Washougal Art & Music Festival

Thérèse Murdza’s paintings in the shape of sounds

From clouds to sounds, an artist's path: "I hear a lot in the paintings ... some movement, something that comes after and before and above and below. Like a cropped photograph or a clip from a melody, you know there is more."


I was invited to be part of a recent group show at the Ford Gallery. As I walked into the gallery in Southeast Portland to deliver my painting, I stopped cold. There, dominating the lobby, was this:

Thérèse Murdza, large wall-sized abstract painting, "our humming remnants of a dialogical sky" (2024). Photo: Thérèse Murdza
Thérèse Murdza, “our humming remnants of a dialogical sky” (2024). Photo: Thérèse Murdza

I set my own painting against a blank wall . . . and stared, entranced, imagining a new wall for it cutting through our living room (I had the sense to not raise the issue when I got home). I also flashed on a youthful memory of a massive painting by Georgia O’Keeffe at the Chicago Art Institute, a painting that was appropriately mounted high in an atrium stairwell and that I had often craned my young neck to study—a memory that also resurfaces whenever I am lucky enough to get a window seat on a plane.

Georgia O’Keeffe, "Sky Above Clouds IV" (detail), 1965. © The Art Institute of Chicago; purchased with funds provided by the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O'Keeffe.
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Sky Above Clouds IV” (detail), 1965. © The Art Institute of Chicago; purchased with funds provided by the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia O’Keeffe.

I had met the artist of our humming, Thérèse Murdza, but did not know her well. A few weeks later, I invited myself to her studio to fix that. As with O’Keeffe, who was inspired by a flight from New Mexico to New York, Murdza’s cloud imagery is imaginative observation. Add, in Murdza’s case, more than a dollop of obsession, as she acknowledges:

I have several daily practices, one of which I do with a friend. We simply look up and take a photo of the sky every day. And I look for movement in trees and flowers and let whatever it is, a bloom or a tree, to come in and out the frame. That seeds ideas that then cross and blend. The clouds in our humming are like scattered flower petals . . . or maybe they are scattered flower petals that are also like clouds.

seeing music, tasting words

A young Thérèse Murdza with her father, both sitting down and playing accordions. Photo: Murdza family
Thérèse Murdza with her father. Photo: Murdza family

Murdza’s father was a high school music teacher, and she grew up making music, playing various instruments and studying composition. Sounds are always with her—especially when she paints. Like musical images, visual images stir in her mind, starting and stopping, rising and falling, developing and receding. Murdza elaborated:

I hear a lot in the paintings. I’m always trying to frame an experience like the view from a window of a moving train or a cut from the sound field. Some movement, something that comes after and before and above and below. Like a cropped photograph or a clip from a melody, you know there is more.  There must be more, something moving, something that spills over outside the frame.

The influence of musical notation appears regularly in her work, as in this untitled painting where three lines of quarter-notes jostle for position on an invisible staff:


Oregon Cultural Trust

Abstract painting with black ovals on white background, suggesting musical notes. Thérèse Murdza, "untitled 23-61" (2023). Photo: Thérèse Murdza
Thérèse Murdza, “untitled 23-61” (2023). Photo: Thérèse Murdza

Murdza’s paintings are easily appreciated as abstractions, but she does not identify with pure expressionism. She aims for “a certain architectural design quality.” That statement puzzled me, as the expressionism in her work was so vivid, and I saw no parallel with the usual boxiness of architectural structures. But Murdza’s is a fluid, more sculptural, structuralism, more like the random arrangement of flood-washed river rock than a van der Rohe tower. She finds structure where most see chaos. As I continued to ponder her statement, I again saw the influence of music—which is as abstract as any art form yet always with structure and pattern. That merging of forms may be a consequence of the fact that Murdza, while trained in music theory, is self-taught as a visual artist. She has the freedom to break visual rules and ignore conventions that she may not even know exist. “That’s how it’s done” is not how she does it.

I sensed music again in this untitled work, where shapes and vivid colors seem to take on a sound quality, a form of synesthesia known as “colored hearing.” Murdza calls it “seeing music, tasting words”:

Multicolored abstract painting. Thérèse Murdza, "untitled 24-09" (2023). Photo: Thérèse Murdza
Thérèse Murdza, “untitled 24-09” (2023). Photo: Thérèse Murdza

The dramatic white (or black) spaces in her work are again expressive of Murdza’s musical background. She told me:

Playing with a band, there is a sense of the space around you, and you are there taking in the feedback. What matters is the space between the notes and the space between the sounds in the room. As in sheet music, the white space is what allows you to read what is there.

bossy affirmations

Murdza’s structuralism—and her positive world view—are even more obvious in her “4-Letter Word Series.” Not expletives. Instead, Murdza turns to monosyllables to project hope. My favorites are “KNOW CAKE” and “STAY TRUE.”

Painting with the words "Hope More." Photo: Thérèse Murdza
Photo: Thérèse Murdza

Whether it is in words or images, Murdza has the same message, the answer to the perennial question about any work of art: “What is the point?”

A person made something, with their body, their hands. The world is burning, but the world is still turning. We are still here.


All Classical Radio James Depreist


Thérèse Murdza

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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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