Behind The Whimsical Works Of This Tennessee Ceramicist


Smiling woman sitting on a chest of drawers

Maintaining a studio east of downtown Nashville, ceramicist Keavy Murphree creates expressive objects from stoneware clay.

At first glance, Nashville ceramicist Keavy Murphree’s creations are all play. In actuality, they have basis in a much broader, more universal meaning. “I’m inspired by the themes that connect us in our humanity; our desire for beauty and pathos, our struggles through grief,” reveals Murphree, who posits stored memories of seeing giant Mayan head sculptures and Mesopotamian face vessels as the probable basis for the themes that have come to define her work. But it wasn’t until a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, where she first saw Southern American face jugs, that a simple inspiration was planted. “I recognized people have been putting faces on vessels for thousands of years,” says the artist, who employs traditional methods—such as slabs, coils and press molds—to hand-sculpt her creations from stoneware clay. “Despite society’s conventions, beauty comes in all forms—and all cultures.”

Unfired ceramic works on a table

Woman hand-brushing a piece of unfired pottery

In her sunny Nashville studio, artist Keavy Murphree smooths the surface of stoneware clay using a dampened brush.

Shelves lined with whimsical face vessels in various colors

On adjacent shelving, completed creations from her “Faces” series brandish unapologetic personalities.

Clear cups with paintbrushes

Clear cups contain brushes in varied sizes in the window of Murphree's studio at The Clay Lady's Campus.

Shelves lined with pottery pieces and artwork

The dimpled figures on the lower shelf represent a continuation of the artist’s earlier series, “Horny Beasts.”

Shelves lined with glazed ceramic figures

Fully glazed and fired pieces stand at attention on the shelves of Murphree's creative space.

By contrast is her earlier work, “Horny Beasts”—a series of appendaged animals carved or stamped, yet curiously devoid of facial features—which first drew admiration during a pottery class at the Metro Parks’ Centennial Art Center. When a fellow student became enchanted with her design, Murphree knew potential was there. “It was such an encouraging feeling knowing something I made could bring happiness and delight to another person,” she says. 

The moment was a major turning point for Murphree, who—although “bit by the clay bug in high school,” she says—studied industrial design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “My artistic side has historically been at odds with my practical side, and I initially thought I could apply my sculptural instincts to a field I saw as more viable: product design,” the artist reveals. Relocating to Nashville in 2009 with her husband, Barry, was the fateful move that paved the way for an eventual career about face, and kick-started the pursuit of her true passion.

Today, from a sunlit space at The Clay Lady’s Campus, a cooperative of leased artist studios east of downtown, Murphree continues to expand and advance her practice. The ceramicist’s latest creations interpret reverential, yet playful, nods to folk art traditions with modernist clarity. Yet she counters the continued refinement of her craft by exploring new and more complex conduits for clay, such as furniture, mirrors and lighting. Three years after committing to her craft full time, collectors are taking note (she’s looking forward to a solo show at Wedgewood-Houston’s Julia Martin Gallery this May).

Capitalizing on recent experimentations with botanical motifs, Murphree hopes to soon add stone-carving and metal-casting to her repertoire. “I would love to see my work in a public art installation or sculpture garden,” reveals the artist, who embraces challenges that support her creative growth. “And I’d love to work with a major retailer; to bring my brand of weirdness to the masses.”