I have almost never painted animals. I did a handful of small watercolors a couple of years ago, mostly in response to a dare, or at least a challenge, from another artist who suggested that I didn't do them because I feared I couldn't. But a couple of things have conspired to bring me back to the subject more seriously. One is that I am a very inexpert, but avid birder, and numerous friends have asked me why, since I love to watch birds so much, I've never painted them.
Perhaps more importantly, I spent even more time than usual when Missy and I were staying in Denali Park this year looking hard at the wildlife. We saw wolves, sheep, caribou, moose, and of course lots of grizzly bears, but at the East Fork Cabin itself, we were almost constantly in the presence of humbler creatures--magpies, ground squirrels, and hares--and everywhere we went along the Park Road there were ptarmigan. I found myself doing something I rarely do. I did quick pen-and-ink drawings of some of the bears, just for the fun of it, and I spent a lot of time sitting on the porch of the cabin sketching the ubiquitous magpies, hares, and ground squirrels.
I've resisted painting animals for years, even though I've become more and more interested in them, mainly because there's so much baggage associated with painting wildlife. I lived in Alaska for 25 years before I painted Denali--Mt. McKinley--because it took me that long to feel like I had something personal to say about a subject that has long since become an Alaskan cliché. Just as with that image, I don't pretend to believe that I have something startlingly new and profound to say about Alaskan wildlife, but I do, after more than 30 years, feel like I can perhaps paint some of the animals that I've come to know well, honestly and personally and in an individual way.
There are two big challenges for me in painting these animals. The first is the one I always face, no matter what the subject. That's my insistence on having my cake and eating it too--on wanting every painting to be both completely representational and totally abstract. From a distance, I want you to look and say, "Wow, it's a magpie!" or "That's the most beautiful birch tree I've ever seen!" But as you get closer, I want you to look less and less at the subject and more and more at the paint, and when you get as close as I am when I paint it, I want you to get lost, as I do, in the abstract welter of color, surface, and form.
But I also want these animal paintings to be portraits, just as the people I painted a few years ago were portraits, and just as I call the birch trees "birch portraits." I don't want a generic magpie, but the magpie that I watched one particular day, from a few feet away, at the East Fork of the Toklat River. I want not just "a ground squirrel," but the ground squirrel that lives under the porch of the East Fork Cabin, the one that startled Missy by nibbling on the toe of her boot one day as she was sitting, reading on the porch.
That's the most remarkable thing to me about painting these animals. I was surprised several years ago, when making four times lifesize oil pastel portraits of my friends Bill and Dale Fairbanks, David Policansky, and others, that their character appeared on the paper without my consciously trying to put it there. I not only wasn't trying to represent some aspect of their personalities, but I wouldn't have had any idea how to go about doing so. I was astonished when not only did their personalities appear, but I learned something new about each of them from the image that resulted. Clearly, that happened not through some remarkable insight on my part, but because their character was present in the shape of their mouths, the lines on their faces, the look in their eyes--things that I was simply trying as hard as I could to represent as accurately as possible, while at the same time walking that tightrope between representation and abstraction.
It's hard for me to know for certain, because when I look at these new images I see, in my mind's eye and memory, the critters themselves as I encountered them. But it seems to me the magpie in the painting is trying to act nonchalant, knows that I'm no threat, but is absolutely aware of my every move, just in case. It seems to me that this little ground squirrel looks at me from two feet away not just in some disdain, but almost in challenge, knowing that he's the one at home on that porch, and I'll be gone in a few days.
And the ptarmigan... It's a beautiful bird, camouflaged by its elaborate, patterned coloration, but doesn't it seem in the painting to be exactly the way they always look--I'm sorry, I know it's the Alaska State Bird--befuddled, almost completely clueless, unencumbered by even a hint of the kind of curious reflection shown by the magpie?
I'll get to the bears and wolves one of these days. I think I'll know when I'm ready to say something about them. In the meantime, I offer these personal responses to the more modest creatures we shared the Park with daily this summer, and so thoroughly enjoyed.