“I’ve loved art since I was a child,” says painter and long-time Art League instructor John Murray. “My elementary school had paintings [borrowed] from the National Gallery of Art, so that’s where I fell in love with it.” And then there was that time that he got to see Michelangelo masterpieces up close—sort of. “My father took me to a special exhibit at the Smithsonian. They had [reproductions of] the whole Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgment in a room,” he recalls with lingering wonderment. “I don’t remember the size of it, but as a kid, it seemed pretty big to me. That’s when I decided that [art] is what I want to do.”
Inspired by the classical masters he discovered as a boy, these days Murray works primarily in oil, painting figures, landscapes, still-life, and portraiture. But at a point in his career, he turned to sculpture—to improve his painting—and became hooked. And very accomplished. “I like the timeless element of sculpture,” he says. “It captures a moment in time.”
This winter, in addition to teaching Artistic Anatomical Drawing, Murray is also leading Figure Sculpture classes at The Art League School. Under his instruction, students will learn the concepts and techniques for sculpting the human form using live models and anatomical casts. During a recent phone conversation, Murray explained how sculpting informs his painting, shared what to expect from his class, and revealed the large-scale work he’d most like to create.
The Art League: You’re primarily a painter. How did you come to sculpt?
JM: I love figure and form and thought that trying to create them three-dimensionally would better inform me on how to paint or draw them. A lot of painters take sculpture to get a better understanding of how a form works, so when they paint or draw it, it will look more dimensional.
TAL: Where did you study sculpture?
JM: I did a little sculpting in high school, and while I attended the Maryland Institute College of Art. Later, I took sculpture lessons at the Frudakis Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and studied under master sculptor EvAngelos Frudakis. He told me that he thought I was good. I sculpted on and off for a number of years, then I kind of got discouraged and stopped for a number of years.
Then, I took a workshop with a Russian sculptor at my wife’s art school. This teacher, who hardly spoke a word of English, gave me some of the best advice about standing back from my work. From then on, I started to stand maybe 10 or 15 feet back and really see and analyze what I was doing. He also helped me with a piece by doing all kinds of things that were counterintuitive to me—using his thumbs and his hands and pulling and pushing and using his elbow. I thought he was ruining my work and started to get angry. But when he walked away, I looked at it and said, wow, it’s much, much better. And I started to become a better sculptor.
TAL: What do you enjoy about teaching sculpting?
JM: I like the challenge of getting students to understand how things move in space and, just like the Russian teacher showed me, how to make sense of it all, how to stand back, and see how things work and really develop their eye to see the bigger shapes. I think that’s kind of fulfilling is when you get them just to start to see that.
TAL: What are some of the presumptions and misconceptions that may cause people to feel like sculpting is a daunting endeavor?
JM: Misconceptions, I don’t know. I mean, it’s taken me a long time to learn it, and it can be daunting, but you just have to start. You have to practice, and eventually, you start to get better, and you get a fever for it. You’ll want to do more sculpting because it’s wonderful, even if it’s not exactly the way you want it to turn out.
TAL: Who should take your class?
JM: I think anybody could take it. I started without much background before I went to Frudakis Academy. I just jumped in. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just started to touch the clay, and I began to love it.
TAL: What do you say to potential students to alleviate any apprehension they may have about taking this course?
JM: You’ll enjoy it. It’s addictive—a healthy addiction—once you start doing it.
TAL: What do you hope your students get from taking your class?
JM: I hope that they develop an appreciation for form and understand proportions better.
TAL: If you could make any piece of sculpture, what would you make and where would you put it?
JM: So far, a lot of the work that I’ve done has been tabletop pieces, but there’s a part of me that would like to do something big. I was thinking about a life-sized cow in the backyard. That might be kind of interesting, to look out the backyard and see a big cow out there made out of clay.
To register for John Murray’s Figure Sculpture class or other winter classes and workshops, click here.