Timoteo Murphy is, in his own words, a multidisciplinary artist (though the term Renaissance man is more apt). As a painter, photographer, videographer, musician, actor, historian and jack-of-all-trades, his talents, interests and knowledge bleed across a mélange of creative mediums (including a collaboration with the Washington Opera Society, Washington Arts Ensemble and CapitalBop, to name a few).
He is equal parts stoic, contemplative, imaginative, worldly and selfless: Murphy’s not one to waste words, dote on or reveal much about himself — at least not without determined prodding.
Much of this is gleaned from visual cues and our nearly hour-long interview inside the airy parlor of The Pen Arts Building and Art Museum, where he serves as resident handyman, curator and fluid artisan.
Murphy restored Pen Art’s basement, which suffered significant water damage. He now uses the space to showcase budding local and national artists, teach art classes, host art walks (as he has for 10 years), host jam sessions and DJ sets and breathe life into other endeavors.
It’s in the parlor where I find him conversing with Tarus Mateen, a sensational bassist whose resume boasts a dazzling list of musical collaborators, including iconic jazz singer Betty Carter, Outkast, Lauryn Hill, Goodie Mob and more.
This moment with Mateen epitomizes how Murphy moves through the world. He’s a conduit who pours his soul into communing with and supporting countless creatives, while carving out time to forward his own imaginings.
During our time together, I learned Murphy is a fierce protector of D.C.’s history, often rides a fixed gear bike, cultivated his love of empowering artists as a youth in Japan and drives a red soft top 1997 Jeep Wrangler — a vehicle I greatly covet.
With Murphy, as with most artists, you must venture beyond the painted lines to see his innerworkings. Though, unfolding Murphy’s many layers only leaves you wanting more — like the revelation of his friendship with James Baldwin’s sister, who bestowed him with a remarkable collection of drawings gifted to Baldwin by a Japanese artist many years ago.
District Fray: You got your start as an artist by experimenting with and exhibiting your artwork in abandoned homes owned by your late mentor Yigal Rappaport. How did those experiences shape your path?
Timoteo Murphy: When I created art in the houses, I did it because I loved creating art. I created it all the time. I’ve been doing it my whole life. But then I started exploring mediums as permanent things that are going to outlive me. I started thinking like that when I stepped into D.C. because I loved the rich history, and I wanted to be a part of that history and share this idea.
I’m not trying to make something and make money off it. I just want to bring communities together and get to know my community. The side effect of creating this art over time is that it sells. I would have shows and sometimes people would buy some of the work I just started that morning. They liked to see rawness and I would give that to them.
Creating art in D.C. has been a wonderful experience. I’ve learned a lot and I hope to be shown in a gallery one day or museum [outside of] the places I control.
What drives your passion to support other artists?
I want people to make it. It’s not about me — it’s about their ideas. I want to be the soil, the water and the sun for those seeds. I want to see people grow. I like [helping] creatives and learning at the same time. [I also enjoy] sharing ideas; I don’t hold ideas back. I create space but I’m also sitting back and watching how the space works — the feng shui.
What’s one way you show up to support the success of local women in the arts?
I show them how to sell [their art]. A lot of artwork that’s been created recently and is showing in D.C. came out of this building.
You shared if you ever opened a business it would be a “funky jazz coffee shop” that serves as a platform for artists to come play. When did that idea take root?
I grew up in Japan and I used to work for this place called ACE bar. I was a busboy and it was a reggae spot. The musician would come in and we would be open ’till late at night and I wasn’t even old enough to drink. I’m sitting in there and I’m jamming out like man, this is so cool. That was like the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced — to watch musicians really get down and funky and play for hours until they were drunk and tired. That’s where the magic would happen. And you’ll never hear that again, because they didn’t record it.
You’re passionate about preserving and protecting D.C.’s history and the artists shaping it. Why is that important?
What you are doing at District Fray — you are documenting the times. Nina Simone said it best: “Art should reflect the times.” I think people need to know who Kelly Towles is [pointing to the magazine’s Adulting Issue cover]; they should know these artists who are innovators in the city and protect [that]. Technology is so advanced we should be able to document stuff the correct way, get our ownership, benefit from that and then give back with it.
Follow multidisciplinary artist Timoteo Murphy on Instagram @timoteomurphy.
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