Photos Cameron Flaisch
Throughout history, artists and sculptors have experimented with an eclectic range of mediums, all of which have made lasting impressions. However, no material has captivated its audiences quite like marble.
Prevalent in ancient and contemporary art, marble makes up some of the most famous sculptures in the world. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a material that signifies high art more than marble.
In today’s world, this medium is most recognizable in kitchen countertops. It’s hard to visualize a modern-day artist chipping away at a block of marble in order to express themselves.
Here at V3, we aren’t normal. And we love to celebrate all that is different.
Recently, we met one neighbor who sets up his studio right in his front yard, and his name is Frank Murphy. We traveled to Murphy’s residence up on Mount Alto to witness this rare spectacle of marble carving, which did not disappoint.
Murphy has called Rome his home for 33 years, which is fitting as the empire of Rome (Italy, but still counts) is known most for its famous artists—like Italian sculptors Michelangelo and Bernini, who happen to be two of Murphy’s favorite artists. He discovered his love for art and the medium of marble, however, from his hometown in Sylacauga, Ala.
“I grew up in a little town in Alabama called Sylacauga. Sylacauga is one of the largest deposits of marble in the world—incredibly white marble like the Carrara marble in Italy. It’s a very fine grade of marble, very fine crystals,” explains Murphy as he runs his hand across one of the many statues that are scattered throughout his home.
He continues, “I grew up in this town thinking, someone should use this to carve with. Nobody did at the time, or that I knew of. It’s been interesting to see how it has evolved over the years. In fact, I currently attend a big marble festival there every year.”
Murphy left Sylacauga for college at the University of Montevallo, beginning his academic career as a declared art major. But he didn’t graduate an artist, rather a physical education teacher.
Murphy uses the knowledge of human anatomy for his realistic marble portraits, while drawing inspiration for his oil paintings from artists like Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Velasquez and Tintoretto.
After college, Murphy moved to Rome to put his degree to use, becoming a minister of youth to the First Baptist Church of Rome. “I did that for 11 years before I began working at Berry College, and I still do some volunteer work at Georgia Highlands College as a campus minster. I did that part-time so that I could be an artist in my other part-time world. So, for 20-something years, I have been working to balance out those two-things.
“I just recently retired so now I am trying to figure out what it’s like to be retired—and so far, I like it. I’ve got plenty to do!!” smiles Murphy. Usually, Murphy finds himself splitting his days between painting and sculpting, his two favorite mediums. During the day, he will sculpt outside, and when it gets too dark, he will spend the night inside of his studio. His favorite, however, is marble sculpting.
One of his proudest marble sculptures, “Pieta,” is similar to the idea of the Pieta of Michelangelo, where Mary is seen holding onto Jesus following the crucifixion. In fact, Murphy’s sculpture was just recently placed in the Courtyard at First Baptist Church of Rome and can be viewed by anyone who wishes to visit.
It may seem odd at first… a P.E. teacher who paints and sculpts, but Murphy has always loved art.
“Ever since I was young, I could draw,” recalls Murphy. “You know how in elementary school you have a time dedicated to art? I remember everyone always wanting to look at my drawings. Back then, I mostly drew horses, cattle, cowboys, eagles and sports figures… things that I was interested in. That was kind of my first involvement in art, was just drawing.”
In fact, Murphy still has a stack of drawing notepads from his school days that he likes to look back on every once in a while.
“As I transitioned through high school and college, I really didn’t know what you needed to know about art. Words like contrast and value were thrown around a lot, and I didn’t know what they were talking about!” laughs Murphy. “I definitely had a little trouble figuring out what I was going to do with all of that, but things always work out in the best ways.”
And work out, it did.
Murphy started venturing more heavily into art, with a focus more on oil painting and all things figurative.
“I started into some pretty large paintings pretty early on,” explains Murphy. “I like doing the bigger pieces; it is different. I found some opportunities to display them in several cool ways, so I just started painting these big murals. Some of them are religious paintings and murals that I have done for churches.”
He continues, “I took a class back in the 90’s at Shorter University for sculpting. It was sort of general sculpting, we did things in clay, bronze, etc. I got back into sculpting after that class; I had seen some stone carving tools in an art shop, so I bought them. It was a cheap set, but I thought, I’m gonna see what I can do with this.”
Murphy’s first marble sculpture was crafted with solely a hammer and a wooden chisel. “I think I just beat on it until, eventually, I noticed that it looked like a face… so, I painted Abraham Lincoln on the other side of it,” smiled Murphy as he showed off this flat piece of carved marble.
Now, you may be wondering, where in the world do you find slabs of marble? According to Murphy, when traveling in Sylacauga, you can just pick up a piece of marble on the side of the road, as long as you can get it into your car. “My first three marble pieces of art were born from rocks that I grabbed on the side of the road,” says Murphy. Most of his marble sculptures find their way back to Sylacauga in some form or fashion as well, such as his statue of Rapunzel, which currently sits at the library in Sylacauga.
As we toured around his home, it’s hard not to feel as if one is walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, except a lot less crowded and definitely more welcoming. The abundance of paintings and sculptures tell stories of a man who isn’t afraid of failure. Especially because failure is a key component of success in sculpting.
“You truly only learn how to sculpt once you’ve done it. Messing up is how you learn—where you can’t put pressure, where the strength is in the stone, where the weak points are, etc. You just have to keep carving,” explains Murphy. “But you do have to have a plan before you just start carving away. You’ve gotta think about why or how to do it first.”
Drawing is a crucial element in art, and Murphy agrees, “drawing is just a foundation point for anything else you are going to do in art, because being able to visually see it is so important.” When Murphy travels to schools to speak with aspiring art students, the best piece of advice he can give to them is to just “draw, draw, draw.”
As we moved the tour to Murphy’s outdoor studio, which is positioned neatly underneath a specially built pergola, he pulls out his tools to being carving on a new sculpture of a Native American Indian. After previously sketching the Indian, Murphy then created a mockup of it with clay before diving into the rough-cut marble block.
Starting with a forked chisel (for details), Murphy works to carve the face, switching to a point chisel to then take off the bigger chunks that he will eventually morph into a body. He uses an angle grinder for even bigger pieces, which is the only power tool that Murphy uses, if necessary.
Neighbors love to hear the tapping of chisels against rock, and flock to his driveway as soon as the melancholic sound echoes down the winding mountain path. Murphy sees this as his solitude, and a great way to get to know the community that rallies behind him.
“To be outside and do what I love is nice. It’s solitude, just me and my sculpture. Now, my neighbors do love stopping by. I love having them come by and talk,” smiles Murphy.
Murphy’s favorite part of sculpting is when he realizes he has hit the halfway mark in his sculpture.
“I love it when I am about halfway through my sculpture and I can see how it is going to work out, that my idea is working out,” he explains. “That’s my refining phase, and from there, I get super excited to get it done. The process of thinking about it is one of my favorite parts, too. I’ve got stacks of random pieces of paper that have scribbles of ideas on them—the prep and dreaming about it.”
On average, it will take Murphy a couple of months to finish a marble sculpture, but you can bet that if the weather permits, he will be outside underneath his pergola carving away at another masterpiece.
Murphy has big plans for the City of Rome, as he hopes to continue to spread his art with the world. “I have several ideas for sculptures in marble around Rome. The first one would be an ensemble at the corners of the South Broad Bridge on Broad Street. The second one would be a gladiator sculpture in front of the Aqueduct at the junction of US 411 and US 27, and lastly, I would love to carve a Viking Warrior to put at the entrance of Berry College’s Valhalla Stadium,” says Murphy.
In the meantime, be on the lookout for some of Murphy’s other works of art. You most definitely will not be disappointed.
Visit his website at: https://www.frankmurphyfineart.com