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Newfoundland native Josephine Williams Murphy brings family memories to life with her paint, passion and style

 

By Nancy Fornasiero

12/14/2016

When I first saw one of Josephine Williams Murphy’s colourful paintings online, I knew I wanted to meet her. It’s not that this somewhat obscure Newfoundland-born painter is an exceptionally accomplished artist, although she definitely has talent. But something in that folksy canvas spoke to me.

Months later a friend told me about a luncheon she’d been to where Murphy’s complete works had been showcased. Her series, called “Journey Home,” is made up of 50 individual vignettes from her rural upbringing during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. I was told that it even made people cry. I became more intrigued.

Had I known then what I know now, I would not have been surprised about the emotional response. Viewing Murphy’s unpretentious paintings — with their simple realism, nostalgic themes, and joyous colours — feels as comforting as snuggling up with an heirloom patchwork quilt.

Like many Newfoundlanders, Murphy is a born storyteller — although, rather than using words, she painstakingly crafts her tales using brushstrokes on canvas. Her visual narratives have homespun plots like A Visit to Aunt Bessie’s, or Gathering Berries for Jam, or Chopping Down the Christmas Tree. That first painting I saw, for example, illustrates the family’s daily bread-baking ritual. The foreground features Murphy’s serene-looking mother taking 10 warm loaves from the oven as her excited children look on. The bread is shaped in the traditional Newfoundland three-sectioned way, representing the Trinity. In the background laundry hangs to dry. The white cast-iron wood-burning stove, turquoise tiled walls, and patterned oilcloth bring the vintage 1940s country kitchen into focus. You can almost smell the wholesome, warm yeastiness of it.

Murphy’s paintings, which have been shown at many juried art shows and galleries, exhibit her sharp instincts for colour and composition. Overall, though, they betray her lack of formal training. Case in point: she once overheard an art teacher in a gallery tell his students to pause to observe her works. “If you want to use proper perspective in your art,” he instructed, “don’t draw like this.” Much to her relief, he added: “Notice, though, that these paintings still work.” He was right. They do work; although when I first encountered them I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I knew I had to dig deeper.

On a snowy day in February I make the trek to Cobourg, Ont., where Josephine Williams Murphy shares an empty nest with John, her high-school sweetheart and husband of 50 years. They warmly welcome me into their cottagey oak kitchen with its hand-stencilled walls covered in dozens of artworks, many featuring Murphy’s favourite motifs: loaves of bread and sheaves of wheat. The teakettle whistles, the smell of home-baked quiche wafts from the oven, and as my hostess chitchats away in her distinctive Newfoundland accent, I begin to understand why her paintings are so appealing. There’s a whole lot of “Josephine” in them. On the surface, they illustrate the day-today events of her exceedingly happy childhood; on another level they radiate all the warmth, humility and positivity of the artist herself. I would eventually discover that there are even more layers to contemplate in these works — the kind that have less to do with paint and canvas and more to do with life itself.

Since the paintings all depict family scenarios, I had asked to meet one or two of the artist’s siblings. “Oh! My sisters are so excited to talk to you,” she says, while sprinkling bacon over the salad she’s prepping for our lunch. (Jo, as her family calls her and as she insists I do too, begins a lot of sentences with her favourite interjection: “oh!”)

Josephine apologizes that she couldn’t rally more of her sisters for our interview. I assure her it’s not a problem, and ask if they all live in town. “Well, mostly,” she replies, “or in Smith’s Falls. That’s where Joan lives. You know, the one I told you about who almost became a nun?”

“Marg is here, you’re gonna get to meet her,” Josephine continues. “Oh! We just love Marg. She took such wonderful care of mum and dad when they moved out here.”

“And Mary’s comin,’ ’’ adds John while sneaking a bit of bacon to Sammy, a stray tabby they rescued.

“Oh yes,” agrees Josephine, “and Anne-Marie and Pat too. That’d be my sister Patricia, who we usually call Patsy; not my brother Patrick, who we call Pat.” (Josephine’s father, incidentally, is also named Pat.)

She’s now keeping track with fingers on both hands. “Plus Jimmy and Jerry are in Cobourg too . . .”

The litany of siblings isn’t over yet. Josephine hasn’t named those who live outside the area: Michael, David, Genevieve, Kevin, Ronald, James, Leonard, Brian, John, Paul, Terence and Peter. And there was little Brendan who never made it past infancy. In case you’re not keeping track, we’re up to 21! Every brother and sister, along with Josephine’s mum and dad, are represented in the scenes of her family-themed paintings, from the birth of the twins (two sets), to the gang all tobogganing, fishing, gardening, ice skating, praying, or sharing meals together.

Mary Williams was pregnant 19 times in 23 years, but according to Josephine, her mother saw every baby as a blessing rather than a burden. “You know, they didn’t choose. It was just a way of life back then,” she explains. “They were Catholic; you know, they weren’t well versed on the options . . . whatever came, came.”

The Williams kids had a religious upbringing — obvious in the paintings featuring visits from the parish priest and crucifixes hanging in every room of the three-bedroom house — but Josephine clarifies that these days only one of them is still a practising Catholic in the traditional sense. That’s not to say the childhood lessons didn’t rub off. “We all had such a loving upbringing and a great sense of God. We still carry that with us,” she explains. “It’s more about the way you live your life than anything else, right?”

Josephine herself is very committed to sustainability, social justice and community outreach — for example, every Tuesday and Thursday in her home studio, this retired occupational therapist patiently teaches mentally challenged adults to paint, and loves every minute of it. Evidently, the seeds of compassion were planted long ago in the little wood-frame bungalow on the outskirts of St. John’s.

Modesty seems to be another Christian value that Josephine has clung to — during our interview she repeatedly comments that she’s not terribly talented. But there are experts who beg to differ. Diane Glennie, former president of the Art Gallery of Northumberland, says that Josephine is “remarkable” and reminds her of the late Nova Scotia folk artist Maude Lewis (whose works have sold at auction for over $20,000). Glennie feels that “the truth of the subject jumps right out of her pictures.” Her works have also caught the attention of Dr. Brenda Beck, anthropologist and adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, who believes “Journey Home” is real treasure: “an exciting and valuable cultural document.” She describes them as “rich visual depictions of rural Newfoundland family life” and “fine examples of Canadian folk art.” Dr. Beck, a recognized authority on folk-art, has been working to find a suitable permanent home for the series, somewhere like the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

One memorable meeting Josephine had was with David Blackwood, the celebrated Canadian artist from Newfoundland who calls himself a “visual storyteller.” Blackwood had seen some of her early work, paintings she somehow found time to complete though she was busy raising her three children at that time. “I loved David’s art so I was a bit embarrassed, you know?” Josephine recalls. When she told him that she wanted to take art classes to improve, he discouraged her. “What would be the point?” he asked. “If you learn all the rules, then it’ll take you years to get back to where you are now. You’d get so caught up in technique that you might miss the point. Your paintings are telling your story perfectly well right now.”

That was many years ago; the woman I chat with now in her spacious, pine-paneled studio is much more at ease with her unique, primitive style of expression. She’s also more comfortable with the word artist — a label that once made her cringe self-consciously. In fact, she now looks back on her amateur status as a blessing. “Because I didn’t have a lot of natural artistic skills, I was forced to linger at each painting. This gave me a lot of time for reflection,” she tells me as I wander around the garage-turned-studio that her husband refurbished for her, admiring dozens of lively depictions of family life. “These images seemed to bring me deeper and deeper within myself. I was getting reacquainted with the child I once was,” she confesses.

Josephine had no inkling when she started painting that her little hobby would become her life’s passion. Today, she describes her deep desire to paint as something she can neither explain nor control, but she’s noticed that the more she obeys the impulse, the more emotional the process gets and the more life makes sense to her. She often refers to the “sacredness of the ordinary” — something she discovered through the examination of her uncomplicated upbringing, the generosity of her parents, and the abundance that she and her siblings all felt despite their lack of material things. “I was overwhelmed that such simplicity was having a profound impact on me. It became more than just painting a few pictures of my childhood; the paintings were taking me on a spiritual journey.”

She pauses at her favourite painting, an image of her mother passing a loaf of home-baked bread over the fence to a neighbour, and says, “These paintings have put me in touch with the essence of who I am.”

It’s not just the artist who has found spiritual truths in her work. “Jo’s paintings changed all of us,” her youngest sister, Anne, tells me, while the other sisters nod in agreement. “They’ve allowed us to all journey back with her.” More astonishingly, perfect strangers often have visceral reactions to Josephine’s works — they well up with tears, or smile ear-to-ear as long-dormant memories are aroused. “I think it’s wonderful how my paintings become about them,” she says.

When finally I have the chance to be alone with Josephine’s almost four-decades-worth of work, examining all the meticulous details in each painting, I grasp what she means. Precious memories of time spent with my own departed mother and grandmother resurface, and I am reminded of the values and lessons they’d passed on to me. For the first time since their passing, I feel the tangible presence of these two remarkable women, and, yes, a few tissues are required. When I learn that “Journey Home” is shown at spiritual retreats as often as it is in galleries, I am not the least bit surprised.

* * * *

Fifteen years ago, Ralph Benmergui, at that time a CBC radio host, did a brief interview with a little-known folk artist by the name of Josephine Williams Murphy — an encounter she’s certain he won’t remember. But he does.

“I’ve interviewed literally thousands of people, and no offence to them, but I often have no recollection of the interview,” he tells me. “But I sure do remember Josephine. Sometimes people stand out. Not just because they have an unusual story, but because their story affects you in a certain way.”

He recalls Josephine’s anecdotal paintings, especially the one about her dad buying and repainting an old ambulance with long bench seats in the back. (It was the only vehicle large enough to transport his brood. When the traffic in St. John’s would pull over to let them pass, Pat Sr. would tell the kids it was because the Williams clan was so special!)

“I just really enjoyed her,” Benmergui recalls. “You know, we all get hung up on what it is that we need. We need a bigger house, we need more money, we need a vacation . . . by all rights a family like hers might have been miserable considering how many mouths they had to feed. And yet the way she described her life was the complete opposite. That’s one of the reasons I remembered her.”

He went on to explain that her story resonated with him on a personal level too. Benmergui grew up in Toronto as part of a tightly knit group of recently immigrated Moroccan Sephardi Jews. I thought it an unlikely connection until he elaborated: “I kind of grew up in the way that she grew up . . . like where you’re part of a little tribe of people.”

We commiserate a bit more about Josephine and discuss the journey she’s been on. “Everybody’s life is a pilgrimage of some kind, right?” says Benmergui. “And everybody’s life is a prayer of some kind. How they do these things is the interesting part.”

It occurs to me then why I was drawn to that very first painting of Mrs. Williams baking bread with her children. At the time I didn’t understand what struck me about it but finally I get it. I hadn’t just viewed a painting; I had encountered a prayer.

Once I fully comprehend the depth of that humble little canvas, I can’t wait to tell Josephine. She is pleased as punch. “Didn’t I tell you?” she reminds me in her gentle yet powerful way. “Sacredness can always be found in the ordinary.”

Fornaseiro is a freelance writer and editor from Oakville, Ont.