Tuesday, September 15, 2009

MFA Thesis: Chapter 2

I was fortunate as a child to be exposed to animals in literature at an early age. The tales of Aesop, James Herriot, Anna Sewell, Walter Farley and Jack London graced the “kids shelf” on our bookshelf. The tales were invigorating, and we let our imaginations go wild. My brothers and I would scan the pages of a National Geographic picture encyclopedia of mammals, pick out our animal, and then act the part. We wrestled each other to the ground, heads first like the elk; one of us would scamper up on a table as the other paced below like a monkey in a tree with a lion below; at top speed we dashed through the kitchen and into the yard as the fleet-footed gazelle outran the cheetah. Actual animals were overkill in a house with four kids with active imaginations. Nonetheless, my siblings and I constantly lobbied for pets, which came much later at an age of responsibility.

Perhaps due to my tomboyish attitude, I rejected dolls and cherished a collection of animals. I had many stuffed toys that I named and cared for as if they were real, hoping for a Velveteen Rabbit moment. My aunt made me a knick-knack shelf to display my small glass animals, plastic horses, onyx donkey and polar bear, flocked squirrel and cat with mirror eyes my grandmother gave me, and countless other treasures. Arranging the shelf was a ritual for me, calling each piece by name, dusting it off, and replacing it on the shelf. I treated the animals in my collection with the reverence of an idol, and in this process the real animals they represented were becoming sacred in my mind as well. And yet they were not so sacred that I could not indulge in playing with them, or creating a life for them. I believed they wanted to be warm on snowy nights, or that I must rotate their position on the shelf so they could visit with their friends. These wants of the objects made them akin to fetish objects, but overall they were my friends and comforts, and because “the animal itself is also the totem” (Mitchell, p. 178), they became totemic objects, wanting to be my friend and companion (Mitchell, p. 194).

Having such an affinity for animals, they became my favorite subjects to draw. I copied them from photos, illustrations from my favorite books or popular “How to Draw…” manuals. I began combining animal types and decorating them with Technicolor pattern, such as a giraffe head and neck with the body of a lion, covered in spots and stripes of all colors. I was making work that resembled the “marginal hybrids” of medieval manuscripts, “referred to as ‘hybrids’ because they appear to have the features of two, three, or even more different animals” (Morrison, p. 71). These animals and the decorative look of manuscripts would prove a source of great inspiration in upcoming artworks.

Figure 1. Detail from childhood drawing of animal with pawed front feet, hoofed back feet and wings. Crayon on construction paper, c. 1990.

As I became interested in art in high school and college, my subject matter was swayed by academia and I drew still lives, portraits and other typical subject matter, trying to work in an animal whenever I could. During this early art school phase I made awful art, drawing what I thought the professor would want, or whatever the assignment was: fortune cookies, popcorn, still lives straight from a box of junk in the art closet. My printmaking class was the first to allow open subject matter, because the technique alone was so demanding. My professor, E.C. Cunningham, suggested I look at literary themes such as fairy tales and myth. This opened up a door for me to use animals as characters and symbols in my work. Animals allowed me to be confident in my subject matter so that I could focus on technique. As I built my skill base, my work was becoming more cohesive; concepts were building on animals as metaphors for personal situations and feelings.

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