Time takes and time gives. All manner of things. But in the time it takes to get down to the roots of our pain, everything happens. We do not just wait things out. Of course we can and have, many of us, slowed time down through those old detours that nearly took us out of time. It's not about luck: coming out of it. It's about wanting, no, needing to know that our light is worth the fight. Recovery means to recoup what was once ours. It means the light was always there, buried deep down as it was, beneath everything that happened to us. Annie Murphy-Robinson's artwork is a recouping-reworking through and underneath the perils and pitfalls of a time once out of joint. Rejoining-rejoicing, other words that come to mind, while understanding one must pass through all the bad parts of town inside oneself along the way. Everything happens when we become such "constant gardeners," as Annie says, and because "these minds of ours need constant tending," there can be no such thing as unattended time in the end. Unbidden moments, sure, but these too come from being down on our hands and knees in the dirt, turning soil, pulling weeds, mending roots. Gratitude is the practice, resentment: the storm warning. And forgiveness, like Cheryl Strayed says, well, it doesn't sit there like a pretty boy in a bar, it's carrying the fat man up the hill, it's hard work. Forgiving ourselves. Falling into, rather than chasing some kind of grace. It's true: we grow through what we go through. We spoke with Annie recently about her art practice and her recovery journey, and the insights she offers here are one's that many of us in recovery, or in any kind of pain, could use reminding of. That the darkness isn't romantic and the light isn't easy. But if we dig: we receive, and all manner of things inside of us find their way home again.
James Diaz: Could you talk to us a bit about the journey you've been on. Joyce Carol Oates calls it: Where I'm going and where I've been. In telling how and why we arrived here, often so impossibly and against great odds, the opening pages of that story touches the lives of those of us who have been there too before. So, Annie, where are you going, where have you been?
Annie Murphy-Robinson: Where I’m going is more difficult to answer than where I have been. My art is definitely influenced by both of those spaces- I continue to rewrite the trauma of the past and reclaim my identity in the process of drawing, giving meaning to it. I am empowered through quantifying my experiences- ie) giving meaning to traumatic experiences which in turn, takes me as a victim out of the story. When I feel victimized, there is lingering "justified" anger which for me leads to resentment- and resentment is the #1 offender for this alcoholic.
Where I am going is more of a wish, a space in which artistic exploration can occur- the masterpiece can be created. My tastes, my own stories and my outside influences also come into play in the "where am I going" realm of my art.
JD: You've said that art has helped you "to give meaning to the struggle," which I think many of us can relate to. And not just as artists, but also as those of us who find meaning in the work of others that helps give form and voice to our own struggles. Could you talk some about the ways in which art has helped you flesh out the meaning from beneath all the years of struggle and dark, and how it has also helped you reach for that "light through the cracks," as Leonard Cohen so aptly calls it? Have there been artists along the way whose own grappling with struggle inspired you on your own personal journey as an artist?
AMR: When I was in my disease, I had become accustomed to the dark, I reveled in it at times, it was so familiar. Many of my traumas were of my own making, perpetuated by my addictions. Some of those traumas were not, they occurred as a child. I learned to work through most with the steps by looking at my part, making amends and most of all forgiveness. What I have found after some time in sobriety is that forgiveness doesn't always make the deeper issues go away. detachment, neglect and a general feelings of not being "enough" seep through and start to emerge (for me) into other issues, for me it was bulimia. Once again I wanted to feel in control and seen as "worthy" (ie skinny, ie beautiful) by my peers, I was not good enough. Once again I was in treatment learning tools to deal with my eating disorder and I starting to notice things. The whys and root problems started to appear in the work- they questioned me as I created the work. I had to answer, it was inescapable.
This "questioning seed" got started in graduate school. After learning techniques and starting to master my medium, the why naturally comes up. I kept leaning into imagery that was bitter-sweet, questioning, or in your face controversial which explains my personality. As I made the work my awareness began to grow and the act of making triggered the traumas around them as I searched for the "why". Many artists have tragic histories, I am drawn to the Carrivagios and Frida Kahlos that have come before me, and those are just some of the "well known" artists that have created work from a place of controversy and inner pain, ie truth. The light through the cracks is in the digging, finding the root cause of the trauma and pulling it out- This mind of mine needs to be tended, I have become a "constant gardener". the work, in its completion, still questions me and reminds me to start weeding.
JD: As artists, when we find ourselves in the process of creation, (and I think this is as true for writers as for visual artists) oftentimes memories, scars, the blank spaces of traumas too great to process emerge, all that we've kept at safe-distance throughout the years resurfacing to tell a story for the first time. In my experience, just to speak out loud what happened can lift a weight that we've hoisted silently, for years, with us everywhere we went. Has uncovering and giving voice to some of these soul-griefs helped you to travel lighter than before? Art's cathartic and transformative power, how have you felt it show up in your own work and life?
AMR: The biggest transformative power that I have discovered through the making and showing of my art is the similarities that people have shared about their own experiences. Much like walking into the "rooms" and feeling a sense of fellowship, the work has brought that same feeling of community. I feel like another aspect of the transformative power is that it asks others to be vulnerable, speak their truth and move through their own experience as well. In my workshops I start with my story- my experience, strength and hope. I know that most people are drawn to my work have that shared experience. regardless of the incident, the root feelings are the same, the pervasive feeling of not being enough.
Uncovering the blank spots, forgiving my abusers ( I am one of my abusers) and different approaches to therapy have helped. There is a lightness in me that I am comfortable with today, I have tools that I use to continue to live in that space most of the time.
JD: What is your creative process like? How do works first form and take their initial shape? Is there a moment when it dawns on you that a drawing is calling out to be born in a certain way, or is it something that you find happens along the way, arriving as a surprise visitor knocking on the door of the page?
AMR: More often than not it, my process begins with a photo shoot- things present themselves there, which include the space I am using (either inside or outside) and the outfits that are used. Lighting is also important -when I look at the images (I take a few hundred to get 10- 15 usable photos) and I move from there. I look for an expression that speaks to me and also a clarity that I can draw from. As I work, I start thinking of names for the piece which come from a narrative that I kind of create in my head. It is always rooted in either the history and plight of the female, mythology or my own past. From the story that starts to come to mind comes the knocking on the door, and that has lead to other imagery, or therapy, or both.
JD: What is the first work of art you encountered that took your breath away, that lit a fire in you?
AMR: I was obsessed with animals when I was young, so I looked at a lot of wildlife paintings and painters, although I cant recall names. As a young adult I was first moved by the sculptures of Bernini and the paintings of Carravagio, namely Berninis Ecstasy of St Teresa and
Apollo and Daphne, and The Calling of St. Matthew by Carravagio.
JD: What advice would you offer to those who find themselves yearning to create but who do not perhaps feel they were born an artist, so to speak? Yours is such an important story of persevering and staying with it, of artistic map making in order to save your life, to transform it, and to allow that story, that" vital spark," to touch others in a way that is beyond calculation or words. What are the types of things that have helped you to move past moments where you may have become stuck creatively or felt like cashing in all your chips? Where "the doubting place" became all too real and felt? Where have you found hope to live on days like these?
AMR: Art making makes me feel better. There is or was never a question in my mind that made me want to quit making art. There was a point in graduate school where I wanted to quit, I felt less than and I had no idea how to deeply express myself through imagery.
Today I know, from experience, a few things- the muse only visits after the work starts and that my visual voice has a right to exist. It doesn't matter who looks at it- it is beyond someone else's interpretation of what it means, why I do it- it is therapeutic and necessary for me to exist in this life, in this skin. When my ego gets in the way, and I start to doubt myself (usually when I compare my work and thus myself to others) and I have tools for that as well. Through the making I peel the onion, always searching, uncovering and acknowledging the feelings that arise.
JD: Other than art, what brings you joy? What are the small blessings in a day you look and reach for? The simple, quiet, unbidden and precious arrivals?
AMR: Yoga, sweat, sitting in quiet, working my land, chainsawing and manicuring space for my workshops there, music, making music, dancing, outdoor concerts, laughing and crying with my friends and family, being a shoulder for those who need it, discovering new friends, teaching art, talking about quantum physics, and watching a good period drama with my mother.
JD: Do you have any upcoming exhibits or new projects you'd like to tell people about?
AMR: I'll have a few pieces in the 2021 LA Art Fair in July with Arcadia Contemporary and also have a few pieces in the Art of Paper in New York in late August, also with Arcadia Contemporary. I am just finishing up my website (two years!!!!!!!! argh!) and will have print, originals and videos available for purchase. I plan on working larger and on some work that I have recently just shot which includes landscape and more narrative.
All images © Annie Murphy-Robinson, used with kind permission from the artist.
For more, visit Annie's Instagram and Facebook pages.
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