On Sept. 11, 2001, the artist Karin Bolender was deep in the badlands of South Dakota. Like many Americans, the Twin Towers tragedy struck an existential chord within her. Unlike many Americans, Bolender’s first response was to think “I have to walk across the U.S. with a spotted ass.”
A spotted ass, for those less Equus-inclined, is a breed of donkey. Bolender is a big fan.
“By that time,” Bolender told me as we watched three generations of her asses grazing a sunlit pasture just north of Corvallis, “I had an intuition that everything I needed to do in my life is contained within a spotted ass.”
Ten years later, Bolender is still heeding that intuition, largely under the auspices of the Rural Alchemy Workshop (RAW), a “site-based, artistic spotted equus asinus husbandry practice” of her own devising. Bolender is the primary investigator of RAW, and spotted asses feature prominently, but there are “companions and collaborators of various species,” including a writer-friend from Portland, an old rodeo horse, a cow named Waffle, and, more recently, Bolender’s newborn daughter.
RAW encompasses a number of projects— “A Postdomestic Cowgirl,” “The “She-Haw Transhumance series,” “Gut-Sounds Lullaby”—most of which explore, play with, and offer pertinent ruminations on the fallacies of the nature/culture dichotomy, on domestic/wild, and on the tensions and longings that come with being an animal and being amidst animals, human or otherwise.
But all that developed later. In 2002, the beginnings of RAW, there was Bolender, a pregnant spotted ass she’d bought and named Aliass, and a seven-week tramp across the American south, from Mississippi to Virginia. It was the journey she’d first flashed upon on 9/11, reduced from her original inspirations, but spiced with more Don Quixote, more William Faulkner, and a lot more actual ass.
At the time, Bolender was enrolled in an MFA program as a gifted, lyrical writer. But as she weaved through what she describes as the “wickedly hot, haunted, weedy, and bastard-beautiful South,” she realized that words couldn’t capture or convey the true nature of the wordless relationship between woman and ass. In an essay, Bolender reflected on how “the truest, most beautiful book” she could have imagined writing about her pilgrimage would have to have been “written collaboratively, with the full participation and presence of Aliass and every other invisible and visible swarming entity we moved among.”
In the end, a human and a donkey walking slowly through the South was the art. The medium was the message—“I figured the best way to share the experience was to share the lived experience as it happened,” Bolender explained.
Bolender had Aliass, her ass muse, and she teemed with ideas—about embodiment, metaphor, knowing, “the other,” post-humanism; about “the seams (both visible and invisible) between our human selves and other domestic species”—but she struggled with how to artistically and practically express these ideas. As she readily points out, it’s not, generally, enough to point to a donkey and say, “This ass is art.”
But given time, and under the influence of philosophers such as Paul Howe Shepard (author of The Others: How Animals Made Us Human) and Donna Haraway (author of The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness), and performance artists such as Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramović, Bolender developed the Rural Alchemy Workshop.
The project that may best encompass the whole of RAW, stretching from Aliass to Bolender’s daughter and distilling the interactions between animal and human and earth into art, is “The Landscape and Mammary Project.”
During their artistic walkabout through the South, Aliass was pregnant with an ass that’d be named Passenger. As they walked, Bolender contemplated how Aliass’ milk would hold “residues—both physical and metaphorical—of all the asphalt miles we traveled, the lonesome, thistle-grown hayfields, the border crossings, churchyards, borrowed pastures, and dark nights in strangers’ woods—hold it all like memory is supposed to.”
And then her friend sent her some French ass-milk soap.
“With this soap,” Bolender recounts, “all the burning questions of my long-ass journeys were suddenly saponified into a simple, perfect object.”
Some years later, Passenger gave birth herself, providing Bolender with a begrudging source of ass milk with which to practice her rural alchemy. True to form, Bolender is taking advantage of her own lactation to brew a batch of soap combining Passenger’s milk and her own milk. She also adds ass fur, which “makes it a bit startling and ambiguous as soap.” This multi-species family soap will be included in a show in Australia this summer called Intra-Action: Multispecies Becomings in the Anthropocene.
The theoretical terminology in the Australian show’s title occurs often with Bolender’s work. Bolender explains her art as “ontological choreography,” “incarnated poetics,” and “intraspecies transmissions.” These are valuable terms for both fellow artists and the layman wondering how, exactly, a piebald donkey is art, but the arcane and rarified terminology also demonstrates, perhaps unintentionally, the essentially indescribable qualities that Bolender draws attention to in her art.
“In the end,” Bolender said, “there’s no resolution. All these projects are propositions. Aliass, after 10 years, remains unknown. She holds the place of the unknown.”
She seems happy with this. And that’s the best thing about her art: for all the foundational theory and artistic statements, for all the essays and performances and installations, everything roots back to an ass, Oregon mud caked into its thick winter fur, sticking its head through the fence for a scratch from a friend’s human hand.