What I Meant to Say…

For the closing reception of the 2019 Members’ show, CoCA invited artists to give 5-minute presentations about their pieces. Notre Dame had just gone up in flames that week, and my contribution to the CoCA show came from a series of paintings that had taken me there in 2006, in pursuit of making the next pieces in the series. The fire had caused me to go back and look at the circumstances of that trip and the email I had written requesting access to the Nicolas Coustou Pietà housed in the cathedral.

So rather than talking about my process, I thought I would talk about something larger, something about the place of art in our lives, in the world. Something that this story was a minuscule example of.

I read the email as my presentation. Before I could sum it up, the clock ran out, and I over-condensed the point I was trying to make.

Afterwards, another CoCA member came up to me and said how impressed she was; that I was really making it work as a painter. I had a patron! I had been sent to Paris!

I was mortified. It had not even occurred to me that what would come across from that slice of experience was a pretentious brag. It was the opposite of my intention.

So below is the email, followed by what I meant to say, in sharing that tale—in far more than five minutes. Which is ok; pithy is no longer my thing anyway. It is itself, a tale, within a tale, within a tale.


November 23, 2006 at 7:36 AM
FR: Susan (Montana) Murdoch
TO: info@cathedraledeparis.com

Request for Permission to Study the Pietà

Dear Michel-Francois,

Thank you very much for speaking with me this morning, and for permitting me the opportunity to request access to study Nicolas Coustou’s sculpture of The Pietà, despite my unwitting failure to follow proper protocol.

I would like to explain what brought me to the Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Paris, and I hope in doing so I may be allowed some access to the sculpture. I am a painter based in San Francisco, California. A small non-profit alternative art organization, The Institute for Unpopular Culture, is presenting a solo exhibit of my paintings in San Francisco in March/April. The exhibit centers on a series that envisions the timeline along which ideological and iconographic mythologies evolve, as they are rewritten by shifting social and political agendas. Many of these works reframe existing sacred art to illuminate the relationship between religion and government in the development of history.

I had intended to do two new works to complete the series for the show–the last of three pairs of Dolorosas, to be entitled the Dolorosa 9/11 and the Iraqi Dolorosa. These works were meant to capture the poignancy and immediacy of loss, and the need for spirituality, in response to historical acts of political aggression.

However, as I sought news images for the Dolorosas, and looked at photos of those effected by both the attack on the World Trade Towers and by the war in Iraq, images of The Pietà came to mind more strongly than the mourning faces of the Dolorosas.

Eventually, I found two striking parallels in imagery between existing, classical sculptures of The Pietà, and news photos of individuals suffering in the midst of these two historical calamities. So I decided to change my final paintings for the show to include two pairs of Pietàs, drawing an artistic parallel between the classic sculpture and the contemporary reality. I made this decision three weeks ago.

Two weeks ago, a patron of mine heard of the change of direction in the final pieces for the show and offered me a travel grant to visit Paris to study Coustou’s Pietà in Notre-Dame, and then to go on to Bologna, Italy to study Niccolo dell’Arca’s Pietà in a church there. My research on Notre-Dame was all done very rapidly, via the internet, and all the information I encountered simply stated that Coustou’s Pietà was located in Notre-Dame, and that the church was open daily, free of charge. I had no idea until I walked into the cathedral this morning—literally the first thing I did in Paris—that the sculpture was enclosed and well-removed from public access.

So I would like to submit a formal request to study the sculpture. I will be in Paris through Nov 27. I would like to photograph the sculpture (I have a simple Nikon digital camera which I would prefer to use with a tripod; no lighting equipment or other accessories). In addition, I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to do some studies of the sculpture. Any time that I could have to closely observe the sculpture–over whatever days or hours might be workable in these next few days–would be deeply appreciated. Observation and study of The Pietà is my sole purpose for being in Paris.

Neither my photographs nor sketches would be sold–they are purely studies for my use in creating two related paintings. The paintings themselves may eventually be sold, but I do not expect this to happen for many years, as this series of paintings was made with the specific intent to illicit public discussion, and as such, I do not expect to show them in commercial spaces. The Institute for Unpopular Culture exhibit will be the first time these works will be shown in the US (they have been shown previously in Oaxaca, Mexico), and I hope this show will introduce them to other public venues where they can go on to generate discussion and consideration.

I apologize for the very short notice and any difficulty this may cause. I hope some arrangement may be possible.

As I agreed, I will call you in the morning. If you have any additional questions, please feel free to call me at the Hotel Saint Louis: 33(0)1 46 34 04 80.

Thank you for your kind consideration of this request.

Susan Murdoch

Stand face to face, friend, and unveil the grace in thine eyes…Sappho



Thirteen years down the road, looking back to when this art stuff was all still pretty new and exciting to me, this reflection, for a moment, crystalizes the journey.

Because I was the grandchild of first generation immigrants, the daughter of a steel worker, I went to my state, land-grant college. Because I followed my strengths, I obtained shockingly impractical degrees in English and Theater, a source of conflict with my family. But because of my degree in English, and especially because of my work in Theater, I wrote well. And because I wrote well, well into my career in theater at the age of 35, I won an unpaid Development internship at the Magic Theater. (My goal was to learn how to raise money to produce plays, as it was clear to me by that time that if I wanted good women’s stories on the stage, I was going to have to create them myself.)

Because my experience at the Magic taught me to understand good grant structure, I began day-jobbing as a grant-writer at UCSF. Because I understood collaborative structures, i. e. Theater—and because I needed a respite from the stress of double- and triple-jobbing parallel to theater gigs—I was hired to help pull together a collaborative AIDS research center.

I started teaching myself to paint, because I needed an art to sustain me while playing a guest role in the real world.

Because I did well managing that Center, I became friends with one of the scientists who was also a biotech multi-millionaire, who had faced similar management challenges from having run his own start-up. Because I wrote an art travelogue from Oaxaca—Oaxaca’s another story—and because my former colleague’s nanny had died, he invited me to live in his family’s basement apartment in exchange for doing art projects with his daughters, child- and pet-care, and mansion-sitting. It was there that I built the beginnings of my art foundation.

A lower middle class steel-worker’s daughter with a public school education and degrees from a land-grant college, by a series of odd turns, ended up with patrons. Because I had worked a day job. Which was the result of my two useless degrees.

Because of that family’s patronage, I received two artist grants.

Because of one of those grants, I went to Paris and Bologna to see and photograph the Pietàs I wanted to use as the basis for the Pietà Project (I was given access at both churches—and both of them are stories). My first and only trip to Europe was as an artist.


As it turned out, the paintings were never done. I decided they were installations instead. The installations have been workshopped twice—The 9/11 Pietà was constructed as a half-scale model, made with my beloved, now deceased, Uncle Mike, and shown at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco as part of a workshop. But other paintings and installations in the series have been made. And shown.

The IFUC solo show mentioned in my plea to Michel-Francois at Notre Dame’s administrative office also never happened, for reasons that are yet another microcosmic story of their own.

Because I went to Paris, and saw the conversation between historical and modern art that my own work was attempting, I applied to Parsons Paris, and, at 48 years old, was accepted. I spent two years trying to raise the money to actually attend, and only when I had the hard, irrefutable proof that that was not actually possible, did I relinquish my place there.

Because of the financial crash, the patronage of a cabal of not-wealthy, but financially stable, fruitfully employed collectors, who were enthusiastic and deeply supportive of my adventurous dive into art-making, crashed as well. Life changed direction in myriad ways.

Several weeks ago, the roof of Notre Dame went up in spectacular flames, and crashed to the ground, transformed into a forest of charcoal beams. And yet the sculpture remains, the sculpture I was once funded to go to see remains intact.


Tender souls are angry that billions of dollars were gifted to Notre Dame, within days of the fire, and yet human tragedy remains unaddressed all over the world.

Would the same dollars, given in the same way, ameliorate all those problems?

And should art always be in competition with all other human good? Is art not also a human good? Does it not require money—at a minimum to feed and house artists, and further for the materials and tools to make it—to come into the world and do us good?

And where does it live—is it available to all of us? And whose art do we see? Whose vision of the world? Whose experience? Who decides what art we see? Who gets the training and support to make the art?

Art wrangles with the big questions of life, gives us the insights and comfort to continue living…even as it is riddled with big questions and contradictions and inequities and tragedies itself.

Art makes you, and unmakes you, over and over. It illuminates our lives and illuminates the lives of everyone who sees it—and sometimes…often…cripples the lives of those who make it. So it is.

I have gone backward to go forward many times in my life as an artist. The examples here are only a few. For me, entrance is always through the side door. Or from the basement. I do the work before I get hired. And I genuinely don’t know how to do it otherwise. I may have reached the point where going backward just takes me backward. It’s entirely possible that a step becomes a slide, becomes an avalanche, and forward may no longer happen. At 60, that may in fact be the final physics of my life as an artist.

Or maybe, because Seattle actually commits to making art education and inclusion available to low-income individuals, this leap away from the Bay Area, landing me—for the present and possibly forever—at the hard and true bottom of the economic ladder…absent, maybe, about half a rung…is actually an opportunity. These explorations I’ve been able to make happen here, this long-coveted education—through Pratt’s low-income partial scholarships, through volunteering at CoCA and other arts organizations—this learning and expansion, coupled with this first experience of dedicated, functional art-making space, will open up, as it is beginning to, a last chapter of art-making as my first job.

The virgin paintings seem quaint, gentle for the times we are now in. I no longer feel as prone to persuade, to offer beauty as a portal to other perspectives, the way I did when I was younger. I am one of those women Gloria Steinem predicted. I become more radical with age. That makes me want to both embrace art as an act of simple love, and art as a bitter calling out. Either end of the spectrum. Nothing in the middle. In this, at least, I am consistent. I am still discovering how to express this now, in this latest landing place, experimenting, beginning to move in new directions, to build out and upon the old.

The scales balance differently from different points along the timeline of every artist and even for every work of art. We try to survive the imbalance and make the most of the moments of equilibrium, of enough…each of those very personal, very specific to each one of us.

Coustou’s Pietà still stands. Possibly not unscathed. And so do I. Definitely not unscathed. But still here. And still, by the grace of the universe, the kindnesses and tangible support of friends, family, and collectors, and my own hard fucking work hewing out a way to do it, again, and again, making art.