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The Mud Sculpture

by Margaret Cullison

On the wall beside my computer hangs a photograph of a sculpture. In the picture a woman lies with a baby nestled in her left arm, his arm reaches across her breast. Her right arm is outstretched, and the graceful folds of her garment flow over her body in the classical design of a Grecian statue. Mother and child are finely sculpted in every detail. The full-size figures depict castaways from a shipwreck, and the sculpture is entitled Cast Up By the Waves. A 19th Century novel, of the same name, written by Sir Samuel White Baker inspired the artist's creation. What makes this work of art unique is that the woman and baby are made of mud and lie on the earth from which they were created.

The time was April 1929, just before the Depression when life in farm country of the Midwest was still insular and innocent. The newspaper in Harlan, Iowa, a town of four thousand people, reported that a farmer plowing his field found a wolf's lair and saw two angry eyes peering out at him. A local doctor made a house call to care for a worried couple's infant son. A man helped his sister-in-law wallpaper the living room of her farm home. An advertisement pictured men's spring and summer underwear selling from $1.00 to $2.50. Another ad offered a used 1928 Chevrolet Cabroilet, "just as clean as a pin inside and out."

That was some of the news the day the Harlan Tribune wrote about J. B. McCord, who had arrived in town by train and pitched his tent by the railroad tracks. He set to work on his sculpture, ignoring curious onlookers, explaining that he wanted to work alone and free of questions. He kept to himself until the sculpture was finished and then he was willing to talk. McCord said that he'd been educated at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, but the pressure of working in the critical art world enervated him and caused health problems. He had given up that stressful life to become an itinerant creator of sculptures in mud.

The artist worked near the water tower that supplied water for the trains passing through town, using water that dripped from the tower to make mud for his sculptures. A butcher knife was his only tool. Wild prairie grasses provided a backdrop for his art, and cattails grew in the swampy area below the tracks, closer to the river. He made two sculptures, one of the woman and child and another of a soldier. Only two photographs of the woman and child remain. The owner of the property where they lay had tried to persuade McCord to mould the sculptures in one of the display windows of his store. He would be too much in the public eye, the artist explained, and the distractions would bother him, prevent him from doing his best work.

The only effort McCord made to preserve his sculptures was to pour oil over them after he was done working. Townspeople came to see his creations, in the short time they existed. Within a week steady spring rains began washing away the figures, and they broke apart and dissolved back into the ground. People had trouble understanding this man who rejected public acclaim and didn't care about preserving his work. He seemed not to want fame or fortune, those two illusive desires that motivate some artists.

McCloud left Harlan as quietly as he'd arrived, hopping a train to some other town, perhaps with a new subject for his ephemeral art already taking shape in his mind. He must not have cared what people thought of him and understood that praise of his art had only temporary value. The fact that he completed the work to his own satisfaction would have been the true worth for him.

His feelings and motivations, the details of his story can't be known, as is the case with most people whose lives are over. But despite his desire for anonymity, J. B. McCord's artistic talent has been preserved in photographs and his will to create art for its own sake was recorded in newspaper articles, giving his life a thin thread of immortality.

Grateful thanks to:

Gary H. Christiansen, Mayor of Harlan
The Harlan Tribune
Harlan Community Library

©Margaret Cullison for SeniorWomenWeb

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