After a long day of collecting plant specimens in West Texas, Mary Sophie Young hitched up her burros and sat down, as she did every evening, to write in her journal. In 1912 she had become the first curator of the University of Texas at Austin’s new herbarium. These trips out west would help her to expand the collection by more than 13,000 specimens before her early death at age 46 in 1919.
One hundred years later, Young’s journals are revived in Katy McCarthy’s new exhibition “Such Lonely Country” at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. McCarthy’s video, sculpture, and textile works use historical research and autobiographical reflection to explore new territory between connection and loneliness in the Texas landscape.
Originally from California and now based in New York City, McCarthy is the inaugural fellow of the St. Elmo Arts Residency, a joint program between UT’s Department of Art and Art History and the Wildflower Center, which joined the University of Texas system in 2006. The nine month residency awards one recent MFA graduate with a $30,000 stipend, housing and studio space, as well as teaching opportunities at UT and the Wildflower Center.
The project culminates with a solo exhibition of the fellow’s work at the McDermott Learning Center, a restored 19th-century carriage house at the Wildflower Center. The residency is a significant move towards integrating the two institutions’ missions and audiences through a melding of science and art.
McCarthy’s work explores the ways that women are remembered by history — or not. While her previous pieces have been based on Mary Todd Lincoln and Nina De Villard, in “Supply” (2019) the artist foregrounds her own labor and body. The white, life-sized bust of McCarthy’s nude torso resembles the sculptures of Elisabet Ney, another trailblazing Austin woman from the early 20th century. The viewer must get close to the sculpture, leaning over the figure’s shoulder to see the laptop screen cradled in her arms. There, a compilation of the McCarthy’s past videos stream from her lactating breasts via 3D animated milk ducts. Intimate and unsettling, “Supply” provokes questions about where art comes from, and its ability to nourish and transform.
“Vasculum 1” (2019) features two videos playing inside a metal box that has been mounted on the legs of a wooden rocking horse. One video shows the Wildflower Center’s curator Minnette Marr collecting seeds from a black-eyed Susan, while the other shows McCarthy mimicking the botanist’s motions by shaking baby rattles. Again the artist raises the question of women’s work, but this time caretaking expands to nature itself. Marr is the curator of the Wildflower Center’s seed bank, and the box is a vasculum that botanists use to collect plant samples in the field. The conservation process that McCarthy’s piece captures is an essential tool in the global fight to protect biodiversity in the face of climate change, natural disasters, disease, and war, but filtered through the artist’s personal struggles with her own reproductive health.
In the video “Such Lonely Country” (2019), we see the artist move between Austin and West Texas as she reads from journal entries by Young and herself. At times McCarthy’s reflections about adapting to her new environment overlap word for word with Young’s distant mirages and jumping jackrabbits. Both women experience “the suggestion of human life with the conviction of its absence.”
But there are also opportunities for wonder and discovery in these moments of loneliness, what Young describes (through McCarthy’s voice) as the “uncanny feeling of the consciousness of inanimate things.” For McCarthy, writing opens up a point of contact with someone across time and space. As she blurs the line between investigation and impersonation, McCarthy talks with and about Young as much as she talks with and about herself. In Young she’s found a parallel, even a partner.
“Specimen” (2019) is a large wool floor rug that is hand dyed with plants that McCarthy collected from the Wildflower Center and its surroundings. Harvesting, dyeing, and rug making was a way for the artist to insert her physical hand into the work, and she describes rugs as a part of a domestic landscape. Indeed, the piece was dyed with a number of local plants including acacia, yaupon, sumac, wax myrtle, prickly poppy, Indian paintbrush, and more. The names encompass an entire Texas landscape, conjuring passages in Young’s journals where she describes sweeping vistas through the scores of plants they contain.
The rug is modeled after botanical specimen papers from UT’s herbarium, but the softness and thickness of its wool fibers render its figures and text almost unreadable until closer inspection. The act of moving in and out of focus, of scanning a whole space for a single detail, mirrors the work of the botanist in the field, as well as the artist in the studio.
During her residency McCarthy taught Transmedia courses at UT, encouraging students to engage with new media and technology in relation to the human body. She curated an exhibition of student work at her studio in the fall, and will curate another this month as part of the West Austin Studio Tour. In her time between UT and southwest Austin, between teaching and making, McCarthy has formed real bonds with the city. Luckily for us, she will return this fall as a professor at UT and continue to bring her sensitive, poignant voice to our Texan landscape.
The Wildflower Center is located in what used to be mostly brush country. I grew up nearby, at the end of a dusty road that’s now a major thoroughfare. My own memories of the area are the stuff of Young’s journals, filled with tall grass, big oaks, prickly cactus, wild blackberries and even the stray jackrabbit. Now the Wildflower Center is an island of green in an ever-expanding sea of suburbs.
If spread is inevitable and so is the change that comes with it, then the St. Elmo Arts Residency is a positive direction for linking botany and art, center and periphery, campus and country.
“Such Lonely Country” is on view at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center through May 19.