Olivia Murphy, 24
Lives in: New York City
Olivia Murphy is an old soul. As a child her parents used to joke that she was twelve going on 45.But being an old soul has meant that Olivia is exceptionally attuned to the world around her—the way it looks, the way it behaves and the way it treats her as a young woman.
At the time of our interview Olivia was working in the studio of New York based artist Robert Longo, but has since landed her dream job at the design company BAGGU, working as a customs project associate. When we spoke Olivia was in a bit of a transition period and unsure where she’d land, but I had a feeling it would be on her feet, with a handmade bag on her shoulder.
In her 24 years, Olivia has learnt the difference between being an artist and being a designer, between being apathetic and being ambivalent and how to get by in this world as a woman of ‘ONLY 24!’
Olivia Murphy, what are you doing with yourself now?
Right now I am working as an assistant for the artist Robert Longo, and also as a coordinator for a lot of projects that go on in and outside of the studio. I worked there four days a week while I was doing my Bachelor of Fine Arts at New York University and when I graduated Robert basically asked if I would do it full time. Now I’ve been working in this studio for the past three years, which feels like a surprisingly long time!
He has a studio manager who really runs the show and then I am responsible for ‘other’ projects. So for instance, limited edition prints, sculpture fabrication, exhibitions, shows, press. I’m trying to figure out what to call myself because you get to that point where you think, Alright I’m 24-25, I should have a title so I’m not just that girl that works in the office. He’s been a really great person to work for. He really listens to the people that he has around him and from the beginning when I was 21 he just put a lot of trust in me and gave a lot of responsibility. But I’m at a point where I have to figure out what I’m doing with my life, which is always hard.
On the side I’ve also been doing some freelance work, writing for some online magazines here and there, doing reviews and interviews. (You can check out some of these here). I’m trying to leave all my doors open right now.
You’ve had so many great experiences in New York in the last few years. When we met there you were very settled! Were you born there?
Yes I was born in the city and I lived in Tribeca until I was five but then my family moved upstate to Cold Spring, N.Y. So I actually say that I’m from the country. My sister is four years older and she kind of feels like she is a city kid. But for me, I really loved growing up in Cold Spring so coming back to the city was different. I had to experience it on my own again.
On the whole there’s an expectation that you’re [in New York] because you didn’t fit in anywhere else.
What has that meant for you in the last few years?
It’s been really interesting. When you grow up within a certain vicinity of the city, you always have access to it. But there’s this cool thing that happens when you return as an adult. When I first came to N.Y.U. I remember being at Union Square and being like, I have an understanding of this place from being a kid but I also have a completely new memory of this that I’m constructing right now and it’s totally different. It’s like having two different slides. So the whole city I had to re-construct and learn for myself, which was really great because now it’s my own thing.
How would you describe it? The city itself?
I don’t even know if I could describe it! I love travelling and the last year I’ve gone to a number of places and cities, but, without trying to be a snob about it, there’s just no other city that kind of hits all the same criteria points as New York. Nowhere else can you go do these amazing, fun, cultural things and then also have the subway run 24/7 and then also get beer and ice cream across the street from your house at two in the morning.
It’s a multicultural city also and you grew up with Irish / Jewish influences, can you tell us a bit about what that was like?
New York is a place where you have a little piece of the whole world, all crammed into a very small space. Sometimes it’s wonderful, and sometimes it is hard. My boyfriend Camilo is Colombian, but moved to the states when he was young, and I grew up as a Jew named Murphy, so we both got kind of used to dealing with people’s expectations of who we are or what we should be from our names. But one thing I have to say is that in the city, that almost never matters. Nobody here fits neatly into a box so it’s easy to be a bit more fluid. You’ve got the soul food social clubs in my neighbourhood, or you can bike through south Williamsburg and see all the Hasidim in their fur hats in August, but on the whole there’s an expectation that you’re here because you didn’t fit in anywhere else.
Do you have strong memories of what you were like in those formative teenage years when you were still living upstate? What type of person were you then?
It’s funny, my older sister and I have always had a really close relationship but she was the rebellious one, and I was twleve going on 45. So I’ve always sort of been the same person. I mean I have definitely changed in my aspirations and there have been other changes but it’s hard to get enough distance to see that. I think if I encountered my fourteen year old self I’d be a little mortified because nobody’s fourteen year old self is that together! [Laughs] I’ve since unravelled quite a bit!
The hierarchy that happens between…guys is more based on who has been there the longest and less to do with the age.
So you’ve always been an old soul then?
Little bit. It’s actually nice finally getting to the age where people stop going, ‘Oh you’re only…that age.’ I’ve always worked with people older than me, so the age thing comes up a lot. When I first started working for Robert, it was my birthday and one of my co-workers asked how old I was turning and when I said 22 he was like ‘Wow, I don’t even know anyone that’s 22!’ You do, that’s me!
Do you think that young men get the same kind of reaction?
Yeah, this has been something that I’ve dealt with a lot in the past. There is something about young women that is not really the same as young men. There are a couple of guys around my age that I work with and they’re treated a little differently…but the hierarchy that happens between the guys is more based on who has been there the longest and less to do with the age.
With me though I can never tell if it’s shocking because I do seem older, or if it’s this kind of fear of young women that happens in the world at large. It’s almost like an object thing where you sort of represent something other than yourself as a person and a human.
I know what you mean, people’s perceptions of 22 year old females as opposed to the person in front of them. You’ve mentioned previously that Robert’s studio is also quite male dominated. How did that stack up against other professional experiences you’ve had?
Well, while I was in school I was interning for a publishing house called Workman Publishing, which is based here in New York and I worked with all women and there was one junior editor that was a man and he was probably about 24-25 at the time and everyone just treated him like the baby because he was a boy. Just in the way that I was the girl at this studio–he was the boy.
I want to have the same sort of control over my body and over my life decisions as anybody else does and I think that’s what being a feminist is.
So when I came to the studio to meet with Robert, who is a pretty macho male artist—I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his work but it’s a lot of intense black and white images of waves, exploding bombs, cleavage and these kind of moments of climax and explosion—he was sitting with his arms crossed and he was like, ‘You know this is kind of a boys club, right?’ I thought, Alright I guess this is what I’m gonna be doing. I think that made me work extra hard from the onset, to be treated like a person first. There was no kidding myself that I would ever be ‘one of the boys’, but it was always a conscious effort to be strong and hold my own.
As a general question off the back of that, would you describe yourself as a feminist?
Yeah, completely. I know that’s become such a buzz word these days but I am completely 100% okay with that. Not every young woman has to be a feminist, but I grew up in a very feminist household wearing ‘My body, my choice!’ t-shirts. My mum has been a very strong influence in my life, and she’s always had these very strong female friends that we grew up with and my dad grew up with all women so he has always been incredibly supportive and pro girl-power.
It’s crazy to me the rejection people have of the word feminism. I understand it’s very complicated but at the end of the day, I am a person and I want to be treated as a person. Not just as a young woman, not just as a female. I want to have the same sort of control over my body and over my life decisions as anybody else does and I think that’s what being a feminist is.
Good answer. So do you have any role models then?
I honestly find role models in a lot of the friends I made at N.Y.U. We are now dispersed throughout the city and the world, but they are all doing amazing things, and remind me that I am in the same boat! My sister once told me that you have to really know what you want to do before you can have a mentor or role model, and I think she is totally right. And I have no idea what I want to do. So I just take encouragement and inspiration from the people around me doing things their way, because it gives me the courage to do things my way!
So, looking back through your whole life, what have been some of those experiences that have really shaped who you are? That really stand out as quite formative?
That’s a big question. I think my time in New York has definitely been extremely formative. This is where I kind of became a person. I think that my senior year of university was a really big time for me because it was a time where I sort of could see changes happening in real time. Working for the Ugly Duckling Presse as production manager during university was a huge part of that because it was the first time I had some real responsibility. I think all of the decisions that I made that year really put me on the path that I am right now.
I realised I wasn’t an artist in that I wanted to make art, I was an artist in that I was really interested in how aesthetic things function in people’s lives.
Tell us a bit about your art then, who is Olivia the artist?
Olivia the artist? Well in the last year of undergrad I had been making work dealing with quilting and the idea of these labour intensive and female oriented tasks. I wanted to make something big. Not just for the sake of making something big but really think about what that labour and worth was when it was focused on something other than what we think of as ‘big art’. So I made paper quilts, block printing patterns and then sewing the paper blocks together.
During one of my studio visits, this professor was looking at the quilt and he sees this little sketch that I’d done where I’d marked out where all the colours were going to be. And he just laughs out loud at me and says, ‘You’re not making art right now…you made a plan and then executed it. You’re designing.’ That was a very clarifying moment for me. I realised I wasn’t an artist in that I wanted to make art, I was an artist in that I was really interested in how aesthetic things function in people’s lives.
So I stopped making paper quilts and I started making real quilts that I give to people and that I have in my own home. I’ve been working on that and then also other sorts of bags and things that are sort of more designed towards people not just towards art. (You can check out some of these designs here).
So is that the start of the next chapter? Is that something that you can see yourself working on over the next few years?
Yes. Camilo and I moved into a one bedroom apartment where we set up a little studio. He just finished his masters in Architecture, but he also is very interested in the construction of things that we use in our everyday lives, like furniture and clothing. We have a sewing machine here and we’ve been making a lot of stuff! We just finished a quilt together that we gave to a friend of ours who got married a couple of weeks ago and we finally sent it out.
We’re just not office people. We’re not cut out to do office work. So I think the long term goal is to get this off the ground and just make stuff. Make stuff for people.
It’s sort of like the back and forth between being apathetic and being ambivalent.
Sounds wonderful. So what do you think we should be talking more about?
Another big question! You know, I don’t know if it is so much that we should be talking about more things but I think we should be doing more things! I don’t know if you guys are getting the same feeling over there but in the States right now, it’s looking pretty dire. The whole government system has become sort of a joke. It’s all fucked up and while that’s going on you have this multitude of world tragedies happening.
It feels like it’s getting to the point where people should start doing something! But there’s a sort of apathetic feeling in the States right now. Living in New York and being in this place you feel very small and doing something feels impossible. But I think people need to start getting angry and start doing something. I just don’t know what that is.
We’re not even at that point. It’s gotten to the point where politicised actions and activists have become kind of passé. It’s kind of like, Okay well sure everyone’s pissed because the government sucks right now. But that’s just it…the government sucks right now! What the fuck? Why is a corporation deciding whether or not I can have birth control? Why are people being killed in police custody? Why are people dying from Ebola? It’s just…I don’t know…overwhelming. I don’t know what to do as a 24 year old girl.
It’s tough and no one tells you how you can make a difference. Do you think it’s a matter of people being desensitised or not knowing what to do?
It’s sort of like the back and forth between being apathetic and being ambivalent. Being apathetic is being so desensitised that you don’t give a shit but I think being ambivalent is to be of two minds. We have so much access to information so I think as a young person growing up today it’s almost impossible to see things in black and white, to see clear sides, because you understand a little bit of everything.
For a long time, I felt apathetic about a lot of these big issues and a lot of these conflicts that have been going on forever and I couldn’t choose a side. But there are no two sided wars anymore. It’s these very complex amalgamations of nations and people and things that just get fucked up for no one reason. There’s no yes or no answer so we have to kind of embrace the ambivalence a little bit and understand that that’s being big enough to see the over arching issues and both sides of a problem. I think that is the only way to move forward and figure out how to make any sort of conclusion. So yeah I’m ambivalent but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
If you were sitting opposite yourself right now and you could give yourself any advice what would it be?
I don’t know. I think that’s a hard thing right now just because I am sort of at a point of transition. I’d probably just say not to worry so much about what I’m going to do and just really try and do the best at what I’m doing right now. Sort of put one foot in front of the other.
I have a feeling that might all work out for you!
Things I Love
Having the time to read
I work in the art world, which pretty much shuts down in August. With my time off, I finally have more than 20 minutes a day (my morning commute) to read and enjoy books.
Brooklyn in August
More than just the art world shuts down in August– in fact New York City tends to clear out in the late months of summer. Which is great for everyone that stays; the heat is bad, but the streets are yours!
Breakfast with my boyfriend
We just moved in to an apartment I absolutely love in Clinton Hill. He works at an architecture firm in the DUMBO, and often has long hours. But one thing we can always count on is having coffee and breakfast in the morning before he leaves in the mornings.