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The slight woman with the pink carnation in her hair is talking very fast, throwing around heavy ideas about black holes and the big bang and something called a “bubble universe.” “While chaos is becoming more stable, the stable is becoming more chaotic,” she explains excitedly. “It’s that edge between, where creation happens, that I want to explore.”
But she doesn’t do it with graphs and equations: Lucinda Friendly Murphy probes the origin and progression of life through art. For the past five years, her work has retraced humanity’s steps—from single-celled organisms in primordial ponds to the complex network of axons in our brains—in a series of paintings titled Evolution. “There are so many basic things that science can’t explain,” she says, “and that gives me a lot of leeway.”
But Murphy’s paintings—stylized galaxies of particles and cells—are more explorations of scientific concepts than literal illustrations. “People look at my work as abstract, but I have specific things in mind while I paint,” she says, noting that she attempts to simulate, on a small scale, the probable effects of natural forces. In Evolution, Big Bang, String Theory, for example, she re-created that principal blast, tossing pebbles randomly across the paper and spraying paint around them. Multiple layers of varied media give the pieces an illusion of depth and movement that evokes Jackson Pollock’s full-fathomed drip paintings. In Evolution, Inanimate to Animate, Algae, lacy chains of cell walls (sketched with the opaque gel pens popular with middle-schoolers) float in a pool teeming with luminous algae rendered in oils.
Murphy’s own evolution as an artist began relatively late in life. Her artistic ambition was dampened early on, during a particularly uninspiring semester abroad at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Switzerland when she was 19. “They had me all alone in a drafty room sketching plaster grapes,” she recalls grimly. She earned a BFA from American University in 1966 and soon began a successful career as a landscape architect, which she pursued for 20 years before continuing her fine-arts education at AU and the Corcoran College of Art and Design.
After a few years exhibiting her still-life and early abstract pieces in several local shows, Murphy began work on Evolution in 1996. A painting from the series was included in a group show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Hemicycle Gallery last fall; it will hang in its entirety for the first time at Georgetown University Hospital beginning March 2.
Even as she prepares for the show’s opening, Murphy is already at work on new Evolution pieces. “I think this subject will occupy me for the rest of my life,” she says. “It took the universe 14 billion years to get up to this point, so I guess it will take me a while, too.” —Shauna Miller