Paul Luke Murphy: Natural Artist

Paul Murphy is an artist, currently specialising in interpretive sculpture. He talks to Gaia Discovery about his work, his techniques, and his feeling for sustainability.

Launceston, January 14 2017. Paul Murphy is an artist, currently working out of Australia and has a Bachelor of Environmental Design in architecture. Following this relatively delimited education, he decided to seek a more expressive medium. Accordingly, he worked running events, and coordinated closely with art organisations, festivals and creative management. More recently, he has thrown much of his energies into sculpture, highlighting natural environments and their relevance to synthetic frameworks. He spoke to Gaia Discovery at a recent exhibition of his work at the Sawtooth Gallery as part of its "Seven" event, held  in January 2017.

Paul Murphy studied architecture, but became intrigued by natural forms and their meaning to the observer. Photo Mallika Naguran.

Paul Murphy studied architecture, but became intrigued by natural forms and their meaning to the observer. Photo Mallika Naguran.

GD: One of the most interesting aspects of your work, especially the Traces sculptures, is its use of naturally occurring forms using a completely synthetic medium. Can you talk to us about that?

PM:  Traces seeks to stimulate the viewer with sculptures that challenge one’s concept of gravity and mass. Highlighting a divergence amongst mineral and synthetic materials and the natural and built environments, while opposing the matter they are built from, as well as the environment and landscape they are placed in. The sculptures reference and suggest naturally occurring geological phenomena such as sea stacks, inviting the viewer to question their existence, mass and impression.

GD: What led to this approach, and the very recognisable style of your work?

PM:  The sculptures are inspired by, and appear as though they are rose quartz formations. It’s a combination of the naturally inspired shape, and colour, constructed with something as entirely artificial as polystyrene (styrofoam) as the original medium. I used retrieved waste offcuts of the polystyrene, and made my own cutter – a bowsaw with an electric heating wire instead of a blade. I used this to cut the material in a way that echoed the shape of the stacks. The colour is chosen to echo natural, almost shiny rock surfaces. I suppose it’s the contrast really.

For the aluminium pieces, I cast them in three segments and then welded the three segments together. This was because this piece was so large, and so I had to develop a way to make the work hollow, too. My previous (aluminium) castings which were on display at the Sawtooth opening were solid castings. The current three-segment pieces are yet to be exhibited, but you can see them at the upcoming Lorne Sculpture Biennale 

Traces exhibit at the Sawtooth Gallery, October 2016. Photo courtesy  Mel De Ruyter

Traces exhibit at the Sawtooth Gallery, October 2016. Photo courtesy  Mel De Ruyter

With a background in architecture, I am interested in the traditional understanding of gravity, the concept of phenomena, and the viewer’s perception of these. I am particularly interested with the relationship we have with the built environment, and the natural environment. These sculptures intend to explore this, mimicking the natural, though they are man made.

GD: And how did you come to the very specific forms you create?

PM:  Traces began as a site specific work inspired and influenced by the Lake Pedder site. Now a manmade impoundment and diversion lake created for generating hydroelectric power, Pedder was originally a natural inland alpine lake. It was a lake of intense iconic significance; if it were still to exist in its natural state, it would likely have a similar status in Australian mythology as other Australian icons as Uluru, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. As a result, in the 1970’s when Hydro Tasmania dammed the lake, the first and most passionate environmentally driven campaign was born. This would form the first ever Green Party in the world.

GD: Would it be fair to say the pristine natural world and its presence, sustainability, and protection are important parts of the message you want to convey?

PM:  The original Lake Pedder was a pristine glacial outwash lake with pink rose quartzite sands. The lake was so remote that you had to fly from a small airstrip Hobart and land on the sands of the beach. Either that or hike through wilderness for three days. I like to think that there might be a link from that, to the effect my works have on the people that see them.

GD: What has the response been like to these works?

PM:   Many people seem to warm to them, and to see something valid. Sometimes it is the shapes, sometimes the colour. I like to get across the message that the work itself mimics a natural element, but is completely synthetic at the same time – hopefully making people think about the relationship between the two. As an evolution of the initial (stryofoam) project, I turned to casting the works in aluminium.

GD: Why did Lake Pedder become so important to you and your work?

Lake Pedder. Photo courtesy Rose Quartz Festival

Lake Pedder. Photo courtesy Rose Quartz Festival

PM:  Five years ago I relocated from Melbourne to Tasmania, to take an architecture degree and to engage with Tasmania and its unique and diverse ecology. After having graduated I began to explore more creative practices with a strong focus on spatial design in terms of audience interaction and narrative. My final unit of studies in was an elective at Tasmanian College of the Arts ‘Art & Site’. This was a unit designed to show students the relationship work can have with a site, by undertaking a site-specific project. At the same time, I was also organising a small 500-person music festival at Lake Pedder called Rose Quartz. As a result, I made large sculptural styrofoam work responding to the site’s environment, history, and cultural significance, which I submitted. This was the first rendition of my work titled “Traces”.

GD: How has the formal art world responded to this unusual mix of art and sustainable message intent?

Murphy's Traces work was exhibited at the Artenwine Biennale. Photo Paul Murphy.

Murphy's Traces work was exhibited at the Artenwine Biennale. Photo Paul Murphy.

PM:  The series has been successfully exhibited on three occasions, at the Artentwine Sculpture Biennale in 2016 (aluminium series), and at Sawtooth Artist Run Initiative Gallery in October 2016 (styrofoam series), and at Inner Varnika Music and Arts Festival Victoria (styrofoam series). The styrofoam series vary in height from about 600mm to 2700mm. The aluminium series are castings of polystyrene maquettes I made before casting the large styrofoam series, in order to develop the form of the larger work. The large styrofoam series in particular has attracted interest, and I was invited to exhibit at the “Inner Varnika” music and arts festival in Victoria. I’ve also been invited to exhibit the next rendition of my work - a large 2.4 meter sculpture and the aluminium maquettes that were on display at the Sawtooth exhibition - at the Lorne Sculpture Biennale. These works owe a debt to Pacific Aluminium, who donated the aluminium I used, and Arts Tasmania which awarded me a grant for my exhibition in Lorne. Thanks to both!

Catch some of Paul Murphy's latest works at the Lorne Sculpture Bienniale, from March 17 to April 2 2018.