Ethan Murrow (Drawing & Painting Area) received his B.A. from Carleton College and his M.F.A from The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His work is in many public, private, and corporate collections and has been reviewed and published widely around the world. Learn more about Ethan and his work at bigpaperairplane.com/.


Tell us about your current project(s)
I just finished a massive wall drawing called "Seastead" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, where I had two SMFA alums as assistants. Seeing former students thrive in this setting was deeply satisfying. I'm currently in Ireland working with Master Printer Sharon Lee at the Graphic Studio Dublin on a large lithograph, which will be part of a solo show in Paris this fall at La Galerie Particuliere. Then I'm off to the Balliglen Foundation in County Mayo Ireland for an Artist Fellowship through the early fall.

How is this project similar and/or different from other projects you've recently worked on?
Working on lithographs with Sharon Lee is part of an ongoing collaboration that started at the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico in 2007 when she was there serving as a Master Printer in training and I was an invited Artist in Residence. Our partnership has continued in Ireland a couple of times at the Graphic Studio, where Sharon reinvigorated the litho tradition. This project is distinct because I have access to an extraordinary wealth of technique, advice, and craftsmanship. Working in a print shop is how I got started in the art world back in college and I love the social camaraderie of this environment, but I do not have the skills or knowledge to print the way a Master Printer can. These kinds of collaborations have sustained my work over the years, offering new ways to alter my projects technically and conceptually.

What do you like most about your work?
I feel privileged to independently define what I do. I think of myself as a storyteller and I am humbled to step into a studio and invent and choose with liberty. This freedom is always partnered with an immense obligation to make work that is truly good, exceptionally well executed, inventive in it's ability to access the questions and areas of content I am interested in and worth something to the people that choose to spend time with it. I like this weight and seem to thrive on a healthy amount of pressure.

How did you get your start?
My start as an artist goes back to my teen years. Growing up in rural Vermont, I had limited access to art classes, but I was lucky enough to be able to spend two years at the Putney School. I had teachers who were tough and inspiring and much of what I make is rooted in my experiences there. For example, I spent many days painting plein-air all over New England with the fantastic landscape painter Eric Aho and began to enjoy the immense challenge, fortitude, inventiveness and reactive nature needed to work from life. This influences how I teach (I believe in developing strong core observational skills) and my current drawings are rooted in conversations surrounding landscape, machoism and environmental issues, things I first dabbled in as a young student.

Did you ever think you would be working as a practicing artist and educator?
It was very clear to me, especially as I started taking art history classes, that making it as an artist took an immense amount of conviction and stubbornness. Each idea or hypothesis is a bit of a gamble and demands dogged persistence. I've found that it helps to be ridiculously optimistic and to embrace failure, since it's a brutally consistent part of the creative process. In graduate school at the University of North Carolina I was thrown into the classroom, teaching drawing and sculpture and learned to love the performative and social aspects of guiding students towards a goal. This is still my favorite part of teaching because it presents the deepest challenge. For example, how do you guide a complex student group towards moments of cohesion and conclusion? Each class demands a different answer to these questions. Art is a social field so to me it makes sense that a classroom should be an environment that is healthy and vibrant with regards to dialogue, questioning and support.

What was your focus in college?
I went to Carleton College in Minnesota and spent a huge amount of time studying art but was equally influenced by such fields as history, political science and anthropology. This is where I learned how to write, formulate ideas and argue out a point, skills I use every day as an artist and teacher.

What did you want to be when you were a little kid?
I had a very clear goal for years and years. I wanted to be the pilot of a Boeing 747 Northwest Orient jet that flew from New York to Tokyo. To me, nothing was as glamorous or awesome as that. I'm still little boy jealous when I look into a cockpit, but it wears off quick after I sit down.

How has your experience as an educator at SMFA influenced you?
SMFA has given me great appreciation for a constant need for flexibility. It's not just that we believe in hybrid practices and independence in the realm of art. We are also a small School that serves a diverse population and as such the whole institution has to be very nimble so that we can offer a lot and challenge many. In retrospect, my previous teaching, which was mostly at large State Universities, was comparatively dull because the classes were more homogenous in level, age and background. I enjoy the fact that when I start a semester I don't really know what I'll find when I open the classroom door and this has kept me aware of my own need to stay relevant and malleable all at once.

From where do you draw your inspiration?
I am inspired by stories, particularly ones that are funny, deeply weird or remind us we aren't that amazing. A recent favorite has been the Swedish mysteries of Henning Mankell, whose noir-like books deal with a bumbling and flawed detective in a mediocre town. They are very real in their absence of glory and omni-presence of stupidity. I'm interested in our need to be constantly reminded of our own average abilities, within which we can find some shreds of greatness.

Any advice for graduating students or recently graduated students on transitioning to the professional art world?
Make friends, keep them, feed them, help them and know that good deeds will come back around to assist you. Again, this tales a healthy amount of optimism...Almost everything I have been able to achieve is thanks to the wealth of good people out there and a common commitment amongst my peers and friends to help others out. I aim to be ambitious and opinionated without spiting or cutting down others.

What is ahead for you?
I have a new book out on my work this fall with Hatje Cantz, the German Art book publisher. I am deeply honored to have the chance to review and share the last 6–7 years of projects in this format. I'm working on three solo shows over the next year, in Paris with La Galerie Particuliere, in New York City with Winston Wachter and in Reno at the Nevada Museum of Art. I also collaborated with my wife Vita Murrow on a wordless picture book which comes out in Europe this fall with Templar and with Candlewick in the US this winter. My larger goal is to continue to diversify my wall drawing practice and find new ways to connect these marks, images and patterns with the architectural spaces they inhabit.