled Mary’s passion for art and design. He continued to work as a mechanic for 26 years, all the while being coaxed by Mary to experience the therapeutic benefits of art and painting.
“I pestered him for years to pick up a brush and just enjoy the moment, the sense of getting back to self, listening to your gut, reconnecting with creativity.”
After 30 years together, Stephen finally took Mary’s advice, picked up a brush and now paints every day. He is completely self-taught, which has allowed him a freedom in his work that a classically trained artist might struggle to achieve. His fresh outlook on materials has yielded exciting, if surprising, combinations and a fearless approach to composition.
Stephen’s love of motorbikes is now expressed as visual feast. His experience of working with classic bikes over the years has gained him an inside-out knowledge of the machines and his work illustrates a keen eye for detail and precision. Stephen uses the play of light on chrome and metal to showcase his bold and brilliant use of colour.
His approach is energetic and intuitive, starting many paintings at one time and honing his craft on each and every one. He is very playful with paint and is unafraid to try different methods, styles and tools on his voyage of exploration and discovery.
Both husband and wife probe the possibilities of their craft and continue to evolve, which Mary feels is essential as an artist.
“I truly believe all artists evolve with every passing year until they lay down the brush,” she said.
Mary has been running a busy art studio for many years in Carrigaline and eight years ago, as the venture expanded, Stephen took a leap of faith to quit his day job, spend more time with his family and join Mary in running the business. The couple now offer classes and workshops for all ages. The studio is a haven of inspiration with classical music playing, candles lighting, huge windows and even an indoor swing. Mary takes immense pleasure in encouraging her pupils to achieve results beyond their own expectations.
“I love to see the surprise on people’s faces when they have created something which they believed was beyond them. I love to see the confidence emerging and encouraging them to find their own voice as an artist.”
Students have access to all kinds of equipment from oil and acrylic paint, to silk painting and batik, lino cutting, sculpture, body casting, candle making and ceramics.
New to the curriculum this term are Fiber workshops in which participants can learn to draw using a needle and thread or sewing machine, and experiment with all manner of textiles and processes. Mary’s younger students are ensured of a nurturing experience.
She said: “I am passionate about an inclusive environment. In my children’s classes all abilities participate and support each other’s efforts. The social aspect of inclusion in a creative pursuit is tremendously healing and uplifting.”
The studio recently had their second very successful exhibition at the Pig’s Back in Douglas with 65 junior artists and over 300 people celebrating their efforts. The busy artists still make time for the passion that originally brought them together. Stephen drives a 1975 original Harley FHL and he suprised Mary two years ago with a Christmas gift of a beautiful customised 1972 Yamaha XS 650. They recently grew their collection further with a Honda 400.
“We ride bikes as much as we can, getting away a few times a year with just tents and sleeping bags, stopping where we want.”
Exhibiting their art together in St Peter’s Church this month is a declaration and a celebration of where Mary and Stephen now are in their lives and the journey is set to continue.
“Our ambition this year coming is to exhibit more and to find all kinds of venues for some pop-up exhibitions, anywhere from cafes to galleries or unused units. We would be delighted to chat to anyone with a suitable space who would like to collaborate with us,” she said.
The exhibition runs until September 28.