How do you use hard materials to portray the softness of something like a quilt? Wood mosaic artist Troy Murrah does it by creating quilt-inspired mosaics with found and recycled materials. Just like accomplished quiltmakers, Troy uses the same design principles to create intricate and precise patterns. The result is quilts that are built rather than sewn, but just as intriguing to look at as their fabric counterparts.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
I really do think I wanted to be an artist (this along with a professional football player and motocross racer…), or at least be in the creative field, ever since I can remember.
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I was surrounded by creativity since childhood––My mom, Judy Murrah, was an art teacher and quilter (wearable artist, fabric designer, author, and VP of Education at Quilts Inc.). At first, I went into architecture after high school, and then decided to switch to Fine Art. It wasn’t until many years after college and working professionally that I went back to working solely on my visual art. Actually, it was after the passing of my mom, who was the inspiration behind my using quilt patterns in my art, that I started my body of wood mosaic art.
How did your art education prepare you for the work you do today? Does it ever get in the way?
The main thing it taught me was to respect a deadline. Do whatever it takes to complete your piece, even though this might mean some sleepless nights. It also opened up eyes to genres of art I wouldn’t normally take the time to look at or experience. I also learned how to talk about my work and communicate verbally what my goals are visually with my art.
What different kinds of creative work have you done over the years?
In high school I did pen and ink drawings for a furniture company’s print ads. Then I completed two years of architecture school before going to art school. I worked in production design for about 7 years building sets and making props for TV/film and the dance/theatrical world. And I welded and fabricated large-scale sculpture for 5 years for an established LA artist. I also spent 4 years of designing and building recording studios and 10 years as a recording and performing artist (playing guitar, writing lyrics, vocals) with my two-piece band RESTAVRANT (www.restavrant.com).
How long have you used quilt imagery in your art? Why is that an important part of your work? What materials do you use, and how do you source them?
For 2 or 3 years. The quilt block pattern I decide to go with gets the ball rolling. It becomes the setting for my world I’ll create for that specific piece. I use all types of “building materials”… mainly wood, metal and plexiglass. Almost all of my material is reclaimed, whether it’s an old thrown out shelving unit found in the neighborhood or an unwanted set of drawers found down a local alleyway of a historic neighborhood. Also, friends and family contact me to donate things now that they know what I do. There are so many vibrant, discarded materials out there ready to use (after cleaning, of course).
Tell us about your new venture, Built Quilt. Why did you start it? What do you do, and who do you hope to reach?
Originally the name, “Built Quilt”, came from the title I named one of my art shows of some of my large wooden “quilts”. My wife and I liked the name so much we named our brand (www.builtquilt.com) after that show title. Using the name “Built Quilt”, illustrates the concept of our brand. We design and make quilt-inspired household accessories like coaster sets, tea light candle holders, journals, enamel pins, etc. We hope to reach everybody “beyond the cloth” (quilters as well as non-quilters, pattern lovers, etc.), the more the merrier.
What is the greatest takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, Wood Mosaic Projects: Classic Quilt Block Designs in Wood?
My main goal with Wood Mosaic Projects (www.troymurrah.com/woodmosaicbook) is to inspire the reader to go make something of their own with their hands. They don’t have to make one of the projects in the book exactly. But hopefully after reading and looking at the book, they will learn a few new tricks and see some new design ideas. I hope they’ll want to pick up a tool, find some discarded material and make one of their own pieces. I think it’s essential for people’s mental and physical health to not lose sight of the importance of the handmade.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I actually have two creative spaces. One is a small office studio/shed I built in our backyard. It’s where I do all the “clean” work, like drawing and painting, computer work and laser engraving. Most of my “quilts” also have my drawings/illustrations wood burnt or engraved on them. It also has some of my guitars to play when I take a little break from my visual art.
The other space is our garage that I’ve converted into the woodshop/metal fabrication studio. My large 4’x8’ layout table is in there and all my tools and machines. It’s where the quilts get glued and nailed, or even welded. The “dirty” work. It also has my material racks where I place material after I’ve salvaged it from the unwanted furniture, etc., collected.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My chop saw and table saw make the fabrication process 100 times faster, making my angled cuts clean and precise. My pencils and paper are indispensable. Drawing starts the whole design process, and I can’t produce without it.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
Yes, having one handy always helps. It’s especially useful when an idea comes to mind that I want to jot down to return to later… Or if something inspires me and I want to remind myself at a later time.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
All of the above, except silence… I usually rotate among all 4 depending on which step I’m on in the process. I usually have a movie or music playing in the background while I’m in my drawing room or doing any kind of writing or planning. Then I listen to audiobooks or podcasts in my headphones while I’m in the building process unless I have an assistant working with me that day. Then we usually have music playing on the stereo.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
It’s a little of both. I do a lot of sketching and composition planning at the beginning. But then there’s a fair share of improvising once I’m actually making the piece. I like to play around with the wood tones and grains of the material I’ve collected to see what’s going to work best for the particular quilt block I’ve chosen.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I usually start with a narrative that might have inspired me. It might be a movie, a story I heard, a history book, or even one of my own life experiences. When I was a younger man, I got myself into some interesting situations, but those days have simmered down lately. Maybe I have become smarter, matured, or just becoming a husband and father has made me put more importance on my health…haha… I got people that rely on me.
I do sketches of imagery related to my chosen inspired narrative. Once I settle on the pattern or graphic, I choose a quilt block to start working from, and make sure it’s doable. I have files of existing quilt jpegs that exist in quilted form that I’ve found interesting and saved, hoping to use them as a layout basis sometime later down the road.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
Time is my biggest challenge. I have a tendency to get overambitious or unrealistic with what I can achieve with my pieces in a certain amount of time. I have learned to write down my goals and checkpoints for each work of art to make sure I stay on track. So, making lists is important for my time management. It’s even tattooed backwards on my chest in hopes that I read it forwards in the morning when i look in the mirror. Not sure if it always works though.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think a lot of it comes naturally, but I do think you can learn to dig out what creativity exists inside you. Success comes from opening yourself up and learning as much as possible from other created forms. It could be a song, architecture, a ballet or a haircut. Whatever it may be, there’s so much out there in the world to open your eyes and ears to.
If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?
Oh man, that’s a good one. I guess right now I’d say Joe Strummer, the singer and guitarist from The Clash. He was very sincere about all art and the music he made, but also didn’t take himself too seriously. He seemed to know there’s a time to be serious and a time to have a good time, etc. I think that is key to staying happy mentally. He also was open to all kinds of art and saw beauty in many things, not just the genres he was involved in. Even though The Clash was mainly considered a punk band, he and his fellow band members allowed themselves to be influenced by reggae, rap, old 1950’s rock and roll, amongst others. This keeps you excited about what you create and always excited about finding something new in the world to personally pull from.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
As any good website should, I hope my website (www.troymurrah.com) will give visitors a comprehensive overview of my work and offer a good representation of me as an artist in addition to providing all the pertinent information about my art pieces and how to reach out to me. I love hearing from others and hearing their take on my art, so I hope people will feel welcome to reach out and connect with me.
We try to make sure the website is up to date with event information, recent press and accessible swag/art for those who are interested. In terms of a more informal way of connecting with me and for a more behind-the-scenes glimpse into my process, time-lapse of a work in progress, and the inspiration behind an art piece, my IG @troy.murrah is a better place to connect: www.instagram.com/troy.murrah. I don’t post as much as I would like to (or should), but I am trying and getting better (I think!)!
Interview posted February 2022