In the Artist’s Studio – Connie Murray’s Wonderland

“I would not have made it without art,” said Connie Murray, about a recent  tumultuous period in her life.

During the same time period, Murray said she was simultaneously fired after a 10-year career as the Clinical Program Manager for Northern Valley Catholic Social Service, experienced the death of her adopted mother, and nursed her husband, artist Jim Freeman, back to health after an invasive heart surgery.

Murray’s art may have saved her, but it’s clear that she also found solace during this difficult period in the tranquility of her unique Parkview-neighborhood home.

“We love living here,” she said, happy for the convenience of nearby stores, and proximity to the river and the nearby scenic walking trails.

More importantly, Murray admitted, “It’s our sanctuary,” a more fitting description of the house, studio and serene outdoor spaces that she and Freeman have transformed over the past 20 years.

I would swear I saw fairies living amongst the lush plants, inanimate-yet-watchful woodland creatures, reflective pools of water and whimsical hand-tiled works of art that adorn Murray’s outdoor spaces.

In the cool backyard, Murray and Freeman share their wonderland with a family of animals – domestic and wild – including a new brood of teenage chickens, a soon-to-be-relocated rooster that, during my visit, made his first attempt to crow, and swarms of hummingbirds that come to Murray’s yard to suck the nectar from the flowers that vine throughout the canopy of trees.

One hummingbird felt so comfortable with Freeman and Murray that she nested at eye level in a branch just above their driveway. Freeman is incorporating the now-empty nest into his latest piece of art.

Murray’s interior spaces are also a sensory experience. Visitors are enveloped by colorful walls, collections of original art and artifacts from around the globe. In one corner, Murray and Freeman have assembled a candlelighted shrine. Turn the corner and you’ll find a vignette of Mexican folk art. Next door, the couple transformed a garage, dubbed “rat city,” into an inspiring working studio.

Normally, Murray and Freeman also share their space with several other women – Murray’s body of work: a collection of dazzling, human-sized, mosaic sculptures. The couple recently transported them to the Sebastopol Arts Center for a month-long show. The absence of Murray’s sculptures from the couple’s intimate 900-square-foot house has created a void that neither Murray nor Freeman was expecting. They clearly miss them, and I understood why, once I learned about the emotional intensity of creating each incredibly personal sculpture.

“Murray expressed that she has never had the chance to show all of her pieces together,” said Catherine Devriese, the Arts Center’s Visual Arts Program Manager. “We were happy to give this opportunity.”

Reactions to the show have been strong. According to Devriese, one person commented that the stories connected to the work were too painful to read.

This kind of reaction to Murray’s work is understandable. She admits to “dumping it all” when she creates. Her works, like a mosaic “coffin” that helped her through the grief of losing her mother, and a sculpture of her biological mother wearing a cape made from Murray’s adoption papers, are wrought with intense symbolism. Art calms her brain, and helps her think.

“My hands have to be busy,” Murray said of her process.

And it’s this process that Murray, a psychology Ph.D. and expressive arts therapist, also applies to her work with clients, many suffering from anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

“A lot of people have difficulty finding words,” she said.

Murray’s first art-therapy client was an older alcoholic who collected unique items. Murray thought the client could benefit from the meticulous mosaic work, so Murray took a body form on a board to her client. Once the clilent covered the body form with pieces from her collection, Murray’s client coated the furniture, the toilet and the planters in a healing mosaic frenzy. The artistic process activated the woman’s brain and expanded her vision.

“If you engage someone and honor their humanness, they feel respected and can recover,” said Murray of her methods.

Murray clearly understands the power of art and its ability to heal. She keeps a copious journal, full of notes and drawings that are works of art in their own right. She transforms ordinary mannequins into sparkling goddesses, with intricate designs made from, as she says, “garbage you carry around:” keys, bells, mirror, tile, her childhood tea set. But she also understands that personal space can be transformative.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Murray’s “fort,” a backyard structure built from fallen walnut tree branches and festooned with fabric and prayer flags. I could have sat all day inside the fort, in silence, staring through the canopy of trees. This marvelous space, built with love by family members, and layered in symbolism, is another source of calm for Murray – a much-needed respite for this dynamic artist to put everything in her brain, in its place.

See Connie’s work from  August 3 to 25 at the Highland Arts Center, 691 Main Street, Weaverville. For more information about her work, visit “Mosaics by Connie Murray” on Facebook. For information about Connie’s Expressive Arts Therapy practice, email counseling123@outlook.com.

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Adam Mankoski is a journalist and blogger living in Northern CA. Look for his parenting blog, “Double Daddy,” coming soon.

Adam Mankoski

is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner are the owners of HawkMan Studios and the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday Art Hop.

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