I first encountered John Murchie at a PechaKucha event at the former bar and arts venue Thunder and Lightning. He presented on Bertolt Brecht and blue shoes. Neither of us could recall much more about the performance. Something about taking pictures of his feet at various locations around Sackville…On a Tuesday morning in March we planted our feet in my ramshackle office to discuss some of the marks he’s made in his 50-plus year artistic career, on the occasion of his exhibition at the Owens. À rebours runs until April 23rd.


Geordie Miller: The epigraph for the exhibition is from a Portuguese poet named Fernando Pessoa that reads “A sense of the impossibility of something just being what it is”—did you choose that line?


John Murchie: Well, I had used it at a show I had down at Struts a couple years ago, and Emily [Falvey] saw it, and liked it and wanted to use it. So it was her choice.


GM: What drew you to it?


JM: Probably I happened to be reading Pessoa when I was putting the [Struts] show together. And that seemed like an apt quotation or observation.


GM: The only thing I really know about Pessoa is that he wrote with all these personae. Scholars have identified at least 72 of them. It makes me wonder, on the subject of masks, whether you recognize certain masks that you’ve put on to make work.


JM: No, I don’t think so. I’ve never liked pictures of myself or being too much the centre of attention. I do in some way, and I don’t in other ways. You may have seen in one of the cabinets a photo of Brecht from when he was in his late 20s (Level: John Murchie, at Eye Level, 1989). I’ve used it a number of times. The time I first used it, I thought that it looked a little enough like me.


GM: Yes, and I can’t help but think about your line art in the context of poetic lines. Is drawing lines like collecting lines, or is there some other word for what’s happening?


JM: I’ve always collected lines of poetry and prose. They’re two separate activities for me, two separate kinds of things. There’s the one book of lines where the two come together (Lines, 1978). Drawing the line and collecting lines. But it’s always been something separate. I started out studying literature and being interested in that area in university, but writing a line was way more difficult than drawing a line. If the gods up there said, “Okay, would you like to have more skill with something?” I would say, “with writing lines rather than drawing lines.” But that’s not the way it’s worked out.


GM: The drawing has worked out alright for you. With a poem, the problem is that it’s hard to know when or if it’s really finished. The title of your Unfinished Boring Piece (1972-73) articulates incompleteness, but also boredom. Is boredom part of the process?


JM: Yes and no. Boredom is often a factor, and that’s ok. It’s part of our day in, day out lives—not in a good sense. There’s all kinds of boredom that’s probably good, but I’m remembering the boredom that I had when I was working in a pipe factory making pipes. After a while, you get bored with it. And that’s just bored—there’s nothing creative in it. I don’t usually get bored with the works that I’m doing, but I can’t help but think that lots of artists must. As do I at times because it’s filling in blank spaces. There’s nothing else really, unless you’re Jackson Pollock and the action gets done and you’re done. I don’t think I was thinking about any of this with that piece. It’s just that I started doing it to get to a point where it’s totally black, and all you’ve done is a little tiny bit of it. You look at the rest of it, and all it’s going to be is just more black. So you can imagine that as well as I can imagine it (being mostly black). Do we need to do it? Because it’s going to get pretty boring, not to mention hard to keep track of—how many times have I done this?

Installation view John Murchie: À rebours. Photo: Roger J. Smith

GM: The exhibition also features numerous everyday objects covered in paint. If an object is a set of relations, what relations are most prominent to you when you move it from wherever you found it to an art gallery?


JM: For me it tends to just be an object there. It’s not an idea; it’s a thing. So I haven’t thought anything even remotely like what you’re suggesting. Throughout much of my career, not having all that much money at my disposal, I’ve been especially interested in a couple things. One was, where does something stop being a painting and start being a sculpture, and vice versa? Also, that these objects were going to be discarded, so could I reuse them? Not in any programmatic, environmentally conscious way. Just that they were there and were interesting objects that we’re otherwise just going to throw away.


GM: Do you read reviews of your work? Would you read this interview, for example?


JM: Oh yeah. I probably would.


GM: Ok. I’ll send you a copy.


JM: I would for sure. And there haven’t been that many. There were times when I thought, “Oh, this is really useful.” I thought Jon’s thing that he did for Akimbo was very useful or would be useful for somebody coming to look at the show (https://akimbo.ca/akimblog/john-murchie-at-the-owens-art-gallery-sackville/). Years ago Cliff Eyland wrote something related to the question you asked earlier about language and lines of language—making observations about me working as a librarian in the work that I was making, which I had never particularly thought about at the time.


GM: You’ve spent most your life in Atlantic Canada, after emigrating from the United States in 1967. Has the environment of the Maritimes shaped your art practice?


JM: The only thing that I know for sure with respect to something like that is that when we moved to Sackville, I had not done anything with ducks or chickens. That was the effect of the environment here. It started out because I was amused with all the ducks here.


GM: How do you feel about the various tributary works that accompany the exhibition? There’s something very touching about them, since it speaks to the networks and relationships that you’ve cultivated over the years as a creative mentor and in your capacity as a director of an artist-run centre.


JM: I haven’t decided what I think about them being there. I don’t mind it, but I have a tendency away from all the stuff around pieces of art being exhibited with it. I’m not so fond of extended labels, for instance. In 100 years if any of the stuff still exists and people need the context, that’s somebody else’s business. But that’s what that little quote said, why can’t it just be what it is?


Installation view John Murchie: À rebours. Photo: Roger J. Smith