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October 7, 2006

Taking Shape

A winding road has led Annie Murphy-Robinson to her solo show of big, bold drawings
By Bob Sylva, Bee Staff Writer

Annie Murphy-Robinson is holding her first solo showing of her large-scale drawings at the b. sakata garo gallery in midtown Sacramento

Annie Murphy-Robinson, like a hurt, caged animal or a restless convict doing a life stretch, draws furiously, hour after hour, in a small cubicle her husband built for her in their garage. Her cell is close to, but a world apart from, the couple's otherwise happy, toy-strewn, daughter-cluttered, ranch-style home in Carmichael. A pastel scene of convention.

In her studio, tread carefully -- there is a cold concrete floor. There is a lone, naked bulb that burns from the rafters. There is a dollhouse inhabited by some kind of feathery taxidermy specimen. There, off to the side, appearing playful and innocent, is an apple-red bicycle with chubby training wheels.

How menacing can a peewee bicycle be?

In this realm of duplicity, plenty.

Here, too, are the tools of her trade, which include a belt sander, pads of fine-grade sandpaper, a soft, white, smudged gym sock, stubs of charcoal, gobs of erasers and a seemingly inexhaustible inkwell of dread, joy, pain, memory, exaltation, anxiety, fear.

Murphy-Robinson, who has the slim, hipless figure of a marathon runner, draws standing up, on the garage's back wall, which is painted white. There, in hazy silhouette, are the accumulated residue and marginalia of earlier work. Viewed darkly, it appears as though someone took the chalked carpet of a crime scene and pinned it to the wall.

Some of her drawings, lined in tissue, are piled haphazardly on the floor. She peels them off, one by one, like layers of skin. Most are large-scale but highly intimate drawings of her two daughters, Emily, 10, and Casey, 7. Both are towheaded cherubs.

Here's one called "Emily in Tutu," another one titled "Emily Bored." Still another one, "Casey in Stockings (With Grandma's Bra)," which shows her daughter posed atop a blanket, her head comically entangled in a brassiere. All of the artworks are drawn from photographs, the portrait sittings of which are austerely lit by a single light source.

In many of the drawings, one can see an electrical cord trailing in back like a slithering serpent.

The drawings are intense, the subjects invariably solemn. This is not a family scrapbook. Songs of innocence. It's more a personal journal. Notes from the underground. Yet another sumptuous drawing shows a pensive Emily in half-profile, the shadows so deep and saturated they resemble a midnight sea.

"I always feel guilty when I look at this," says Murphy-Robinson, gazing at her daughter's expression of longing and appeal. "Like I should be spending more time playing with her than in my studio."

This is just one of her many urgencies.

A new body of Annie Murphy- Robinson's work, "Black, White and Color," is on view at b. sakata garo, 923 20th St. in midtown Sacramento, through Oct. 31. There will be a Second Saturday reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Oct. 14.

Murphy-Robinson, to say the least, is no stranger to art lovers. In frank, scathing drawings, she has revealed her every pore and psychic fold. In a 2003 exhibit at Sacramento City College, she unfurled a pair of 9-foot-tall nude self-portraits that mimicked Michelangelo in their heroic scale and exquisite detail.

Since that candid show, her work has been included in the 2005 Crocker-Kingsley Exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum; the Western Biannale of Art in February 2005 at the John Natsoulas Gallery; plus the "Aspects of Humanity: Contemporary Portraiture," in June 2006 at the Center for Contemporary Art.

Despite such exposure, this solo show of her drawings amounts to her moment of truth.

"Oh, my God!" she cries. "It's huge! It's my big debut. It's like an accumulation of everything since I was a kid drawing on the floor with a crayon. It's like a big refrigerator door of my work. It's a verification that I'm a good artist."

Not that such verification is needed. Except in her own mind, where clouds of doubt continue to vex her.

Chris Daubert is a professor of art at Sacramento City College. He has nurtured Murphy-Robinson and likens her self-absorbed drawings to "autobiographies." He marvels, "She draws like a demon. She draws and draws and draws. I rate her (work) at the top. She is not a meticulous draftsperson. But her drawing, as a mode of communication, is a stunning achievement."

Troy Dalton is regarded as one of the area's finest figurative painters and is something of a mentor to Murphy-Robinson. He coaxed her in the unique technique of using charcoal and sand-paper, in a laborious, repetitious process of medium and removal, of abrasion and impregnation, which gives the final drawing a rich, engraven, sculptural dimension.

Says Dalton: "Her drawing ability is tremendous. She came to me with a lot of raw talent that wasn't raw. If I gave her anything it was the confidence to see that what she was doing was wonderful."

Fred Dalkey is a masterful drawer. He knows Murphy-Robinson only by her work. "It's extraordinary," says Dalkey. "Just amazing. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful big drawings. There's a real fever in her work. A lot of physical strength, a lot of athletic drawing. I find her work exciting, if not intimidating."

Now, on a recent weeknight, Annie Murphy-Robinson is sitting at her dining room table, the light from a chandelier casting her features in a confessional glow. A smirking canvas of Casey hangs on a side wall.

In what amounts to an ordinary scene of domestic bliss, her two daughters are scurrying about, a pet dog is barking, a pair of caged birds are squawking, a TV set is blaring in a family room, her husband, Sandy Robinson, is running an errand, and her 67-year-old mother, who lives with the family, is off attending a dance class.

Murphy-Robinson is 39 years old. She is trim, athletic, with brown eyes, long brown hair. She alternately sports a stud or a gold nose ring. She is casual, comical, self-deprecating, not at all pretentious. She has the élan of a teenager.

A complicated personality, she is alternately forceful, vulnerable, adament, unsure. And unimaginably trusting. There is nothing she won't tell you about her life, the triumphs and insecurities that dwell in her heart.

She was born in Sacramento. After her parents divorced, she and her mother and an older brother moved to Heron, Mont. At 7, her world was a vast remoteness. "We had 80 acres," she says. "I would go off with my sketch book. I used to make my own inks and stains from plants, grasses, mud. I liked the aloneness of it. When you are drawing, you can close up your book and not show anyone. So, it was my own sanctuary."

But art could not safeguard her. At 13, she and her family moved to Tucson, then Phoenix. She felt disconnected. She started to drink and do drugs. "You're gawky," she says. "You feel out of place. I had no self-esteem or self-worth. All I knew is that when I had a few beers, I could make people laugh."

At 14, she ran away from home. She and a friend hitchhiked to San Francisco. They crashed in a house in the Sunset District. She modeled lingerie. She was soon picked up in a truant sweep and was sent to juvenile hall, later put in a group home. Meanwhile, her frantic mother was roaming downtown Phoenix showing strangers a photograph of her missing daughter.

Murphy-Robinson never returned to Arizona. Instead, at 16, she came back to Sacramento. She took a class in drawing at Sacramento City College. She got involved in the punk music scene. She joined a skateboard crew. She continued her drug use. At 17, recognizing her own destructiveness, seeking escape, she enlisted in the Army. And was promptly sent to Germany.

From there, the narrative worsens, the portrait turns bleary. Ultimately, Murphy-Robinson retreated from the edge through the mercy of art.

Today, a proud Murphy-Robinson notes matter of fact that she has been clean and sober for 10 years. In 1993, she earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the University of Southwestern Louisiana. To earn money, she posed as a life study model.

Eight years ago, her second marriage, she married Robinson, who runs a drug diversion program. He is a supportive husband, an involved father. Four years ago, Murphy-Robinson got a job as an art teacher at Sacramento High School. One would be hard-pressed to find a teacher more qualified to assist urban teenagers in discerning reality.

"Most of the time it's not about art," says Murphy-Robinson. "It's about connecting with them. In being there for them. In giving them a hug if they need it. In calling them on their (nonsense)."

In 2002, after considerable anguish, she managed to earn a master's degree in art from CSUS. Graduate school provided its own crisis. That she had no talent. That she had nothing to say. That she was wasting her time dreaming of art. Such cruel feelings of ineptitude are common to most aspiring painters.

But she persisted. And, in the end, she had a breakthrough. In subject matter (herself) and in choice of medium (charcoal). So, looking into a mirror, she flayed herself bare. And then she drew her husband. She drew her mother. She drew her children. She drew a dollhouse, a kewpie doll, a red bicycle. Literally, armed with a belt-sander, she was trying to scratch beneath the surface of customary perception.

In the case of her angelic children, who often behave as her surrogates on paper, she was trying to capture that dawning moment when innocence is endangered by the intruding shadow of experience.

Looking back at her own lost childhood, which she does in almost obsessive fashion, she says, "What I was then is revealed in my work. I believe all the things that I feared, all the intangible things, the sadness and the loneliness, are there."

On another afternoon, Annie Murphy-Robinson is posed on a sunny brick ledge outside the art department at Sacramento City College. Here, the outward scene appears normal, academic, almost pastoral.

No lurking shadows of doubt -- or danger.

But things are hectic. Murphy- Robinson is in the last, frantic throes of trying to get her show organized and framed. To save money, bad idea, she is doing most of the work herself, using a studio here. She has been up all night. Her hands are coated in a sheen of charcoal, her wan face looks dolled up by soot.

She is tired, frustrated, stressed out. At one point in the interview, she breaks down in tears.

But she rallies. She talks about the first time she felt encouraged in her drawing, about the importance of this show. And, despite their status as family members, how above all she wishes she sells a drawing.

Soon, fatigue erased, chin up, she's back to being her insouciant self. Funny, expressive, hopeful.

"I'm just raw," she notes. "I don't have those defense mechanisms that I used to have. Nothing is numbed by drugs or alcohol. I would never cry in front of someone before. The joy and sadness in my life is so real now. I'm living my pipe dream. I want good things to happen to me. I'm trying my best to control it."

Black, White and Color

WHAT : Drawings by Annie Murphy-Robinson WHERE: b. sakata garo, 923 20th St.

WHEN: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, through October 31.

INFORMATION: (916) 447-4276