From sketch to canvas, Jeannette Murphy’s paintings span half century


Sketchbook almost perennially in hand, Walla Walla artist Jeannette Jackson Murphy, 80, first draws the people, buildings, houses and landscapes that later form the foundation and inspiration for her paintings.

Using bold, stylized outlines and bright contrasting colors for effect, she gives substance to her fairly abstracted images.

Vibrant backgrounds set off solid blocks of color in her oil and acrylic works, which can be viewed through June 7 at Memorial Hall, Boyer Avenue, on the Whitman College campus.

Splashy washes of watercolor soften the strong, cartoonish lines and give undulating emotion to the scenes in her figurative drawings.

Born in Seattle in 1932 to Paul and Gertrude Dunn Jackson, Murphy came to Walla Walla in 1935 with her family for her father’s new teaching post in the English Department at Whitman College.

Her earliest art influence came from watching Gertrude Jackson. “My mother always drew so I always drew and painted,” Murphy said.

Her favorite, lifelong methods of expression are through oils and watercolors and drawing with pen and ink.

A new high school graduate in France, with her father for his sabbatical, Murphy studied painting in earnest at the University of Paris-Sorbonne in 1950 and painted in the studio of noted geometric cubism artist Andre Lhote.

Returning to Walla Walla, she enrolled as an art major at Whitman. She studied under Professor R.J. “Dick” Rasmussen and became fast friends with Ruth Fluno, another well-loved Whitman-affiliated artist.

“Ruth and I sketched a lot together and then painted one week in her studio and then one week in my studio for years. We just went through our sketchbooks and picked out something we felt like working into a painting,” she recalled.

“Dick planned more. He thought for weeks and weeks and did a drawing. We were more spontaneous.”

She painted in her own studio for years but now lives with daughter Danielle McMahon and granddaughter Polly McMahon.

“They let me use most of the house for a studio and don’t seem to mind that I’m all over,” Murphy said.

“I try to work all the time, but I am still cooking a lot and cleaning house. Yet, what I want to do most is paint all the time.”

“She has an easel and drawing board and uses the dining room table in the front room,” Danielle McMahon said.

“There’s art stuff everywhere and we’re always happy to have her painting. She can paint at will and has painted on the same table for years. When we were in New York she had an easel that she put away when us kids came home. She paints a lot more now.”

Her process has evolved, Murphy said. “My paintings were simpler and now they’re more complicated as I put in more and more detail all the time. I love doing it and it takes longer.”

Producing a painting may take about a month, putting in five hours a day, sometimes less, sometimes more.

She’s drawn into each piece, absorbed by the application of color and lines while employing more pattern and movement.

She’s currently completing the drawing of a man at a desk and has halfway finished an oil of a man and woman, called “A kiss.”

The latter comes from a drawing she made a long time ago, probably from a photo she saw in the newspaper.

Theater and visual arts are entertwined in Murphy’s life.

Her parents co-founded The Little Theatre of Walla Walla with Tom Howells and as kids, Murphy and her brother, actor, playwright, producer and director Nagle Jackson, were active. “I wasn’t interested much, but was involved in theater because I didn’t want to be left out,” she said.

Because of their Jackson grandparents, Murphy’s children, with former husband Cullen Murphy, gravitated toward theater arts as Cullen Murphy participated, too.

The Murphy offspring continue to be involved: a producer, director and actor, Morgan Murphy lives in New Hampton, N.H., and teaches theater; Mark Murphy of Los Angeles is director of REDCAT Theater; Topher Murphy of Walla Walla works at The Brik and is a familiar fixture on local stages; and Megan Murphy Lachow is in contemporary theater in New York City. Danielle, a social worker, has also trod the boards.

When Morgan, Topher, Danielle and Polly were involved in Walla Walla Community College Foundation musical productions at Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater, Murphy pulled out her sketchbook and sat in the top row drawing, Danielle McMahon recalled of the family friendly activity.

“All the time she’s sketching, wherever she is. She and Dick Rasmussen (whose wife, Joann, was WWCC musical director) sat together in the amphitheater. She sketches, even when at McDonald’s, she’s sketching. Her paintings are of us kids when we were young, from when she was in Europe, at playgrounds. She has loads of sketchbooks from which to draw ideas for subjects,” Danielle McMahon said.

Post-Whitman graduation, Murphy has enjoyed an adventurous life, remained connected to the arts in numerous ways and continued to paint both for exhibition and pleasure over half a century, according to a press release from Whitman.

Exhibitions of her work have been carried by many galleries and appeared in shows in Paris, New York, Boston, venues around the Northwest, New England Museum of Fine Art, Staten Island Museum of Art and Boise and Seattle Art museums.

Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at or afternoons at 526-8313.


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