"I don’t think I’ve fully unwrapped it," said local artist Carley McHenry, frazzled about her upcoming exhibit at the Rochester Art Center (RAC). She had shown her paintings there once before, but this time would be different—this time the 28-year-old was on the brink of her first solo exhibit.
The gravity of the moment, secured by winning the Individual Artist Grant for Emerging Artists from the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council hadn’t yet soaked in—and neither had the paint on her latest collection, on exhibit now until November 16. There’s an artist reception at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, but until then... "Please don’t touch the paintings unless you want…paint on your clothes," she laughed. "Then it’s fine."
Her series of eight paintings and several drawings, dubbed Collecting Roots, emphasizes the connection between humanity and nature, and humanity and the inner self. Historically, McHenry has taken her cues from nature in rather peculiar ways.
While pursuing her Bachelor of Art at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, anatomy was her primary creative impetus. This was in part due to her eccentric roommate—an adorable bunny that ran freely, stole table scraps, and even used a litter box.
Despite these endearing antics, it was its gastrointestinal system that inspired her the most. Rabbits can perish from hairballs that aren’t dislodged from their tiny throats within a mere 24 hours, she explained. "That taught me how vulnerable and fragile things can be."
Experience has sown in her a deep-seated curiosity toward physical life -- a constellation of bones, organs, and connective tissues that collaborate on an anatomical level. "It’s a fascinating concept that I can’t wrap my head around," she marveled. Her work often depicts woodland creatures with their skeletons or musculature on top of their fur.
After graduating, McHenry’s attention shifted to the people, animals, and nature that surrounded her. Painting through past experiences, "a lot of the figures in my paintings are either actively interacting with their surroundings, or passively, and I think that’s an interesting place to be," she said.
In one piece on display, a woman stands with her back turned to a wall adorned with emerald sprigs, sapphire eggs, and vibrant birds. She gazes off to the side with glassy eyes, seemingly unaware of the myriad treasures behind her. To cement the effect, her head is cleaved horizontally and shifted to the right, representing her fractured connection with nature.
McHenry suspects moving back home—from an urban college town to an idyllic horse ranch along Rochester’s Root River—had something to do with the paradigm shift in her art. She grew up on the sprawling hobby farm with her sister and parents, where the landowners were her only neighbors for miles. Unsurprisingly, she feels a deep connection to its tree-studded paths and laughing waterfalls.
But like the woman with the split head, McHenry is separating from the nature she loves. After one of the landowners was diagnosed with brain cancer during McHenry’s senior year at Stout, the couple began selling parcels of their ranch land to Olmsted County, which converted it into Root River Park. McHenry said the county lacks funding to develop the park further, but inevitably, "instead of my home, it’ll turn into something else."
The change has been emotionally challenging for McHenry, who painted most of her work in her studio on the ranch. She still lives on the land, bearing witness to the slow transformation that chips away at her childhood home.
"I’ve been practicing artist talks for the show opening, and every time that I do, I end up crying a little bit," she said, her voice softening. Now she’s trying to preserve her memories of the place.
One thing that helps is her decade-long habit of plucking trinkets from nature wherever she goes. "Collecting for me is like preparing yourself for change," she said. While others scroll through photos on Facebook, McHenry stores her memories in physical objects and stockpiles them to look back upon when things aren’t how they once were.
But her collection also serves to inspire her art. After more than 10 years of ferreting away nature’s bounty, she has amassed a delightful trove. Her muses are many, reaching far beyond her cherished home, but they generally aren’t rare treasures or extravagant loot. "I don’t have any beautiful gems or anything," she confessed.
So what does McHenry gravitate toward? "Weird sticks," she said. Bones and rocks, too. "I love rocks. I don’t know why." Admitting her collection is rooted in the mundane, she doesn’t feel that way when out collecting. "I’ve found things in my backyard; I’ve found things on cross-country trips…I think in the moment they are very special, and they have to come home with me."
Now they are proudly displayed next to her art in the third-floor gallery, emulating her home on the ranch. She hopes to create an intimate, cozy space that feels tangible, unlike galleries with sterile walls stippled with art that feels like forbidden fruit.
If you are kindred spirits with southeast Minnesota’s wilderness, or just want to support a young artist’s solo debut, be sure to stop by McHenry’s opening reception at 6 p.m. Friday.