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Wild Symbols: The Art of Melissa Murray


A bear walks through brush in a forest clearing at dawn, his face touched by goldenrod boughs heavy with flowers. A peregrine falcon crosses through the sky above pine trees, its tiny shadow passing over a tall mullein plant. Plums ripen on a tree until the moment they’re picked, the silvery bloom on their surface smudged by human fingers. 


Bear, falcon, plum: these are a few of the innumerable figures that appear in Melissa Murray’s new body of work. The creatures, plants, objects and textures appearing in the paintings that compose Once Met By Morning Dew are witnessed by Murray in their singularity, brought into intentional spatial relationship with one another. At their most elemental level, Murray’s paintings honor the private and intimate selfhood of her subjects, invoking the lives of these beings as conduits for transformation. At the same time, the paintings are documents of meditative discovery, evidence of the artist’s inner transformation through time.


Created over the course of a year at her studio in the Catskill mountains, Murray describes the work in Once Met By Morning Dew as “seasonal painting.” The Catskills are characterized by numerous ecosystems, and the species that make up those systems as the seasons shift are a primary source of material for Murray. Looking at the work in this series, one sees, for instance, spring dandelion blossoms, the purple asters of autumn, milk snakes, moths, summer ferns and lilies, the dance of wild turkeys, the pink-green gleam coming through a brown trout’s spots. Murray engages with these species as they appear in the world she inhabits, making each painting a portrait of a very specific moment in the year. Whether familiar with these elements or not, viewers are invited to make their own meaning from these compositions; these elements constitute a shared language, a vocabulary of things that speak to our collective species-experience. 


While many of the symbols Murray uses are drawn from her immersion in the natural world, others come from her quotidian life–patterned fabrics, tools, candles, vessels, heads of garlic. At the start of the year these paintings were made, Murray lost a close family member, someone who had been a lifelong connection and loving support. The painting process became, in part, a method for processing grief, with objects in the artist’s immediate world coming together to create an intuitive symbolic language. The painting titled The Astral Plane is one of several in this body of work that features heads of garlic, something Murray’s lost loved one grew in his garden year after year. As an allegorical symbol, garlic combines numerous qualities that are essential to this world: garlic is a form of stored energy, a gift from the past to the present. It’s also an artifact of human engagement with the earth. It is a product–something to eat–and a seed, something to plant in the ground, a source of renewal. Garlic is familiar to everyone, and yet the personal connection to Murray’s family, and to loss, allows it to signify something very specific in these paintings.


Even though Murray’s creatures and objects are collected from her life, there’s a greater metaphysical force at play in Once Met By Morning Dew. The paintings’ symbolic language–their overarching system of object, pattern, color and shape–is something that arrives for Murray by way of intuition. The artist finds her vocabulary of images through meditation and dream, noting that the worlds she paints act the way a dream acts–that is, outside of the rationality that defines conscious, waking life. The practice of Swedish abstract painter and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) is useful in thinking about this crucial element of Murray’s work. Af Klint, trained at the Royal Academy of Fine Art as a landscape and botanical painter, used her capacity as a spiritual medium for creating her abstract paintings around the turn of the 20th century. Like af Klint, Murray tunes into the realm of the unseen, summoning information from metaphysical guides. The images that emerge from this summoning exist, to a great degree, outside of Murray’s personal subjectivity. While af Klint used abstraction to communicate the messages she received from the world of the unseen, Murray uses representation, creating configurations that evoke altars, spaces of timeless human ritual. And while these paintings have clear “subjects”–animals, plants, objects–I posit that the transmission of information from the unseen, subconscious world is the true subject of this work.


The eponymous painting for this collection, A Stride Once Met by Morning Dew, is a clear example of the transformative, ritual-centered nature of the work. The head and skin of a black bear appear as a foundation for an array of other elements. Some of these have human significance: a hammer and nails, a checkered tablecloth, a scattering of ripe late-summer fruit. Some of them are emblems of the wilderness: a polyphemus moth, a handful of bear claws, several boughs of goldenrod in full bloom. Dark and full moons appear among firefly-like stars. The arrangement of these elements is not random, but is intentionally rendered by Muray based on her intuitive reception. The merging of human and wild symbols is also purposeful, with the bear head and skin being especially poignant, a memento of a wild life taken away by human hands. On the left side of the picture, flat yellow shapes that are akin to the goldenrod blossoms appear. Seemingly-unfinished shapes like these, which also appear throughout the work in this collection, are Murray’s nod to abstraction. Just as af Klint used abstract symbols as transmissions of mystic realization, Murray evokes the sacred potential of the abstract with these shapes, creating a lively dialogue between the abstract and the “real.”


There’s a particular pleasure offered by Murray’s paintings that lies in reading the meaning of the paintings’ symbols. Whether the act of viewing is interpretive or imaginative, her relationship to her viewers is part of a rich lineage of artists whose work extends viewers an invitation to form their own story out of an assemblage of elements. Spending time in the presence of paintings such as A Fire Dreams of Closeness and Give Her Plenty, More Than Enough, I’m reminded of the emotionally dense realism of Walton Ford’s animal still lifes. The intentionality of each object in relation to every other brings to mind the diorama-like containment of Joseph Cornell’s “memory boxes;” the merging of allegory with richly saturated color and pattern calls up the paintings of female surrealists like Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning. Like Carrington, Tanning and af Klint, Murray is an artist who is not afraid to lean into the dazzling, the awe-inducing. A celebration of the strange beauty of the world is a preliminary for these paintings.


The Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in southeastern France, home to some of the oldest known figurative paintings, features images of mammoths, bison, rhinoceri, and cave hyenas–among other species–that were painted on the cave walls between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. The meaning of these paintings has long been considered to be devotional. Thinking about the artists who painted animals in the Chauvet cave, I can’t help but consider how fundamentally human the drive to paint is, and how creating representations of animals is an essential way of making mystic contact with the vastness of the world. This devotional spirit of surrender animates Murray’s paintings too, expanding from the immediate world of Catskills creatures to the eternal planes of hermetic knowledge. Joining the ancient human tradition of representing the world through symbol is something Murray does especially well. Making this work is her way of finding her place in the wilderness, and an invitation for others to do the same.

Iris Cushing


Artist Statement

Once Met By Morning Dew is a series of new paintings inspired by my time spent living in the Catskills Mountains. This work uses elements of nature to narrate themes of grieving, joy and the undefined desire to live one's life. Through manipulated still lives, these paintings present human’s relationship with nature, both within it and astride it, and a quest for a deeper understanding of purpose. This series lives in tandem with the paintings of the Vanitas, and those whose work is rooted in Mysticism; they share a coded love letter towards a desire to understand what lies beyond our lived experiences.


Animals and natural elements are the focal point of Once Met By Morning Dew. They become sentimentalized in a way that asks questions about a universal existence: what it is for us to consume, create order and chaos, and belong to a system beyond that of human design. Animals are used as offerings in these paintings to gain a greater understanding of these questions while also commenting on a human's need to use the lives of those around us for our own gain. Great care and grace is granted to them in this work as they become vessels, wrapped and adorned, and take their welcomed place within nature. They remind us that living wholly aside from the natural world excludes us from the lessons it can teach.


The works of Hilma af Klint have given us a newfound validity to ask these questions through painting. Her unwavering commitment to understanding the unseen world has sparked a wave of curiosity that leans less on the taboo and more towards a quest for knowledge. Much like af Klint, throughout this series I have embraced a practice of deep meditation in my work. Each painting came through a practice of post meditation drawing reflecting on the imagery that arose therein. Once Met By Morning Dew is a year of my subconscious life visualized through 20 paintings. This process has rooted me deeper into my natural surroundings, and has taught me that finding my small place within the seen and unseen natural world brings forth the greatest purpose.

Melissa Murray


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