Rancher breathes new life into the afterbirth by making art from cow placentas

When customers enter the Dawson Creek Cannabis Company store to purchase marijuana, some are stopped to death by what appears to be a large, glowing coffin in the center of the store.

Lit from the inside, it looks like a stained glass box.

But it’s actually a work of art made from cow placentas, created by local farmer and artist Emilie Mattson.

“It raises eyebrows,” Mattson said in an interview with CBC News about making art from the afterbirth. “It creates a bit of a spark. Some people are totally disgusted and walk away shocked. Some are amazed.”

Emilie Mattson with her son, artist Karl Mattson. (Matthew Rivard/Contributed)

Mattson said she was first inspired to use the unusual artistic medium more than 20 years ago during calving season on her ranch near Rolla, BC.

She helped give birth to a calf in her barn in bitterly cold weather and slung the placenta over a lamp on the edge of the barn.

“We’re helping this cow because she’s in trouble, and I look around and with the light behind it, the placenta looks like stained glass,” she recalls.

At that time, Mattson was running 300 head of cattle and raising a family on the farm, but he was already an artist working in paint and sculpture.

She soon began experimenting with adding preserved placenta to her repertoire. Preserved in a special brine, she says, it dries like parchment or leather, preserving the dramatic colors.

Emilie Mattson on her cattle ranch near Dawson Creek, BC (Donna Kane/Contributed)

The calving season gave her an abundant supply. Though she said her neighbors in ranchland were initially dismissive, they eventually began saving their own animals’ placentas, “bringing them over in buckets” to replenish her supplies.

Even the local vet contributed, she said.

Mattson has since used placentas in many of her multimedia pieces.

She calls for the coffin-shaped work The treasurywhich took her two years to complete, she stretched the placenta over a metal frame supported by a worn undercarriage.

Now it has taken pride of place in a cannabis dispensary a 20-minute drive from her ranch.

Matthew Rivard, owner of the Dawson Creek Cannabis Company, which promotes local artists in his store, says Mattson’s artwork is “captivating, breathtaking and with brilliant color.”

Customers are curious about the “captivating” artwork made from cow placenta, says Matthew Rivard, a cannabis store owner who uses his Dawson Creek business to showcase work by local artists. (Matthew Rivard/Contributed)

He says the piece opens eyes to locals coming to buy a pre-rolled joint or THC gummies.

“You definitely see customers come in, people who just got off work. Maybe they’re working in the tire shop and they come in and they stop and look at the piece and say, ‘Oh my god.’ Everyone has a reaction.

“They think it’s stained glass, and then they look closer. They see a little piece of straw in the placenta. Some say, ‘Oh yes, I can see life and death.'”

Mattson’s art, including more conventional painting, has been showcased in jury exhibitions for many years.

Her art has been reviewed in publications as wide as Beef in BC — a magazine of the BC Cattlemen’s Association and the culture magazine Sculpture space.

“These brilliantly colored afterbirths are both a symbol and a chore,” art critic Paula Gustafson wrote in Sculpture Space in 2001, while reviewing one of Mattson’s placenta pieces at the Artropolis 2001 show at the CBC Vancouver studios.

“[They represent] … the wonder and mystery of birth and the sacred and violent act of labor.”

For Mattson, the placenta, which nourishes the baby in the womb, is “the beginning of everything.”

“It’s life-sustaining… If it weren’t for the placenta, we wouldn’t exist,” she said.

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