We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension 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, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
― Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod
Apart from such visits, for the first time in her life Eliza was truly alone. In the beginning, unfamiliar sounds, nocturnal sounds, disturbed her, but as the days passed she came to know them: soft-pawed animals under the eaves, the ticking of the warming range, floorboards shivering in the cooling nights. And there were unexpected benefits to her solitary life: alone in the cottage, Eliza discovered that the characters from her fairy tales became bolder. She found fairies playing in the spiders’ webs, insects whispering incantations on the windowsills, fire sprites spitting and hissing in the range. Sometimes in the afternoons, Eliza would sit on the rocking chair listening to them. And late at night, when they were all asleep, she would spin their stories into her own tales.
― Kate Morton, The Forgotten Garden
What can animals teach us about ourselves and the world around us? Perhaps humans are not as superior as we would like to be.
Beasts do not speak our language, nor do they build civilizations we recognize, so we usually consider them lesser beings. Most people are ignorant of the richness of animal life and experience, oblivious to the fact that an animal can teach us much about survival, satisfaction, and sustainability. When catastrophe strikes, the modern human being lacks skills which are intuitive for many beasts, even “domesticated” ones. On that note, I think we could argue that, in some cases, man is actually the one who has been domesticated. Did you know that science now believes that cats meow and purr chiefly to influence human behavior?
Many people recognize the unique personhood of their pets and service animals–their moods, quirks and tastes–and bond deeply with companion animals. In many cases these animals become part of our families and gain a worth slightly below or equal to our own. Precious few humans have the opportunity to enter into an understanding with a wild animal, a contact that verges on the totemic and the spiritual even as it is visceral. This short film, Man and Beast, directed by Daniel Ariola tells the story of Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. In these days of Marvel super hero films, it has a mythological ring to it.
Video via Peter Simonite on Vimeo
Growing up in Queens, the largest borough of New York City, in the 1950s and 60s, Rabinowitz was plagued by an intractable stutter. Placed into classes with troubled students as well as those with physical and mental impairments, he was lonely and frustrated. It was only with animals that he was able to relax and speak normally. The beautiful jaguar he met at the Bronx Zoo became a symbol of the voiceless and helpless. He saw himself in her captivity and frustration. It is she who lends an air of mystery and mythology to Dr. Rabinowitz’s story. His interest in animals led him to study science, which took him out of human civilization to truths that lie in the jungle, beyond human awareness. The second jaguar encounter confirmed his youthful promise and set him on a journey to protect animals all over the globe. Dr. Rabinowitz’s journey ended last year, as he succumbed to leukemia at the age of 64. What a privilege that he was able to dedicate his life the protection and study of animals that inspired him!
Dr. Rabinowitz worked for the Wildlife Conversation Society for almost thirty years. He discovered new species of mammal, including the Leaf Deer, in Myanmar, where he also helped found five national parks. He created the Jaguar Corridor, a series of protected pathways and environments, from Mexico to Argentina and established the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize, the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. As the head of Panthera, the company he co-founded to continue his mission of helping big cats, he initiated work on a Tiger Corridor in Asia. He also worked in Taiwan and Thailand, founding and championing national parks and animal sanctuaries and studying beasts. His vision and drive are legendary, all stemming from childhood pain he was able to transmute into action. You can read a tribute to him on Panthera’s website.
It is easy to miss delightful things when we only accept and cultivate experiences that we expect to be life-changing.
Last summer, my husband and I stayed one night at Lake Brownwood State Park here in Texas on our way to New Mexico. I woke up early that morning and decided that I would take a walk over to the lake. I didn’t expect much, being far more excited about the places to come, but it was not too hot yet and I needed the exercise.
The hike was a pleasant one, notable for the interesting mix of desert and wetland plants and the juxtaposition of habitats. The Western Cross Timbers, Edwards Plateau, Grand Prairie and Rolling Plains regions all come together here. There are also some attractive stone structures and features made by the Civilian Conservation Corps before and during the World War II era (1933-42). Moths and butterflies were plentiful, and I met up with an itinerant road runner who kept me from missing the trail on the way back. This trail reminded me that some of life’s great moments happen unannounced. If we only take those walks that promise to impress us with spectacular scenery, we miss the subtler beauty that lies all around us. Sometimes that is all we need and all the more precious.
We have never understood why men mount the heads of animals and hang them up to look down on their conquerors. Possibly it feels good to these men to be superior to animals, but it does seem that if they were sure of it they would not have to prove it. Often a man who is afraid must constantly demonstrate his courage and, in the case of the hunter, must keep a tangible record of his courage. For ourselves, we have had mounted in a small hardwood plaque one perfect borrego [bighorn sheep] dropping. And where another man can say, “There was an animal, but because I am greater than he, he is dead and I am alive, and there is his head to prove it,” we can say, “There was an animal, and for all we know there still is and here is proof of it. He was very healthy when we last heard of him.”
―John Steinbeck, The Log from the Sea of Cortez
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 Dragonflyabove 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 delightfulLadybugbelow 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.
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.
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.
Kinship with all creatures of the earth, sky, and water was a real and active principle. In the animal and bird world there existed a brotherly feeling that kept us safe among them.
…The animals had rights – the right of man’s protection, the right to live, the right to multiply, the right to freedom, and the right to man’s indebtedness. This concept of life and its relations filled us with the joy and mystery of living; it gave us reverence for all life; it made a place for all things in the scheme of existence with equal importance to all.
From adorable kittens and puppies to majestic lions and wolves, we love pictures of animals. What need do they fulfill?
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
When I am attracted to the image of animal, be it a painting, a sculpture, a photo or any other representation, it is usually because I’m identifying with the creature’s attributes or abilities. That kitten is so cute, mischievous and lazy; that bird soars through the air, feathers agleam with beauty in the sun. Much of the time the quality or talent I’m attracted to is either something I prize and wish I possessed in greater quantity or something I identify with much to my chagrin. Yes, I’m probably anthropomorphizing more than is logical. Am I alone? I expect not.
My cat, Yuri
Native American and other indigenous peoples live in much closer proximity to wild animals than most city dwellers, although we have our companion pets. These pets are all the more precious to us because they provide a link, however tenuous, to the Earth and Creation outside of ourselves. They make us feel less lonely. But indigenous man is wise about wildness, and usually recognizes the inspirational nature that exists between humans and animals. Sometimes these figures are called totems or spirit animals, creatures that reveal to us what certain traits look like. These can be valuable to city dwellers, too. If you doubt that, go to any social media site and look at the large numbers of posts that share videos and photos of animals we will never meet in our own backyards. At least I hope not!
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
If you are a creative person, check your artwork for animals that crop up. If you investigate these animals, both from a personal perspective and from the perspective of various cultural traditions, including those unfamiliar to you, you will find themes and attributes running through your work, some of which may be surprising to you because they are completely subconscious. Birds and snakes are all over my poetry and my art, as are insects.
All earthlings, human, animal, even plant, have positive and negative attributes and behaviors, and most of the time that value judgement has more to do with circumstances. When you need to stand up for yourself in a business meeting, the image above may not be the image you need; the image below may be more appropriate. Should you need to make peace with your significant other after an argument, the opposite may be true. If you are drawn to an image or repelled by it, take time to ask yourself why.
Berlin based artist Svenja Jödicke, also known as Svenja Schmitt, is all about eyes. Her beautiful paintings feature fanciful and brightly colored eyes, set forth in mediums such as watercolor, acrylic paint and collage. In 2012, she departed from the world of conventional painting to focus on body art and photography. “Eyes were and still are always the main focus of all her works, as they fascinate her and are able to tell unspoken stories” (from her site on DeviantART).
Jödicke models new looks, new characters, on herself not only through the use of elaborate eye make-up and colored contacts, but through the use of ribbons, buttons, jewels, feathers, flowers, and even snails and insects, including wasps. It is the combination of small animals with makeup and eyes that inspired her to pursue her unusual artistic path. She uses both dead and live animals, with care to not damage or hurt them. You can see her stunning body art here. Entrancing! Most of us would never think to combine such things, let alone do it with such courage and style.