Artist Lauri Lynnxe Murphy has tried her hand at a lot of mediums.
“I’m a sculptor. I used to be a painter,” Murphy said from her Denver studio. “I’m also what’s called a bio-artist, which means I work with systems in nature to try to produce artworks, which is where the snails come in.”
Yes, snails. Those slimy garden pests are Murphy’s paint brush, of sorts. Or more accurately, her collaborators.
“You just follow the muse where the muse leads,” she said.
Her first bio-art project involved honeybees. But after being stung dozens of times she developed a severe allergy. She’s also worked with plants, bacteria and fireflies. But while working in the garden at an artist residency in the Catskills, a snail creeping along Murphy’s sketchbook gave her an idea.
“It left this beautiful iridescent trail in the sunshine -- just like an oil slick almost where it’s rainbows,” she said.
But snail slime isn’t the easiest material to work with. It’s hard to see unless you’re in just the right light. And it breaks down quickly, eventually flaking off.
While she couldn’t figure out how to preserve the slime or make it show up better, Murphy found she could cut out the trails to highlight their path.
“So, it’s this kind of dance between preservation of the thing and trying to beautify and preserve it and make it visible to people, and at the same time destroying it,” she said.
Impact is something Murphy is keenly aware of.
“I don’t ever want to do something with animals that’s annoying them or harming them,” said Murphy, thinking about a recent controversy over animals used in a Chinese art exhibit.
The piece, “Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other,” was pulled from the upcoming exhibition “Art And China After 1989” at New York’s Guggenheim Museum after protests of animal cruelty. The video featured four pairs of dogs running on non-motorized treadmills, facing each other but just out of reach.
To Murphy, that is an unacceptable use of animals in art. While she considers her art a “forced collaboration,” keeping her snails happy is crucial.
“What I’m trying to do mostly with them is discover what they already do and exploit it in whatever way I can, and use it in whatever way I can -- and yet not exploit the animals themselves, Murphy said. “I don’t ever want to harm them, and I don’t ever want to cause them to do anything that would be unnatural for them.”
Over the years, Murphy has learned a lot about her snails -- maybe even a bit too much.
“Snails have so much sex, it’s crazy,” she said. “They have threesomes, they’re all hermaphroditic. And when they have sex, -- it’s like 12 hours, it's long.”
Another thing Murphy has found out about her snails is that they like to explore.
“See how they sort of meander,” she said as she watched the snails trudge along a sheet of black paper. “I love that they go in circles, that they double back on themselves, they make loop-de-loops. Sometimes they follow the pheromones of another snail’s trail so they’ll double-up a line. It makes for the most interesting patterns to cut out.”
At one point, Murphy tried branching out and using banana slugs.
“They were really big and I thought they’ll make a really big line,” she said. “But they made a really terrible line because they only went straight.”
What makes Murphy’s work so intriguing is that it takes on an almost lace-like effect that is delicate and detailed. One of her most recent works, entitled ‘Two Months and 20 Snails, Roughly’ featured a 24-foot-long, 8-feet high tapestry of snail trails. The title of the piece tells you how long -- and how many snails -- it took to make.
“People kept saying, ‘You got to hurry those snails along.’” she joked. “And I’m like, ‘They’re not the slow ones.’”
Cutting out the long, thin trails with an X-ACTO knife is painstaking work. The threat of accidentally severing a trail forces Murphy to take it slow.
“It’s definitely an antidote to the sort of frenzied life that I lead most of the time,” she said. “It’s a way to find a place to be quiet and thoughtful and attentive.”
There aren’t a lot of rules to snail art. For Murphy, the big one is to let the snails do what they do and refrain from directing them.
“I don’t want to be inventing it, otherwise what’s the point?” she said. “I could make up lines all day, you know. But to me, the idea is to just really carefully see what’s there and capture what’s there.”