Arts & Culture, Interview

In Relief: An Interview with Bethany Noel Murray


“You know, people take drugs to see what I see, and I take drugs to stop.” Bethany Noël Murray is sitting in the middle of her Somerville studio, her dog at her feet, breaking into laughter. “But the other part is, these are incredibly cool neurological symptoms that I have, you know—thank you RISD!—the experience to be able to represent. My doctors are learning a tremendous amount about the brain but I think there’s so, so much more that they could probably learn, and I think that’s kind of fascinating.” 

When I first reached out to Murray, I had only seen a snippet of her work, the Anatomy series on view at Kingston Gallery as part of their Re:Figuring the Body exhibition. Her studio houses a much larger array of paintings and is vibrating with color. I am seated directly across from a large canvas depicting a woodland scene, one of many variations propped up along the walls of the narrow, sunlit room. I lean forward as Murray traces along the outlines of the thick foliage and trees. “This piece [Northern Kingdom] is representational but it’s also fragmented. This is all comprised of little bits of data. It’s not actually a whole. And all the darkness you’re seeing is actually the black gesso of the canvas. So this,” she points to a section of underbrush, “is just little bits of dots, right? Or dots, or shapes or…” she trails off, deciding where the thought will land, “I’m letting the traditional primary images be actually the things that are recessed in some ways, focusing on the light and lines.”  

As I learn over the course of the evening, Murray’s mind, like her work, seems to be operating on multiple levels all at once. When I ask what she hopes to communicate with her art, she answers: “It’s not just how I see, although that’s part of it, but part of the other goal for me is life can be painful, and I think it’s in some ways a choice to see things that are nice.” After sitting with this response for a moment, she adds: “my major work has been me trying to reconcile choosing joy and happiness and having that sort of unsettled thing in—” she searches for the right words as her dog Sarge (named for artist John Singer Sargent) laps water from his bowl behind her. “People will frequently look at something that’s really shiny, and you can sort of get them to engage, and then get them to be unsettled, and get them to think about things further.”

Bethany Noël Murray, Northern Kingdom, 2017, Acrylic on Black Gessoed Canvas, 48″ x 48″.

Murray is an artist who has made a home in process, in the messiest, most vulnerable aspects of the human experience. She seems to cultivate comfort with discomfort. When I tell her I was initially drawn to her Anatomy series, she laughs: “that whole series came about because I have feelings and feelings are really uncomfortable, especially feelings about boys. In some ways I’m much more comfortable talking about pain that is caused without my, sort of, volition?” She poses this thought as a question and I can’t help but nod. “I have chronic migraines, I make paintings about migraines, but I have control only in such that I can seek medical help,” she continues, “um, but, you choose who you date.” Seeming to read my face, she adds: “you don’t always choose to necessarily have feelings, but it is sort of—sometimes it feels like a little bit more of a harm you’ve done yourself. Or a joy, but part of the joy especially can be the willingness to know that it could be painful. I made a whole series, I guess it’s technically called Crush.” I struggle to keep my face neutral as I shift back in my chair. She has no idea how right she is. Or, rather, she does. I know that I am not alone in feeling entirely exposed, broken open by Murray’s work and the uncanny accuracy of her depiction of these feelings, as if she is lifting them out of my chest. That’s just the magic of her style and subject—Murray doesn’t capture the uncanny, she captures the universal. Moreover, she allows her viewers to feel seen and understood without diminishing or generalizing the intensity of the emotions on the canvas. To me, it is a true feat and a testament to Murray’s skill that the three of us—Sarge has moseyed over, wagging his tail—can stand before a diagram of the heart on fire and have it represent all of us.

Bethany Noël Murray, Lonely Heart, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 30” x 24”.

Bethany Noël Murray, Anatomy Of Heartache, 2018, Black Gesso on White Canvas, 10” x 8”.

“When painting you have what I call three phases,” explains Murray, “you have the ‘Ode to Joy’ phase—you hear that melody and it’s amazing—and then you have to write the damn oboe part, make sure the key changes are right, make sure the tempo’s right, and actually write the entire goddamn symphony,” she laughs, “and then you think you’re done there, but then you actually have to go play the thing, right?” Though I don’t have the experience to match what Murray is describing, her way of getting to the gut, the “goddamn”s of human emotion, makes me feel at ease. This is perhaps because the joy Murray takes in her work is contagious. “I actually genuinely like my work!” she exclaims, pausing briefly only to burst out laughing. “I don’t have this sort of clichéd ‘I’m going to throw a bucket of paint on it.’ It’s ridiculous, it’s all Hollywood, you know.” She does, however, use a series of techniques to avoid what she calls creative “laziness” in her art. “I frequently work with moving my paintings all around my studio, and when I think something has hit a certain resolution point, I’ll pause. And I’ll make sure I have multiple pieces going so I can rotate through and hopefully not break something that’s good just because it’s uncomfortable.” Murray even takes this so far as to switch which hand she uses to paint, a trick picked up from an injury in art school. In response to my shocked expression, she shrugs: “it means I’m doing things much more deliberately. When I find myself getting really lazy in how i’m thinking and how I’m approaching a problem, you know, I’ll switch to make sure I have an impediment that makes me think.” 

In this vein, I am curious to circle back to the impediment she mentioned earlier, over which she unfortunately has little control. I stumble over my words trying to ask a question that will do justice to her daily experience, but she senses where I’m going and launches right in. “I operate on a pain scale everyday, so I wake up in pain and I go to bed in pain, and I manage a plethora of symptoms. Those symptoms include everything from dizzy spells, vertigo, tinnitus, nausea, some fun gut stuff, and of course pain. But some of the real problems are the vision and disorientation. They’re almost psychedelic effects. The clinical terms are macroscopia and microscopia. It’s like Alice is a lot bigger than her environment or she’s really small, or the corridor lengthens and foreshortens. That happens a lot. And then the other part is the aura, something that superimposes in my vision. It can be quadranted off, it can just be a spectrum, it can be sort of like a heat haze, or sometimes can look just stunning, like pixie dust.” This experience of chronic migraines has shaped her outlook on her pursuit of art. “Part of having the migraines means that I didn’t take being pain-free for granted.” So, Murray applied to transfer to art school from a biochem track: “the times where I was alive, I really wanted to make sure I was doing something I actually cared about.” 

When I ask her what painting her ocular aura feels like, Murray responds matter-of-factly: “It feels like a fuck you to the migraine. That’s what it feels like. And it also feels like claiming my space in a lot of ways.” Gesturing to a painting in the corner of the studio, Murray says: “that’s ocular aura I get almost every single morning. Just like that. Again and again and again. And it generally takes like 30-40 mins for it to go away. It had been something I had been trying to capture for a while and I finally got it out, and it made me feel like I had some sort of agency over it.” She wants this same kind of empowered feeling to resonate with her audience, too. “I don’t really feel that people need to understand how to read critical literature for them to read a book and be like ‘oh my gosh, that made me think about all of these things.’ And I feel the same way about art. I might put a lot of the explanation out there, but what I want is for some people to get some feelings from it. People who have seen my work almost embarrassedly come up to me and say, like, ‘been there!’ That sort of, like, ‘I don’t wanna admit that I let that guy mess with my feelings, and I wasn’t supposed to have feelings,’ right?” We both laugh relatively easily at this, feeling the strange kind of connection that comes with variations on a similar pain. Murray describes her upcoming solo exhibition at the VSA Open Door Gallery, Brains Are Cool (Even When They Hurt), as encapsulating her attitude. “The migraines and the other stuff, part of them winning is if I despair. The victory is saying, you know, ‘there is beauty, there is joy, and there can be that despite pain.’ And I think it’s a choice. You know? Whether that choice is I’m going to see a doctor, I’m going to get help, I’m going to talk to my family and friends, I think there’s always a real choice.”

Bethany Noël Murray, Morning Aura, 2019, acrylic on black gessoed canvas, 48”x 48”.

To me, Murray seems fearless in her vulnerability, though I know this is rarely, if ever, the case. “There are stages at which things are more uncomfortable,” she acknowledges, “there was a stage at which it was difficult for me to even say: ‘I’m an artist.’ When I first got to RISD, I spent the entire year feeling like a person who was speaking a non-native language. People were talking to me and I could not understand what they were saying. Like, I had critiques and I was just, like, ‘just tell me if it’s bad or good, like, I do not understand what you mean.’” She is quick to laugh and does so at the memory of this, but sobers suddenly. “Saying: ‘I’m an artist,’ I started doing that when I was probably 23 or 24, and I sold my first painting when I was 14. Think about that, right? I had already finished RISD on a full ride, and I still had a problem saying I was an artist.” 

The broad strokes of misogyny and the all-too-common dismissal and diminishment of female pain certainly play a role in this. Of her work Anatomy of a UTI Murray says, grimacing: “it is the most awful thing in the world to have because you literally can’t tell anybody why you’re sick. You know? And it happens to millions and millions, predominantly women. There’s doctors not taking UTIs seriously because it would cost an extra $500 to do a different culture. A simple dipstick test doesn’t actually see all different types of bacteria. There’s systemic issues where most medications have been only tested on men, and mostly white men, right? There’s race and all that stuff going on.” Ultimately, Murray chooses to cultivate her own sense of agency in the midst of this kind of prejudice. “No one’s gonna show up and say ‘I pick you,’ right?” she says, “it’s going to be me putting my work out there, and it’s going to be me saying ‘come to my studio,’ or ‘buy my piece, and it’s worth this much,’ and I’m gonna hold the line on how much it’s worth. That’s all really uncomfortable, but it’s part of how it happens, right? Like, of course there’s fantastic people throughout my career who’ve helped me and mentored me, but I’ve also reached out for help, saying: ‘I’m worth it, and I’m good enough.’” 

Bethany Noël Murray, Onabotulinum Toxin A, 2015, acrylic on canvas, Migraine Series, 48” x 48”.

“You don’t get connection without vulnerability. And you just have to kind of deal with that, or I just had to kind of deal with that, that I have to put my stuff out there. So one of the steps I took was, yeah, I start saying ‘I’m an artist.’” She grins, baring her arms as she beckons Sarge. “I don’t have the forearm tattoos but it’s—yeah, that’s ok. Don’t worry, I’ve got my dog.” At this we both laugh, having both felt the pressure of a look that can at times seem to be the measure of a true creative. Add this moment to the countless times I felt the thought go through my head—I know exactly what you mean—over the course of my conversation with Murray. Even when I don’t have her same reference-points, Murray’s genuine wish to have everyone find something of themselves in her work is electrifying. “The fantasy stuff, Alice in Wonderland and Narnia, are shorthand to help [my work] feel a little bit more accessible. People recognize that Narnia is a fictitious place,” she tilts her head, “maybe. Right? It’s that sort of edge. And Alice in Wonderland, it’s a fictitious place, but it’s very political, very allegorical.” When I press her to describe what it’s like to toe that line, Murray thinks for a moment: “Sometimes I have a concern that my work might be—there’s an edge of strangeness to it that I want to keep. Because I don’t want to be put in a category of feminine and sweet and therefore dismissible. And I am sweet and I am feminine, but none of those things are dismissible.” Ultimately, from her most rapid, bare-bones sketches to her psychedelic, large canvas pieces, Murray traces a throughline in her style of communication: “I want to not always just say: ‘this is what this thing looks like when you’re here.’” Ultimately, she aims to depict and celebrate “‘how it feels when real joy can sometimes happen.’”

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