1. Why Animals?
“We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, congruent with ourselves in the net of life and time…”
— Henry Beston (Writer and Naturalist)
Animals become metaphors in my work, often used as self-portraiture or portraits of others or as symbols for a situation or human emotion. Many scholars have argued that animals were the first metaphors in human language, and as John Berger remarks, “the first subject matter for painting was animal. Probably the first paint was animal blood. Prior to that, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the first metaphor was animal” (Mitchell, p. 185). However, animals as subject matter are questioned in contemporary art and frequently overlooked.
Although animals are often found in artworks of the European masters, they likely play a secondary role or are in service to humans, such as the dog at the feet of the couple in Van Eyck’s Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and His Wife, Giovanna Cenami, or the horses ridden by Albrecht Dürer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Non-western primitive cultures used the animal in conjunction with the human as in Egyptian, Indian and Native American art. These civilizations were eventually colonized by the West, leading to degradation of their artwork and the idolatrous branding of their animal gods. The Western influence subconsciously lurks in the heads of most Western critics, and my own professors often asked in critique sessions why I use animals as my subject matter. I found the question “Why animals?” ridiculous at first, why paint portraits, or print landscapes, or draw still lives? I was asked in a critique why I hadn’t used the human figure, and I replied, “They are not interesting to me right now.” This has been the same reason throughout history, from Aesop to the Ogallala, to Orwell, that “all these types of stories used animal characters as symbols of human behaviors and actions—–either those to imitate or to avoid. The substitution of animals for humans often made the messages in the stories more palatable or, at the very least, more entertaining” (Morrison, p. 57).
In this tradition, my artwork revolves around a narrative that incorporates metaphor and symbol. The stereotypes that accompany animal characters in Aesop, Grimm, the Bible, and bestiary writings have influenced my own metaphors for the animals. However, when the animal enters my print, it takes on the meaning of the narrative I have given it. My work is quite different in its intentions than a traditional bestiary or “book of beasts,” which “was a collection of stories about creatures both real and fanciful in which the characteristics seen as typical of a particular animal were ascribed moral or Christian meaning” (Morrison, p. 64), and thus most read as parables, describing the animal and how it related to the way life should be lived, although some read as pseudo-scientific record of animal life. I have taken meaning from Aesop, Grimm, Anderson, and folk stories of other origins, adding layers of meaning to make the animal something new in my narratives.