In her early works, artist Lucinda Friendly Murphy examined the Big Bang theory by pretending to be the “Big Banger.” She hurled pebbles, spaghetti, and twigs across paper and sprayed paint around them to mimic the forces at work during the universe’s creation.
After spending almost 10 years on her Evolution series, the 63-year-old Murphy, who lives in Dupont, has finally concluded its “Life Origins” chapter. Over the past four years, she created 50 works, 30 of which are on display at her new studio on Florida Avenue NW.
“I think I need to push along and work on something else,” she says. “And I don’t know what it will be.”
Murphy, a former botany/biology student, began exploring evolution through her art in 1996. Six years later, she became interested in the origins of life, the moment when chemistry became biology. She began to create intricate paintings that family friend Julie Pock, Murphy’s acting publicist, describes as “almost amoeba-like,” she says. “You know, tails and cells and things.”
“There’s so many unanswered questions,” Murphy says. “And I’ve read a lot, not the heavy, heavy science, but there are wonderful science writers who explore all these questions.”
Murphy’s work won’t solve any of science’s mysteries, but at least it looks scientific. At a recent show at Georgetown University Hospital, a doctor bought a painting “because it reminded her of what she sees every day under a microscope,” Murphy says.
The “Life Origins” pieces focus on the image of the spiral. “I drew a lot of different kinds of spirals, and then I found one that I really liked,” Murphy says. “I use it as a stencil, and then I spray through that and make many copies of the same spiral.” She reproduced the original spiral stencil for more than five years, and it appears in some form in almost all of her works.
With every artistic endeavor, “the spiral’s there,” she says, “but I don’t know where it’s going to go.” As a piece develops, she’ll use anything from house paint to pushpins on surfaces such as roofing paper, Homasote (a type of wallboard), or Tyvek. A piece can take years to create. To keep track of the process, she keeps a series of notebooks in which she dates and numbers each piece and meticulously records each step.
“Her way of being able to know what the hell she’s done on a given piece is just to come up with this method—to number things,” says Pock. “So she can go back and have some hope of remaining in touch with it.”
“There are times when I’m really glad I’ve kept [the notebooks],” Murphy says. “If I ever become rich and famous, I will have my journals—if people are trying to preserve what I’ve done.”
But Murphy’s not entirely sure what she’s done: She hasn’t arrived at any conclusions about the origins of life.
“I really don’t feel I’ve understood it, or gotten it, or found an image that conveys that position,” she says. “But that’s what a lot of these [works] are about.”
Her success, she says, is in people correctly interpreting her work. She’s thrilled when people walk into her studio and say, “‘Oh wow! That looks like the origins of life!’” Recent viewers seemed to understand, and threw out guesses such as “DNA,” “double helix,” and “fractals.”
And then a well-dressed lady in purple pants stood in front of one painting and, after some reflection, said, “This one looks like Ritz crackers.” —Patricia Murret