Remembering Elizabeth Murray: Balancing Art and Motherhood

"I think it's going to make my life better if I survive [cancer]. It makes you understand how precious life is. It's such a cliché, but those are the first things that hit you," Murray told me.
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Almost a year and a half ago, I interviewed contemporary artist and icon, Elizabeth Murray, in her New York City studio. Despite undergoing cancer treatment, and being frail in appearance, Elizabeth was upbeat, funny and astute, whether the topic was art, being a female artist, motherhood, or cancer. I was devastated to learn that she had passed last week; but she left all of us an amazing legacy of work and wisdom.

Ellen Susman: Elizabeth, you've been making art a long time. And in 2005 you were able to see much of your work in a retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art. What was it like for you to experience that?

Elizabeth Murray: It was incredible! It was not as immediately revelatory as I was hoping it would be so that I would walk in and see my work from different periods in my life and sort of understand where I hadn't followed through and what I could work on more. I'm hoping in time that the experience will just sort of sink in. And right now I'm feeling like how do I go beyond those paintings? How do I do better and take it into new places I haven't been.

ES: You began making art in the 60's, you got married, you moved to NY and while you were teaching art, and trying to make art, you had a child. What do you remember about juggling career and motherhood?

EM: A lot of conflict and guilt, because you know, the minute your baby comes out you fall in love with them and you also feel this incredible protectiveness that I've never felt before.

ES: What about the guilt?

EM: I think for some women the identity with baby is total and complete. I think mine was with Dakota, too, but at the same time there were other things I wanted to do in my life that I wanted as much as I wanted a child.

ES: Did you consider yourself a feminist?

EM: I didn't really think, am I, or am I not a feminist woman? I was just trying to be a painter.

ES: You had three children. Did being a mother interrupt your work as an artist, or do you think it enhanced your work in the end?

EM: I think it enhanced my work. I think children bring out the love inside of you, and I found it really emotional and very rewarding. There were certainly times when you know, you want to stab them in the chest, but for the most part, art making is about giving. It's really putting yourself on the line and giving of yourself.

ES: A lot of career women find they can't leave their work behind. They take it home. Are you able to walk into the apartment, shut the door to the studio, and say I'm done?

EM: Well, I have to be at a certain point. But one of the advantages of having your house and studio in the same place is that you can be there when the kids come home from school and that was important to me.

ES: Do you think people who have this image of you, as "an artist" would be surprised to learn you were so available to your kids?

EM: It's not so, religious, like "I'm working, don't bother the saint." I think kids need to check in with their parents.

ES: People talk about their life and work being entwined. Do you feel that's true for artists in general and you in particular?

EM: Well, I don't know about artists in general, but for me, it does feel like my life and work is entwined. And what's in my life, objects in my life, go into my work.

ES: Do you feel that spirituality is a part of the work you do, and is that important to you?

EM: It is very important. I mean, I think working is about being human, and that goes into your work. It's a way to relate to the world. I believe in the spirit of life and I think that art directly addresses that. So, it makes me feel good to express myself that way.

ES: You have been battling cancer. How has that affected you?

EM: I think it's going to make my life better if I survive. It makes you understand how precious life is. It's such a cliché, but those are the first things that hit you. You know, I should be dead, but here I am. And you make all these promises to yourself. And of course, life isn't like that. I just promise that I am going to live my life every day. But somehow, you can't do anything else. You're just more conscious of being lucky to be here and you notice that the trees look beautiful, or that you just experienced another spring. I'm more appreciative of the people that care about me, too.

ES: I read that you once said, "artists are strange beings." What did you mean by that?

EM: Most artists I know, including myself, need to be alone more than most people. And at the same time, they need to be around other humans. So there's that kind of tension. To do your work you need isolation to get into your thoughts. And maybe you need to feel like you're the only person in the world when you're working. So that's what I meant when I said that artists are strange beings.

Elizabeth Murray spoke about 9/11 and the feeling of community that she experienced during that crisis. She spoke of loving to laugh, and loving to read. And above all, she told me that nostalgia and sentiment were dangerous emotions. According to Elizabeth, being a sentimental person is okay, but if you're nostalgic, you're nostalgic for things that are past--and the past is never the way it's painted. God Bless, Elizabeth.

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