Brushstrokes: ‘Big, Bold, Black & White’ on display at Horace Williams House

January 7, 2014 

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“War,” a black and white painting by Murry Handler, is on exhibit at Chapel Hill’s Horace Williams House.

“Whenever I get so full of the anger and violence around me that we read and see, I have to get it out of my system, that means putting it on canvas,” Handler said. “This is how I keep going.”

This large canvas is one of 17 pieces by Handler in “Big, Bold, Black & White,” which runs through March 23. The exhibit can be seen from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays at 610 E. Rosemary Street.

“I attacked this canvas with a huge brush and black paint that dribbled down. If it was red, it would have looked like blood,” Handler said. “I drew figures like an old villager with a rocket launcher in his hand and soldier bodies. This piece, which is part of a series called ‘The Human Condition,’ is pretty harsh to look at.”

Though there is not an ounce of color in these works, they are vibrant and captivating. Handler often eschews color in his abstract works, believing that not having to worry about what color to use in a piece expands his creativity.

“I usually have four or five canvasses in the studio that to most people look like they are finished, but they all need something,” Handler said. “Eight months or two years later, I figure out what they need to be finished, and I wonder why I didn’t know immediately what they needed. There must be a reason for everything in a work.”

Painter Nerys Levy, a member of the Horace Williams House Art Committee that is part of Preservation Chapel Hill, is drawn to Handler’s work for his powerful simplicity of color, line, and form. “He edits out a lot of excess and this makes his paintings unique,” Levy said.

Some of Handler’s most abstract black and white works are in this show. “They are going to take people some time to look at as they are not something that people can focus on and say they know what they are. I will put some explanations next to some of them, which will be helpful.”

Even without these helpful clues, it will be obvious that the natural world has shaped Handler’s psyche.

“I lived in Maine as a child, canoeing paths and streams,” Handler said. “I would live in the woods for a weekend. It was marvelous.”

Another fundamental influence on Handler’s work is his wife of 61 years, Enid.

“Enid is my rock,” Handler said. She is also his business partner, handling all of the marketing of his work, managing his website (, helping design and mount shows, and giving names to his works.

“I find it fascinating how he can come up with new ideas all the time,” said Enid, who years ago was director of a community health center in New York.

“It is very exciting and lots of fun to be married to an artist,” she says. “Murry offers a different perspective from my way of looking at things. Some of that is colored by his being very visual. I am not visual. I am much more a thinking woman. I approach from logic, analysis, and examination. He is spontaneous and intuitive. I think that is the joy of the creative spirit.”

One of Handler’s newer ideas for work grew out of his love for Allen & Son’s barbequed fish sandwich, which is wrapped in aluminum foil.

“The foil fascinated me so I began to play with it,” Handler said. “I cleaned it off with soap and a sponge, and it changed the texture. Then I pasted it on canvasses and starting painting around it.” A piece from this series can be seen at the Bold Building at 50101 Governors Drive in Chapel Hill.

Handler often asks his wife to critique his works in progress. Enid said: “I try to be as non-biased as I can and give some feedback about things that I think should be changed or emphasized. He sometimes disagrees but we always have a collegial partnership. It is very much a working relationship.”

The pair has three very talented and creative children. Lowell, one of their two sons, said, “It is really incredible to see in this world of adversarial everything, two people come together, and stay together, with love, trust, and common goals.”

Handler spent the first several decades of his career working in design, eventually owning his own design studio with 14 employees. “If you have seen the show ‘Mad Men’ about advertising, that was my life,” Handler said. But in 1982, he sold his business to make his way in the world as a painter.

“It has been challenging, but I have been very fortunate in that I have not had to take a job selling shoes,” Handler said. “Many times I have thought, ‘What the heck am I doing with three kids in college and trying to sell paintings?”’

At 85, Handler is in his home studio every day, working hard until the sun begins to drop. “I am afraid if I stop painting, I drop,” he said. As for his wife, whom he knew he would marry after the night he met her, he said they are still sweethearts.

“I still chase her around. I just don’t go as fast as I used to.”

Deborah R. Meyer writes about the arts each month. Contact her at

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