I drove out to Chance Murray’s family farm in Cedar Grove to interview him last month. It is a quiet space that he says allows him to dwell in the oddities of the South.
As he notes in the intro to his show at the Carrack, his art work is of the South.
things for, by, about and in the South. Maybe sometimes the stranger parts, but things like that really happen, sometimes. I try to make them a little bit funny…the true underbelly of Southern life…
Chance’s story is of the South, too, nuanced and layered. The house he lives in belonged to one of his Grandfather’s many wives, and not the last one either. See Chance says Grandad used to say that, “there’s seven women for every man and I’m gonna meet an marry all seven.” Dot, who owned this house and land, must have been mighty fond of her not-quite grandson Chance because it is a beautiful spot, filled with heart-of-pine.
Murray lovingly maintains the residence, including his Great-Grandfather’s key collection, assembled over a lifetime of working at different mills in the South. But like many outsider artists, his home represents most of his assets. Chance admits to such struggles as cannibalizing his pieces when he can’t afford new frames and spending all of his free dollars on resin. Yet this thrift is a wellspring of his creativity. Shown his amazing studio and workshop, it positively overflows with salvaged relics of another era that may one day find their way into Murray’s work.
Because while Murray is first and foremost a painter, he is also a mixed-media installation artist. In his work objects as diverse as skulls, radio transmitters, real cigarettes, tin, and functioning light bulbs are built into his painted canvasses.
This practice started out of artistic and financial necessity. Artistic insofar as when Murray found himself struggling to paint clothes realistically in one of his works, he thought why not put the clothes right into the painting. What better way to get the right look? Similarly, he said one could spend forever painting a light trying to capture perfectly the realistic glow the bulb gives off. Why not simply install a light directly into the painting? And wire it. “It’s dangerous,” he cackles with apparent glee while explaining. Murray does not hail from great means. In fact, only one of the many pieces he created in high school still survives, all the rest having been ripped apart for reuse of the materials. Perhaps this life on the edge, at the margins, gave Murray a willingness to take artistic composition chances that others from easier streets might not dare to leap at.
In his painted installations, Murray uses clear casting resins to make molds, he pours and the objects harden. Or when necessary, he nails as he did with the pieces of tin in two of his works set in a diner. Several of the works in the show play off of the theme of the diner. Murray himself delights in the simple joys of meal well made in a good diner. For Chance, it is usually a bologna sandwich, a cup of coffee, and always a chocolate milkshake.*
Murray’s work is hauntingly beautiful in a way that echoes the South. His pieces like the Southern culture reverberate with unspoken, implied narratives and multiple meanings. Losing the war and suffering Reconstruction forced a cognitive dissonance into Southern minds. Murray spent time in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina at the raw age of twenty-one. Some of the photographs he took during that era have been worked into the paintings on display at the Carrack. Murray told me he deliberately embraced the “psychosis of the South” in his work. It is evident. He said in New Orleans he saw camps of homeless folks hidden behind walls and screens of destruction, like the type of slum encampments that might be more familiar surrounding the gleaming cities of Brazil and Mexico. But Murray refused to look away, through his work, he has shined a light on the darker parts of our collective soul.** His residence behind green lawn in what was once very much tobacco country is close to the point where Orange, Person, and Caswell counties come together. Murray is clearly aware that is also near the nexus of great poverty, despite the wealth in Chapel Hill and parts of newly prosperous Hillsborough.
Murray was very close to his great-grandparents. Great-grandma taught him how to sew and from his Great-grandpa and his Dad, he learned to cook, clean, and repair things. Dad and Mom still live nearby. Murray cleans his immaculate residence himself with the rigorous discipline of the productive artist. House cleaning is every Monday. He also takes a Sabbath granting himself one full day of rest per week. Murray, who made his own cubicle senior year of high school, shutting himself off from the world to focus on his art, has taken his building to the next level.
He recently made his own gorgeous end table, is now personally making ends meet by creating and building furniture and even retail displays with the same minimalist grace his spartan home implies. He frequently uses Paduk, a fast-growing African hardwood that he is able to source at The Hardwood Store in Gibsonville. As word of these magnificent pieces spreads more commissions have come his way. He is slowly finding secure footing to finance his passionate painting.
The South’s dichotomy has long turned on the seemingly simplistic hiding the much more complicated, whether in relationships and social mores or in politics and affluence. Anyone familiar with the “Bless your heart” culture, W.J. Cash, or Margaret Mitchell can tell you Southern dialogue and Southern ways have long embraced a depth of the meaning the uninitiated can hardly cotton on to. Cash loves and excoriates the South. Mitchell once admitted she was ten before she realized Robert E. Lee did not win the Civil War.
You could hardly find a better entre point to the South ways if you’re curious than Chance Murray’s work at the Carrack.
Sadly only on display through Sunday.
*He recommends the Blue Ribbon Diner in Mebane as the home of the best local chocolate shake.
**I once told the Carrack a story about Murray’s “The Vodoo Queen of New Orleans.”