Ashby-Hodge Presents 'The LIght Fantastic,' Home On The Range

The world of nature is a natural for artists. Whether they are painting plain air, from photographs, or from memory, many artists, regardless of their media, choose to interpret the outdoor world around us all.

The same can be said of the work currently featured in Central Methodist University’s Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art, titled “The Light Fantastic” and “Home on the Range,” from the works of the late Robert MacDonald Graham Jr. and the surgeon-turned-artist Dr. Everett “Butch” Murphy.

Graham is known for his special touch with the light in his oil paintings, while Murphy is gaining renown for his ability to create horses with large personalities from pieces of farm equipment and other found materials. Together, they have created a gallery for patrons to explore and revel in, regardless of the pieces being examined.

The show runs from Sunday, Sept. 2, which includes an artist reception, through Thursday, Nov. 15. The hours are Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays from 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. Groups can also set up private tours by contacting Registrar Dr. Joe Geist or Curator of the Gallery Denise Haskamp by calling 660-248-6324.

Robert MacDonald Graham Jr. was born in 1919 in New York City. He picked up a paint brush when he was 14 and at the age of 16 he began studying with Thomas Hart Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute, where he stayed until 1941.

His first professional job was as a war artist in World War II, serving in Australia, New Guinea, and Japan. He went on to teach art at the University of Texas and at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. He lived most of his life in the small Kansas City suburb of Greenwood.

In the 1980s, Graham created a set of 12 oil paintings reflecting the beautiful springs, mostly in southeast Missouri, including Big Springs, Blue Springs, Alley Springs, and Bennett Springs. He donated the entire set to the Ashby-Hodge Gallery in 1998.

Graham also painted a historic set of 12 paintings from around the state, including the mural at the Capital in Jefferson City, the historic Churchill Church in Fulton, and the schoolhouse and the mill at Watkins Mill.

During his lifetime, Graham was listed as Who’s Who in American Art and was a member of the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic, where he received the M.J. Kaplan Award multiple times. Graham died Feb. 11, 2000, but his beauty lives on. His paintings are known for their luminous use of light. Described as poetic and haunting, viewers often perceive “ghosts” of the past emerging and disappearing through mirrored reflections of much of his work. He remains one of the favorite artists of the Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art.

Unlike Robert MacDonald Graham Jr., “Butch” Murphy did not begin his career as an artist. Dr. Everett “Butch” Murphy, like many focused young men went to medical school and became a doctor. After some years in the Intensive Care Unit, he decided the stress outweighed the rewards. He gave up his delicate medical tools and turned to art, adopting instead car tools and pieces of metal he finds around farms and on the roads. He shifted from medicine to creating lively, beautiful, healthy models of equine art. Each horse is different from the others in shape, personality, form, and focus.

He did study artists in the United States and Canada, but he gives most of his credit for success to his wife, Corva, who has a background in history and art.

Central got its first horse from Murphy in 2016. It has been happily munching grass outside Classic Hall since then. Arriving without a name, CMU had a contest among the students to name the horse. Ultimately he was awarded the regal name “Fender Bender” in part due to the many parts of a Volkswagen use in his building. Also, as Murphy often tucks surprises somewhere in his horses, Fender Bender carries with it a small cat where his heart would be.

In this fall show, Murphy will be sharing seven of his other horses with the Ashby-Hodge, each with its own purpose and focus on which the viewers can meditate. For instance, “Missing in the Wind” (2017) is comprised of a 55-gallon barrel, rebar, and drilling pipes. The mid-section of the horse is “missing in the wind,” encouraging the viewer to create his own story.

“Royal” is a horse that appeals to “horse people” because of its realistic appearance. As one of the longest residing horses, created in 2015, he reflects stability and strength, self-assurance and experience. His structure includes a fence post, a farm implement, and stretched metal. “The American Paint Horse” (2018) shows a horse in motion, and it shows Murphy’s ongoing drive for abstraction coupled with realism. He drew the materials for this horse from bits and pieces of equipment he found around his farm, such as corrugated metal, and pieces of a hay rake.

The horse “Interior” (2018) slowly walks and explores the unknown. Its image portrays flow and motion, elements showing that the horse is looking for something very important. Its ribs are clearly made from barrel rings.  Another older horse, “Geoff,” has been grazing at Murphy’s barn since 2014. Murphy says he is a good observer of human behavior and is watching and revealing the viewer’s story and always is willing to share some advice.

“Collection” (2017) was named for the variety of steel used to sculpt him. He is racing in a wide open meadow with little concern for what is ahead or behind. He has what seems to be an unlimited amount of explosive energy, as Murphy points out, “the envy of us all.”

Perhaps the most unusual of the equine visitors to AH is “Picasso’s Guitar” (2017-18). Of this horse, Murphy says, “After experiencing the Picasso Exhibition at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art (in Kansas City), I was driven to create three horse sculptures with my concept of cubism. I saw straight lines, no curves and limited color beyond the natural patina. I wanted to show motion and direction with the straight lines of the materials covering the armature.

The variety of materials and expressions found in the horses reflects different pictures from those delicate paintings of Robert MacDonald Graham Jr.; however, they all present a variety of the way we see the outside world around us and bless us with those differences.

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