It’s 1 p.m. on a Wednesday and the blazing hot Northeast Florida sun is doing its part to cast shadows on the eggshell white walls of the atrium within the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. Within the atrium, a five-member crew, utilizing ladders of myriad heights and an electric construction crane, are busy putting together the newest large-scale installation to fill the museum’s well-known exhibit space, Project Atrium. Ventures of this size usually require tools of comparable magnitude. However, the crew here today, busy as they are, has only one small utensil at its disposal: a Sharpie. Well, hundreds of Sharpies, actually.
“The Sharpies just add a level of permanence and a richness of black that I found attractive,” Boston-based artist Ethan Murrow tells Folio Weekly Magazine. “They are also fairly affordable.”
Yesterday, Murrow and four assistants — including Boston-based Aaron Houser and Jacksonville artists Thony Aiuppy, Roy Albert Berry and Tony Rodrigues — equipped with about 800 black Sharpies, set to work outlining, crosshatching and crosshatching some more. The work is done every day until July 15, when Murrow’s finished piece Plethora is scheduled to be unveiled at an opening reception at MOCA on July 16.
Murrow works in several mediums, including sculpture and film, but he’s particularly fond of drawing.
“I started doing a lot of drawing when I finished grad school. I was traveling and didn’t have the ability to take a lot of tools or materials with me. Part of it was just very practical,” Murrow says of his early affinity for sketching. “Drawing is a common language. Everybody can do it. It’s accessible. And often it’s a way that we translate ideas when we are confused by other forms of communication.”
Today, looking ultra-casual in a maroon T-shirt, grey shorts, and tennis shoes, the soft-spoken Murrow seems fairly content with his team’s progress thus far. Aside from finishing the drawing in time for the opening, Murrow’s main concern is the health and safety of his team, who will be drawing for nearly eight hours a day, often with their hands near eye-level and elbows pointing awkwardly toward one o’clock (or noon, even).
“I do this all the time, so my wrist and arm are more in tune to it,” Murrow says, holding up his right hand to reveal a beige wrist-brace. “There’s so much repetitive motion. We have to be really careful. The temptation is to work around the clock, but at the end of the day, it’s better to have a blue-collar union-like approach.”
Murrow says he learned the value of hard work, among other things, through his chores and duties on his family’s farm. Though the Murrows were not dependent on the farm for food or income, they did raise livestock, grow vegetables, and harvest their own foodstuffs.
“It helped me understand my relationship with the things I was digesting,” Murrow says.
That relationship — between humans and their food — is explored and expanded upon in Plethora. In the piece, a figure stands above a table overflowing with food that’s excessive both in its volume and variety. Seemingly in an effort to hold up his satiated body, the figure has laid his hands on the table. His shirt carries large splotches of stains from spilled food. And though a large metal basin obscures the figure’s identity, Murrow readily admits that it’s him.
“If you have a middle-class to upper-middle-class life, it’s very easy to hide or ignore the fact that poverty and hunger are a huge issue in America,” Murrow says. “You go into a grocery and it’s so luscious, so beautiful in terms of what you can imagine eating. That’s temptation supreme. You forget how privileged you are to have access to that store. Hiding my face is meant to show how we are set up almost to ignore [the problems].”
After leaving his family farm, attending college in Minnesota and then graduate school in North Carolina, Murrow lived in several urban areas before landing in Boston. He believes cities have their own food realities.
“Your relationship to your food [in Boston] often comes down to access,” says Murrow. “Access to grocery stores. Access to fresh produce. We have CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] and lots of small farms coming into Boston, but they serve a certain population. They serve communities of privilege. Access to food is representative of the strata of society.”
“I’m fully complicit in that problem,” he continues. “That’s part of the reason I put myself in [Plethora]. I’m totally mixed up in this messy issue.”
Murrow’s art often shows human beings interacting with nature. The people he portrays can be dressed in period clothing or using antiquated tools. If there are multiple people in a piece, Murrow sometimes makes each appear to be of different time periods. More often than not, the artist depicts human interaction with nature as intrusion.
“When I think about us as humans, half of me thinks we are so smart. It’s incredible the things we’ve accomplished, the buildings we’ve built, the satellites we’ve launched into space. We have an incredible amount of logic and innovation,” says Murrow. “But at the same time, we are so dumb. We do the same dumb things over and over again.”
The issues surrounding food in our modern culture — excess, gluttony, access and privilege — all of which play a prevalent role in Plethora, are not foreign to Northeast Floridians. Even so, in planning the drawing, Murrow tried to pull in local elements to help viewers relate. Strewn about the table and the floor of the piece are a number of recognizable locally grown fruits and vegetables (citrus, melons) and native fauna.
Still, he reiterates that the piece is not an indictment of Northeast Florida’s relationship to its food. Rather, it’s about issues that are universal.
“I am not from here, so I want to be careful not to make any assumptions. I don’t think it’s necessarily the artist’s role to dictate or profess things, anyway. I think it’s a richer or more important role to be an instigator.”