What follows is a gallery of art selected from the output of three outstanding artists, Sue Coccia, Athena Jahantigh and Rex Homan. I selected them not only because of their imaginative artwork, but because these artists also have great connections to native traditions. Clicking on the name of the artist will take you to their website. An internet search will turn up plenty of sites that explain what certain animals mean, but they can’t always interpret what they hold for you. If you are interested in the archetypal significance an image has held over time, which is fascinating, this website on totems and animal symbolism provides good content without being too definitive.
All images are used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for analytical and educational purposes. The links in the captions below the pictures may lead to the artist’s description of the work and places where the art may be purchased.
Washington state native Sue Coccia’s work is particularly rich because of the number of small images which come together to form the picture as a whole. No animal exists in a vacuum, but is part of an ecosystem that includes predators, prey, competitors and environment. Elements of that ecosystem find their way into the picture, as well as spiritual connotations and associations. The Dragonfly above is emblazoned with two eyes, symbolic of wisdom and vision. You will also find at least one lucky ladybug in each design. Whimsy and good nature radiate from these composite figures. It is as if each one blesses the viewer by accentuating the good in wildness.
Her drawings are crafted painstakingly by hand in pen and ink on watercolor paper, then painted with vibrant acrylic colors. She also makes objects for the home based on those drawings and designs the Animal Spirits series for Robert Kaufman Fabrics. The delightful Ladybug below is a kitchen trivet.
These fantastic images with their meticulous detail combine Coccia’s Indian heritage, her study of indigenous art, her formal art training and her love for animals to produce something that celebrates life and speaks eloquently of its complexities and interconnectedness. She’s a generous artist, who donates a portion of her income to wildlife preservation and her backyard has been designated a Backyards Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
Ceramic artist Athena Jahantigh hails from Iran and holds an MFA and a Doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris. Her sculptures recall ancient works from the cradle of civilization, fused with modern forms through a lovely sense of imagination and artistic license.
The Poetic Gazelles are inspired by artifacts found in the ruins of Shahr-e Sukhté, a Bronze Age settlement in southeastern Iran. The Gazelles are made in black faience, the clay being applied in strips from the legs up to the antlers.
Jahantigh uses the pottery, sculpture and art of her homeland to inspire her animals, but expresses what those forms evoke in her mind’s eye rather than reproducing them.
Sometimes her works are quirky and amusing, such as the series The Four Legs Without Leg. In repeating the image of four legged beasts, she one day eliminated the legs, creating a shape that differed from what she was used to making. Take a look at the long haired sheep below, recognizable by the texture of its fur and its horns. The sheep is made of white faience, most of which is glazed to create silky locks of hair.
One of Jahantigh’s strengths is her marvelous gift for texturing, honed by working in faience, which requires it due to the limited color palette. More recent experiments have led her to the medium of sandstone clay. More color variations are available, but she has grown attached to the process of texturing.
You can read a wonderful interview with Athena Jahantigh here.
The work above is a mythological representation of New Zealand, which is called by the indigenous Maori people Te ika a Maui, or Maui’s Big Fish. The enchanting story relates that Maui was fishing one day when he pulled the island from the sea.
Rex Homan, a native New Zealander with Scottish, Irish and Maori blood, is an internationally renowned woodworker who has also worked in bronze. His sculptures, which are predominantly made of New Zealand Kauri, are enlivened by a dramatic sense of line that is able to capture figures in motion and makes even resting figures look as if they have been surprised during their usual routine. Like Jahantigh and Coccia, his works combine elements of realism with flights of fantasy, expressing the sublime and the vulnerable in the natural world.
Homan’s sculptures are so dynamic that they look completely different from different angles. You really need to walk around them to get the full impact. For that reason I have included more than one image of each piece.
Kaka is a bush parrot that was once common but is now an endangered species. The Kotuku, known in other countries as the Great White Heron or Egret, is now scarce in New Zealand. This seems even more tragic when you understand that, in Maori myth, Kotuku are the guardians that guide the dead Maori home to the world of their ancestors.
Punga is a figure in Maori mythology. He is the father of rays, sharks, lizards and all ugly, nasty or strange animals. If a person is deemed ugly, nasty or strange, he or she may be called Te aitanga a Punga, the child of Punga. Homan’s sculpture of him is a reinterpretation of this character, one that tells us to look deeper. There is beauty in him, even if we fail to see it because of fear or prejudice. It’s human nature to malign what we do not understand.
Homan’s uncle bequeathed him this beautiful piece of kauri wood. It was too flat to become a bird, so it became a Whai, or Stingray. In keeping with the spirit of the piece, Homan made something beautiful from a piece of wood that was deemed useless.
Simplifying and smoothing the image into a fluid combination of lines, angles and curves creates figures of striking power. It is as if Homan recognized the craftsmanship already present both in the animal being represented and the block of wood being used and honored them with his own creative stroke.
The Kiwi, an icon of New Zealand, evolved alongside dinosaurs, but some people predict it will be extinct in thirty years. In the tradition of artists such as John James Audubon, Homan is a splendid advocate for the species he records in his marvelous work. Art can be a great force for conservation and empathy with our animal brethren.