Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Peaceable Bathroom, showing at the Bedford Gallery

Peaceable Bathroom, 24x36” 2010
On display in a group show at:

Bedford Gallery
Peaceable Kingdom: Animals, Real and Imagined March 3 - May 19, 2013 A juried show devoted to investigating our storied and rich relationship with the animal world

Q & A:

Why have you chosen animals as your subject matter? How do they inspire you?
       I use animals in paintings to convey emotion. It is challenging to create an image that gives an animal character beyond being cute or anthropomorphic. Animals can become anything from culturally symbolic to universally inoffensive. A bat can represent good luck in China, half-human sexuality in Romania or a conflicted hero in Gotham. Engaging with animals allows me to explore a full range of emotions through observation and painting. I’ve been face to face with a mountain lion while hiking in the Sierras, surrounded by sharks diving in the South Pacific and frozen with terror staring at the wide open jaws of a cottonmouth in a cypress swamp. Conversely a school of curious squid in Fiji touching my mask with their tentacles left me smiling for days. Wild encounters are thrilling and unforgettable. I spend as much time as possible photographing wildlife in remote places for inspiration to paint. Through observing and painting animals I hope to convey a full range of emotions from petrifying fear to woozy adoration.

What is the conceptual idea behind the work in this show?
      I rented a studio surrounded by acres of ponds. An excursion into the Okefenokee Swamp brought alligators into very close range and I had sketched one in a bathtub, probably to assuage my morbid fear of them. A tame alligator seemed ridiculous, yet somehow comforting.  
     After moving to Georgia I regularly went canoeing on the pond in front of my studio, albeit nervously. I started the painting with the idea of inviting wild animals to hide in my house, including a twelve foot alligator. The painting is a true portrait from a photograph taken shortly after the alligator was intentionally drowned with fishing line using chicken for bait.
     Since alligators turn up in kiddie wading pools, it was likely he could have sought refuge in my house had I left the door open and I found myself wishing there was a solution to the violence we perpetrate on the world around us. I included the child holding a bluebird of happiness to further the illusion of safety in a frightening world. The idea that prey and predators could peacefully enjoy the day in one small room is a fantasy where we could all simply give up eating each other and get along. This painting took many years to finish and it is different from everything else I’ve done. It wanders further into the fantasy of a perfect world than I ever believe could be true. It was conceived with a childlike wish to ignore reality.  

Bedford Gallery
1601 Civic Dr  
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
Closed Monday
Tuesday-Sunday, noon-5pm, also 6-8pm when there are evening events (check web site)

     I started the painting Peaceable Bathroom in the swamp country of rural Georgia, an environment so visually stunning that inspiration oozed out of the muck. I rented a house on a large country estate and drove across country. That's how taken with it I was. But after many weeks of listening to constant gunfire in the woods it amazed me there were any wild animals still standing.   
They must have phenomenal reproductive capacities or hunters in the Deep South were terrible shots because hunting was as prevalent as obesity. I tried to adjust, but could not reconcile the bitterness that crept into my days.
     Creatures were referred to as pests, so hunting was not only sport, but oddly noble. Some animals were simply described by taste. Deer were overpopulated, beavers tore up the landscape and many tasted better than chicken, I was told. The slaughtering of wildlife had become inflated with zeal nearing religious fervor, evolving light years beyond the need to put food on the table. I would discourage sensitive nature lovers from moving to rural Georgia and would plead with activists determined to end cruelty to animals to move there sooner than later. I could not stomach the carnage.  
    When I first moved to swamp country I honestly thought the biggest problem would be alligators. I went for regular walks in the woods checking for footprints, hoping for a glimpse of something alive, but the critters were understandably wary. One sunny day while walking along the tree lined dam something big jumped into the pond nearby. I stepped closer to see what it was, then froze. A soft hissing sound at my feet alerted me to danger. It is unforgettable to stare directly into the open jaws of a cottonmouth snake. Previously I had seen an otter scamper across the path at dusk and I often toured the thirty acre pond through the cypress trees by canoe. More than once large snapping turtles bumped the bottom of the boat. I'd paddle to the beaver damn and watch warblers and wheeling columns of vultures through binoculars and zoom lenses. I had been longing for a close up nature moment, but yikes, what a way to have a wish granted. A nest of baby bunnies would have been fine. My heart pounded loudly. I bet the snake heard it. I imagine deadly pit vipers with no known antidote have extra sensory capabilities, although this one had merely come out to sun itself. 
      In better weather they hang in the trees and drop on prey from above. The hissing serpent displayed two long white fangs and it's body was tensed, ready to spring. Granted I nearly stepped on it so no wonder, I would bite before letting someone step on me. My guess is that it was between three or four feet long but taking accurate measurements was definitely out of the question. The dusty reddish brown color, stark white mouth and pronounced scales were truly beautiful. I did not have any clear thoughts about what to do, but luckily instinct had programmed me to freeze. I did not twitch one single nerve ending for what seemed like an interminably long time. I watched as the snake’s muscles relaxed. It’s mouth gradually closed, slower than a rose blooms. Then I very carefully took one step backwards.  I didn't have my camera which was good because at that point I felt safe and regretted not being able to take a picture. I've since learned that they can spring further than their body length and that variety was actually aggressive enough to give chase. The snake coiled and hissed again. I would have stood there until well after dark if it did not eventually relax again allowing me to move further away. Then I ran back to the house and called my sister, which I usually do after being scared silly. 
     A few days later a storm brought so much rain that the pond overflowed threatening to burst the dam. It turned the lawn into a deep, swift river. That was not worrisome until the landlord casually mentioned to keep an eye out for gators. Great, I had recently discovered that I froze in the face of danger and gators can run short distances at thirty five miles per hour. On the other hand, the landlords liked to have a poke at foreign California types like me so I was never sure if their warnings were a source of amusement for them when my eyes popped open and my pupils dilated.

     A few days after the flood receded I was driving back from town with my groceries. Police, sheriff and correctional facility vehicles sat idle at intervals along the road. Men with rifles stood next to their cars, but none of the usual prisoners in orange vests were working along the road. I stopped and asked two women officers what was going on. Their necks extended from their ear lobes to their shoulders, not from fat, but more likely a work out regime that would explode arteries in most people. One of them casually drawled, “We got a couple a runners”. Two convicts had escaped and were running through the swamp. They informed me that they would probably catch them since they were chained together. The vigil extended over three miles ending at the dirt road that I turned on to get to the house. I told them that I lived in a small house  alone just up the road and they gave me the least reassuring low whistle and eye roll ever. “Honey, you git home, lock yur doors and don’t come out for nobody”, they ordered as they backed up to wave me by. It was nearly dark. 
  The usual twigs snapping in the woods and leaves blowing across the porch took on a whole new meaning. There is a good and bad side to an overactive imagination. The benefit of living in the woods alone is that most days you can sing off key naked while washing your car; the down side is that no one would be able to hear the whole church choir screaming in pain. I called a friend who lived several hours away and she told me to sleep with a cast iron skillet within reach and bust any heads that came through a window. It was a long night. I woke up to a sunny day with my arms around a large cold skillet. I have no idea if they ever caught the runners.   
     I had rented the house with the understanding that I would stay for about six months. The deal breaker turned out to be something I was aware of by that point, but had not witnessed, which makes a profound difference. It started with  two guys who had been given permission to fish in the big pond on the property. They showed up once or twice a week to launch a flat bottom boat on the sandy spot in front of my house. One guy was enormous, the other gaunt. The boat was understandably not balanced. The skinny guy rode up in the air as the boat slowly spun in the breeze. Just a couple of hapless locals willing to eat the muddy crappie they occasionally reeled in. It became a lot less amusing when the landlord sauntered over one afternoon to let me know he had asked the “boys” to shoot some beavers. “Those vermin are diggin’ holes in my dam!” he ranted as any incensed landlord would over destruction of their property. Not far from my windows Mutt and Jeff took up earnestly fishing with handguns. The fat guy slumped on one side and the skinny guy waved his gun in the spinning boat ostensibly aiming at wildlife. I dropped to the floor more than once. The hunters were elated about having something to shoot at and told me so. I went in the house and cried. "But the beavers are so lovely", I said to the sour landlady when she came for the rent check. I had been watching a pair build their hut, preparing for spring.  
      I often paint late at night when the world is asleep and people tend to be quiet. When the hunters couldn't kill the beavers from their boat they started showing up all through the night with flashlights. They faced their pick-up trucks toward the pond to search the surface with their headlights. The middle of the house was all windows and no curtains. As beams of light swept across the easel where I sat the occasional pistol crack caused some highly random brush strokes. My tolerance was stretched to the limit. I had a limited amount of time to produce paintings for a show at Agape International Spiritual Center in Los Angeles. I had driven across country because the rent was affordable and the studio was large and on the water. Qualities not available in most inner cities, but I was rapidly understanding why the place had been empty for so long. 

     A few days later the skinny guy stood in the yard hollering at me to come out. I opened the door and stared at him. He asked if I wanted to go to another pond, further out in the woods, where he also shot beaver. He slowly explained that he had fallen on his head and couldn't remember much anymore, but told me that I looked like a fine woman. I think he was asking me on a date, although it was an approach I was not familiar with. He had a gun strapped to the front of his chest in a stretchy black holster, like a wicked Snuggli. I politely declined.
    Witnessing the carnage of the natural world began disrupting everything from digestion to nerves firing in my brain. It made me sick. One of the large alligators in the pond had often been used for target practice until they set a trap and drowned it.  I continued to paddle far into the swamp in a canoe, quietly looking for animals to photograph. My friend who was in the Coast Guard warned me what happened when cotton mouth snakes dropped into boats. It was 50/50, half jumped in with the gators and the other half shot their boats full of holes. 
    I had been walking less often in the woods after the cottonmouth encounter. Dogs chased me down the road when I toured the area on my mountain bike. One quiet Sunday morning I left the house as the sun was coming up to sit on the spillway where I could watch the beaver dam and listen to the calming sound of falling water. The faint blush of red buds on leafless trees promised an early spring. A foggy mist swirled over the tea colored surface of the still pond. I put on a warm parka and picked up my camera. One hundred yards from the house I saw something so horrible that at first I could not believe my eyes.
    The big, beautiful beaver who I had rarely been able to glimpse lay on the edge of the path. He was on his back and when I walked toward the poor creature he writhed to get away. When I saw why he could not my knees buckled under me and I stumbled forward. I honestly did not know how to handle what I was looking at until I saw a trap that had not been sprung at my feet easy enough to step in. It is legal in Georgia to use metal spring loaded traps able to crimp a large animal in half, but not necessarily kill them. The animal must lie in torment until someone shows up to shoot them. The trap had seized the beaver across its upper body. I did not take pictures because I knew I could never stand to look at them again. I looked to see if there was any way the poor animal could possibly be released, but he was obviously far too injured to survive. I sprung other traps that had been set, but was too weak to pull them out of the ground and I feared retaliation from the hunters. The traps are legal, the law states that they must be checked every twenty four hours. The State of Georgia paid (and maybe still does) twenty five dollars for every beaver tail turned in so many of them die in horrible and inhumane ways for beer and cigarette money. Countless other creatures are the victims of foot and body hold traps. The department of fish and game includes instructions on their web site about how to set traps. 
      Seeing an animal in so much pain made me hysterical and I did not try to calm myself down before I picked up the phone and hollered at the landlady until she agreed to make her husband shoot the beaver to put it out of terrible misery. They complained that it would make them late for church. She called me pathetic. I called the man who set the traps a greasy mother fucker and threatened to drag the beaver into the house to save it. I normally make a great effort to understand and accept the many different cultures I have lived in. I may not agree, but I try to observe rather than react. After seeing such a gentle creature so brutally tortured my attitude changed. Those assholes should be arrested, chained together and forced to repair highways for the rest of their sad brain damaged lives.
    The next day I drove to St. Augustine on the Florida coast and rented a room from a kind vegetarian woman with two sweet dogs. Being an animal lover she understood my desire to flee. I drove back to Georgia and told the landlords I would be moving as soon as I packed my van. That day they set piles of brush near the rental house on fire, filling it with smoke. I could barely see to load my stuff in the van. I left in the dark with the brush piles still flaming. It really was like driving out of hell. Deliverance is a place, not just a movie.  

     I paint animals because I love them. I am currently in Hawaii building a life sized humpback whale tail for display at Molokai Fish and Dive. I’ll be posting pictures as it comes together. My artwork is directed toward sharing the magnificence of creatures who so often must run and hide from us.

     Sherri Tippie has dedicated her life to saving beaver by live trapping and relocating them to areas where they are wanted and needed. Her lecture on Youtube is humorous, moving and informative;

      I spoke with her on the phone after finding the injured beaver. She makes a difference. There are people who care and take action. She made me feel a whole lot better. This is one of many articles about her work found in a google search;
This link will take you to a very surprising video of a man who is accepted by a lion pride and romps around freely with them. It is moving, unnerving and really cool.

1 comment:

  1. I remember this period of your life from your letters, but this description is even more emotionally powerful. Thank you for sharing it. And btw, some of my fondest Molokai memories from my 2005 visit was following the green sea turtle swimming with you.