FLIGHT OF SONG
I started this piece after seeing a program about bird keeping in China. Continuing a long tradition going back to the Qing Dynasty, bird keepers take their birds, caged in bamboo cages with hangers attached, out for a “walk” to the park. Swinging the cages along the way allows the birds to get exercise as they clamor to stay perched. Once at the park, the cages are hung close together from branches in the trees, and the birds and people socialize.
I find this practice sadly beautiful—the birds are breathing in fresh air, able to enjoy the naturally beautiful surroundings as the men mingle, yet the birds remain caged and cannot fly.
Despite being caged, the bird in my painting sings, sending his melody out into the world. Scrolling lines emanate from his beak. He offers his song to all who’ll listen. From his imperfect circumstances, he makes music—he is like an artist. “Art is born out of an ill-designed world.” (Andrei Tarkovsky)
As we “shelter in place” during the COVID pandemic, in a way, we are caged like the pet birds. We are unable to move about and socialize unfettered. Artists have an advantage during these trying times. We connect to one another in this difficult period by creating art, making music, expressing ourselves and our condition as an offering and a way to find understanding in this complicated world.
WAR BONNET WOLF
I’m for the wolf. Without wolves, there would be no dogs—man would be without his best friend. Wolves roamed the western U.S. for a long time before Europeans arrived. They are known to roam long distances, the sound of their primal howl filling the night. They are truly representative of the essence of untamed America, land of the free.
After Europeans arrived in America, wolves were ruthlessly hunted to near extinction, and they were placed on the endangered species list in 1973. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reintroduced them to the West in 1994. Yet, they are currently being gunned down from helicopters, and an organized, methodical eradication plan is in place in Idaho—to kill all but 150, the minimum number required before being placed on the endangered species list once again. We are at war with wolves—perhaps we are at war with our wild, rugged past.
My painting shows a wolf wearing a war bonnet, reminiscent of the Native American headdress worn in battle, comprised of feathers of the owl and eagle. Arrows are incorporated into the border of the piece, each with stripes in the colors of the four directions, according to Native American mythology: yellow pointing east, white pointing north, black pointing west, and red pointing south. The squares within the border include a trio of red, white, and blue. The wolf’s head sits atop a field of shimmering gold brushstrokes, staring back at the viewer. He is like a spirit, the spirit of the Wild West, under siege, poised for battle, emerging from fire.
The pronghorn are the fastest land animal in North America, and they are only found on this continent. They have been migrating in the spring and fall along a route between Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin and the Snake River in the Grand Tetons for 6,000 years. Over time, their route has been divided by highways and blocked by fences, and their journey has become treacherous. Many deaths have occurred on Wyoming’s highways as a result.
Facing this problem head on, the WY Department of Transportation has built several wildlife passages—overpasses and underpasses—to allow safe passage of big game animals like the pronghorn. These corridors have been extremely successful. My painting depicts one such overpass, near Trapper’s Point, WY. It is depicted using intense colors, stretching naturalism, and highlighting the blurred line between what is natural and what is man-made, drawing attention to how nature has been transformed by man.
Innovative ideas like this overpass and others like it promote cooperation between different organizations and interests, while also saving lives and preserving the grandeur of the American West and its wildlife. The building of these corridors embodies the same progressive spirit that compelled early Americans to travel westward in pursuit of their own land and a piece of the American dream.
Continuing my interest in endangered species, I recently painted Manatee. I’ve long admired the gentle beauty and grace of the manatee. And manatees are a lot smarter than previously thought. Scientists have uncovered that manatees have abilities with experimental tasks similar to dolphins. Yet, their population is at risk.
They are graceful, but slow swimmers, and they hear on a high frequency, while boats often emit very low frequencies. So, there have been countless collisions with propeller driven boats and ships. A great number of them have been killed, scarred or disfigured by these vessel strikes.
There is also evidence that red tides are responsible for many manatee deaths. And many get caught in crab pot float lines and other fishing gear, or accidentally ingest fishing gear, which can be fatal. Some also perish owing to habitat destruction. So, these gentle giants are endangered.
My painting celebrates the grace and beauty of the manatee and brings attention to its plight. Within the work is a yellow grass called hydrilla, a favorite in their diet. Numbers scrawled at the left of the painting are inverted, referring to the ability of the manatee to swim upside down. Rings emanate from the manatee’s mouth, representing its breath. The colored dots symbolize its life force or energy.
This painting is about the myth of Demeter and Persephone, first recorded by Homer in his Hymn to Demeter (7th c. BC). The story opens with the young maiden Persephone gathering flowers in the meadow. A great chasm opens up and Pluto, lord of the Dead, carries her away to the underworld to be his bride.
Her mother Demeter discovers her absence and searches for her endlessly. She ultimately discovers Persephone’s fate and, distraught and mourning, withdraws from Olympus. In her bereavement, she keeps the seed hidden underground and vows not to let anything sprout until her daughter is restored. Nothing grows, the fields lay farrow.
Time passes, and Zeus finally intervenes, demanding that Pluto return his kidnap victim. Pluto obeys, but not before feeding Persephone the seeds of a pomegranate, which assures her return to him. Persephone is released and is welcomed by her mother, who allows the crops to grow and flowers to bloom. But for three months of every year, she must return underground to live with Pluto.
In the painting, a pomegranate hangs in the balance. A sequence of numbers to its left show the number 2 blotted out, representing the pair Demeter and Persephone, whose union is disrupted. Beneath, gently drawn scalloped lines denote the furrows of barren fields, while Demeter withholds the sprouting of seeds. At the painting’s left edge, there are twelve circles, or rings, one for each month of the year. Three are darkened, symbolizing the three months Persephone must spend underground. A gold rectangle adorns the corner, like the sun, spreading a golden shimmer throughout the piece, like sunlight blanketing a field. A delicate dogwood flower, thin and frail, sits afloat atop a tan veiled square, embodying the fragility and vulnerability of life.
THE LAST GOLDEN TOAD
The golden toad (scientific name: Bufo periglenes), discovered in 1966 by herpetologist Jay Savage, once lived in abundance in the tropical forests of Costa Rica. By May of 1989, only a single male was found, the last of its kind. My painting is a depiction of that last male specimen.
He is bright orange, showing his gender (an adult female would be dark olive/black). He takes refuge on a lily pad, floating downward along the path of a single white line, simulating a line graph plotting population statistics, charting the toad’s gradual descent to extinction. Yet, a lotus rests at the bottom of the painting, a sign of hope, regeneration, and cosmic renewal.
Jennifer Neville in, “The Case of the Golden Toad: Weather Patterns Lead to Decline,” discusses the changes in weather as a possible cause for the extinction of the species. The golden toad is not unique. Amphibians are in serious decline globally. Changes in weather patterns since the 1980’s, among other factors, have made it difficult for amphibians to breed successfully. El Niño, global warming, habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, and disease may all be factors. The decline is considered a great threat to global biodiversity.
In 2007, a great many scientists met in Atlanta, GA, forming a group called the Amphibian Ark, and a captive breeding program was begun in hopes of saving other amphibians from the fate of the golden toad. (To read more about the Amphibian Ark’s effort to save frog species, click here). In addition, organizations of scientists like the Amphibian Conservation Alliance (ACA) and the World Wildlife Fund are studying the problems facing amphibians, in hopes of saving further species from extinction.
ROOSTER OF BARCELOS
This piece was painted after I returned from a delightful trip to Portugal. It is based on the legend of the Rooster of Barcelos, a Portuguese story involving a rooster and a falsely accused man from Galicia.
According to the legend, someone stole silver from a landowner in Barcelos, and the criminal was on the run. A suspect materialized—a man from neighboring Galicia. He swore he was innocent, that he had merely been passing through Barcelos on a pilgrimage. Nevertheless, the authorities arrested the Galician man, and he was subsequently condemned to hang.
He asked to be taken to the judge who condemned him, and the authorities escorted him to the magistrate’s house, where a banquet was taking place. The Galician pointed to a roasted rooster on top of the banquet table and proclaimed, “It is as certain that I am innocent as it is certain that this rooster will crow when I am hanged.” The rooster was cast aside, and the judge failed to heed the Galician’s appeal.
Soon thereafter, when the Galician man was being hanged, the rooster crowed, just as predicted. The judge rushed to the scene of the hanging, and discovered that luckily, thanks to a poorly tied knot, the Galician was saved and declared a free man.
In the painting, the rooster crows, as scrolling lines emanate from his beak. A square of color signifies a coming to life, for the rooster and the man.
I’ve long been fascinated with Oppenheimer, the atom bomb, and the Manhattan Project. In 2000, just before I started this piece, I was in London, where I saw Copenhagen, a play by Michael Frayn about Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr (and WWII, Hitler and the atom bomb) that explores themes of war, friendship, patriotism, loyalty, the moral responsibilities of scientists, etc. In making this painting, I was thinking about all of that: how science and morality and politics intertwine, how scientists cannot control how their work is used (in service of life or death), how each great scientific discovery shifts our whole way of thinking and often threatens the world order, like with Galileo or Copernicus, how Oppenheimer’s reputation has changed over time…
The butterflies on Oppenheimer’s head: This is partly an allusion to chaos theory and the “Butterfly Effect” (where small variations in initial conditions result in huge dynamic transformations in concluding events, i.e. the flapping of butterflies’ wings in Brazil leads down the line to a tornado in Texas.) My understanding of these things is extremely rudimentary, but I find it fascinating, nonetheless. I also thought about the butterfly as representative of a human soul. (I think in ancient Greek, the word for butterfly means soul or mind.) I like the idea that butterflies are landing on Oppenheimer and remaining on his head while he thinks and smokes his pipe.
The birds in the box are representative of any specimens collected or sacrifices made in pursuit of knowledge and scientific discovery. They are also representative of Darwin’s finches, which in part led to the theory of evolution. There are 16 of them. The black space below has numbers counting to 10, but the 1 and 6 are missing, representing the 16 dead birds.
The counting numbers refer to the relentless, unstoppable passage of time. The other numbers illustrate parts of Einstein’s equations. The black square represents outer space or a black hole. (Oppenheimer did work on something to do with gravitational collapse/black holes.) The nest with the eggs is a sign of hope, rebirth, and new beginnings. The butterflies tie into this, as well, as the butterfly emerging from the cocoon embodies this idea. With great scientific advancement, comes a cost, yet, new horizons await. New life emerges, and there is hope.
The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the US. Its watershed encompasses parts of six states: Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as Washington, DC. The bay produces 500 million pounds of seafood per year and provides drinking water to millions of people‑—its value is unquestioned. Yet, owing to the damaging effects of global warming, nutrient pollution, agricultural run off, over harvesting, erosion, invasive species, etc., the current condition of the Chesapeake Bay is poor.
My painting celebrates the Chesapeake Bay and its diverse ecology. Within the work are images of its flora and fauna, including the following species: great blue heron, water celery, eastern-tailed blue butterfly, hibiscus, blue crab, apple blossom and striped bass.
Our environment impacts our lives in countless ways. I feel it is important to reveal how deeply connected we are to nature and to find new ways to talk about those connections. The painting examines these natural bonds and brings into focus the allure of the Chesapeake.
Phoenix is about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April 2010, which is considered the largest marine oil spill in history. After the initial explosion, a sea-floor oil gusher flowed continuously for 87 days, discharging an estimated 4.9 billion barrels of oil (On Scene Coordinator Report, Sep 2011).
Eleven lives were lost in the accident. In addition, there has been extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats, tourism and fishing industries, and human health. The effects are ongoing. In fact, a 40,000 lb tar mat was discovered near East Grand Terre, Louisiana in the summer of 2013, and the waters were subsequently closed to commercial fishing. Obviously, the commercial fishing industries have suffered tremendous losses because of the spill.
The painting features a pelican, wings outspread. (We have all seen countless photographs of pelicans, covered in oil, being cleaned by aid workers). His body has an ethereal quality. Black lines emanating from each wing seemingly bind him down. Black organic shapes at the left represent tar balls. Out in the distance, smoke billows from the horizon, and the water shows reddish stains of drifting oil slicks. The bird hovers above the ground, and butterflies emerge from his feathers. I think of the butterflies as representative of his soul, ascending. I titled the painting Phoenix as an indication of hope. The legendary phoenix is reborn as it emerges from its ashes. The pelican becomes a phoenix, emerging clean and new. Amidst the devastation, there is the promise of new life.
In September, 2016, The Birds sold to a private collector in Portland OR as part of a fundraising event for Earthrise Law Center. Earthrise has been named one of the “winningest” legal clinics in the nation by National Jurist and has helped shape environmental law over the last 20 years. I am pleased to have made a small contribution to further the cause of environmental justice!
The Birds represents a continuation of my interest in vulnerable, threatened and endangered species. Pictured in the work are a Cassowary, California Condor, Hawaiian Goose, Rusty Blackbird and Whooping Crane.
Cassowaries are large, solitary, flightless birds native to New Guinea and Australia. These shy birds are very colorful and extremely tall—some reach up to 6.5 feet! They are unique birds with horn-like crests called casques. The Southern Cassowary is endangered in Queensland, Australia, maintaining only 20-25% of former population levels.
Although formerly widespread across North America, the California Condor is now a critically endangered species. It is the largest North American land bird and can live up to 60 years. The reasons for its drastic decline are multifaceted. Contributing factors include poaching, DDT poisoning, habitat destruction, and lead poisoning, caused by eating animals containing lead shot. (The effects of lead ammunition can be devastating to wildlife!) The female lays only one egg every other year, so population growth can be extremely slow.
The Hawaiian Goose is a vulnerable species native to Hawaii, now exclusively found on the islands of Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii. It evolved from the Canada Goose hundreds of thousands of years ago and is now the world’s rarest goose.
The Rusty Blackbird is in rapid decline. Some estimates calculate the population loss at 85-99%, yet the causes of this devastating loss are unclear. Some believe intentional poisoning of mixed blackbird flocks is a factor in their plummeting population.
The Whooping Crane is America’s tallest bird. It was hunted to the brink of extinction before conservation efforts saved the species. It is still considered endangered and has very limited habitat.
These birds and others like them are an integral part of the web of life on Earth. They need our help to survive and prosper. My painting celebrates their unique beauty and raises awareness of the vulnerability of these species and others like them.