Molly Murphy Mixed message: Beading a multi-colored palate

Posted by on Jun 26, 2012 in Articles, Native Legacy | 0 comments

Molly Murphy   Mixed message: Beading a multi-colored palate

For me it feels like my skills belong to my community,” she said. “I feel like I have that obligation – to care-take the skill itself and to make these beautiful things for my community.” 


Molly Murphy

Mixed message: Beading a multi-colored palate


“Consumption” by Molly Murphy. Photo courtesy of the artist

By Abena Songbird

(for Native Legacy Magazine Vol. 2 Issue 3 – Summer 2009)

MISSOULA, MT- Molly Murphy, 31, a mixed-blood descendant of the Oglala, Lakota, is one of the premier contemporary beadworkers to emerge from the Great Plains region.

Though her maternal lineage is Lakota, since childhood Murphy was raised by her mother in the Salish country of Missoula, Montana and on the Flathead Reservation.

“A lot of my culture and how I was raised is more Salish,” she notes. Her mother, Laurel Tynes, an Oglala Lakota, was adopted as an infant and raised in Great Falls by non-Native parents.

From the Standing Bear and Usher families of both Pine Ridge and Rosebud, Murphy’s mother has maintained contact with her birth parents since the age of 28. Tynes later became close to the Little Shell Band of Cree.

Murphy’s dad’s family is Irish Catholic from Helena, Montana. Knowing him only vaguely, she became close to her paternal grandmother, great-grandmother and aunts. Her father and all of his brothers are dead – victims to the scourge of alcohol.

“It’s pretty much just women left,” Murphy said. “In many ways there are many parallels from an Irish background to a Native background. It’s not a very surprising story on either side of my family.”

Montana has a large mixed-blood population, some of who are part-Irish, according to Murphy.

“It’s a unique reality in Montana; people are part-white, people are from multiple tribes – there are a lot of combinations.”

Murphy hasn’t yet met all of her extended family, yet feels pulled at times to return to South Dakota for that reason.

Early influences

“I have family built here, it doesn’t have to be just about lineage,” she added. This rich “family” includes ties her mother built in college to a Salish woman, Arlene Savage. In the summers they would camp at the tribally hosted Salish Culture Camp in the Montana Mountains. There they would live together. Savage’s mother, Ethel Buchane became a strong mentor to Murphy and her mother.

“She just took us in and adopted us as family – a powerful influence,” she said, “a woman who had suffered tuberculosis as a young woman severely limiting her physical capabilities.”

“She became so central to a really large extended and adopted family,” Murphy said, adding that the early beadwork both she and her mother were doing is patterned after this strong female legacy.

Murphy began to bead at the age of seven taught by her first teacher – her mother who’d learned her skills from older Cree women that volunteered in the Head Start programs. Another major influence on the women’s art was the work of her mother’s friend, Blackfeet bead worker Jackie Larson Bread

By the age of 13, Murphy was deep into the passion: making her own fully-beaded Powwow outfits patterned after her Lakota heritage using photos of her great-grandmother in early dresses of the 1920’s.

True to these roots, Murphy not only weaves rich floral patterns in contemporary style, and bold geometric patterns, she also incorporates her Irish blood into her beadwork, weaving in Celtic border knot work designs.

“I think in a lot of tribal cultures there are obvious similarities,” she said, “The use of circles, triangles and spirals; patterns cross each other and come back from one tribe to another to another.”


Murphy, Oglala Lakota descendant, was raised in Montana

Insanity Beads

“I was taught that if you weren’t using size 13 cut beads you weren’t really a bead worker,” she laughs. “I’ve learned to relax that a bit.” The women she learned from were strict, she said, proud of their tightly threaded uniform beadwork. Using larger beads was considered lazy, and those people really doing quality beadwork became scarce as Murphy grew older.

“For me it feels like my skills belong to my community,” she said. “I have that obligation – to care-take the skill itself and to make these beautiful things for my community.”

Bead working is a highly respected tradition, Murphy said.

“People need objects from their material culture,” Murphy stated. “I was taught as a bead worker that if someone comes to you in the community and formally asks for something – someone needs baby moccasins for example – I have an obligation to do that.”

“Our community needs those objects as a way to remember what we do and what those symbols mean,” she adds. “I feel I am a resource in that way for my community.”

This sense of responsibility should carry weight she says, similar to being asked to be a godparent or perform a ceremony and should not be subject to monetary value.  Carrying these traditional Lakota and Salish designs and skills is a cherished role for Murphy.

Murphy estimates there are only 20 to 30 contemporary beadwork artists currently exhibiting in the country.

“I know a lot of Salish women in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s that do fabulous traditional beadwork,” she said, “but I’ve noticed in my age group there’s almost no-one.”

This gap due in large part to the time investment the art requires, is threatening the traditional art’s survival. There is no store to go to for professional bead working, she reminded.  “There’s no substitute.  You can’t study up real quick to learn these basic stitches,” Murphy said. “It’s more a labor of love requiring hours every week – doing it constantly.”


A style emerges

Murphy, a graduate of Hellgate High School in Missoula at the age of 16, ended up on the University of Montana, Missoula (UM) campus pursuing pre-med through a National Indian Health minority grant.

                “Finishing my freshman year at college at age 17, I was burnt out on school,” she said, adding she was also disillusioned with biomedical science and dropped out.  “What I thought was pure science, very altruistic that was going to help people and benefit my whole community, I discovered was the pharmaceutical companies benefiting,” she noted.

Murphy then “ran away” from school, taking a variety of odd jobs until she could return five years later to find a profession that might be “ethical”.

Returning to the UM, she discovered art.

At the end of Murphy’s junior year, she began experimenting in abstract imagery, receiving a poor reception from the campus art department.  A socio-political community consciousness had begun seeping into her work.  “I was told to stop doing it and decided that if something made people so uncomfortable that they didn’t want to see it, I was going to force the issue,” stated Murphy.

“I was trying to paint like a white person from New York and what did I know about that,” she adds. “That didn’t have anything to do with where I was from. I didn’t know or had never seen anyone make a painting. What I did know was beadwork, hide tanning, parfleche, powwow outfits and dancing.”

Being in the sculpture department of the college, Murphy felt it was a natural progression to three-dimensional beadwork.  For her senior thesis she decided to design boxes that combined bead work with traditional parfleche painting.  “I make these beaded sculptures that were still useful,” she explains, “and used materials from the early reservation period — wool, ribbons and trade cloth — as metaphor for being a mixed blood from a mixed background”.


“Six horses courting blanket” close-up of piece by Molly Murphy. Photo, courtesy of the artist

Counting Coup with Indian Humor

“I don’t use pure traditional items,” Murphy said. “I don’t try to ever go back to the 1750’s because I don’t know that.  That’s not who I am or where I come from.  I don’t want to make some type of replication.  I want to make something current.”

Her pieces are often iconoclastic: ironic and funny.  “I really like going out and stealing symbols,” Murphy said of the signs she uses of Western culture. “I call it reverse appropriation.”

                Her one-woman show last May at the Missoula Art Museum’s Lynda M. Frost Gallery focused on the thread between athleticism and obesity.  She displayed  XXX large t-shirts beaded down the front and arms in traditional war shirt patterns (“Tribal Size Me”) and a series of three dimensional maps.  On another piece she mapped Missoula and Pine Ridge’s relative location using latitude and longitude lines, rivers, and made a map that “made no sense”.

“It was a map that if I used only white information, wouldn’t get me home,” Murphy said. Her intent was to bead a type of reliquary (a symbolic vessel holding an abstract key, such as those used by the Catholic Church) meant to be a mental link.

The show also contained many smaller pieces: tulip purses (three-sided reticules or sculptural Victorian purses) and Murphy’s boxes. She used mostly Japanese 15 size beads and in her contour floral beadwork different sized beads added texture.  “On some pieces I just have to use 11s,” she added. “There’s just no way around it.”

Drawing from her scientific background, Murphy beaded the molecular structure of DNA in her tapestry “Molecular to Stellar”.  “I wanted it to be a gentler, emotional piece – not political in any sense,” she said.

Her moccasin border patterns merge and melt one into another becoming the double helix.  “It’s a beautiful shape.  There’s a lot about who we are encoded there but also our personal patterns are woven in.”

She shows an amazing gift to draw; illustrating her patterns of animals and people on both purses and large blankets that show scale.   “College taught me a lot about composition and problem solving,” Murphy explains of her gifts. “A lot of my pieces are technically challenging – working with beads and fabric so they hang correctly.  Comparatively, painting canvas seems easy.”

: “Past is Prologue” Molly Murphy’s Salish-style Cradleboard won prestigious “Best of Show” 2009 Heard Museum Fair and Market in March.

.               Of her 3D boxes — a spin on parfleche rawhide envelopes — she said, “I was really devoted to the idea of making something useful – something that couldn’t collapse the way parfleche does…  It was the first thing I did professionally and felt it was a beautiful solution,” she said of this marriage between functionality and sculpted design.  “I still make the boxes constantly.”

“Consumption” is one of her most emotional pieces: a fully beaded sculptural box that has a microscopic view of the tuberculosis bacteria on the lid.  Of the four vertical sides, two geometrically beaded sides represent her biological great-grandmother who had the disease.  The other two feature beaded florals, representing her adopted Salish grandmother who also had TB.  Dangling crystals hanging in the interior “basically drip blood.”

“When Native women got TB the impact it had on their families was still being felt many generations later,” Murphy said. “Families were taken apart and kids were put into other families.”

“That was the hardest piece I’ve ever had to sell,” Murphy said.  It went to a collector who grew up near a TB clinic in Arkansas and had a personal connection to the piece.   She felt he would really treasure and understand it.


Supporting herself through her art

: “Molecular to Stellar” beautifully weaves the DNA double helix pattern in beadwork. Photo courtesy of the artist

Murphy lets gallery owners take into consideration their market and their clientele but sets her own prices.  Her works garners anywhere from $300 – $5,000 and up.

“I am starting to get the place where I am paid for my ideas in addition to my hourly labor,” she said.  “I feel I am finally winning. Not that I object to do something I love for $10 an hour. Montana’s a poor enough state to where that still felt like a pretty major accomplishment.”

Her husband, Ben Murphy, a ‘white boy from Indiana’ is a firefighter on a Hotshot crew and their daughter, Anastasia, is 7 years old. He is a staunch supporter of her work.

“I never thought I’d end up marrying a white guy that would end up learning about and loving beadwork so much,” she says. He also helps her with archiving and logistics and is a good sounding board for some of her more “outlandish” creative ventures.

Supporting herself solely from her art is a growing reality.  “This year I am going to make a living wage. Up until now I’ve been really lucky that my husband had a good firefighting job,” she laughs. “It’s kept our heads above water.”

Up until last year Murphy had to balance her art with the duties of parenting.  She wanted her daughter home “in the yard getting dirty and watching her mom bead and work in her garden growing food.” Anastasia is now in second grade, making Murphy’s life as a full-time artist more feasible.


From traditional beading to Murphy’s contemporary style:

Nervous about receiving criticism from her Native community, Murphy has been pleasantly surprised. At the annual Heard Museum show in Phoenix, Murphy gets a chance to meet Indian people from all over and hear their critiques.  “Using beadwork to be critical of my Native community felt like crossing the line but I wanted to do it anyway…For me to use beadwork to say we have a problem with obesity, we have a problem with loss, with racism, when I was taught that beadwork was to always be positive…  I felt I crossed the line with the (“Tribal Size Me”) t-shirts.  Maybe not too far…in a way it was subtle criticism but the response has been incredibly positive.”

Seeing elders come who have watched her work since the age of 11, Murphy was hungry for their words.  “Probably what meant the most to me was when Corky Claremont, the art professor at Salish Kootenai  Community College, helped me navigate where these two communities come together: the art community and the native community.  He made a point of coming to the opening of my show, giving me a hug and telling me, ‘good work.’  He is known as a man of few words.  He said, ‘This is a really good show.’”

Murphy recently finished a Salish-style cradle board which won the Heard’s prestigious 2009 “Best of Show.” Like many of her pieces it is both functional and practical with hidden compartments in the top beaded part that hold all the documents for the baby: birth certificate, tribal enrollment card, hospital bracelet.


Future Aspirations:

Contemporary bead worker Molly Murphy of Missoula, MT. teaching a Masters Class at the Philbrook Museum, May 23, 2009. Photos courtesy of Philbrook Museum

“I would like to be able to give back,” said Murphy.  “I have running vehicles, I have my own house and I have everything I need.  If I don’t do something that’s seen by Native people I go a little crazy.

Many times she prioritizes by saying no to some items that come for profit to give back pieces to her community.  “I have to make my living but I am not a very material person,” she adds. “I am pretty frugal”.

Her largest concern is that enough Indian people see her work.  This speaks to the economics of who buys her art — often exclusive private collectors and galleries.   “Most Native people can’t afford my work,” she says. “I couldn’t afford my work. It goes to markets, exhibits and shows that have a primarily white audience.”

Murphy is exited to have a show catering to Indian people.  “It’s about cultural self-esteem.  I don’t want all the things in our community to be all about mortality rates.  Indian people need to keep seeing that you can be professional and still be Native – how to bridge that without leaving the community”.

Murphy wants do what she can to continue support the longevity of bead working; to sustain this viable, cultural art.  “I’m hoping with the community center where I have my studio, I can begin to host beadwork nights for women who need space and time to work on outfits or pieces for their family.  Sometimes home is too confusing and cluttered.  It’s hard to make time for that.”   A former powwow princess, she also recently made three crowns for the UM student Kyi-Yo powwow and donated them to the club – traveling crowns that the girls would take with them and bring back each year.

Powwow Princess Crown for Missoula’s Kyi-Yo Powwow by Molly Murphy. Photo courtesy of the artist

Following Traditional Cycles/Seasons:

Murphy rents studio space at The Zootown Arts Community Center in Missoula.  Until recently, she worked at home which she says was both “really great and difficult”.  Through college she’d been able to stay at home with her daughter and create her art.          She enjoys the challenge of staying focused in this new setting.

“I try to bead 40 – 45 hours a week in the winter time,” she said.  The rest of her work time is devoted to bookkeeping, writing, client information, contracts, research, drawing and ordering supplies.

Murphy gardens fairly “furiously” putting up jams, and pickles; lots of fruit and every summer the family goes berrying.  “I want to keep doing those things that have something to do with the culture I come from,” she explains. “I don’t want to just spend time earning a wage and not be able to do for myself anymore because I have no time…What’s the point of having money if I can’t go berry picking or tool around with my mom on the rez this summer and go chokecherry picking”.

She teaches kids, but not until they approach her.  “I certainly want to teach my daughter but I’m not going to push it,” Murphy adds. Anastasia has been able to pick up beads with the needle from age three.   “I think she’ll do it.  I certainly do it much differently from my mom.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she goes in another direction as well,” Murphy said. “She may never want to do this as a profession but I certainly hope she learns how to do these patterns and the more traditional pieces.”

To encourage her daughter she makes her a little gift of beadwork every year.


Ancestral connections

Murphy said she notices a presence of her ancestors when she works.  “They come through my hands and my materials.  I really had that feeling when I use vintage beads,” she said.

“From my dad’s side of the family I inherited my great-grandmother’s yardstick.  She was a seamstress and had this beautiful old hardwood yardstick with brass.  It is completely covered in her writing where she would mark her different projects.” Murphy added that it was probably the same measuring stick she had since the 1930’s.

From her mother’s adopted side of her family she also inherited her grandmother’s sewing machine with all the old supplies from the 1950’s. She uses them all.  “I really do feel that the (Lakota bead) patterns that come from my great-grandmother’s dress are pretty powerful.”


SIDE BAR: Molly Murphy received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University or Montana in 2004. Her “Past is Prologue” cradleboard piece won the prestigious “Best of Show” at the Heard Museum in March 2009. Murphy was voted “Best New Artist of the Year” by her peers at the Northern Plains Tribal Arts Show and Market in 2003. She was included in the “Changing Hands 2: Art Without Reservation” exhibit at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York City, which traveled the country beginning in 2004. Murphy’s work is represented by two exclusively American Indian galleries: the “Ancient Nations Gallery” in Salt Lake City” and the “Home and Away” gallery in Kennebunkport, Maine.

To view further samples of her work please visit her website:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>