Corn stalks from an Oregon farm were put on display at the Arts and Literature Laboratory in Madison earlier this year, as an expression of one Madison-based artist’s pain.
For Kelly Murray, who harvested the corn stalks as a part of her exhibit “Reap,” her lived experiences have shaped her art. The direction of her work took a sudden turn from being political in nature to more personal in 2017 when just a few weeks into her graduate studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison, her mother died, Murray told the Observer.
And when she graduated with her Master in Fine Arts last May, in the middle of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Murray said that she found the inspiration for her art was reshaped again – this time by a medical diagnosis.
What was supposed to be a routine visit to the gynecologist revealed Murray had a uterine fibroid – a noncancerous growth in her uterus, she said. While benign, the tumor had grown to roughly the size of a five-month pregnancy and while Murray could feel its pressure, it wasn’t considered life-threatening and surgery for its removal was postponed by the pandemic.
“I knew something was up, but I didn’t have access to healthcare to deal with it,” Murray said of how it’d grown so large.
The pain and physical limitations of that growth inspired her first post-graduate school, off-campus solo show, called “Reap.” It was exhibited at the Arts and Literature Laboratory in Madison from Jan. 14 to Feb. 27.
While Murray’s tumor first became the inspiration for Reap, she also pulled inspiration for the exhibit while working on a farm in Oregon – at the homestead of her professors, Douglas Rosenberg and Li Chiao-Ping.
Rosenberg and Chiao-Ping’s land on Purcell Road became a retreat for Murray, who helped them with seasonal farm work.
“I worked for Douglas as a gardener and landscaper on his property in Oregon, he has an art studio out there,” she said. “My relationship with him as a mentor has changed my life in so many ways.”
While she was a teacher’s assistant in his classroom, at the farm Murray helped him tend his vegetable garden, helped clear branches and brambles, removed invasive honeysuckle, planted trees, fixed fences, and even stained his deck.
While working on the land situated catty corner to two cornfields, Murray formed an idea.
She’d been thinking about what her body was doing with excess bodily materials when making the fibroid, Murray explained – and as she was witnessing natural materials around her and how they grew, she started thinking about the process of weaving.
While her main art style isn’t weaving, it was important for Murray to mimic the process her body is going through. Murray said she wanted to create a “memetic presentation of what my body was doing – tangling up fibers making this thing.”
The machine that harvests the cornstalks could not cut two of the rows because of the field’s close proximity to a line of trees. So Murray cut them all down herself, wrapped them in tarps and shoved them in the back of her SUV.
“It became a sign, this is what you’re going to use,” she said.
While working, she said she meditated on the excess material in her own body that was woven into a tumor, and thought about how life cycles and harvest cycles directly intertwine.
“Agriculture cannot be separated from the body in so many ways, it all just made sense to me,” she said.
Weaving history into art
With the landscape and her health providing inspiration, Murray began work on her new art piece, trying to represent the growth inside her body by weaving the cornstalks together into a massive ovular shape.
She consulted a fellow artist in Madison, Cate Richards, who has studied broommaking.
Richards told Murray that what she was making resembled a “corn dolly,” a type of woven straw art made in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.
Murray said the folklore around the corn dolly is that the spirit of the corn or crops lives in the fields until they are harvested, but then becomes homeless. By weaving the straw into the dolly, a farmer provides the spirit a new home until the next season – and then the dolly is plowed into the dirt when tilling the land to start the next growing season.
“This creation deity serendipitously lined up with a lot of things I was interested in,” Murray said. “Like the deity in the husks – this thing (the tumor) lives inside me, feeding on my nutrients. It all fell into place for me – it related to destruction, and rebirth from that.”
And the custom, which took place in Scotland and Ireland, fit in with her lineage, she said.
Her woven cornstalk creation became the centerpiece for her show.
It was surrounded by images of her swollen belly, and prints from her Ultrasounds. Murray said she wanted to “envelope the environment in my experience.”
“This is the thing I walk around with all the time, I can’t make it prettier than it is,” she said.
For the woven stalks, which somewhat resemble a cornucopia, Murray said she wanted the piece to be as big as possible, but still fit through doors.
“It needed it to be gargantuan, I’ve been thinking about this thing for a year, freaking out about it,” she said.
Imagination limited by body
Besides for space constraints, Murray has also been limited by her body in the process of making her art.
Since her initial diagnosis last May, her doctors have repeatedly rescheduled surgeries to have it removed.
Not knowing when her surgery might take place, Murray has needed to limit the scope of her art, since she shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for two months post-surgery.
“I’m living in my body in a heightened state of awareness that my capacity to move and lift could be impeded,” she said.
And while her Reap exhibit is over, the centerpiece itself has one last aspect before it’s complete.
Like the farmers who plowed their dollies into their fields, Murray plans to destroy her woven cornstalk creation after the exhibit.
She’ll return it to the field and burn it, Murray said, because not only does she not have anywhere to store the massive weaving, she also said that conceptually she doesn’t think it should live on.
“It will be a really great punctuation,” Murray said, who will document the whole process. “Technically the show is not over until that. Spiritually, I don’t want that object to exist.”
And for Murray, another end is in sight. The surgery to remove the tumor is no longer considered elective – it’s since grown so big that it’s pushing on veins around her abdomen, causing blood clots and cutting off circulation to the lower half of her body, she said.
While uterine fibroids are something that happen to millions of women, Murray said she wanted to funnel her personal experience into something wider, using her body to show what’s happening to others.
“Fibroids can be insidious,” she said. “This is like a sleeping monster.”