Oregon Cultural Trust

Kim Murton’s clay art: Hug a cartoon

With their caricatured grins and exaggerated growls and grimaces, Murton's works defy the notion that serious art needs to be ... well, serious. Get ready to smile.


“Don’t take life too seriously! Nobody gets out alive anyway. Smile. Be goofy. Take chances. Have fun. Inspire.” — Dawn Gluskin

A smile is not a second-tier reaction to life. But, in our distressed world, gentle joy can be dismissed as a weak basis for deep art, unable to hold its ground with intensity, pathos and alienation. I admit I unconsciously shared that prejudice. Kim Murton proves me wrong. Her pots, totems and masks, exhibited this April through Friday, May 3, at Clackamas Community College’s Alexander Gallery—with their caricatured grins and exaggerated growls and grimaces, their wide eyes and outlined features—defy the notion that serious art need be quite so serious. Get ready to smile.

Photo: David Mylin

I was familiar with Murton’s cartoony small sculptures and her daily Facebook drawings, but it was her posts documenting the construction of a series of massive pots that drew me to this show. This, I could easily see, is ambitious art. Her small creatures, as irresistible as they are, are prompts for mere smiles. I even joked to Murton that I had to fight off an attack by these two:

Clearly, I was reacting—which is, after all, the first thing a work of art needs to do—but I was doing so as if I was responding to a simple prank. Only after I had come back and back and back again to the large pots, admiring their sensual shape and solidity, their subtle hues and boldly outlined imagery—echoing yet teasing the solemnity of the kind of Grecian urn that inspired John Keats—could I appreciate what I had dismissed. The illustrations were the key. There, instead of gods, slaves, soldiers or athletes, there on a curved surface as sensuous as a classical vase in the British Museum . . . Murton offers: grins.


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I found myself musing, if those grinning pots were serious sculptures, why weren’t also the jolly totems on the neighboring pedestals?  So, having acknowledged my own prejudice, I turned my attention there . . . still unable to stop smiling. The cultural references were not as solemn as with the pots and the irony not as obvious (although there are clear echoes of ceremonial carvings from around the world), but the impact was at least the equal. I wanted to touch the pots but had to resist the urge to hug the totems.

Dancing Imagination

I attended Murton’s artist talk at Alexander Gallery to learn how she imagines and constructs her large sculptures. When Murton describes her process, she is as animated as her finished creations, waving her arms in exaggerated gestures. Given enough room, she would have danced around the gallery as she described constructing towering vessels and totems with succeeding coils of clay. All hand-built without a wheel.

Photo: Kim Murton

In her talk Murton described her early career stint in an animation studio, an experience she reflected on when we met. Her urge to express both silliness and the illusion of movement, especially in facial expression, has permeated her work since. She thinks in series:

I can’t just do one piece. . . I think that comes from my animation training. But I’m not sure if I got into animation because that was my sensibility or that’s my sensibility now because I worked in animation.

I asked Murton about her focus on faces, especially faces with exaggerated features:


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I don’t have any concept, everything is just a reaction to a design opportunity, a way to experiment with pattern. For example, the reason I put beards on some faces is because it gives me an opportunity to add design elements like polka dots or swirls.

I challenged that statement, noting that Murton’s creations were vibrant characters with distinct personalities, imagined creatures that should be real. First, we meet them, then want to know them. She replied (proving that artists don’t need to fully understand themselves to create wonders), “I don’t think of that at all . . . I just sit down and just do whatever. It’s totally subconscious, all these little decisions just come.”

Along the way, she can’t resist having a bit of fun:

Whatever it is that Murton is doing, it brings on smiles—and one smile can be the start of a love affair.


See Portland artist David Slader‘s Art Letters to subscribers here.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Slader is an Oregon painter, digital artist, sculptor, and photographer. His youthful art ambitions were detoured by an almost forty-year career as a litigator, child-advocate, and attorney for survivors of sexual abuse. Although a Portland resident, David's studio is in the Coast Range foothills, along an oxbow of the Upper Nehalem River, where he alternates making art with efforts to reforest his land. In the Fall, a run of Chinook salmon spawn outside his studio door.


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