The simplest way to explain what I do is that I make up absurd lies that I then try to convince people are true by making all kinds of believable evidence (ceramic artifacts, documentaries, tintype photos, scientific charts, life size natural history dioramas, scholarly articles, press releases, etc.) to support them. I do this because I’m interested in how people consume information and how every day facts (some of which are actually lies) get perpetuated and legitimized by cultural institutions like the sciences, the media, museums, and so on.
My main absurd lie involves an endangered animal called the North American Obeast, which I perform by donning a muu-muu. Obeasts are studied by an scientific organization called the Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS), which does travelling natural history museum exhibits around the world to teach the public about obeast conservation efforts.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up on a farm in an economically poor part of Maine. As a result, I spent a lot of time working with and thinking about plants and animals. The folk science of farming was fascinating to me. My favorite childhood activity was making detailed worlds out of sticks, rocks, mushrooms, hay bales and other unmissed farm items. I would observe any overnight changes or damages to the scene as evidence of inhabitation by little people (who I wasn’t interested in except sort of forensically). So, I think my artistic orientation toward facts, science, and world-making have straightforward origins in the years spent alone in barns, pastures and woods.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I have two modes that are equally essential (though I still struggle with that well-loved fallacy that the making is the part of art that counts). The first is to act as a sponge and soak up the parts of the world I find interesting; during this part of the process I don’t really go into my studio much. Instead I read, go on field trips, and generally pursue whatever is on my mind as far as I can. At some point my brain sponge reaches capacity and then it’s time to return to the studio to squeeze it out in some useful way.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I am sometimes asked to take a more activist role in relation to the ideas that I’m exploring, especially fat stigma. I think people assume that since I make the kind of work I make, there must be important social wrongs I want to right, or that the work is just a preamble to what I want to say. It isn’t. The art is how I communicate my thoughts and observations; I have nothing to add to what I’ve put into the work. So I guess I find myself defending artistic autonomy from the issues I explore, which I can’t say I never envisioned myself having to do when I first started making art.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I sort of touch on this in an earlier answer. My actual studio making happens in cycles, but when it happens I find that my best studio days are when I start first thing in the morning and keep at it uninterrupted for 6-8 hours. The other half of my creative work (the research, observations etc) happens all the time. I couldn’t shut it off if I tried.
With the MOCS project, I have put myself physically in the work in a way that I never thought I would. But it fits the project, so I do it. As far as similarities, I find that I am ongoingly interested in how people communicate and the role of anxiety in the production of facts and self narratives. I’m not sure most people know who they are without something to worry about or fuss over; controlled worries are a great way to feel like one is in control of things.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Good grief, yes. Who can honestly answer no to this question?
My husband Carl has probably the biggest daily influence on my work. He’s a fellow egghead (and an intellectual historian to boot) so we have great conversations. I am obsessed with popular depictions of science—so anything on the Discovery channel gets me going. (I am almost a little embarrassed to admit the major impact that Whale Wars had on my art.) David Attenborough’s enthusiasm his work touches me deeply. John Cage’s 10 Rules for Students & Teachers is tacked up in my studio and serves as a compass for my whole approach to art.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
A farmer. I love the headspace that goes with being a farmer. The challenges are tangible and the work is cyclical with definite outcomes. You make a product and stand behind it.
Rachel Herrick (b. 1979) is a multi-media artist best known for her detailed travelling Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS) installations. This work has been the subject of activist and academic writing in the US, Canada, England, and Australia. In 2013, Publication Studio (in conjunction with the ICA in Portland, Maine) published Herrick’s A Guide to the North American Obeast, a two-volume book set that elaborates on the obeast narrative and contextualizes the art project within a cultural and scholarly framework.
Herrick grew up on a subsistence farm in the hills of central Maine and relocated to North Carolina in 2004. She earned an MFA from the Maine College of Art in 2011 and a BA in Creative Writing from Methodist University in 2002. Herrick has been the recipient of several grants including a United Arts Regional Project Grant and a Puffin Foundation Grant. MOCS is currently on exhibit at Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, through June 29 and will then travel to the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.