Murphy Trogdon Ayala

Rural Landscapes

by Liza Roberts
photographs by Catherine Nguyen

Raleigh landscape artist Murphy Trogdon Ayala, known for her serene paintings of rural Southern landscapes and architecture, is busier than ever with the work that has made her name, and excited about the move she’s about to make to a new studio. Not because it will make her work easier, but because it will make it harder.

From a comfortable spot near her house in Five Points where she now paints alongside friend and artist Denise Hughes, Ayala will decamp to Southeast Raleigh to join a cutting-edge community of carefully selected artists at an “interdisciplinary creative space” known as Anchorlight.

“It’s an uncomfortable situation for me,” Ayala says, because “your work’s out there, unfinished. But growth comes from that, and I’m looking forward to learning from it, and learning from the other artists. Pushing myself into that uncomfortable zone.”

For about seven years, since she left a flourishing career as an architect in Charlotte, Ayala has been nudging herself out of her comfort zone to make the kind of art that can only come from a patient and reverential eye. First she forced herself to stop painting (gorgeous) lemons and apples in her kitchen. “Gosh I painted so much fruit,” she laughs. Once she moved outside, birds and nests and cows and boats began to fill her canvases. Those works led a few years ago to her first one-woman show in Raleigh and a loyal following. Along the way, animals have made way for landscapes and architecture, her work has found its way into galleries and private collections, and she has learned to “stop apologizing” for her traditional style – which is more nuanced than that, anyway.

“She’s able to take the Southern country landscape as a subject matter and make it feel modern, contemporary, and new,” says Sandi Scott, gallery director at the prestigious Anne Neilson Fine Art gallery in Charlotte, which represents Ayala. “Yes, we’re looking at a barn in rural North Carolina, but her lines and color palette are very refined and contemporary. She’s able to take something that’s old and traditional and make it feel modern by honing in on its structural elements, the contrast of her colors. She’s able to change the approach without straying too far from the integrity of the building or the place.”

Lately, Ayala is challenging herself to put the spontaneity she likes in her plein air oil sketches into her finished works, too. She’s broadened her subject matter to include graphically interesting but awkward parts of beautiful buildings that she calls “appendages to a piece of architecture”: An electric meter attached to a clapboard building in Youngsville, for instance, is the unlikely subject of a large painting underway (above). Ayala is as interested in the many-colored shadows between the Youngsville clapboards as she is with the inelegance of the machinery on top of them. More experienced plein air painters have taught her a lot, she says. “It’s amazing how much you learn by painting next to people.”

Painting next to people

She’ll have plenty of that at Anchorlight, where she’ll be working alongside artists like Jason Craighead, Luke Miller Buchanan, and Alia El-Bermani. They and Ayala were chosen by a panel that included current Anchorlight artists as well as members of the broader arts community.

Ayala plans to use her residency there to complete a series of full-scale paintings of rural Southern schoolhouses she’s been working on for some time. Her subjects of choice are Rosenwald Schools – revolutionary, architecturally noted schools built by Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to educate African-American children across the rural South in the early 20th century. Time and care was put into not just the purpose of the schools, but into the dignity of their design and construction. By 1928, as many as one-third of the South’s rural African-American school children and teachers were served by these Rosenwald Schools, which numbered about 5,000, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But that story has been little told, and today only a few-hundred of them remain. While some are being actively preserved, many are abandoned and in disrepair.

Ayala “stumbled onto” one of the schools by accident, on one of the drives she takes on country roads looking for things to paint, particularly “structural arrangements in rural landscapes.” Buildings are always on her radar; her first paintings took the form of watercolor renderings for architectural clients. “It just came to me,” she says, recalling that early work. “It was a very natural voice for me.”

On this particular day in Nash County, Ayala took a photo of a small, poignant clapboard building. “I’m drawn to clapboard, the way the light reflects on it, its patterns and shadows, the way a shadow is cast across the boards, the color of the light, and the contrast with the green around it.” She showed the photo to a friend who works for Teach for America. “That’s a Rosenwald School,” her friend told her. Intrigued, Ayala began to research the schools and became fascinated by their purpose and their beauty. “When you see them in the landscape, they just glow,” she says. (One  of her Rosenwald paintings is in the middle of the top row, above) “Architecturally … their placement on the site, designed to take full advantage of sunlight … their high ceilings and windows … they really are luminous. It’s so nice to think that this much went into educating a part of our population who didn’t have equal opportunities.”

The timelessness of Ayala’s work would seem a natural fit for such a series. She “depicts spaces seemingly forgotten by time and inhabited only by light and memory,” says Shelley Smith, director of Anchorlight. “Her use of controlled gesture highlights simple but rich textures found in her architectural subjects. She uses light and shadow as characters in a narrative left up to the viewer to complete.”

The viewer will have more to consider when Ayala returns from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, where she plans to paint three Rosenwald Schools from each state. She’s excited about the opportunity to tell the schools’ story visually, and she’s also intrigued by their aesthetics. “This combines a lot of pieces of my interests,” she says. “The rural landscape, the farmhouse, clapboard structure, the color palette, the greens. I love painting greens because they have so much variation, and they can be so hard. They can be challenging.”