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Ceramicist Kaye Murphy

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: October, 2012, Page 28
Photos by Garrett Cook

Artist Kaye Murphy poses in her cactus garden next to one of her eye-catching installations. She says she attempts to capture the essence of animals and plants in her totems.



Artist Kaye Murphy hand-stacks her ceramic charms to create colorful desert totems

Kaye Murphy never looked back after she completed her first college ceramics course. A bonafide and self-noted “Southern girl,” Murphy grew up in Chattanooga, Tennesee, where she graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in art education. When her husband received a job offer in South Africa, she agreed to accompany him with the promise that she could get a new potter’s wheel as soon as they arrived.

There, she studied under both Dutch and Austrian potters. It was also there that Murphy was able to glean inspiration from the various cultures and styles that were present. She and her husband moved back to the U.S. and eventually settled in Scottsdale, where she has worked as a pottery instructor for the city of Scottsdale’s Leisure Education program for the past 21 years.

Murphy says that she spends most of her days in her backyard studio, creating at her wheel. Several years ago, an inspiring trip to the Pacific Northwest left the artist awed by totems that were made by indigenous peoples of the region; the experience ignited a new creative spark.

The coils of a cherry-glazed snake are seen on a flower-themed garden totem.
After I saw the pieces of the totems, and knew what they meant, I knew it was something I had to try,” Murphy reminisces. “They represent clans and families.”

She begins by individually shaping each segment of a totem. Her technique varies by piece, ranging from coiling to wheel work and sometimes to a block of hand-held clay she shapes with her fingers.

She refers to her totem segments as “beads” and hand-assembles them to create free-standing forms. Each bead is made of durable stoneware clay and stacked along a steel rod that can be embedded deeply in the ground for support.

“Most of the totems in my garden have been there for years. They’ve survived big storms and even a haboob or two,” Murphy comments. She has been building totems for the past 12 years and even created a pair for her daughter’s wedding ceremony.

The artist draws many of her ideas from inspirations only the Sonoran Desert can provide. Quails are signature elements spotted throughout her work, often perched at the top. Animals and shapes of every type integrate seamlessly on the totems, fitting with beads depicting other regional elements. “I’m always thinking of how colors and shapes work together,” she says.

Murphy has created indoor totems as well, which she attaches to steel plates that can support the weight of smaller assemblages. She notes that she never expected to do anything with her work other than incorporate it into her own yard and home. But, upon receiving inquiries from friends and family, the totems started to sell on their own.

“One of my professors in college said this and I will never forget it,” Murphy recalls. “Someone may ask you if you can make a living off of making pottery; well...you can make a life.”

Photos - From left: The artisan’s love of gardens and plants prompted her to incorporate cacti into many of her totems. • She prefers to include animals her family has shared their lives with, such as frogs, fish, lizards, birds and more.

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