Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Taxi: a trip to the center of my soul

The song “Taxi” by Harry Chapin has always been for me a moving and poignant song. I especially connected with the bridge, where he sings:

“Oh, I've got something inside me,
To drive a princess blind.
There's a wild man, wizard,
He's hiding in me, illuminating my mind.
Oh, I've got something inside me,
Not what my life's about,
Cause I've been letting my outside tide me
Over till my time runs out.”

I always felt a deep connection to this song, especially to these lines. I have until recently felt exactly this about my life. This song came on the radio the other day and it got me thinking about where my life is now, how I got here, and why it took me so long. This is my story.

When I was a kid, I was interested in mainly three things: animals, the natural world, and art. I would spend as much time as I could outside, playing on the wooded hill that separated our house from the lake, swimming, fishing, rowing around in our rowboat, or just sitting and watching the water. Being an only child I was left with a lot of alone time, and I became an observer of my environment. I felt very much at one with my surroundings. But for whatever reason, I never learned about them—I never took the time to read and study about my home. I felt, I suppose, like I was a part of it, and I knew it on a soul level. There seemed no need to know it on an intellectual one.

Art as a serious endeavor came later. Like most kids I spent time making drawings to hang on the fridge and I enjoyed my art classes in school. My skill was clearly above average when it came to depicting subjects realistically, something that probably stemmed from my hours of quiet, contemplative observation on the lake—I had learned how to see. But in I think eighth grade I had a class with Mrs. Fisher, and in this class I had a breakthrough of sorts. I found an ad in a magazine for a poster for the Sierra Club. It was a painting by the artist Albert Earl Gilbert titled “Cougar” of a mountain lion standing on a log that jutted out into nothing. (I still have the page from the Sierra Club magazine it was torn from.) The animal was powerful and intense, and the style of the piece was stark, bare bones—no background to get in the way of the intensity of this animal’s gaze. I was smitten, and Mrs. Fisher helped me draw the subject out, teaching me how to break the animal into basic shapes—squares and circles and ovals—in order to get proportion and pose correct. I took it from there. It was the first time I felt a visceral connection to something I made, and even though it was done from an image in a magazine I felt I had come to know this creature simply by drawing a likeness of it on a sheet of paper.

I continued to draw throughout high school and took a couple of art classes where I learned more about composition, perspective, shading—the basics of art. I continued to make wildlife art, even selling a piece at a school talent show for $50. I took biology classes and loved learning about earth science and human anatomy. But I simply never made the connection between my love of art, wildlife and the natural world and a career.

I had come to believe somewhere along the line that one could not make a living as an artist. I have no idea who was responsible for this. I don’t recall anyone telling me that, although it is certainly possible. But however it happened, art as a career was out of the question. I also never made the connection between my love of the out-of-doors and a career. Although I started in college as a biology major, it was more along the lines of human biology, not ecology. I was thinking genetics. It was not long before it became apparent that I was not interested in the human genome, and I spent the rest of my college career wandering lost in academia until I just gave up, and I never finished with a degree in anything.

My employment choices seemed to more closely reflect my interests. After three years at the McDonald’s in Whitmore Lake (where employment opportunities were quite limited!) I landed a job at the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor. There I was able to feel like I was making a difference, knew that I was helping those who were at our mercy to have a better life, and I was good with the animals. (My friends now like to call me The Whisperer—Dog, Cat, Chicken….) I also learned a lot about wildlife. We had a rescue program where we would rush to the aid of any injured or trapped animal. I was immersed in a world full of baby raccoons, injured deer, damaged owls, turtles, snakes—you name it, we had it come through our doors. We even had a prairie dog for a while in the basement, and for a few brief hours we had a mountain lion cub, confiscated from a man who was delivering it to its new owner.

But while bounding dogs and fuzzy, purring kittens surrounded me, and while I loved my job, there is a dark side to working at an animal shelter. It’s called death. It is a necessary evil in that line of work. Often the choice is easy, when an animal is suffering you have the ability to end its life quickly and fairly painlessly. It’s the healthy ones that get to you, the ones you have to kill because no one wants them, because there are not enough homes and you can’t just set them free. And at the same time I started this job I moved away from my beloved childhood home on the lake, and shortly after that I dropped out of school.

Now, I had tried to figure out something to do at college that would satisfy my need for a career and be something I could get behind. I remember the day I sat myself down and asked, “What do you like to do?” Well, art was the first thing that came to mind, but the only thing I could think of to get a paycheck as an artist was in illustration, (fashion drawings on the fronts of clothing patterns came to mind), and that simply didn’t interest me. Next! How about writing? Hmm, I liked to write, and had journalism classes in high school. I could get a job at a newspaper! So I studied journalism, but found it to be dry and boring, and convinced myself that I wasn’t pushy enough to be a reporter. So I just gave up and stopped going to school.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that I was missing two vital things in my life, connection and voice. As an only child my support base was small to begin with. With my parent’s divorce in my junior year in high school, my life started to slide. After graduation I slowly lost contact with friends. There were failed relationships. I left my home on the lake and moved to the city and lost contact with nature’s more wild side. The connections that had sustained me were severed and I felt lost and alone.

I was deeply depressed for many years, and I drank a lot. People who cared tried to get me to see a counselor, but I swore up and down that I was fine, I didn’t need to talk to someone. But what I didn’t realize at the time is that is exactly what I needed. I needed someone to hear me. I felt invisible and trapped and useless. I knew there was a wild man (well, woman) inside me, that my life wasn’t what I wanted it to be, knew that I was supposed to do something more, that I had something to say. That I had something inside me that was not what my life was about. I needed to feel like I had a voice.

I know now that I failed at journalism because it is about objectivity, about keeping emotions out and reporting just the facts. I felt I had something I wanted to say, I wanted to be heard, (even if I didn’t know what I wanted to say), but in a journalistic career your feelings are irrelevant. Art was the same way, the idea of illustrating, doing work for others where there was no connection to me and what my interests were, where I had no voice, was appalling. I wanted to speak. I wanted to be heard.

Life finally stabilized for me. I got a good job in the photo industry, I was in a stable and supportive relationship, I lived in a nice house in a nice part of town. All was well for a while but eventually a restlessness crept in. I found the city suffocating. I wasn’t reading much, wasn’t learning. I wasn’t in touch with a place or with myself. I would sit in the backyard and stare off through the trees and over the roofs of houses and into the sky and feel a pull that I couldn’t explain, a wistfulness that didn’t fit in with what I imagined was a wonderful life. I was letting my outside tide me over till my time ran out. I still had this yearning for something more, something deeper, something powerful. I still felt that I had something to say that I wasn’t, something to share with the world that was locked up inside. Then an amazing thing happened—I lost my job.

When I got laid off, I was devastated. I thought it was the end of my life. I’d worked my way up, was making a good wage and was a solid and dependable employee. I thought I was doing it all right, was taking care of myself and my home and my relationship and then blamo! it was gone. The photo industry was forever changed by digital technology and the only thing I’d done for the previous 10 years was suddenly obsolete. What the hell was I going to do?

Art. Art is what I was going to do. I had set myself up a little studio in the spare bedroom of our home, and had copies of my artwork, which I had continued doing as a hobby all these years, hanging on the walls. And as luck would have it, we were invited that year to be on the homes’ tour in our neighborhood. Since I wasn’t working I had time to get the house ready, and in September 2004 we had 650 come through our home. I was one of the tour guides, and the reaction people had to my work as they toured my home surprised me. They loved it. “Is that your work?” they would ask. “It’s amazing!” So we had an idea. Why not try to make a living selling art?! And so in 2005 I started doing art shows.

While I have yet to make a living doing art, I feel I have finally found my career. Doing art full time has connected me to what I have been missing since my days in Whitmore Lake—nature, and through nature, myself. Doing wildlife art has caused me to rediscover the power of observation and has reinvigorated my desire to learn and to grow. I began reading the works of Muir, Olson, Leopold and Dillard among others, and I am inspired by their words and their experiences to go out and have my own. I realized the other day that the reason I never before read books on nature and the environment, even though those things were always of vital importance to me, was because I was insanely jealous of those who had the opportunity to spend their time in the wild and with wild creatures. I couldn’t bear to be reminded of what I wasn’t doing with my life.

The next step was to get out of the city, and in 2006 we sold our house in town for five acres in the country. Now I have a place to go where I can’t see my neighbors. Now I have fox and hawks and deer and birds I haven’t seen since I lived in Whitmore Lake. I have a kayak and the Brighton Rec Area and am reconnected with the water I miss so much. Now I am involved with the ecology of my home and the surrounding area. I do volunteer work. I make art.

For the first time in my life I am able to connect the three things I love the most—art, animals and nature. The wild man wizard has been set free and will never be put back in his bag. I feel illuminated, my art is my light, my voice, and even if it means starving I will not give this up. The road to finding it was too long, the lessons I had to learn about myself too costly for me to turn back now. I don’t want that Chapin song to be a commentary on where I am in my life right now—I want it to be a reminder of where I have been, and of why I don’t ever want to go back. I know, finally, what my life’s about.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Here is another post of the tiger in progress. This piece is coming along nicely and this is a good image to show the progression. I generally complete an area before moving on to another rather than working the whole piece at once, and here you can see the area under the chin roughed in and ready for darkening and detail. The nose is outlined in pen and is ready for color as well, then on to the rest of the face.
I have been reading a book I picked up at a little shop in Brighton called Wildernest, a place to get bird seed and gifts which also has a nice little selection of books. I was struck instantly by the cover (a close-up of a mountain lion) and after reading the back decided to buy it. Now Mr. Turner holds some views that I don't exactly agree with but several that I do, and even though I take issue with some of his beliefs I still find his essays compelling. I will discuss this book more in a future post. Why I mention it at all is that I think it has given me the title to this piece. He quotes William Blake in the sub-title to his second essay. The quote reads: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." It is a compelling statement and a brash essay follows, one that he aptly calls "a rant." But from the quote I have found the name for this piece: Tiger Wise

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I like winter. When I tell people this, most look at me like I've got lobsters coming out of my ears. But I really do like winter, like it more than summer even. No bugs, no stifling heat, no suffocating humidity. My take on the cold is that I can put enough on--and stay active enough--to stay warm, but there are days in the summer when I cannot take enough off to beat the heat. At least not legally.

The thing I like the most about winter is the quiet. Quiet is something I crave--it's one of the things I was looking for when we moved from the city to the country. It's not as quiet here as I would like, kind of a lot of road noise, but it's better than having a bus stop in our front yard. But the silences of winter are calming and rejuvenating. I can step outside and hear the wind, the birds, the crunch of my dog's footsteps in the snow, without the competition of lawnmowers and cars and buses. I can imagine for a moment that I am in the wilderness, that there is only me and the trees and the sun on my back.

I went out today for a short walk down to the marsh that is behind our property. The snow is deep, deep anyway for southeast Michigan, 15 inches or so. Even with my snowshoes the walk is strenuous--and of course I am out of shape from too few walks this winter. I walk the pipeline easement that separates our property from our neighbors, and it is gently rolling and wooded on either side. I spot a disturbance in the snow, one without tracks anywhere near it, fresh-looking with crisp edges, and decide it must have been from a hawk chasing prey. Not more than 20 seconds later a cooper's hawk flies out of our neighbor's woods, passes right in front of me and into our woods with a little grey bundle in its talons. Could this be my bird? Quite possibly. Later, as I stand on top of a small rise catching my breath, I watch a young red-tail hawk circling overhead. It is so clear and dry, and the sun is full on it, that I can see it turning it's head this way and that, looking for prey. Hawks represent vision and I wonder, as I head for home with the sun warm on my face, what exactly it is that I am supposed to see.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I wanted to take a moment to talk about my latest piece and post an in-progress photo of it. It is as yet untitled, but it is of an Amur (formerly Siberian) tiger. My latest works have been in colored pencil with ink, but they've all been birds. This will be my first mammal in these mediums and I'm excited about how it's turning out. This also signals a return to my first love as far as my wildlife art goes--big cats. There is an intelligence in the eyes of predatory animals that I feel brings about a closeness, a feeling of connectedness--we relate to them, as we too, at the base of our nature, are predators, the top of our food chain. It is why it is so important to get the eyes right, why I start with them and if they don't work I start over. It establishes a connection, and I think that many of us, whether we realize it consciously or not, crave that connection with nature and wildness.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Hello, world! I am excited about this opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas with anyone willing to listen. I have just finished doing some basic set-up and will be ready to roll with this soon. But now it's late, I'm tired from shoveling close to a foot of snow and, by golly, there's a football game on so....