You can tell from his paintings that Stan Murphy likes work, especially the physical kind that toughens the hands. If you had to draw one of those Venn diagrams that condensed Stan Murphy's art into a few concepts, you'd probably label the center circle "work."
Take your pick on how to fill in the intersecting circles. One could read "nature" and the other, "people." Both figure heavily in his art - his portraits, his still-life studies and landscapes - but work remains a central theme.
It's a topic that delights this 79-year-old oil painter from West Tisbury. Mr. Murphy isn't the type to say a whole lot about his own art, but he will talk to you about stone walls, glacial moraines, tractors, dogs, fishing and the great masters who came before him.
Even his little gallery space right over the Chilmark town line is fodder for a couple lines of conversation. "The first section was built by Dan Manter. It cost me twelve hundred dollars," he says. "I built the second section myself, completely, from the footings on up." The clever sign was also Mr. Murphy's doing - a series of nails hammered into the end-wall.
"It's held up very well," he says, looking back over the decades of weathering it's endured. "I used good, galvanized nails."
Mr. Murphy possesses what seems to be an endless fascination for feats of engineering. The Island's stone walls are one example. "How in the hell did they move these boulders?" he asks. "Three strong men couldn't lift one."
When Mr. Murphy sought out some old-timers for an explanation, they told him the process required patience. "They'd wait for winter, then build a sled to move it," Mr. Murphy says. "Imagine the tripod they'd use to lift it up."
The artist has fixed his gaze on such boulders in more than a few paintings. In one entitled Snow Wall, the perspective places the viewer low, emphasizing the muscle it took to build it. In another picture, April Chilmark, a lone gray boulder nearly fills a large canvas. A yellow flower is poking up in the foreground, a reminder that alongside nature's power and permanence, there is also much that is delicate and fleeting.
Mr. Murphy's awe of boulders transfers easily to Willard Grover, a Nova Scotia fisherman who is the subject of two portraits. "Grover is the top fisherman up there," says the artist. "He's just a phenomenal guy who can do anything."
Mr. Grover's achievements include figuring out what to do with all the skates he was pulling up in his nets. "Someone told him that over in France, they love 'em, so he said, 'Let's go over to France and see what they do,' " says Mr. Murphy. "Now if you go over to New Bedford and ask, 'Who do I talk to about marketing skates?' they tell you to talk to Willard Grover."
And when Mr. Grover got tired of paying people to off-load fish from his boat, he invented a contraption to do the work, a kind of chute that dropped the fish into chest-high boxes down on the dock.
In both portraits, Mr. Grover is standing beside those boxes. In the smaller of the two pictures, the colors are primary and in bold patches - red shirt, yellow overalls and the blue sea behind him. The fish are blue, too, but they shine like jewels. Mr. Murphy's love of hands is evident here. A black-gloved hand grips one of these fish, and you can see the pride in Mr. Grover's face.
This painting carries two dates on it, one '96, the other '01. "Looking at them long enough and trying to figure out why nobody bought it," he says, "I make a few changes."
But Mr. Murphy wants his painting and especially his portraiture to do more than just make a sale. He holds them to a high standard, seeing if he can come close to what painters such as Rembrandt and Goya achieved.
"Look at the great old Renaissance portraits," he says. "Velasquez goes down and meets the Pope, and it's still one of the best things in portrait art. Most were stiff and hard-edged, but this one, it was breathing."
Lingering in front of one of Mr. Murphy's portraits is really the true test. The two largest portraits are of Dan Bryant, the outdoorsman from Chilmark, and Bob Flanders, a Menemsha fisherman. Mr. Bryant, standing in the tall grass by a pond, looks ready to raise his shotgun in another second.
But it's the close-up of Bob Flanders that comes alive even more. His bright orange overalls positively vibrate. The water behind him pulsates, and his face is one you can get lost in. It creases all over, and the jowls sag. If you peer closely into one eye, it looks like this fisherman is about to smile and crack a joke. But the other eye is not so friendly, a signal that Mr. Flanders, while frozen in paint, could just as well lash out.
Nearby, a picture of Elvira shucking scallops, painted in a more primitive style, is just as arresting. Her hands, hard at work, are a focal point, but her face holds the mystery. She is both sad and alluring with the flower tucked in her hair and confined to her dark fish shack. But a small door beside her opens to a harbor where gulls fly and dunes roll.
If that feeling of tension is another goal of Mr. Murphy, he does not spare himself in the pursuit. A self-portrait hanging in the show doesn't breathe so much as it simmers. Flanked in darkness, there are no doors to the sea or flowers in his hands. The intensity of his stare is unmediated.
It's much easier to focus in on the precision of his painting. You can see the twill of his blue shirt, and the hands are rendered with the same exactitude. Elsewhere in this exhibit, Mr. Murphy's paintings of flowers are just as finely detailed.
The craft - the work - of painting energizes Mr. Murphy. He can't spend too much time away from it. "When you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, you get nervous about it," he says.
And when he talks of paintings he loves, his face lights up. In one Renaissance portrait, he says, "the impasto for the helmet was that thick. You could almost touch it. Oh God, stuff like that."
He admires skill and things of quality. Even of his tractor, Mr. Murphy says glowingly, "It's a '72 Massey Ferguson. It's a great machine. It can do anything."
In his portraits, he seems to be looking for models of skill. The last story about Willard Grover tells of a foggy night coming into Tor Bay, a seascape littered with rocks. "The guy at the wheel can't see the man standing at the bow," he says. "Willard would shut off the motor, stop and listen for sounds from the mainland. He'd learned that bottom from the time he was a kid, and he brought that boat right into the dock. That kind of knowledge and the ability to use it. Wow."
The Stanley Murphy Gallery on South Road in Chilmark is open daily from 1 to 6 p.m.