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Creature Comforts

Eyewitness: Adelaide Murphy Tyrol


Published December 29, 2010 at 9:15 a.m.

Adelaide Murphy Tyrol
  • Adelaide Murphy Tyrol

Vermont artist Adelaide Murphy Tyrol appears well balanced. And yet she works in two worlds so different, they seem capable of inducing schizophrenia.

In Career No. 1, Tyrol is co-owner of Oliphant Studio, a scene-painting company in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. It operates in overdrive, with Tyrol and her business partner of 30 years, Sarah Oliphant, turning out large-scale backdrops on short notice for publications such as Vogue, the New York Times, Rolling Stone and, just last week, Time magazine, for a spread on Tea Party celebs. The duo also does work for some of the hippest names in fashion — Donna Karan, Alexander McQueen, Oscar de la Renta, Baby Phat — and music stars including Lauryn Hill, Britney Spears, 50 Cent and Shania Twain.

At Oliphant, Tyrol uses a big-bristled brush attached to a 3-foot-long bamboo stick to sling acrylic paint onto vast canvases stapled to the floor. “It’s a blast,” she says simply.

“This work is a celebration of paint,” Tyrol notes in a written statement about her aesthetic odyssey. “Mixing, blending, splashing, pooling, dragging, sponging and spraying — all combine to create a physical and visual experience that satisfies and inspires me.”

Career No. 2 has been unfolding since 1987 in a hilltop studio in Plainfield. Here, where she now spends seven weeks out of eight, Tyrol works on an intimate scale, composing ink-and-gouache illustrations of insects, plants and animals. The setting is conducive to concentration. From the second floor of the airy studio built by her husband, Montpelier businessman Brian Tyrol, she has a 360-degree view of fields and mountains. Manhattan seems much farther than 250 miles.

“The subject matter of this commercial work is irrelevant; it rarely has any significance for me,” Tyrol writes of her Oliphant job. But, in the case of her illustrations, she says, “The subject matter is of the utmost importance and the art that results is negligible; in fact, no one but myself ever sees the original work. It is scanned, sent digitally, and the illustration goes into a dark drawer. I never display it, sell it or show it to anyone.”

Tyrol doesn’t qualify as the Emily Dickinson of central Vermont, however. While her originals remain unseen, anyone can view their reproductions in Northern Woodlands magazine, published in Corinth, as well as in a Massachusetts Audubon Society publication, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and 14 other newspapers in Vermont and New Hampshire. She’s had Vermont shows of her paintings of insects from the state entomology collection and stuffed birds in the Fairbanks Museum.

Lately, Tyrol has devoted much of her time to what might be considered a third career — one that integrates the other two. Propped against and hanging on the walls of her studio’s ground floor are large-scale oil and acrylic paintings of birds, plants, bugs and big, galumphing sea creatures. They’re composed with a naturalist’s exactitude but have expressionist flourishes and surreal, dreamlike arrangements. In these paintings, Tyrol is exploring points where the natural world and human actions intersect — or collide.

“Hunt for the Giant Squid” shows a creepy critter that, Tyrol explains, can grow to 60 feet in length. The scale of its body, including tentacles that loop like ribbons, is convincingly conveyed on a 5-foot-long canvas, with a single gaping eye painted smack in the center. The swimming squid is surrounded by what appear to be thin chandeliers. Tyrol notes that they’re actually renderings of devices used to ensnare an aquatic oddity that suddenly seems vulnerable.

A similarly sad scene is staged in “Zone of Influence.” On this large canvas, an octopus writhes in contortions that make it resemble a calligraphic character. A yellow explosion on the seafloor seems to be the source of its distress. Yes, Tyrol explains, human predators kill octopi with sonar blasts that burst their eardrums.

A subtle strain of eco-advocacy runs through these works. Tyrol’s art and illustrations aren’t politicized, however; she lets the botanical and zoological images speak poignantly for themselves.

There’s actually a good-humored quality to her paintings, just as there is in the 56-year-old Renaissance woman herself. Tyrol comes from a Massachusetts newspaper family; her parents were editors of papers in Holyoke and Springfield, and her brother is a photo editor for the Anchorage Daily News. Tyrol might have chosen journalism, too, if not for a high school art teacher who, she recalls, “showed me something about myself that I didn’t know was there.”

Tyrol majored in English and minored in art at the University of Vermont, and years later earned an MFA from the Art Institute of Boston. She has two children: a 17-year-old son who attends Twinfield Union high school and a 21-year-old daughter at UVM.

That’s her goggle-eyed boy swimming underwater, right hand outstretched, in “The Invitation.” The family dog’s paddling paws and plump belly occupy an upper corner of the painting, while the snout of what Tyrol identifies as a spiny soft-shell turtle noses onto the canvas from the left. Wavy purple plant strands and yellowish bubbles complete the imagined account of what goes on beneath the surface of the pond just outside her studio door.

Tyrol’s paintings are available through Furchgott Sourdiffe in Shelburne, West Branch Gallery in Stowe, Martha Richardson Fine Art in Boston and McGowan Fine Art in Concord, N.H. But she claims she doesn’t promote herself and has no intention of becoming a full-time fine artist. Though she works mainly in rural Vermont, “It can get a little solitary and narcissistic being here every day,” she says. Besides, she loves the hurly-burly and yakkety-yak of her work in Manhattan and seems slightly starstruck by Oliphant’s client roster. Pointing to a photo of a backdrop she painted for a Times photo shoot of the Dalai Lama, Tyrol declares, “You certainly don’t see this in Plainfield.”