Reconnecting with a childhood of babies, bread and faith-of Newfoundland life in the '50s and 60s-through paint and canvas.
A father gathers his children around the double bed and places a new born baby on the quilt. He places a second baby alongside the first. One of his sons, surrounded by half a dozen siblings, looks up at his father with wide eyes and says in a voice filled with awe, "Youse gots two, Dad!"
Throughout the '40s, 50s and 60s, Patrick and Mary Williams had 21 children (including two sets of twins) and raised them in a three-bedroom house on New Pennywell Road in St. John's, NL. Patrick worked for an oil company and Mary looked after the home, together raising their family. It was a world that revolved around bread, babies and the family rosary-a world that their oldest daughter is now compelled to recreate on canvas in what she calls the "Family Series," a collection of 47 oil paintings depicting Newfoundland life.
"I thought it would be nice to try to capture my memories of growing up in Newfoundland," Josephine Williams Murphy says, sitting in her studio in Cobourg, Ont, where she has lived for 40 years. She makes it sound like a simple process: pick a few favourite memories and commit them to canvas. But the truth is that Josephine didn't know how to draw when she started out in the '70s. In her late 30s, and the mother of three children, she began taking painting classes at the local high school at night. "I was painting nice scenery from pictures," she says. "But then talking with my sisters I became aware that we didn't have a lot of photographs. We would talk about all the special events in our lives and we didn't have pictures. So I thought I would try to paint some of those events."
Her first painting depicted the bringing home of a new baby. "That's the one memory that really stuck out-I wonder why that would be!" Josephine laughs. "That left a real impact on me, when Mom would bring home a new baby and place it on the centre of the bed."
As one of the oldest children, Josephine witnessed nearly all arrive, though by the time the last sibling was born she had moved to Ontario. Remembering those frequent events seemed to unlock not only more memories but intense emotions as well. "I began to see something in my parents. It wasn't just bringing home a new baby; it was how they would bring home the baby," she says. "Dad and Mom would stand back, in the doorway. Dad was always interested in our reaction to the new child. He'd look in and see us enjoying the baby. I sensed that he was always so proud of us."
Little did Josephine know that her idea of painting a few memories would take her on the journey of a lifetime, to reconnect with herself as a child. She could not have foreseen the emotional impact the process would have on her.
"Because I really didn't have a lot of natural artistic skills I was forced to linger at each painting, and this gave me a lot of time for reflection," she says. "These images seemed to bring me deeper and deeper within myself. It was like I was getting reacquainted with the child I once was.
I was overwhelmed that such simplicity was having such a profound impact on me. It became more than just painting a few pictures of my childhood; the paintings were taking me on a spiritual journey and putting me in touch with the essence of who I am."
Josephine's second painting was called Fresh from the Oven, a scene that depicts children waiting for their first slice of freshly baked bread. It was a logical progression.
"The next one would have been about bread. Bread making. What it all comes down to is the celebration of life and an appreciation for the earth," she says of the dominant themes of both her childhood and her paintings.
Josephine's journey home began with a young woman's journey away from home. In the '60s, Josephine followed a cousin to Kingston, Ont, to become certified as an occupational therapy assistant. Then she went back home for a year but felt she wanted to "broaden her horizons," so back to Ontario she went. "[During the course] a woman took them under her wing, and so the only person Jo knew was this woman, Mary MacDonald, who lived in Cobourg," says her sister Joan.
"When Jo came up here and got settled, each year for a while one of us had to move up." That's how a young woman from St. John's ended up living near the shores of Lake Ontario with family members nearby. Even her hometown beau followed his heart to Ontario: Josephine Williams and John Murphy-a stationary engineer-were married in 1964 and have lived in their house on Sinclair Street in Cobourg since 1967.
By 1983, Josephine was running out of room in the house for her painting, so John sacrificed a vintage Ford Thunderbird stored in the garage to give her a dedicated space. "She was painting down in the basement, underneath the stairs and there wasn't much room," he says. "There wasn't enough light. We had the garage; I always used it for something else so I renovated it and insulated it. Winter or summer, it's OK in there."
John supported her in other ways as well. "When I'd really be into my painting and he'd come home and supper wouldn't be ready, he'd say, 'That's OK. I can get something.' He'd rather see me paint. We never had a lot of money but anything, anything to do with painting, I could have."
It was the reaction of her parents and siblings that Josephine worried about. "I was really concerned because I've taken the liberty of speaking on behalf of 20 people," she says. "And you don't want that many people mad at you!"
She admits to great apprehension about showing the paintings to her parents. "Growing up we weren't used to art, so I thought Mom and Dad wouldn't know what the heck I was talking about because it doesn't look like them.
"I thought, 'I got to show them to Dad. I'll try them on Dad.' I had seven paintings done and one day, I put them around the living room and told him I wanted him to take a look. He walked into the room and he sat down. He said, 'Oh, my God, the memories.' It was very emotional for him."
Before her father died in 1994, Josephine promised him she'd keep doing the paintings. "This became very important to him," she says. "He really wanted them to be shown."
Her sister Joan says no one in the family had any misgivings about having their childhood displayed. "In the paintings, Jo has captured what the rest of us feel in having the people we had for our parents. She really captured the essence of what our family was all about."
Because of her Catholic faith and the way her parents raised her, Josephine maintains a great sense of humility; showing the paintings took courage. Her first show, in 1981, involved only two paintings but by the time she made it to the Art Gallery of Newfoundland in 2000, she showed more than 30 paintings in the series.
It's not quite complete, however; Josephine realized she'd forgotten one significant image. She pulls a rolled-up canvas from under her work surface. The half-finished piece depicts one of her earliest memories of her father, lighting the stove in the kitchen first thing in the morning. Will that complete the series? "If I had to die today," she says, "I would be satisfied."
Despite that assertion, Josephine hopes to publish a book called Journey Home, which tells the story behind each of the paintings.
Some people wonder why her paintings depict life in Newfoundland as being so idyllic, but Josephine says she knows there were hard times; money was always tight and her parents worked all the time.
"People say to me, 'You're just showing the good times.' I say, 'That's what's in me to show....'"
Even 25 years after creating her first paintings, Josephine finds intense emotion welling up as she talks about her family and her the images. She tries to dismiss the emotions as "crazy," but the feelings obviously remain powerful.
"Growing up in a household with such goodness and love…" Josephine pauses to take a deep breath. Her eyes fill with tears. "How wonderful it is-to be an adult and have the opportunity to connect with what we had when we were young."
A Matter of Perspective
Josephine Williams Murphy started out drawing right on the canvas, but she found she was erasing so much, she was wearing the canvas out. "So I started to draw on brown kraft paper and slipped carbon paper under it, transferring it to the canvas, then start painting. I had to learn to draw as I was doing it. Can you imagine? Trying to get children to look right! It's been a big struggle. Now I'm better at drawing.
"But the funny thing is, people say to me, 'How come your art always stays the same?' They don't realize I'm going to the same place each time I sit down in front of a canvas."
Diane Glennie is a former president of the board of directors for the Art Gallery of Northumberland, in Cobourg, Ont, where Josephine showed her paintings in early 2000. She says the idea that Josephine's work has stayed the same is offensive. "The evolution in her technique is phenomenal." Diane rescued some of the first paintings of Josephine's Family Series from behind the water heater in her basement-the ones Josephine wasn't happy with-afraid she would paint over them. "The thing that worried me and others, professional artists, was that someone would interfere with Josephine and try to teach her to paint. Fortunately, that was something that never happened."
Renowned artist and printmaker David Blackwood, also originally from Newfoundland, says Josephine's work is remarkable, citing examples of artists who have been negatively tempered by people telling them how or what to paint. "True naive or primitive art is fragile, often destroyed in the commercial art world," he says.
Notwithstanding a painting course at night school Josephine is self-taught. "I would say she is a true naive painter," says Diane. "She's not a folk painter or a whimsical painter; people decide to paint in that style. She's unschooled and paints from the heart, similar to Maude Lewis…
"Her instincts are uncanny. Her grasp of space and colour are remarkable. The truth of the subject jumps right out of the picture. The impact is immediate."