by Barry Nelson
Hilton Murray has a history of thinking out of the box. These days it's the cardboard box.
To scratch his latest creative itch, the award-winning creative director and marketing executive is reaching back to his fine-art roots. And as a means of artistic expression he's chosen the little-used medium of corrugated paper board.
In this fragile material, Murray sculpts relief depictions of cityscapes, both real (Cleveland, Hong Kong) and imagined. Sturdy towers of concrete and steel, rendered in a substance best not left in the rain – and more often associated with shelters for the homeless than for captains of urban commerce.
The irony isn't lost on Murray. "I see cities as monuments of the human spirit," he observes, "the spirit that's inspired architectural structures throughout history. But we need to remember that however durable and impressive these monuments may seem, in the end, they're all temporary. They crumble and fall. It's nature that prevails. So for me, representing them in cardboard is a comment on the illusion of permanence."
He started building this body of work just over a year ago, but already the pieces number more than 60. Cleveland's art community has begun to take notice.*
This June, Murray was chosen by Robert Thurmer, Director of the Art Gallery at Cleveland State University, to mount a one-man show there, called "Cities: The Footprints of Man." Though not formally reviewed, the two-week show drew favorable comments from viewers – and resulted in a few sales, the first ever of his personal art.
These glimmers of artistic success have been a long time coming. Murray's love of art dates back more than 50 years, to his childhood in Elyria, Ohio, where his family had moved from his birthplace in Alabama. Nurtured there by art teachers at both the elementary and high school levels, he went on to study art at Kent State University, eventually earning both Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Fine Art.
In the process, his focus shifted from visual to graphic arts, and toward vocational interests in advertising and television. He doesn't regret that choice – it led to a distinguished design career, capped by a 17-year stint as creative director at Cleveland's Fox station (WJW TV8) and the founding, in 1997, of his award-winning advertising/marketing firm, HPM Consultants.
But the fine artist within him remained unfulfilled. "I always wanted to explore my personal artistic side," he explains. "But there were always more pressing considerations, like getting an education, raising a family (Murray and wife Sheila have a 26-year-old son, Michael), running a business."
It took what he calls "harassment" from friends in the art world to turn those intentions to action. He began slowly, approaching the effort as a stress-relieving hobby. "But soon I was hooked," he recalls. "I started auditing art classes at local colleges and approaching the professors for feedback on my work."
They liked what they saw. He liked what they said. And now, although he calls his efforts to date mere "baby steps" in exploring cardboard as an art medium, Murray is passionately committed to seeing what else he – and others – can do with it.
"I intend to reach out to art teachers, to other artists working in these materials, and to corporations that make or use paper products, to see if we can't raise their profile as artistic media," he says. He envisions a day when these players might team to create an annual, national or even global competition in cardboard art, with prize money, scholarships and a traveling exhibition.
"Paper, corrugated board, any type of recyclable materials – these are perfect means of expression for an age when 'green' is becoming part of our global consciousness," the artist exclaims. "Just go on the Internet and Google what they're doing with duct tape! If something like that can get this much attention as an art medium and design fabric, then cardboard – with its wonderful way of reflecting light, its natural look and feel, and the variety of ways you can use it – should be an easy sell."
Given Murray's record of success in hatching and marketing creative ideas, a golden age of cardboard could be just over the horizon.
* Editor's Note: Several of Murray's paper sculptures are now on exhibit at the Valley Art Center, 155 Bell St., Chagrin Falls, Ohio, as part of a gallery show, "Debut," running through Oct. 29.