“My story’s not that unique,” says metalworker Al Murray. And on the surface, perhaps it’s not. The artist and owner of Steeltoe Sunshine is among the many Asheville artisans carving a living out of her craft. Her claim, however, isn’t one meant to state the obvious or attempt false modesty.
Rather, Murray’s words are a reminder and a message of what her story will not be: The starving artist. It’s a common term and a popular narrative, one that is often romanticized and accepted by artists and non-artists alike. Murray, however, views it as something far more insidious. A self-fulfilling prophesy. “The starving artist,” she says, “is the narrative of the suffering artist.” Rather than a romantic dedication to one’s craft, Murray sees the term as hindering an artist’s true potential by limiting her ability to see beyond the suffering.
“The idea that you can have a happy home life, a good workday, some semblance of ease — that all gets lost and buried by such a narrative,” she says. Murray’s distaste for suffering manifests itself in her very demeanor. She isn’t one to shy away from smiling. Her excitement is also heard in how she tells her story of becoming a metalworker — within that tale one can’t help but appreciate some of the suffering Murray went through to become who she is today.
Metal has always been prominent in Murray’s life. As a child growing up in Princeton, Ky., she spent her afternoons in her father’s shop, Murray Drilling. With a broom in hand and rollerblades strapped to her feet, she swept the floors at a quick pace, earning cash for gadgets and tools of her own.
For college, Murray enrolled in the studio art program at Transylvania University. A travel grant allowed her to study metal work in Santa Fe, where she was introduced to blacksmithing. By the time she returned to Transylvania for the fall semester, she had built an impromptu coal forge out of a wheel hub. Much to her dismay, the college custodian mistook her creation for scrap and threw it away.
Even while working on her Master’s in art history at the prestigious University of Connecticut, Murray created. “Everywhere I moved, I built small studios to make things,” she says.
By 2012, Murray decided to leave academia behind, intent on finding work in metal. With the help and encouragement of friends, she and her wife, Rebecca, relocated to Asheville. Within the first month, Murray landed two part-time jobs, one with a nonprofit and the other with a paint company. All the while, she continued to send out feelers to metalworkers in the area, offering unpaid assistance in exchange for studio time, access to tools and further training in the hopes of one day opening her own shop.
Eventually, Murray came into contact with a metalworker in need of an assistant. Her future boss made a deal: If she handled his scheduling and social media, he’d train her in metal, steel fabrication and blacksmithing — with pay.
The ideal situation, however, gradually revealed its cracks. Murray’s boss proved an erratic worker with personal issues that often bled into the studio. Still, Murray persisted, telling herself, “You can have it better later.”
For the next two years Murray repeated that mantra of a better tomorrow, while she balanced a full schedule. From 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. she worked in the studio on her own projects, building toward her future business. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. she fulfilled her role as assistant. From 3 p.m. to early evenings she worked at her nonprofit job.
By October 2015, Murray decided to take a chance, parting ways with her numerous obligations in order to open a home shop. The name of her business is intentional. “You can’t say Steeltoe Sunshine out loud and take yourself too seriously,” she says.
From signage to sculptures, furniture to small decorative items, Steeltoe Sunshine continues to grow. Among other projects, an ongoing collaboration with Atomic Furnishings & Design has Murray working on both the design and construction of stools, sofas, shelving and tables for the store’s showroom on Patton Avenue. She’s also been in collaboration with ceramic artist Layne Roytman, creating decorative pieces. Come February, Murray’s artwork, tables and signage will also be on display and in use at Liberty House Coffee and Café’s grand opening on South Liberty Street.