In Todd Murphy’s mythical, evocative work, he often painted figures from the natural world — tigers, crows, pelicans, deer — and sometimes included the animals themselves, stuffed and mounted.
In one of his monumental paintings of a stag, the creature’s antlers become three dimensional branches, rising up out of the canvas. The mixed media assemblage was an apt emblem for an artist who escaped boundaries.
“He wanted to explode the picture frame and not be limited by it,” said Bill Lowe, whose gallery brought Murphy to Atlanta’s attention, beginning with Murphy’s first sold-out show in January 1992.
Murphy, 57, died of cancer Monday, Feb. 3, in Brooklyn.
He was one of Atlanta’s most recognizable exports, and a ringleader in a time of exciting art.
“He was the unequivocal leading man in a period of creative explosion in this part of the country,” said Lowe, “and not just the work, but his persona. He was an enchanting personality. He was just funny and smart, and he really knew how to work a room.”
Murphy’s giant-sized works became popular among performers, and he was collected by Elton John, Michael Stipe, John Mellencamp and Jon Bon Jovi, but also by the High Museum of Art.
One of his biggest canvases occupies pride of place at Two Urban Licks, Robert Amick’s pioneering Midtown restaurant.
Amick was looking for art when he opened his eatery in 2004. “I had this 90-foot wall to deal with,” he said. He knew he needed a big painting, “and nobody does big paintings like Todd Murphy.”
One Murphy painting, “The Flying Man,” had already been claimed by Elton John. Murphy suggested another, “The Courage of Margaret Mead,” that features a woman in a dress surrounded by birds, tigers, leopards and other wildlife. It was 20 feet wide, and Murphy added an extra panel to the top, making it 16 feet tall.
“It’s certainly our identity,” said Amick of the painting.
Murphy studied the natural world carefully. Amick has a house in Nantucket, and Murphy asked to stay there for week, so he could photograph birds.
“Todd ventured way outside the envelope,” said Jonathan Coleman, a friend from Murphy’s years in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then again when they both lived in New York City.
A bestselling author of narrative nonfiction, Coleman wrote of Murphy, “he lit up the sky.”
Murphy played football in high school at the Marist School, and then attended the University of Georgia. He remained a Bulldog fan ever after.
Watching Herschel Walker run the ball and listening to Larry Munson announce the play-by-play was Murphy’s idea of heaven, said Coleman.
Admirers have been posting thoughts of Murphy online this week in remembrance of his work and his friendship.
Frances Schultz, author of the food and design books “Atlanta at Home” and “Atlanta at Table,” wrote on her Facebook page of an outsize Murphy painting at her home and the pleasure it gives her. “He was so talented, and he was much loved, with a circle of friends as colorful and diverse as his palette,” she wrote.
Murphy created the cover art for the Indigo Girls album “Nomads, Indian, Saints” and a video for their song “Hammer and Nail” was filmed inside Murphy’s Atlanta studio, where one can see the artist at work.
“Atlanta artist Todd Murphy was a transcendent artist, and gave us a most precious gift,” they wrote.
Murphy’s art was priced at $15,000 to $55,000, with monumental work going for $175,000.
During the years they worked together, Lowe tried to get Murphy to explain his enigmatic subject matter, so that Lowe could offer some background exegesis for his gallery’s clients. But Murphy resisted.
“Bill: just make it up. You do that so much better than I do,” Murphy would say.
Lowe would protest, saying “I want to tell the truth,” and Murphy would respond, “Bill let me just tell you this: If I could say it, I wouldn’t paint it.”
A father of five and a brother to three siblings, including a twin sister, Murphy came back to Catholicism in recent years, said Coleman.
His memory was celebrated at a mass Friday at The Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Amick said he didn’t know of plans for a service in Atlanta.
After Murphy was diagnosed last summer, Atlanta friends came together to create a fundraiser to help cover hs medical costs.
Murphy didn’t attend the event, but sent a message to those who did. The organizers included Gary Motley, former U.S. Attorney Kent Alexander and concert promoter Peter Conlon.
“I wish to celebrate tonight as a kind of closure. I hope that by coming together, it’s an opportunity to celebrate all of us” he wrote.
“My family thanks you. From the very most humble place in my soul, I thank you for what you are doing for us.”
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