Motels Inspire Murphy’s First Solo Museum Show

Ecstasy and Escape at the Swan Song Motel at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) is Meg Lionel Murphy’s first solo museum show. Up through April 7, it displays her paintings in sets inspired by Sturgeon Bay motels, particularly Motel 57, a traditional drive-up motel across state Highway 57 from Target.

Murphy has a multi-faceted relationship with motels. She grew up at Snug Harbor across from Leatham Smith. She worked in motels in college. She’s fled to motels from domestic violence, which has been a frequent theme in her work.

“I try to paint the moment when leaving an old life behind is possible,” she wrote in the exhibit’s zine, a short magazine for the show whose 250 copies were snapped up quickly during the opening. 

“Her work is really relevant in this time,” said Brianna Cole, curatorial engagement fellow at MOWA. “We went through a huge moment when a lot of women were speaking up about domestic violence, and her work is doing that, as well as being a tool to heal.

“I love the zine and love that a lot of the writing is rooted in scholarly and intellectual literature, and that informs her work as well,” Cole continued. “It offers a second layer of understanding, if you want to take the time to look at symbols and where her works mimic historical works. The zine gives the show. ”

With degrees in art, art history and English literature from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Murphy loves a deep dive into research, as the notes in her zine show. She comments on her own growth by citing Pablo Picasso, perhaps not exactly an exemplar of treating women well.

“As a girl, all fairytales ended with a marriage,” Murphy wrote in the zine. “But as an adult, marriage was the most dangerous thing I ever did to myself. Picasso said women are either doormats or goddesses. My work plots the path of the doormat to the goddess.”

Murphy – who has had four solo shows previously, though not at a museum – said she worked on the show for more than a year creating 20-plus works. Inside the museum, she staged a motel room or two, complete with a headboard, valence, end tables, a foreshortened bed and a cast iron tub on a tiled platform. 

Several craftsmen friends of her fathers, and Karen Hertz-Sumnicht, a painter and owner of Avenue Art and Co. on 3rd, helped with displays and framing, she said.

The MOWA show features Murphy’s brightly colorful and powerful women, just as they were at her show at SÖMI in Sturgeon Bay. But in her latest work, the women are often pregnant.

“I wasn’t pregnant when I started working for this exhibit, but we were trying to have a baby and I integrated themes of pregnancy,” she said. “I have painted a lot of bodily fluids for a long time and here it takes center stage with pregnant women and babies.”

The shift in her work reflects the significant shift in her life: in the summer of 2022 she married Jack Frankenberry, a video game designer living in Milwaukee who Murphy met online during the pandemic. Their story is an unlikely one that was featured in Milwaukee Magazine’s wedding edition.

“I was planning to stay for a few days [to visit Murphy in Door County], but I never came home,” Frankenberry told Kristine Hansen, who wrote the story which appeared in February 2023. 

This February, Murphy gave birth to a baby boy, Lewyn, and together, she and Frankenberry are navigating the world of new parenthood.

“It has taken all kinds of time to find a partner who shares equal weight across the board,” Murphy said. “We are sleep-deprived together – it’s wonderful.”

Murphy had moved back to Sturgeon Bay partly to be around family. 

“It did it very intentionally,” she said. “I wanted a family and I knew my family would help me raising kids.”

Her mom moved in for the first two weeks after Lewyn’s arrival and her sister flew in from California to help.

“I have had unbelievable support,” she said.

That includes a circle of Door County artist friends who went to Milwaukee for Murphy’s opening – Stephanie Trenchard, Hertz-Sumnicht, Lynn Gilchrist, Claire Erickson and Cathy Grier.

As Murphy learns how to navigate an artistic career with motherhood, she said she’s been reading a lot of books on the topic: The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood and the Mind-Baby Problem, by Julie Phillips, for example, and Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood, by JoAnna Novak.

The balance will be needed as Murphy enters a Milwaukee show starting in late August at the Charles Allis Art Museum, a mansion donated to the city by a founder of Allis-Chalmers. The museum is launching an exhibit series titled “Talk Back” that creates space for contemporary art to “talk back” to the museum. Artists will select items or paintings from the museum collection and juxtapose their own work with it, or create new work in response. 

Murphy will be in the second installment of that three-part exhibit, showing alongside Christina A. West, a sculptor on the faculty at University of Wisconsin-Madison. West is looking at the museum’s collection of bronzes, said Phoenix Brown, senior curator, and Murphy is in early conversations about using the collection.

A Portion of Painting Sales Donated

Meg Lionel Murphy and Portrait Society Gallery, which represents her, will donate a portion of every painting sold to the following organizations: Sojourner Family Peace Center, Wisconsin’s largest nonprofit provider of domestic violence prevention and intervention services; and Anera, An international nonprofit providing shelter, medical supplies, food and psychological care to Palestinian refugees. With respect to the themes of pregnancy in her latest exhibit, she will make donations in the name of the 50,000 pregnant people living in a war zone.