Molly Murrah lives in a darling little home surrounded by tall fir trees in Kirkland, Washington. She made her living as a graphic designer and only got into painting in watercolor in 1997. But Molly is a hard worker. And she has integrated left-brain math and business sensibilities with right brain graphic design chops to flourish as a gifted watercolorist, a graceful watercolor instructor, and a giving leader of the Northwest Watercolor Society, one of the top ten watercolor societies in America. Here is her journey from math to design to art.
Molly was born in Selma, AL. Her family didn’t live there, but Selma had the closest hospital to Marion, AL, the small town where the family lived. Molly’s father, previously in the military, had taken a job as a math teacher at Marion Military Institute, but after a few years, he left the institute and went to work for a major life insurance company based in New York City. Possessing skills that were immediately noticed, every time a new job became available within the company, he was sent to fill it. By the time Molly was twelve years old, her family had moved seven times, finally settling in Port Washington, NY, twenty miles east of NYC on the north shore of Long Island. Her father continued to work at the insurance company until he retired.
Molly’s parents weren’t artistic. “They could barely draw stick figures,” Molly says. Her father did write two books that were published, and her sister followed in their father’s tracks with seven mystery novels published. But Molly was the only one who went into the art field. To this day she doesn’t know where her love of art came from, but she eventually took the talents she had and turned them into her life’s work.
Molly finished high school in Port Washington, then attended Bucknell University, a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania that focused on math, science and engineering. She loved Bucknell and graduated in 1969. “It was a great school,” where she made friends for life. In the summer of 2022, she and eighteen of her college friends are getting together for a mini reunion. They’ve stayed in touch all this time.
Path into Art
As a young girl, Molly always liked to draw. She took art classes throughout high school, and she continued taking art classes after entering college. In high school, however, she excelled at math and for her first three years at Bucknell, she was a math major. At the end of her junior year, her counselor called her in to the administration office and said, “If you want to graduate with a BS in Math, you can’t take any more art classes.” Her response? “What will happen if I stop taking math classes and only take art classes my senior year? Will I graduate with a BFA in Art?” As Molly tells the story, “When my counselor answered, ‘Yes, I switched my major from math to art right there on the spot. I just couldn’t imagine not taking any more art classes.” So, during her senior year at Bucknell, Molly was an art major and took nothing but art classes. It was the only year that she got straight A’s.
After graduation, she moved to New York City with the desire to work in some sort of creative capacity. She went to a creative placement agency and met with a counselor who asked if she had brought her portfolio. “What’s a portfolio?” Molly asked. The counselor then told her that she could only get her a job as a secretary, administrative assistant or receptionist at a design company or advertising agency, and over the course of four years, she found Molly jobs at two high-profile, New York City companies: Unimark International, a famous worldwide graphic design company and George Nelson Associates, a high-profile interior design company.
Then in 1974, that same counselor found Molly a job at a small start-up design company. While there, the company lost their primary production artist in the studio and asked Molly if she wanted to learn the tools of the trade. This was her chance to finally be somewhat creative, so she eagerly accepted. She continued working as a receptionist and administrative assistant, mostly during the day, and became a studio production artist most nights. She transitioned to full time production artist six months later and continued that work for several more years, during which time she married and had a son Matthew in 1977. In 1982 she moved to Seattle.
Graphic Designer in Seattle
In Seattle, Molly found a job as an art director at a direct marketing company, but in 1984 she went out on her own as a freelance graphic designer. She supported herself as a freelancer until 2017. For almost 30 of her freelance years she worked in tandem with a copywriter and 10 years into that partnership an account executive was added. The trio functioned as a virtual marketing company, for many years. Of her graphic design and marketing work, Molly says, “I loved it. I never made very much money as a freelancer, but I had my freedom.” Another plus… graphic design is a discipline that combines both math and creative skills, so Molly always felt like her early passions were fully integrated in her work.
Starting to Paint
During her early years in Seattle, Molly never painted, concentrating only on graphic design. She didn’t even own a brush. But in 1997 a friend called and said, “I’m taking a trip to Greece with this artist Caroline Buchanan and I’m asking a bunch of my friends to come with me.” Caroline was a Puget Sound watercolorist who took people to Greece every year for twenty years, and this trip was one of her last. She made all the arrangements including lodging, local transportation, and meals. All the participants had to do was get themselves to Athens, meet up with the group and paint. “I went out and bought paints, brushes and paper, and that trip to Greece was the first time I ever painted in watercolor. I loved it, but it also intimidated me so much that when I returned home, I put all those supplies away, and didn’t touch a brush for four years,” Molly reflects. Watercolor is a hard medium to grasp as so often you have little control. “If you want to be a control freak, watercolor is not the medium you want to start with.” One day she was in a lull in her graphic design work, and she got to thinking about her brushes, pigments and paper collecting dust. “So I took it all out and started painting again. I went two months without any client work, but I painted every day. That’s when I really got hooked.”
Molly happened to live quite close to a master watercolorist and instructor, Deanne Lemley. She started taking classes with Deanne every Monday night for three years, and even though Deanne was a great artist and teacher, the first year was quite hard for Molly. She had trouble really grasping the watercolor process. But after a year she had a real breakthrough and no longer felt frustrated in class. A number of years later, she even organized a trip to Italy with Deanne and six other artists. She treasures that time spent painting in Italy to this day.
There have been other influences. She traveled to France on a painting trip with artist Ron Stocke. “That was really, really fun. I like to take workshops. I like to paint with lots of different people, because I always come away with at least one gem that informs me as an artist. My style has evolved as a result of all of that.”
Besides Caroline Buchanan, Deanne Lemley and Ron Stocke, Molly also studied under Kay Barnes in Woodinville. For many years she went up to Kay’s studio every Wednesday night. She didn’t take classes for all of those years, but she still made the drive because she loved Kay and they had become good friends. Molly would paint her own subjects in the back of the room while Kay taught her class up front. Long lasting friendships were made in those classes.
Another artist who had a noticeable influence on Molly was Donna Zagotta. Donna has a very interesting painting style. It is a beautiful cross between abstraction and realism, and she paints opaquely with watercolor and gouache. By applying thick pigments on the paper, her paintings look very much like acrylics and they are absolutely beautiful.
The Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS)
Molly joined Northwest Watercolor Society in 2009. She served five years as the Workshops Chair for NWWS. “I was lucky. I got to be in every workshop NWWS sponsored while I was the Chair.” Notable artists Molly took workshops from included Janet Rogers, Mark Mehaffey, and Thomas Schaller, all of whom became friends. Besides heading this committee, Molly has worn a lot of other hats for NWWS. She has chaired two annual exhibitions, is the Juror Procurer, is one of two primary graphic designers for the society, and is one of only two people who served three years as president of the society. Her current term as president ends in June 2022.
As NWWS president, Molly took the lead in helping NWWS pivot to online activities during the Covid pandemic. The society had to go from hosting their monthly membership meetings, exhibitions, receptions, workshops and critique sessions in person to hosting them online. Molly, who loves computers and is tech savvy, was able to nimbly steer NWWS in this new direction. “We’ve come a long way at NWWS in the past two years. We’ve added well over 200 new members while some societies have lost membership, so we must be doing something right.” Molly has led NWWS in many ways and she’s learned every step of the way. She soaks up insights from instructors and her artist colleagues, and as a lifelong learner, enjoys it all. That’s probably what helps make her a graceful teacher.
Molly loves teaching watercolor. Maybe it’s because teaching integrates both left and right brain thinking, weaves math with art, blends design talents with artistic talents. Maybe it’s because she likes working on her computer and preparing digital reference images and informative handouts for her students. These abilities have made it easy for her to offer her classes online, and as a result, she has students from across America. But probably it’s because she loves to see her students have breakthroughs like she had with Deanne so many years ago. Experiencing her students’ reactions when they create something spectacular is incredibly satisfying.
As an artist and teacher, Molly approaches a painting as a problem to be solved. “This is my mathematical thinking poking through,” she says. “When I paint, I approach a painting as a problem that needs a solution. I try to figure out how to solve the problem in my mind first, then do the best I can to execute the solution.” Helping others solve their problems when putting paint to paper is what makes her teaching so dynamic and rewarding.
She even likes to make mistakes in front of her students because they sometimes learn more from her fixing mistakes than they do when she paints a beautiful painting. She particularly feels that if you use good paper, you can correct any number of things you might be unhappy with in your painting. In a recent portrait class, as she puts it, “The right side of the subject’s face was just mud,” so she said to her students, “OK guys, you are going to watch me do something pretty drastic.” She got a bucket of water, took a soft toothbrush, and scrubbed out that entire side of the face right in class. She went on to finish the portrait, and you can’t tell it had ever been scrubbed out. “That’s a wonderful thing about watercolor. People say, ‘It’s so hard because you can’t correct mistakes.’ That’s not true. You can.” She likes letting her classes watch her recover and her students learned a valuable lesson that day.
The Joys and Struggles of Watercolor
That’s not to say watercolor is easy. It’s not, one reason being you can’t totally control it. Molly’s way of dealing with that was to simply give up the control. She came to realize that so often she could just let the pigments create their own magic on the paper and be happy with that.
“The thing I love about watercolor is that when you give up total control, you don’t really know ahead of time what you’re going to get, and sometimes I surprise the heck out of myself. I achieve something I never dreamed of, and I end up love the result a thousand times more than if I had planned it. If you exercise little control, watercolor is very unpredictable, but you might get incredible results that you could never duplicate, and no one else could either. Each loosely controlled watercolor is one of a kind.”
For example, many artists hate blooms or “cauliflowers” as they call them. But some of Molly’s favorite paintings have blooms that occurred unexpectedly. She just let them sit, and they ended up looking great. But it took a while for her to thoroughly enjoy the spontaneity of the medium.
Molly used to get frustrated at the beginning of her art journey because as a graphic designer she was trained to see details, trained to see 6-point type in the middle of a 9-point paragraph. She was frustrated because she could see what was wrong with the painting but didn’t yet know how to fix it. “I didn’t have the skills to put on paper what I was envisioning,” she says, “But I eventually got to the place where I stopped being afraid of painting. One day I said to myself, ‘It’s just a piece of paper. If I don’t like my painting, I can paint on the back side. Or use it as scratch paper… or whatever.’” At that point, she stopped painting artwork that she didn’t like, and started painting artwork that she loved. “It took a while to get there, but it was worth the wait,” Molly reflects.
If she were a traditional artist, Molly would say that her main struggles in watercolor have been “selling my work” and “getting my name out there.” But she doesn’t care very much about that. If she sells a painting, wonderful. However, she’s just as happy when she doesn’t market or sell her art, and instead sinks comfortably into her couch with a book. That’s why she has over 250 beautiful watercolor paintings in her studio. There probably is an audience for them somewhere – and all of them are photographed and filed as high-resolution images – but the bottom line is that she doesn’t much care about the money or the fame.
She may not be ambitious about selling her artwork, but she IS ambitious when it comes to being a teacher because she loves teaching so much. She puts effort into that. In addition, her name has become somewhat known in art circles because of her long association with NWWS. She has rubbed shoulders with and gotten to know wonderful, well-known artists who have partnered with NWWS for various activities, and as the current president, she runs the NWWS monthly general meeting webinars online with well-known artists who do live demonstrations for their membership.
Lessons for emerging artists
An important bit of advice Molly has for beginning artists is not to set themselves up to fail. They should be realistic about what their skills are, and not push themselves past those skills until they’re ready. And if they do, don’t berate themselves if they produce a “failed” painting. “Just have fun” she says. “Art is about having fun. The best advice I can give my beginning students is to not take on something so difficult that they’re doomed to end up with a painting they don’t like or even hate. Too many times, that’s exactly when they put their paint brushes away and stop painting altogether. The world needs more artists, not fewer.”
She has other practical advice for artists: Every ten minutes, step back ten feet and look at their paintings from a distance. Also, hold it up in front of a mirror. “When an artist sees their painting from a new perspective, they see it differently and with new eyes,” she counsels. “Finally at the end of the day, remember… it’s really and truly just a piece of paper.”
Maybe the best way to get a read on Molly’s legacy would be to ask her students to send testimonials. They’re always telling her, “You’re a great teacher,” and she has a long list of loyal students who come back again and again. She doesn’t exactly know why they come back except that she has great fun teaching, and it’s likely her fun is contagious. She also tries to be very encouraging when giving critiques of their artwork. “There’s always something in every painting that I think is brilliant,” she says, “And no matter their skill level, I find the brilliant parts and talk about them first. Then I go into what might help create an even better painting. I just have fun with all of it, and I believe my students like to have fun with me while learning something at the same time.”
But behind the teacher who has fun is a very hard-working woman. Molly flat out works hard. She likes to be busy, and she’s a good example of the saying, “If you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know.” She may have retired from her graphic design career years ago, but she’s busier than ever, and she likes it that way. Work brings her joy. Molly’s legacy may be her many accomplishments: Her committed work for the watercolor society, her love of teaching, her many paintings. At the same time, she also loves and cares for her family, many friends, and her cats. She is super proud of her son Matt who is a very creative graphic designer and website developer. With his girlfriend, Franziska, they run a company in Santa Fe that does branding and website design for other creative professionals. While Matt may live far away from Molly’s cozy home in Kirkland, he is never far from her heart… and he might be her greatest legacy of all.
You are Invited to Sunnyshore Studio’s 2022 Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Show
- Show opens Saturday, March 12, 10am-5pm
- Meet the Artists Reception is Saturday, March 12, 3pm
- Show continues Saturdays, March 19 and March 26, 10am-5pm
- Open by Appointment: Call Jason Dorsey 317.209.6768
- @ Sunnyshore Studio: 2803 SE Camano Drive, Camano Island, WA 98282
- Sunnyshore Studio thanks the Northwest Watercolor Society for their partnership in the Vintage Watercolorists of Washington Project!