Animals–mostly birds but other critters too–have taken up residence in my art for many years. I didn’t exactly invite them. Like squirrels drawn to my bird feeder, I don’t recall intending to focus on critters but they have been drawn into my art. And yet I did put up the feeder, and I did create these images, and so of course I invited them. Birds, frogs, cats, cicadas, squirrels and other critters are with us in life and so too in my art. In Steamed (2011), a squirrel chatters noisily like so many colicky babies (or whistling teakettles), clamoring for attention. In Stir (2010), birds with human legs spring forth to dance or fly. And in Composition With Goose (2009), a calm cat and a very wound-up goose hold forth and argue.
But more recently, in the past half-year or so, I’ve changed a little. I am thinking more intentionally about critters, my relationship to them, and the impact of human activity and climate change on them. I think of my pictures as a stage and the animals and people in them as characters playing a part. But instead of using birds or squirrels to tell stories that are really about people, the critters I’m drawing now are playing the part of themselves and are part of the story. In Frog, My Friend, for example, a frog, a casualty of the South Lawrence Trafficway, is carried off by “Death.” Or maybe the frog is our pet frog that died because we just couldn’t take care of him right. Either way, the frog in this story is a frog. In Run!, a Prairie Chicken plays its own part, too, on the run from Death due to habitat destruction and Kansas politics. In Passenger Pigeon: Abstract Memory, a cloud of extinct Passenger Pigeons becomes abstract and fades from memory. In Robin, Been and Gone, a robin is depicted along with several robin-silhouettes, symbolizing presence and absence, a reminder of what pesticides can do to birds. These are of course my images for my very human purposes, too. But I hope that by thinking more about the role of animals in my work, I can remind viewers that we have a relationship with animals, and that this relationship is fragile.
Making work about the negative impact of humans on critters is a new direction in my art, the beginning of a
larger body of work. I was moved to think more about animals in the broadest sense of the word after reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. Her book includes story after story of scientists worldwide documenting the process of animals becoming extinct because of human-caused global warming. Animals are leaving us now, and they are never coming back.
In my new work I am guided too by collaborating with my composer-friend Lynn Gumert, of Hightstown, NJ. Lynn and I have talked on the phone and we have exchanged emails, images, and sound. We are working together on loosely-related themes in our work, themes that include the impact of climate change on weather, animals, and us. Lynn is working on a series of related short saxophone quartet pieces, and eventually our work will be presented together. Her first notes to me depicted a river. Building on her compositions I am also playing with images of saxophones and literally drawing their “sound,” as in River Song. In this piece, a Mourning Dove plays a saxophone-river. This, too, is another experiment in visual storytelling.
Please join Karen Matheis and me for our two-person show at the Phoenix Underground, opening Final Friday, June 27, 2014, 5 – 9 pm, from June 27 – July 23 at the Phoenix Underground (825 Massachusetts, Lawrence, KS). I’ll show these works and others too, and almost all of them include animals.
I made this in memory of the Passenger Pigeon, a species that went extinct a hundred years ago. I was thinking about the way that artists today make images of the pigeon based on art from the past, and how our “memory” of the birds has become faded and distorted over time.
Come see Declarations, a mixed-media on scratchboard piece at the opening reception for the exhibit “Make More Love!”
Final Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
5 – 9 pm
The Percolator is between 9th and 10th Streets and half a block east of New Hampshire St. It is in the alley behind the Lawrence Arts Center, Lawrence, KS.
I am excited that a mosaic of mine will be on the cover of the forthcoming book To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices. The book will be available sometime in December, so stay tuned!
This collection of 150 poems, each one written as part of a collaborative whole, was edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Kansas Poet Laureate 2009-13.
To the Stars Through Difficulties takes the form of a renga, a collaborative poem in which each participant writes in response to the one or two parts of the poem that came before. Each portion of the poem has been highlighted throughout the year (2012) on the blog 150 Kansas Poems.
(To the Stars Through Difficulties was edited by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg; cover design by Leah Sewell; cover art by Lora Jost; interior design by Denise Low-Weso, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-2009; poems by 150 writers who have a unique relationship to Kansas — its landscape and culture.)
I wish I had a new art piece to post every day or even every week. But making art is not an instant process. So instead of showing pictures of new work, in this blog I’ll tell you about my current work as it is unfolding right now in my studio.
Here is the start of a new piece: plywood. I just painted a sealer on it. Beginnings are hard, even just that much. I like to avoid beginnings. Instead I make lists, do errands, clean my studio, surf the web. But the drudgery and uncertainty I like to avoid in the beginning is no less a part of the creative process. So I begin. Choreographer Twyla Tharp writes, “If you’re at a dead end, take a deep breath, stamp your foot, and shout “Begin!”
I have a vision of what this piece will be in my mind, and I selected some green cloth from my trove to cover the wood. I envision this piece as a collage with a light green background, a landscape that is barren and shiny with textures made of cloth and gold thread. Small painted silhouettes of mule deer dot the scene, some hiding behind shrubs. The deer are painted and lacquered, black and white, positive and negative, present and absent. I won’t be able to fully translate these ideas into a tangible form. There is an airiness and movement to the piece in my mind that I’ll never achieve in a collage. I enjoy what my college design professor called this kind of beginning, this intention that would inevitably turn into something else: a point of departure.
While the image in my mind feels like the beginning of the piece, my mind started working on it long before I ever thought of making it. So where did this idea — these appearing and disappearing mule deer — come from? The deer came from Mesa Verde National Park, where my family and I camped for two days this summer. We were excited to see deer off to the side of the camp road on our first day there. Later we saw deer a couple of times more, clusters of three or six. On our second day there I stayed at our campsite for most of the day. I sat quietly and sketched. A buck wandered through our tent’s back yard. He didn’t see me at first. When he did, he froze. And when I turned to leave, he left too. Later I opened my mind and my peripheral vision to the whole scene, the whole campground, as I wandered through it towards the camp store looking for a cup of tea. I noticed that there were deer all over the grounds. When I became aware of the whole, I felt the slow churning of the place; mule deer wandering everywhere, some in the open and others hiding, slow motion, looking, watching.
A week later back in Lawrence I put a bit of that experience into my Sketchbook Project sketchbook. I remembered my family and the other campers at Mesa Verde watching the deer and photographing them, and the deer watching us back. Earlier this summer I also saw a deer that struck me, a lone deer running through my Lawrence neighborhood, confused. I made a collage about that experience, too. But unlike the deer in Lawrence, in Mesa Verde the campers were in the deer’s neighborhood and not the other way around. Or that’s how it seemed.
I have other pieces in the works in my studio that are at various stages of completion. One is a mosaic that lies on a table, ready to grout. I like taking pictures of my mosaics just after I’ve completed tiling them and just before grouting, with bits of broken dishes all around and my trusty red-handled tile nipper to the side. It is a familiar scene and I like the way the shards fall, a chance arrangement like wind shaping sand dunes.
And there’s more. Here’s another page from my Sketchbook Project sketchbook. I have been pasting newspaper clippings into my book as the news unfolds, with stories that strike me as significant in some way. Along with the clippings, I am creating relationships between spreads by drawing pictures of a paper boat in each, from different angles and perspectives. Drawing over the news becomes a response to it. This two-page spread includes a clipping about the mass shooting that occurred in Colorado this summer. I drew the boat at around midnight one night when I couldn’t sleep. The shooting in Colorado was horrifying and senseless. And yet to make sense of it I had to think about guns. Why must we have them? And so many? And yet so many think we must. [A second horrific shooting occurred this summer in Wisconsin a couple of weeks later.]
Here is another piece in progress. This is a background that I made to accompany my planned foreground, a wind chime caught in a violent gust. And yet the background doesn’t seem quite right for the foreground, nor does my plan for how to make the chime seem right anymore. So I don’t know what I’ll do to make it right. But I like the idea of it; a beautiful object transformed by the weather into something that is clanking like a warning bell. It accords with themes I’m exploring for my upcoming exhibit at Do’s Deluxe.
More projects: My sister-in-law mailed a set of broken dishes to me; toy dishes sent from a relative to her for my niece, which crashed to the floor in a freak accident. Could I make a mosaic with them? I have some ideas and sketchbook scribbles. And what else? I’ll make an illustration for a book of limericks for my college alma mater come November, focus on mosaics come spring, and soon teach a class on “field sketching” at the Lawrence Arts Center if I get enough enrollment.
What else? The mule deer piece is currently in idea form and I’ll soon start putting the pieces together to turn that idea into a collage. But I also have a work in progress that is on the verge of being an idea, another scratchboard piece in a small series about our “better angels.” I don’t know what the next piece will look like yet, but I have been visited by those angels in my sketchbook, so I suspect that a more tangible idea is soon to follow. But what comes before something is even almost an idea? Maybe experiences? I have experiences in the hopper too from the summer, captured in photos and journal-writing. There had been fires at Mesa Verde, and I was struck by the other-worldliness of the burned landscape against the sky. All of the barren landscapes that we drove through this summer, in Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, were hauntingly beautiful. We saw other fires too, active ones exacerbated by the drought, and the drought exacerbated by global warming.
There was a little bird at Mesa Verde that made quite an impression. It hopped around looking for bugs, shuffling the leaves with such gusto that it made quite a racket. At first I thought there was one bird doing this but I realized that it was a kind of bird and there were many. But I never saw more than one at a time. The bird had a dark head and tail feathers, tan on its sides, a white belly and speckled back. What was it — that earnest little bird?
Having new experiences, like seeing different birds or unfamiliar landscapes, makes creative work seem possible. Spending too much time in my studio makes me feel dull. And bored. And lonely. Getting out helps. But when travel isn’t possible (and it isn’t much of the time), I read. I just finished reading a book called Biggest Elvis. My brother recommended it. When I asked him what it was about he said, “It’s complicated.” The book is about three Elvis impersonators in the Philippines who work at a club where bar girls service in every way imaginable, servicemen affiliated with a nearby US Naval base. I took Biggest Elvis on vacation and it was good company because it provided images of beauty and desolation at the same time I was experiencing a similar contrast of beauty and desolation through the car window. The book raised moral questions about the characters it portrayed. But in the end they were almost too complex to judge. And that’s what struck me the most about this book. Biggest Elvis was about US imperialism, too, but again the portrayals were not simplistic.
I’m throwing Biggest Elvis out there as an example of one of many small but notable experiences to draw on in my work. I don’t know if I’ll ever draw on it in any kind of direct or meaningful way. But as Corita Kent and Jan Steward put it in their book Learning by Heart, “Everything is a source.”
“Composition with Goose,” a 12″ x 12″ clayboard drawing, will be on exhibit at the 1109 Gallery (1109 Mass, Lawrence), as part of the “Animals & Nature Dog Days Show,” August 5 – September 6, 2009. All are invited to the opening on August 8, 7 – 9 pm.
This is the first in a series of small scratchboard drawings, only 5″ x 5″. I love the mix of humming bird and human, maybe on a stage, taking wing.