Reclaimed and repurposed industrial spaces have become familiar venues for contemporary art and architecture. The best known examples are maintained by large organizations—from Dia Beacon, located in the cavernous halls of a converted Nabisco box-printing factory, to MASS MoCA, within a complex of renovated 19th-century mill buildings, to the Chinati Foundation, created by Donald Judd with the support of the Dia Foundation in the late 1970s when he needed to join two pre-World War II artillery sheds to house 100 untitled works in mill aluminum. This, however, is not a story about an organization you already know. It is a story about an artist with a singular vision and an apparently limitless exuberance for making art. Georgia-based sculptor Michael Murrell has created a one-man sculpture gallery in a space that delivers the same sense of scale and wonderment as those better-known places—and much more of the unexpected.
Murrell’s studio and gallery space at Habersham Mills, a former cotton mill that began its 180-year history as an iron foundry, is located on the Soque River, a tributary of the better-known Chattahoochee River in northeast Georgia’s Habersham County, 75 minutes north of Atlanta. Murrell has filled its 33,000 square feet of space (think Dia, Judd’s artillery sheds, a football field) with his paintings, assemblages, and sculptures—as well as flotsam from years of woodland and shoreline wanderings, the discarded objects and natural materials that catch his eye and creative mind—to create an ever-changing installation, one that is in flux not because he rotates it out, but because he is always making room for more.
There is an everything-ness in this accumulation of five decades’ worth of near-constant making that confounds easy definition, though Judd wrote something that comes close: “A definition of art finally occurred to me. Art is everything at once…In visual art the wholeness is visual.” Despite more than 200 exhibitions, both nationally and internationally, Murrell has kept the wholeness of his work together, choosing the integrity of a body of work over the financial reward and notoriety that sales would have all but ensured.
Visitors who sign the guestbook left by the 68-year-old Murrell on the seat of a wooden chair by the entrance (accompanied by the chalked words “My father’s chair”) often describe a sense of awe akin to religious experience. Murrell, displaying a typical modesty, attributes this to the scale and to the natural light that suffuses the space. He had the same feeling, almost 10 years ago, when he first opened the doors to what would become his studio. He had spent most of three decades searching for the ideal space to collect and display his work—while teaching sculpture at Georgia State University for 25 years and after he retired in 2008. Standing on the threshold that day in 2015, he knew that he had found it. He recalls the overwhelming sense of space and history and the quality of the light falling through high clerestory windows, evoking a cathedral-like atmosphere. The craquelure of chipping white paint on those windows and on the steel windows running the building’s length reminded him of wisteria blooms and Japanese painting. Though the windows are partially scraped now to reveal sky and the river below, they still filter an ethereal, milky white light that animates and graces the sculptures.
Murrell’s sculptures—in bone, wood, iron, resin, and stone, handled with consummate skill and a deep respect for the material—hang from the ceiling, float above the honeyed maple floor, and repose on the floor, arranged in relationships that may seem random at first glance, though they are anything but. Conscious of each piece in relation to its surroundings, in terms of theme and color, form and material, Murrell has created a multifarious but cohesive, installation that includes at least 125 freestanding works and countless smaller pieces often gathered into collections—masks and animal heads made from objects found along shorelines or deep in spring woods, fertility figures carved from picked-up stones, painted snakes made from gathered roots and sticks. To enter the studio, you must bow to pass through the continuous oval of a tree root dug out of a Maine shoreline, stood upright, and painted with the words “Pass through this portal—Leave your troubles behind.” and “No beginning. No end.”
Inside the space, it really does seem as if there is no beginning and no end. Sculpture fills the limits of your gaze. Much of it is spare, elegant, and allusive, reflecting Murrell’s deep curiosity and breadth of knowledge about the art of other cultures—Oceanic, African, and Native American, particularly the Inuit. He seamlessly blends his intellectual interests and an intimate, lifelong, and life-defining relationship to the natural world with an ability to do anything he conceives. When filmmaker Hal Jacobs introduced Michael Murrell: Art, Nature, and Catawampus, his recent documentary on Murrell’s life in art (so far) at its Atlanta premiere, he described “a man with the heart and mind of someone who has never been told ‘no.’” Murrell sees things and then creates them so that we see them, too. He carves wood and stone. He pours iron and welds steel. He shapes resin into boat forms and oversize floral forms that morph from human-scale upright pitcher plants and recumbent lotus blossoms into the ever-present female figure. He weaves found animal bones into spectral distillations. Two such sculptures are suspended in opposite corners of the ceiling. A kayak created from the rib bones of deer lists in the breeze as though eddying in a stream. The life-size form of a woman, hands held overhead as if poised to dive or fly, pirouettes in the same breeze. Both are free from worldly tethers, as is a ladder made of lengths cut from a fallen white cedar that Murrell honed into narrow, tapering shafts before joining them with rungs made from animal leg bones. Bone Ladder climbs 18 feet toward the clerestory windows but never quite reaches. A large spiral made from 60 linear feet of animal vertebrae, graduating from raccoon to bear, makes a labyrinth on a black-painted circle on the maple floor.
Though much of the work is elegantly rendered, some of it is sublime. Skull Tower (2014), 10 feet tall and as slender as an auger shell, was created from over 200 animal skulls collected by Murrell over the course of a lifetime’s worth of woods-walking. He is a naturalist, formed and informed by the woods, marshes, and open water of the eastern shore of Maryland, where he was born and lived through graduate school. In the 1980s, he moved to Georgia, where he resides most of the year; summers are spent in Maine, with intensive work time accompanied by searches in the woods and along the shore for materials.
Other works reveal Murrell’s sly sense of humor and supreme confidence in letting something simply be what it is. He asks, “How do you say ‘bird’ in just a couple of quick lines?” and proceeds to answer his own question—in dozens of interesting ways. In a seating area he calls the Bird Lounge, created from a rescued family sofa and butterfly chairs arranged around an elegant table that he constructed from benge wood and aluminum in his grad school days, there are at least 35 carved birds, realistic and fanciful, carefully crafted or near ready-made. Nearby, faces and masks created from found objects laugh at an inside joke.
A born teacher, Murrell sees potential in objects—and in people—that most of us never do. His greatest lesson is in the pleasure he takes in his own skill, in the process of making and sharing it with others, and in discarded objects reborn as art, including a 400-year-old chestnut tree. Murrell dug its remnants out of the ground on a mountaintop in north Georgia, where it was felled 100 years ago, carted it off piece by 300-pound piece in a wheelbarrow (filming himself while he did it), and brought it here to commemorate its life.
In the end, however, the life commemorated may well be the artist’s own. Though Murrell is very much alive, and vibrantly so, there is an elegiac quality to his collection of objects, sculptures, and gathered materials, a tribute to a life lived in art, for art’s sake. Something ineffable emanates from the work as if its stillness in the moment is intentional, willed from within.
On a recent visit to the superb Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of Native American Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, I had this same feeling of presence among those powerful and beautifully crafted objects, a feeling that was validated when I read the wall text beside them: “These works are still serving their purpose; their lives are not complete. They are fulfilling the thoughts and prayers of their makers—and offer blessings to all people from around the world who visit these galleries.”
On the day that I visited Habersham Mills, only the water seemed to move, somewhere at a distance, muffled as if under glass. A mourning dove, one of several nesting here along with barn swallows, startled away high overhead, its whistle and flap of wings diminishing through the alabaster light. Everything else was still, yet there was a reverberation, an echo of something. Perhaps it was life itself.
Michael Murrell’s studio and gallery space at Habersham Mills is located on private property. Please see the website to make necessary prior arrangement with the owners for permission to visit. To watch the trailer for Michael Murrell: Art, Nature, and Catawampus, click here.