“I’ve always been creating something,” said Desiree ‘Desi’ Sanner Murphy ’04. “I started working in clay in high school and took every ceramics class they offered. My connection with clay was just instant – it felt like an extension of who I am. I even threw at the Paramount Center for the Arts (in St. Cloud, Minnesota) when I wasn’t in class.”
When she got to Saint Ben’s, that connection strengthened under the intimidating tutelage of Sister Dennis Frandrup. “She was ruthless, and pulled out her infamous wire cutter to assess our pots,” Murphy recalled. “She cut most of our pots in half to teach us about wall thickness and to highlight the areas of improvement. Each time we had a critique our hearts sank, dreading the moment her wire cutter would split our freshly thrown pot in half.
“Her teaching techniques left me stronger, wiser and more willing to embrace failure, leading to accelerated growth. Today, one of my core values as an artist is growth.”
So Murphy grew. She worked toward her art major. She began making plans to study art in graduate school. And then, just one semester short of graduation, came the voice of doubt that speaks to so many of us.
“I panicked,” she said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find a job.”
She pivoted. Yes, she finished her last semester toward that art major. But she quickly packed a few nursing prerequisites in. She graduated from Saint Ben’s and, instead of graduate school for art, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, and enrolled in nursing school at the University of Arizona. “I had been working for nine years (through high school and college) as a patient care assistant at St. Cloud Hospital,” she explained, “and loved working with patients. Nursing was the perfect alternative route.”
She earned a bachelor of science in nursing and became a registered nurse in 2006.
Murphy worked as an RN from 2006 until 2017, in Tucson, in Madison, Wisconsin, in Duluth, Minnesota, and in St. Cloud. “I worked in a variety of settings like cardiovascular ICU, PACU (post-anesthesia care unit) and surgery,” she said.
She married and began raising a family. Eventually, while working at St. Cloud Hospital, she enrolled in a family nurse practitioner program at Winona State University. Then, surprisingly enough, that voice of doubt was back. And the wheel began to spin round again.
“When I’m not creating art, I feel like there’s a huge piece of me that’s missing,” she explained. “During graduate nursing school, I had this sense that I wouldn’t have enough time to devote to my art. And that feeling was like an ache that wouldn’t go away.”
One day in her kitchen, she turned to her husband and asked, “What if I step away from my program and throw pots?”
Without hesitation, he replied, “Yes!”
The next day she withdrew from her nursing program and began her path toward becoming a professional artist.
The transition was slow. “I had been throwing pottery at art centers while working as a nurse,” she said, “so my ceramic skills over that decade had improved. But it took years to build my artistic voice, establish my presence in the local art scene and grow my studio to what it is today.”
Though the time commitment of being a full-time artist can be difficult, she’s found the challenges to be fulfilling. “Juggling the time commitment of this new journey and my family has led me to adopt new habits which have elevated my productivity and allowed me to grow as an artist.”
She purchased a pottery wheel, throwing in a basement closet and selling at local markets and art crawls. She would haul loads of delicate greenware to a local art center to be fired in the kiln. “It took seven years for me to purchase a commercial studio space and my first kiln,” she said.
But. … But all that time in nursing? Would it have been better to have just trusted her gut, believed in her talent, and gone straight to graduate art school? “Working as a nurse was invaluable,” she said definitively. “I am honored to have spent those years in such a wonderful profession.”
Desi Murphy Pottery
Today, Murphy works with porcelain and stoneware that is high-fired in a gas kiln. Her Scandinavian Modern style prioritizes clean lines, functionality and a neutral palette. She exhibits her award-winning artwork throughout Minnesota. She is also the owner of Desi Murphy Pottery, a commercial pottery studio and gallery located in North St. Cloud.
In her work, Murphy focuses on craftsmanship and perfecting her process, simple forms and materials that emphasize a clean aesthetic. For added control over the aesthetic of her work, she develops and mixes her own glazes. As an artist, she strives to achieve an elegant combination of practicality and sophistication.
Her recent art exhibition, “VOID: Presence in Absence,” was “an exploration of Scandinavian Minimalism, an art movement in which all non-essential elements are eliminated. Through this removal of elements, a single underrepresented element is accentuated: space. This negative space, the area between the components of a piece becomes the focal point. The void or absence of components becomes the focal point. The absence becomes the presence.”
Her beautiful, functional pottery is available on her website at desimurphy.com and is showing up often in the St. Cloud community, as she’s connected with a variety of groups and businesses. “Businesses purchase drinkware, tableware, wall art or public art. I make everything from logo merchandise and corporate gifting to restaurant tableware. I also create custom art pieces for businesses, taking into consideration their space, values and mission. I work with each company individually to design a concept that works for them.
“Community members and businesses value quality handmade art and have been very supportive. Through this journey, I have gained many authentic connections – for which I am grateful.”
Recently she’s been able to begin working on larger public art projects. Thanks to a grant from the Central Minnesota Arts Board, made possible by state voters through a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, “I am currently working on a public art piece at the new St. Cloud Tech High School that will be comprised of dozens of large hand-built ceramic prisms that will be installed on a wall near the entrance to the school. The pieces will be arranged in a step-like pattern that represents stepping toward academic excellence and future success; part of Tech’s core mission.”
She’s embracing these chances to branch out. “I love the process of ceramics, and so whether it’s functional or fine art, I find joy in the making,” she said. “Recently I have felt driven to create pieces that evoke feelings and are more conceptual in nature. I’m currently working on larger, public art projects and non-functional fine art like sculptures, installations and framed wall art. Pushing clay out of the realm of functionality into the realm of conceptuality intrigues me. And whenever I feel an inner desire to explore something different or new, I go for it.”
So the wheel will continue to go round.
This story first appeared in The College of Saint Benedict Winter 2023 Magazine. To find more articles from this issue and those of previous magazines, visit the CSB Magazine archive.