Filling in the Gaps: The Art of Murphy Darden
230 N. Rose Street
Kalamazoo, MI 49007
Phone: (269) 373-7990
For the past several decades, Kalamazoo resident Murphy Darden, now in his nineties, has indulged his passion for the parts of history that have long been ignored in classrooms and in public discourse. In his pursuit of preserving this history for future generations, he has collected artifacts, images, and historic documents chronicling the achievements of African Americans. Not all of history can be represented through material objects. Sometimes, the richest and most complicated stories are better interpreted through artistic expression. It was in these situations, when Darden felt pieces of the story were missing, that he created artworks to fill in the gaps. Some of his works will be featured in the exhibit Filling in the Gaps: The Art of Murphy Darden, which runs October 12, 2019, through March 29, 2020, at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Selections of his art will be assembled into four distinct themes: black cowboys, Darden’s personal experiences in Mississippi, civil rights heroes, and the African American community in Kalamazoo. The display runs in conjunction with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts’ hosting of Black Refractions: Highlights from The Studio Museum in Harlem, September 14 – December 8, 2019.
Darden’s renderings of Western cowboys give viewers a glimpse into his childhood. Like many boys in the 1930s, Murphy and his twin brother, Irvin, spent many hours pretending to be cowboys and watching cowboy movies. His fascination with the American West followed him into adulthood, when he discovered the wonderful reality that African Americans also roamed the range. Legendary Wild West performer Bill Pickett remains one of Darden’s favorite subjects to portray. As a part of the great northern migration that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century, Darden has strong ties to his native Mississippi. His childhood memories inform his artworks and give viewers further insight into personal experiences that have shaped his life views. Portrayals of family members, his all-black high school, and river baptisms recount joyous memories and are in stark contrast with depictions of racist hate crimes that were also a part of daily life. The latter make Darden’s celebrations of civil rights leaders all the more inspiring. It is evident that he has his favorites—Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks are portrayed in several works.
Perhaps Darden’s most important contributions to the Kalamazoo community are his works related to local people, places, and events—most of which are undocumented elsewhere. Paintings of the Van Avery Drugstore boycott and the local neighborhood band, the Bombardiers, were based on small newspaper clippings with poor-quality photographs. He brings both subjects back to life with his colorful renditions. His scale models of several African American landmarks are the only thing that remain of these historic buildings. The artist has created them in perfect proportion without the use of physical measurements. Darden’s artistic pursuits started as a young boy, although he says his access to proper supplies was always very limited because of his family’s limited means. It was not until he left Mississippi and took up residence in Kalamazoo in the 1940s that he was able to better explore his talents.