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Jessica Murtagh’s Modern Relics celebrates quotidian moments  

Jessica Murtagh’s Modern Relics celebrates quotidian moments  


The Adelaide-based glazier Jessica Murtagh is gearing up for another exciting year after her series appeared at the recent Melbourne Design Fair. 

Murtagh is an acclaimed glazier with a professional background in marketing and public relations, but she realised she was constantly switching jobs and dissatisfied with the office environment. 

“I knew I wanted to do something creative, but it had been well over a decade since I had done any art,” she tells ADR.

Murtagh satiated her creative cravings by launching head-first into ceramics, wine making, distilling and blacksmithing, yet it was a weekend glassblowing class she attended in Melbourne that hooked her in. 

“I made a cup, and that was it! I was smitten. It only took 48 hours for me to completely lose my mind, and I did everything I could to figure out how I could do it as a career,” says Murtagh. 

Jessica Murtagh at the Jam Factory in Adelaide, by Matt Turner.

Ironically, she oversaw marketing for a glass construction company in her corporate days, and had always wanted to give glass-blowing a try. 

She wrangled herself into a Masters degree in glass-blowing at the University of South Australia, and dedicated the next four years to channelling all her energy into glass-work. 

“I couldn’t get enough of it,” she says. 

Murtagh became a beloved member of the Jam Factory – an Adelaide-based not-for-profit organisation that recently celebrated its 50th year, and provides public-access studios for ceramicists, glaziers, metal-workers and furniture and jewellery makers.

Murtagh has produced numerous glass work collections and has been nominated for many awards and group exhibitions since developing her love for glass blowing following the creation of her fist cup.

She primarily specialises in functional and sculptural vessels, using sandblasting and engraving techniques to create imagery and narratives on glass.

Her work is held in private collections at the Powerhouse Museum and National Gallery of Victoria. She was recently a finalist in the Helpmann Graduate Exhibition, and in April, celebrated her first solo exhibition –  Collective Histories in Blue. – at Grainger Gallery in Canberra. 

Murtagh was elated to be involved in the Melbourne Design Fair, and actually received confirmation that she had been selected while she was setting up for her first solo exhibition in Canberra.

“The fair is incredible in the ability to bring so much range under one roof,” she says. 

Working 9 to 5 Side A, Jessica Murtagh by Jesse Reagon.

Murtagh’s Modern Relics series that featured at the fair is a testament to her status as a self-proclaimed history buff, and her love for Ancient Hellenic and Athenian pottery.

“I am currently obsessed with the Sumerians – so stay tuned for a work of mine influenced by cuneiform!” she laughs.

The body language and facial expressions of the figures in Murtagh’s glass work salute the style and form of Ancient Greek frescoes – outstretched arms, figures turned to the side, men sporting beards that resemble the classic ancient Greek male, and women with long, cascading hair fastened with a headband and secured in a bun at the crown of the head.

Modern Relics snapshots quotidian moments in life – first dates, working in an office, waiting in line at Centrelink and graduating, yet reimagines them in a different and exciting context through a glass vase. Alongside deriving inspiration from Hellenic pottery, a tour around ANU also motivated Murtagh to capture how certain human behaviours transcend time. 

“I was taken around the ANU museum by a curator, and she flipped over a stunning Ancient Greek vase and revealed an inscription that basically translated to “this vase is better than my neighbour’s,” says Murtagh. 

She discovered that humanity does not necessarily alter, but art does, and allows us to connect to people who lived thousands of years ago. 

Working 9 to 5 Side C, Jessica Murtagh, photo by Jesse Reagon.

“We’re still fundamentally similar to those who came before us – we’re still gossipy and petty, and we have gripes with our boss, and you can find hints of this in artefacts,” says Murtagh. 

Murtagh also places a version of herself and her loved ones in the Modern Relics scenes, particularly the vase that details an office environment. She often harkens back to her days working in an office for illustration inspiration, which produces interesting results as although she was not fulfilled by these careers, she remembers small windows of silliness and joy.

“I remember being that woman in her cubicle ordering a lot of packages to her office from the Iconic and scrolling on Facebook,” she laughs, and acknowledges that this is a humanising experience that resonates with many different people.

Other vases such as ‘Getting To Know You’ explores how the ubiquitous nature of dating apps means you can be on a date inside a date, and was inspired by a date Murtagh witnessed that reeked of awkwardness and the unavoidable influence of the digital age. 

“This one time at a restaurant, I looked over my shoulder and saw a guy swiping on Tinder whilst he was still on a date!’ she says. 

Getting to Know You Side C, Jessica Murtagh, photo by Jesse Reagon.

Humour and phones feature commonly in Murtagh’s series – she aimed to emphasise how inescapable modern technology is by placing a cellular device in nearly every scene of her series. 

The societal panic and occasional absence of community and solidarity generated by COVID also served as inspiration for Modern Relics, and almost acts as a series within a series. 

Murtagh aimed to capture the upheaval in order and stability, and the unstoppable dissemination of mis-truths that led to people engaging in behaviour such as panic-buying toilet paper – noted in the vase titled ‘High Priorities in Low Places.’

“I wanted to record events such as people waiting in line at Centrelink, isolating with housemates and panic-buying toilet paper, as time moves on quickly, and I knew we would forget about it,” she says.

Murtagh was particularly inspired by the scenes of chaos at her local Centrelink where people were queuing for relief payments due to a loss of employment, and she reflects on how these heartbroken people were met with camera crews and a police presence. She was grateful to have job and house security, but many loved ones were not so lucky

“It was such a strange time – it should have been bringing us together, but we lost our humanity,” she says. 

Murtagh is committed to ensuring we remember those early harrowing months of lockdown, even though it no longer features in the zeitgeist due to more pressing issues such as the housing crisis. 

In line with the lingering implications of COVID, Murtagh outlines how universities and trades schools are struggling to stay afloat.

Getting to Know You Side D, Jessica Murtagh, photo by Jesse Reagon.

“The creative industries are low on the priority list for universities – there’s just not enough investment,” she says. 

Murtagh says while we should celebrate the growing number of self-taught artists, it is imperative to ensure people are taught manufacture and design adequately and formally – confirming that universities and trade schools are crucial. 

“If it’s not coming out of university, what is our design going to look like? You may be able to draw a beautiful table, but you need to know how to manufacture it,” she says. 

She owes a great deal to her lecturers at university such as Peter Walker and Gabriella Bisetto, who were unflagging in their support for Murtagh. 

“Mentorship is the best thing we can offer to people coming through. Teachers really do inspire people,” she says.

Collaboration between craftspeople and designers is essential in overcoming these challenges, and Murtagh reveals how she graciously enlists the help of her friend and work colleague Marcel Hoogstad Hay to complete the act of holding the glass pieces on a pipe. 

“We’re definitely a team – I couldn’t do it without him,” she says.

Murtagh’s inextinguishable tendency to over-commit means she is staring down the barrel of a busy next few months. She has shows in both Melbourne and Sydney this August, and is also gearing up for the surreal feeling of having her work displayed at the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne early next year. 

“It will be great to have my work sitting next to genuine Ancient artefacts – I’m sure I’ll feel like a bit of an imposter!”

Featured image by Matt Turner.

Read about how ceramicist Nicolette Johnson turned a creative outlet into a career.


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