Beading down barriers 

Molly Murphy blends culture and commentary at MAM

On one wall of the Missoula Art Museum’s Lynda M. Frost gallery hangs four extra large Gildan Activewear T-shirts adorned with hip phraseology (“Rez Ball Legends”) and dynamic warrior-playing-basketball illustrations. They’re just another example of old and new customs mashed together and marketed toward American Indian hoops fanatics, except in this case an artist has stepped in and commandeered the message.

At first glance, nothing about Molly Murphy’s traditional beading patterns—added to each of the T-shirts in colorful bands or fleeting bursts—appear controversial. She’s simply provided a vibrant frame to everyday athletic wear; it’s tempting to chalk it up as something oddly cool—courtside reservation bling, perhaps.

Until, that is, you get to the title (“Tribal Size Me”) attached to each of the shirts/art pieces and take a second look at the immense size of the T-shirts spread across the wall. At that point it’s apparent why some of the backstory of this exhibit—Murphy’s debut MAM show just four years after earning her BFA from the University of Montana—has the artist worried.

In a way, these four shirts cut straight to the balancing act Murphy faces as a mixed blood descendant of the Oglala, Lakota tribe working in her culture’s traditional medium and creating contemporary art, often with nontraditional commentary. 

“Some of my beadwork is breaking a lot of beadwork rules, and some of those are really hard for me to break,” says Murphy, whose mother started her beading at age seven. “I was taught that you always keep good thoughts in your mind, you only make things that are beautiful, that it’s a meditative process. Being a good beadworker is an incredibly important position socially. It tells people that you’re stable, you’re industrious, you’re skilled, that you take care of your family, that you respect traditions and patterns and your elders. Native women teach other younger women to bead, and you’re taught to approach it in a certain manner. It’s a very respected position to say, yes, I’m a beadworker. So, to make something critical is a very difficult step for me.”

The “Tribal Size Me” series speaks to the rampant obesity and diabetes plaguing American Indians today. Murphy was aware of the problem, but surprised at last year’s Arlee powwow when she went to purchase a shirt and was told they only carried “tribal sizes,” or XL and above. That prompted her to explore some form of artistic expression on the issue, despite the potential backlash from her mentors.

“Working from a cultural standpoint, I’m still a subject of that greater culture,” she says. “If I was censured in any way, I would feel that. It’s not the same as being a painter where you can tell everybody to fuck off, and the whole point of your work is to tell everybody to go to hell and back. If you do something from a cultural standpoint, something that feeds your culture—literally— how can you do something that’s critical and negative? It’s something I thought a lot about.”

Murphy estimates there are only about 20 to 30 contemporary beadwork artists exhibiting in the country, making her a bit of an anomaly. And considering Murphy’s circuitous path to becoming a professional artist, standing apart seems to suit her just fine. A graduate of Hellgate High School, Murphy enrolled at UM studying pre-med. Her first job was in a virology laboratory at UM working on FIV, or AIDS in cats.

“It wasn’t Burger King,” she says, displaying a bit of her wry humor.

After one year, Murphy was burned out and decided to take time off from college. When she returned to UM five years later, her initial goal was to collect enough credits to transfer to Montana State’s architecture program. But then art—and specifically ceramics—caught her attention. Her first project: creating hyper-realistic, over-sized food.

“I was terrible at ceramics, but the ceramics department was really free. It was one of the few places where I was able to experiment, where I didn’t have to be perfect, where it was okay to make mistakes,” she says. “And I decided if I couldn’t get someone to feel grand emotions, I could at least make them feel hungry.”

By Murphy’s senior year, she switched gears within the art department and “got serious.” She turned her attention to native parfleche designs—a term that describes both the objects and style of painting that go on utilitarian rawhide containers. Eventually painting on rawhide evolved to beading on boxes. By moving entirely to contemporary materials, Murphy feels her work finally began to reflect who she is. 

“I’m not a full-blood, I’m not a traditionalist, I’m not obsessed with authentic materials or reproducing something,” she says. “I was really dissatisfied with what I was doing. In the end, I had to find a more authentic way to tell my story…I decided to mess with the medium.”

The move has worked well for Murphy. She’s networked with a steady line of collectors across Oklahoma and Arkansas (most of the pieces at MAM are on loan from them) and her work appears in two galleries, one in Salt Lake City, the other in Kennebunkport, Maine. Both are exclusively American Indian galleries.

“I don’t think my stuff would ever sell in Anglo galleries,” she says. “They would walk in and be like, ‘Um, what the hell?’ And even beadwork is not entirely pushed in the native galleries. It’s still more painting, pottery, basketry—all contemporary work, but more familiar to art buyers. There’s still that question of whether beadwork can be contemporary.”

Having to answer that question for the art community is something Murphy has addressed ever since she decided to pursue beadwork at UM. But as her MAM show opens, she’s also wondering about the flip side—answering for her contemporary work to generations of American Indian women. Balancing both sides has become tricky, and Murphy hopes the discussion eventually turns solely to the merits of her work.

“I hope people can look at it and make an aesthetic judgment about it, without feeling they’re going to make a right or wrong decision about its meaning,” she says, touching on how unfamiliarity with both contemporary beadwork and American Indian culture may make some viewers hesitant. “I hope they’ll be willing to respond to color, line and shape the same as they would with a non-ethnic artist. I try to lure them in with the sparkle and the pretty, and see if that will at least draw them in. Then maybe we can have an honest discussion about the message.”

Molly Murphy: Reservations Required is on display at the Missoula Art Museum through Saturday, May 24. Murphy will speak during Artini: The Bead Goes On Thursday, March 20, at 5:30 PM. Free.
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