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The Art of Writing: Communication Arts has taken on new direction in my freshmen classes at Sentinel High School where students have been pursuing an in depth unit this spring, anchored in Native American Life in the West. I assigned a writing project that addressed a Missoula County Public Schools curriculum learning target for writing - ("a standard challenging students to adjust their voice, style and form depending on audience, occasion and purpose.")

Students were asked to write a feature article for a newspaper. Their assignment was to describe the work of a wonderful young woman, Molly Murphy, who recently visited their classroom and shared her beautiful works of beading art. These articles were chosen to represent the results of that assignment and to share the thought-provoking, stunning work of one of their favorite artists, Molly Murphy, with Missoulian readers.

Cheryl Hughes, Sentinel High School English teacher

Editor's note: Portions of the stories were cut due to length.

Photos courtesy Chris Autio

Molly Murphy: Beading her own way


For someone jumping from career choice to career choice, Molly Murphy picked a fantastic profession. She beads beautiful works of art, showing her Native American background and displaying events and topics that are important to her. She started beading at the age of 7. By the time she was 13 she was making her own powwow outfits. She still does this for herself and her 6-year-old daughter. Along with the outfits, Murphy makes all her own accessories and beads belts and wallets for her husband. If she started beading at 7, why did she not choose this profession sooner?

Molly Murphy went to high school right here in Missoula. She was very happy to have electricity and running water all the time as they were limited before where she lived. In high school she took many extra science courses and was possibly looking at majoring in some field of science in college. After a year of college working in the labs she decided to take off a few years. Murphy took off five years, and when she came back, she went into the architectural program. Four weeks into this she found out she was pregnant and knew this was going to be too much for her.

This is when the art department caught her attention. She joined this department and enjoyed it for three years. During this time she was experimenting with different pieces of art. At one point she was making giant pieces of food. "If I can't make them feel loved or depressed, I can at least make them feel hungry."

Her senior year she started doing Native parfleche designs. These designs involve painting on rawhide. This soon turned into beading on fabrics and boxes. Just four years later she had her own show here in her hometown. This was a big deal for Murphy.

Murphy uses modern materials which anyone has access to. She feels that this shows more of who she is. Her materials consist of velvet, wool, silk, beads, horse hair, and some aluminum. She does not use a machine at all for any of her work. Everything is hand stitched. The maximum time she will spend a day working on her beadwork is about seven hours. Each project can take anywhere from five to 175 hours. The amount of time and intricacy she puts into her work is why she charges about $500-$40,000 for a single piece. "I can't afford my own art!" Murphy says.

Murphy has many different designs. She does things from nontraditional everyday street signs to her favorite: horse heads. She really likes the shape of the horse heads and uses it in many of her pieces.

Molly Murphy came to our English class. When she was talking to us about her work and her life, I realized something. Not only is she an amazing bead artist, but she has a wonderful sense of humor. This helps her get through those long hours of sitting at a desk, hunched over, looking at tiny beads seven hours a day. But if you love your work, it's worth it, right?

Molly Murphy


Molly Murphy is 33 years old and is originally from The Black Hills in beautiful South Dakota, but was born in Great Falls. Molly Murphy is a descendent of the Oglala, Lakota Tribe and she has chosen beadwork as her primary source of art. Molly is an anomaly in the art scene but she is not a contemporary bead artist. Molly isn't a traditionalist.

Molly was raised in western Montana to attend the University of Montana. She came to our class and explained that she loves to bead and she spends close to 100 hours or more of her time on various pieces which I think are very interesting. I saw most of her pieces in her presentation. She works with traditional Native arts, sculpture, and geometrical shapes like the "Decahedron Box." I personally like her beadwork called "Molecular to Stellar." I really like how she uses all kinds of shapes and designs.

She uses various types of beading like peyote stitch. She can bead on surfaces like cardboard or buckskin. She had some material to tell us about and I really like how she isn't a traditionalist and how she is fusing old world with the new world. Molly was very nice and she knew a whole lot of stuff about science. Her first job was virology lab at the U of M where she was studying FIV and HIV in cats. Molly's original goal was to get enough credits to transfer to the Montana State University architectural program.

The question I asked her was: "Do you know how to peyote stitch?" She replied, "Yes, but I try to stay away from it because it's too much trouble because you figure out your design and have to plan it carefully." I really liked the T-shirts that she beaded for the art museum. I really liked the one that looked like the guy but he was playing basketball and he had long hair with a feather and a pair of buckskin pants on. The other one that I was interested in was the one that had Native stitched in the front. That shirt just blew me away.

Molly usually sells her pieces for $900-$2,000. She even took off her earrings and passed them around the class to show us some of the designs she uses. She uses the sun, the moon, and the stars. Molly researches some of the designs on her beadwork from other tribes.

You know Molly is very understanding because she knows some of the struggles that Native Americans go through. But I am going to close this by saying something nice to say about Molly. Molly, you are an inspiration to all Native Americans everywhere.

New art, timeless style - nontraditional artist follows nontraditional path to success


Virology to architecture to ceramics to contemporary beadwork with nontraditional commentary. This is not the career path of your average artist. Then again, Molly Murphy is not your average artist.

Molly Murphy is a mixed blood descendant of the Oglala, Lakota Tribe. She was born in Great Falls and raised in western Montana. Her mother taught her the art of beadwork when she was only 7 years old. When she was 13, her unique style began to show.

"I would do things like use a black background - that's something you just don't do," said Murphy of her early works. She started college as a pre-med major, working in a virology lab and studying AIDS in cats and spending many hours a day looking through a microscope.

"It's like seeing everything with a black ring around it," she said, holding her hands around her eye to demonstrate and displaying her unique sense of humor.

It seems her roots in virology have greatly influenced her artwork and contribute to her nontraditional spin on a very traditional medium. "Molecular to Stellar" is a progression from a pattern of DNA, something extremely small, to a family, to birds migrating and covering vast amounts of land, to stars and even galaxies. It is a circular, as well as escalating cycle. Of course, this is what sets Molly apart: her willingness to take something people know and tell a different story with it.

Her college study of virology lasted only a year. Murphy was preparing to make the switch to MSU to study architecture when art caught her attention. She set her sights on ceramics, but didn't feel like she could freely express herself. In order to try to make her art her own, she changed her primary medium to beads.

"Really in college, in doing beadwork, I had to make the decision to be anonymous or not," she said. Murphy made the decision not to be anonymous.

Not only was her career nontraditional, her art is "not what you'd expect." To this day, she exhibits the individuality that began to show in her work when she was 13 years old. One aspect of her work that has particularly defined her style and set her apart is her nontraditional commentary that speaks about our society. Her latest series, "Tribal Size Me," was inspired by a visit to the Arlee Powwow when she went to buy a T-shirt and was told that they "sold tribal sizes only" (or XL and above). The experience inspired this series and speaks about the prevalence of diabetes and obesity on the reservations today. She adorned four enormous athletic shirts with Native American beadwork that individualized the illustrations already on the T-shirts. This "art with a meaning" was on display at the Missoula Art Museum.

"At first I thought art was something people who were afraid of science went into - which is partially true, but not completely true. I found that art is as hard as you make it." And Murphy makes it hard. She spends approximately 150 hours planning and beading each piece, which is actually a conservative estimate. For the purpose of pricing, she tries to keep track of the hours she spent planning, drawing, and beading each piece to within 15 hours. She tries to keep track of her financial costs to within $50, but she figures she does underestimate. "It's not what you will sell it for, but what someone will pay for it," she explained.

Molly Murphy has found her passion and has an inspirational story that applies to everyone, but which particularly affects young people. Very rarely can we be prepared for what life throws at us, but we can be prepared for life to surprise us.

Molly Murphy: Beading her way through life


When one thinks of Native American beading, many things come to mind. But modern artwork is probably not one of them. Currently, there are approximately 20 artists who bead as an art form, and have their work in art galleries and shows around the U.S., and occasionally across the world. Molly Murphy is one of those 20. Last year, at the annual Arlee powwow, Murphy went to buy a shirt, and was informed that they only carried "tribal sizes," or in other words, XL and above. Needless to say, Murphy was upset. So she took out her frustration by beading. The fruition of her anger was on display recently in the Missoula Art Museum - four extra large T-shirts, fully decorated in beads. Entitled "Tribal Size Me," they are symbolic of the obesity epidemic now plaguing Native American reservations. Molly's main inspiration for this is her mother, who is on the verge of developing type-2 diabetes.

When asked how she balanced her traditional beadwork background with contemporary expression, and how it affected her artwork, Murphy replied, "The transition from beadworker to artist has had some uncomfortable moments. Being known as a good beadworker is a very respected place in the Native community. I am still uncertain how willing I am to use beads to create pieces that don't have beauty or are overly critical. From the time you begin to learn any kind of traditional art you are taught to keep good thoughts, think about how this will be used, and remember that your works go on to represent your people. I would feel a kind of deep shame if I made something that had elements of vulgarity or was tainted with meanness of spirit. So, I have to find a way to use beauty and craftsmanship to begin a conversation rather than bludgeon the viewer with my opinions."

Molly's show, "Reservation Required," was on display in the the Missoula Art Museum until mid-May. Murphy will also be teaching a four-week workshop on beading and mixed-media for middle school students. Molly Murphy currently lives in Missoula with her husband and daughter.

Beautiful beadwork: Local artist blends old and new culture


Missoula artist Molly Murphy is breaking beadwork rules. She is a contemporary sculptural Native beadworker. There are only about 20 other people in the U.S. who do what she does. But Molly doesn't get very much recognition for it because beading isn't as recognized as a traditional Native art form. Many of her most recent pieces have acted as a commentary on the obesity and diabetes that is raging in the Native American population today, which has caused somewhat of a controversy.

"If you do something from a cultural standpoint, something that feeds your culture - literally - how can you do something that's critical and negative?" said Molly. "It's something I thought a lot about."

Molly isn't full Indian, though she is a descendant of the Oglala, Lakota Tribe.

Molly's art had many different influences, because she didn't grow up on a reservation. Molly was born in Great Falls, and grew up in Missoula. She began learning how to bead when she was 7. She went to Hellgate High School and graduated in 1994 at the age of 16. After she graduated, Molly enrolled at the University of Montana studying premed. After a year of college she took a five-year break from school. She went back to UM in 2000, but this time her major was art. She never planned on doing Native artwork, but after working a while in ceramics, Molly started working with beading on rawhide boxes. She chose to use 20th century materials for her artwork to be more contemporary.

Molly uses materials such as wool, silk, satin, metal, horsehair, ribbons, and imported beads. She said that with the contemporary materials, her work finally began to reflect who she really is. Most of her art is very intricate, sometimes with over 320 beads per square inch, making the piece difficult to plan ahead on. It also takes hundreds of hours on average to complete just one piece. After graduating from UM, she sold her work through collectors from Oklahoma and Arkansas. Her work is also in two galleries, one in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the other in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Molly talked about how becoming an artist was never considered a career choice for her in the past. She was surprised when she fell in love with beadwork, with the color and the pattern. Molly always thought there was a certain way that artists had to look and act, and that artwork wasn't a good profession, but she soon found that was untrue. All Molly tries to do now is to represent authentic beading, with a contemporary twist. She talked about how the Missoula solo show was a complete surprise to her because she thought she would only get a small corner to fill, and how hard she had to work to make enough art to fill her exhibit room. Her art takes a lot of skill and patience. She is bringing a nontraditional commentary to traditional beadwork.

"I want people to look at my art and say, 'nobody but Molly Murphy would have made this,' " she said.

You can visit Molly's Web site at

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