It's a daunting task to capture a life well-lived.
Shortly before her death from cancer in 2007 at age 66, New York painter Elizabeth Murray was one of only five women to have a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. She had “made it” much earlier than that, starting in the 1980s, but the exhibit was a crowning moment in a career that had involved some risks and a lot of pluck.
Filmmaker Kristi Zea met Murray in the late '80s as part of a women's retreat in the Utah wilderness. The small group of mostly artist-moms wanted to unwind from careers and city life. Zea, who has worked as a production designer on films directed by Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, became fast friends with Murray.
Zea began filming before she even knew of Murray’s cancer diagnosis. She says that the movie is a celebration of Murray's life and vibrancy, and that she never contemplated the talented painter's untimely death. "I felt like if anybody could beat [cancer], Elizabeth could beat it," she says, "because she had such drive, such ambition and an amazing amount of support from her family."
"I just felt that there never was going to be a moment where she wasn't on this planet," Zea recalls, adding that there wasn't despair even up to the end of Elizabeth's life. "There was such a joy in her being able to paint until she was very, very weak and appreciate what life had to offer, and I think I wanted to keep that spirit going in the film," she says.
The film covers Murray's life as a painter, touching upon an insecure childhood with a gambling father, a lucky break in a teacher sending her to the Art Institute of Chicago, motherhood, and another break of being chosen by a major gallery owner in New York City in the 1980s.
Acclaimed actress Meryl Streep reads from Murray's journals throughout the documentary, complimenting footage from Murray herself and members from the New York art world, family and others.
Zea says she had no idea how the film was going to turn out in the end. "Obviously, we never know when [death] is going to happen," she states.
The film opens with Murray in the act of painting, declaring, "the more you try and correct a mistake in painting, the worse it gets, and ultimately you have to start over again. Her voice narrates as the camera pans on her work, "the way it looks is the way it looks."
Zea says that even though Murray was ambitious and forward-thinking in her life, this quote divulged her other wisdom. "Sometimes you just want something so bad that you kind of bulldoze your way into something. It's never quite the same. [The advice is] push, but don't push to the point that you break the thing that you're actually going to do."
Murray's works will be featured in another retrospective at the Pace Gallery in New York City, and Zea's film is showing one last time with the Milwaukee Film Festival on Wednesday October 10, 2017 at 4 pm at the Downer Theater.