A Walk in the Woods: Michael Murrell at Young Harris College

Michael Murrell, Skull Tower, 2014
Michael Murrell, Skull Tower, 2014; 200 animal skulls from 24 species, 3 by 3 by 10 feet, animal skulls, epoxy resin, glass cloth.

For four decades, sculptor Michael Murrell has made work that explores our human relationship with nature, and none, it seems, more than his own. Work, however, is a dour word for an endeavor someone takes such apparent pleasure in doing. His sculpture, in wood, stone and bone often found on hikes through the woods of north Georgia and of Maine where he spends part of each year, reflects an intuitive knowledge of the natural world, a respect for well-made objects, and a preoccupation with making.

Most of the 23 works in “Distilled Form: The Sculpture of Michael Murrell” at the Campus Gate Art Gallery of Young Harris College in north Georgia were completed in the last five years. In sculpture that combines a modernist’s abstraction with traditions of craft and woodworking, Murrell employs symbols, as he writes in his statement, to “reflect on the cycles of nature and what it is to be human.”

Skull Tower, familiar to an Atlanta audience for its inclusion in “Gathered III,” last year’s selection of Georgia artists by Georgia artists at MOCA GA, is a poetic memento mori that to be human is to be passing through this world. As its prosaic title tells us, Skull Tower is just that, a tower of animal skulls Murrell accumulated from over 50 years of those hikes. With them, he created a thing of beauty. At 10 feet tall and perfectly conical, like an overgrown auger shell, it is certainly visually arresting, but its intrinsic beauty, as in the best of poetry, is in the metaphors it evokes and the questions it invites of ideas of permanence and impermanence, of transformation, and of presence and absence, most poignantly, our own.

Murrell weaves rib bones into spectral distillations of form that employ bone in other more figurative ways as well, such as Bone Figure and Bone Kayak. One, the shape of a woman with arms raised overhead as if in flight and the other the latticed form of the eponymous boat, both free from worldly tethers.

He is drawn to the spiritual qualities in the artworks and utilitarian objects of other cultures, specifically Oceanic, African, and Native American, an ethnographic interest he combines with an accumulation of personal experience to inform much of the sculpture in the gallery, and, in fact, his long career. Though his sculpture draws deeply from these various sources, Murrell pushes his form beyond the referent to become something completely new, so new that certain pieces feel like discoveries rather than constructions.

Michael Murrell, Bone Canoe
Installation view of “Distilled Form” at Young Harris College. 

Bone Ladder, a sculpture made of narrow tapering white cedar rising 18 feet into the air with rungs made from various leg bones Murrell gathered and cleaned himself, feels like one of those discoveries, even with the spokeshave mark of the handmade on the slender cedar poles. The diminishing taper adds to the sense of height and scale as it climbs heavenward, seeming to disappear, which it very nearly does, out the second story window against which it is propped. I must not have been the only one desiring to climb up and out into the cerulean sky because a sign placed at its foot admonishes visitors “Do Not Climb.” I was reminded of the graceful work of Martin Puryear (who counts some of the same influences as Murrell) and yet equally, perhaps owing to his stated inspiration, of functional Polynesian or African dwelling ladders.

Though the work included in “Distilled Form” is spare, elegant, and allusive, Murrell’s humility of material and the warmth of a visible hand in much of the work rescue it from a minimalist’s austerity. So, too, does his sly sense of the humorous. Employing two old car hoods from the ’40s, Murrell created two almost-readymades to different effect. Hair Hood, pointing upward as an arrow into the future, sprouts plugs of hair (all gifts from friends, originally designed to be “activated” by wind) through the beautiful, timeworn olive and faded brick patina, and speaks more to his interest in African art as is than to pleasures of the open road. A second, rusted hood is inversely hung, becoming a wedge shape, and therefore an apt portrayal of its title, Delta. The work would be at home in a modernist’s collection of African masks. Its evocative walnut brown surface is adorned only with a bold pimento orange circle (a Pima Indian threshing basket from his collection) and perfect as it is. A vertical slit at the bottom opens to an unseen interior. This would be threatening in an authentic Dogon or Pende mask, but a closer examination reveals the pinkish paint with which he has outlined the opening, evoking something more suggestive.

Most often, his titles deliver only the prose of materiality, saving the metaphor for the work itself. He presents a rhododendron root as he found it and names it exactly what he saw in it – Hand of Buddha. The palm-sized root, “fingers” folded into a mudra-like portal, rests inside the gold-leafed cavity of an ellipse carved into found poplar.

Feathergirl, the figure of a woman made literally from fallen feathers (again, found and collected by Murrell), reclines, almost levitates, languorous as if in a dream, atop a plinth he created from found wood. He painted its natural cavity with gold pigment and secreted away wooden figures carved after those in a dream of his own. Inside the hollow form, a man receives a kiss from a catlike messenger.

Michael Murrell, Delta, 2016
Michael Murrell, Delta, 2016; found hood, reed, pigment, 60 by 40 by 16 inches.

Murrell employs epoxy resin in much of his work to preserve the bone, hair, and wood that he names as fugitive materials. What better word, fugitive, one that derives from the Latin for fleeing, to reveal the beautiful paradox of work that stills time? Time and its passage are recurring themes. Three elliptical forms, whose titles all reference boats, are mounted on the wall so that their interiors are revealed. Dream Boat is carved from a spruce log and filled with a “river” of blue and green beads. In the next gallery, Bamboo Canoe, woven like a fine basket from strips of bamboo, floats on the gallery’s white wall..

Circles and loops reflect harmony and balance and suggest ideas of the cyclical aspect of nature, of return, and of connection. In one of those, Ring, he joined a thick muscadine vine into a 6-foot-wide loop painted and sanded back with complementary colors of blue and orange that give a vibrating, lively quality to the wood. Another is Cedar Loop, a narrow loop of seemingly seamless white cedar, 12 feet high and hung from the ceiling, was actually constructed from two pieces, one found easily and the other long sought to match it. It is typical of the equilibrium between construction and carving that is apparent in much of Murrell’s work. The elegant form of Cedar Loop is saved from complete abstraction by the undeniable reference to female anatomy found naturally in the wood but located by Murrell at what becomes the juncture of the two leglike sides, a reminder that our male and female bodies are another of the aspects of what it means to be human in a natural world.

Michael Murrell, Tusks, 2017
Michael Murrell, Tusks, 2017; white cedar, whitewash, rope, iron, 72 inches tall.

Various hand forms appear throughout to signal his interest in human touch, gesture and communication. In addition to the Buddha’s Hand, he includes a hand cut from a single sheet of silvery mica, historically prized for its spiritual, reflective qualities and reminiscent of the mica hand effigies of the Woodland Indians, such as the one recovered from Hopewell Mound. He sets his into a deep blue-painted recession carved into yellow pine. Hands fill a wall in the second gallery. Blue Hands, a grouping of six panels of hands in various gestures carved into cottonwood Murrell found washed up on an Alaskan lake and prized for their aged, peeling-paint surface, join Hand/Loop, an evocative loop of white cedar that resembles upraised arms ending in elegant hands crossed at the wrist and given a ivory-like whitewash. Ivory is evoked most beautifully in a set of seven elegant tusklike forms made from the same white cedar and whitewash, gathered with rope and suspended from an iron ring. No irony or political commentary, just pure visual and sensuous pleasure. Form distilled, they beg to be touched.

Though his initial allusions, his “starting point,” may be spontaneous, the rigorous method he employs and the forms he derives are rarely that. Distillation is a process of refinement, and this is refined, poetic work. A look at his website reveals his ability, over a span of 40 years, to reinvestigate previous forms and themes to express the interpretations and explorations that inform his interest and his work.

Stan Anderson, Associate Professor of Art at Young Harris College, invited Murrell to exhibit at the college out of a deep respect for the sculptor’s creative voice, one which Anderson noted in an email to the author is the “most authentic he has met over 25 years of academia …[an artist who] understands the process of making art more than anyone [he] knows.” The two had worked together at Georgia State University in Atlanta, from which Murrell retired a decade ago as an Associate Professor of Art and Design. Anderson characterized “the sheer act of a walk in the woods for Michael” as … an artistic expedition. “Distilled Form” shows why.

Note: The author and the artist are both fellows of the Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia, where almost half of the 23 pieces in the exhibition were made. Her writing is informed by having had the opportunity to talk to the artist about his work and to have seen some of it in progress.

“Distilled Form: The Sculpture of Michael Murrell” is on display at the Campus Gate Gallery of Young Harris College in Young Harris, Georgia, through February 16.

Donna Mintz is a visual artist who writes about art. She earned her MFA in 2017 from the School of Letters at Sewanee, The University of the South, and is at work on a book on the life and writing of James Agee explored through the idea of the necessity of the search.

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