On Saturday, April 9th Womanmade Gallery had the great pleasure of hosting an Artist’s Talk with Catherine Schwalbe-Bouzide. Her multimedia piece, By Hand, is part of the 14th International Open group exhibition that began in early March and will be up until April 28th. The event was generously co-sponsored by the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at University of Illinois Chicago.
Working in and drawing inspiration from Midwestern agricultural vernacular, Catherine’s work shows both how ubiquitous corn is in our everyday lives—from nearly all of the food we eat, to the fossil fuel we use—and how it has informed our cultural imagination. Whenever we think of rural life, we think of corn. She also addresses how our widespread use of corn has been blamed for many environmental problems: after all, “Twenty percent of our fossil-fuel consumption goes to agriculture; the average item of food travels 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate” –Michael Pollan. However, as Catherine pointed out in her presentation, “It’s not the corn’s fault!”
Catherine says, “Why corn? It is solidly Midwestern, like I am.” Her work is clearly quite personal and informed by her experiences living in the Midwest, as a “corn fed girl” but it also transcends that to become universal. Her work explores how corn invisibly influences many aspects of modern life in the U.S. in particular, as we are the world leader in corn production. Using corn as a medium and conceptual jumping off point, her work explores aging, agriculture, nature and science, plenty and want, reuse, food systems, and—what could be more essential and universal than this?—being human. Based in Chicago, she has grown corn in front of Lillstreet Art Center and keeps urban chickens (Annie, Winkie, Pennie and Vanilla) in her backyard. She has been a part of the Slow Food Luncheon, the Urban Farm Breakfast at First Slice Pie Café, the Art of Food class at Lillstreet Art Center, and “Harvest—a meal and exhibition,” also at Lillstreet.
Catherine’s work has taken her to Colorado where she had a residency in 2010 with the Colorado Art Ranch, working with water, local clay, and the arts as an agent for change. She is also part of the Fields Project in Oregon, IL, working on the Oregon Tilth Project in 2010, which was partially funded by a CAAP grant. She has worked in Wisconsin, curating a group exhibition, “Women in Grains” at the Woolen Mill Gallery in Reedsburg, and collaborating on the Iron Well “Potable” piece, “a gesture and celebration of public water in conjunction with Tapping into Solutions: The Future of Water conference.” Catherine and her mother, Helen Schwalbe, along with Laurie Ernisse, and Sheri and Addison Paape pumped water from a remarkably deep, old well and shared 100 terra cotta cups of that water with the public, celebrating and emphasizing the importance of potable public water.
At the end of her engaging presentation, Catherine brought out two bags of clay and a bucket full of corn seeds to make seed bombs, unfired clay balls filled with seeds that can be thrown into empty lots and urban fields, along the side of the highway, or any other patch of earth where corn could grow in a form of guerrilla planting, almost. As people gathered around the tables rolling the seed bombs between their palms, covering their hands in the grey clay, it was impossible not to think of rural life and community, of coming together and the collaborative work of survival that so many people still do everyday in rural communities of the Midwest.
Thanks for a wonderful afternoon, Catherine!
-Elise Nagy, Gallery Intern