Proud as a Lion. Sly as a Fox. Cold as a Fish. Meek as a Mouse. Free as a Bird. Gentle as a Lamb. Blind as a Bat. Monkey Around. Play Possum. Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Our ideas about animals are at the base of thousands of metaphors and similes in human language. Animal metaphors pre-date any technology and are among the oldest elements of human language. Animals are our first mirror. Their reflections show us the connections and separations between all the species that share the Earth.
Mirror Shards began with my interest in the role animal symbols, metaphors and similes take in how we build empathy. Empathy begins when we are able to imagine what it’s like to be someone or something else. Language helps us to build this bridge. The earliest myths, fables and religious tales blur the walls between us; they are replete with talking animals, people who could talk to animals, or human/animal hybrids.
Often, we look at animals see love, pride, anger, sorrow, cunning…the entire encyclopedia of “human” qualities, in a circular series of observations and interpretations. Let’s take “pride” as an example. We say lions are proud. We say, he is proud as a lion. The compound idea of human/lion-pride is imposed back on the lion, where it shapes what we think lions are. This “pride” is tangled up with lion ferocity, with an roar, with harems of lionesses gathered at his feet. A very male and embattled pride, and different from, say, quiet pride. The reflection forms a concept of pride that could not exist on its own.
Metaphors themselves are building blocks of empathy. They’re everywhere in kids’ books; transcending the self is almost inseparable from learning to read. When Little Girl thinks she is a puppy-dog, or Little Boy identifies with the she-cub in a storybook, they step outside of the limits of individual selfhood and imagine other lives. Kids’ books offer a formative safe space to enter into imagined realities of another creature’ emotions and needs.
This transformative experience draws its power from the very impossibility of many of its characters. Possum Girl wears a dress, plays with dolls, goes to school, and does human-girl stuff. but she rides to school by clutching her mother’s back. She goes to sleep at night hanging upside down from a branch in her bedroom. When a little boy reads this story he may identify more with her than a little human girl. A human character makes him aware of all the ways that a boy is different from a girl, as well as differences of gender, race and age. But a successful hybrid character creates an open and unstable space, an impossible creature that demands that the reader suspend a larger portion of the imagination, which can result in a greater span of boundary coming down.
Concepts that complicate and destabilize the boundaries between human and nonhuman animal open up the space of yearning to be part of the world he have lost. Are losing. Animal identities offer a release from ourselves, and unexpected experiences and perceptions in real and fantastic worlds.
In Mirror Shards, animal costumes act as shamanistic constructs. They allow the subject to merging with another, in body and mind. Each animal is one that has a strong presence as a metaphor, in English, and various other languages.
My deepest, ultimate concern in Mirror Shards is for the animals. A world is lost with each lost species. Every living species. We have become immune to the tragic stories in animal documentaries on Animal Planet and National Geographic. Mirror Shards is a plea for the protection of our broken mirror, for our cycle of reflection, as we shatter the world of the animals themselves.
2011 Charcoal, mixed media, collage, papers
metal and watch parts on board.
The Dragon is the only imaginary animal in the Mirror Shards series. Dragons have existed in myriad cultures around the world. They've been used to express power, freedom, pride, ferocity, aggression, greed, loyalty, and an ancient, timeless wisdom, to name just some of their traditional aspects. Dragons represent extremes of both good and evil. Their breath of fire (or ice, in some stories) is a yearning for one's voice to become awesomely powerful.
The Dragon is a compound animal. As such is a perfect example of our great need of animal metaphors. Animals let us experience versions and aspects of ourselves that nothing else can. If no single animal suits our needs, we cobble together existent creatures to attain something that can't be achieved through a single beast. A Dragon is part lizard, tiger, lion, and snake. Part dinosaur, bull, bat, eagle and dog.
Calling up one's inner Dragon is a risky business, though. Its ferocity and aggression enables one to prevail in the face of a painful or terrifying experience. But the anger and pride of one's inner Dragon can lead to isolation and hurtful behavior, damaging those closest to us. It is a solitary being braced against injury.
The woman bearing this Dragon is Chicago-based painter Sheri Rush. Sheri has coped with difficulties through a stubborn, focused determination. We've often talked about how to maintain while trying to make art – and achieve equilibrium in the face of family and personal drama. Her paintings of wild landscapes resemble entire forests going up in flames. The Dragon she wears is part fortress, part weapon, and part cage, magnifying and entrapping her body in equal measure. Its slightly rickety construction speaks of the assemblage that is Dragon.
Sheri Rush can be found at http://www.sherirush.com/
2011 Charcoal, glass, papers, Bible pages,
wire, twigs and collage on board
Chicago artist Tim Lowly is well known for work depicting his daughter, Temma, who is profoundly disabled. Temma had a stroke just after birth that caused her to become blind, paralyzed and non-verbal. Much of Tim's work has been an exploration of what it's like to be Temma.
The owl costume on Tim's lap is an avatar for Temma. The Owl, in metaphoric representation, is primarily a symbol of wisdom. Owl wisdom is complex, though, and not easily accessed. The Owl's messages are cryptic and obscured. It is twined with mystery and guardianship. In order to unlock its wisdom the seeker must ask his questions with wisdom. Often the ability to interpret only comes through a quest. The word the Owl speaks is Who?, asking the seeker to explain himself, or to name the one he seeks to know.
The wisdom Tim has gained through being Temma's father is his conviction that one does not need to earn love to be loved. A human does not need to be perfect, or prove anything. A human is deserving of love by simply being. Tim cannot have a verbal relationship with Temma. His understanding of her has come from the openness of his heart and the observation of his mind.
The Owl offers Tim a fragmented mask and fragile wings, in order to fully immerse himself in Temma's endless moment.
Tim Lowly can be found at http://timlowly.com
This is a portrait of artist and animal rescue worker Jessica Johnson. As I’ve gotten to know Jessica I’ve been struck by her relationship to femininity. On one hand, she’s a straight girl with no gender dysphoria. She’s not transgender or gay. But I’ve come to see just how ironically she views the tropes of femininity. She approaches all things girlish with amused suspicion and skepticism. None of this is obvious on the surface, but Jessica inside and Jessica outside are two very different beasts.
For this reason, choosing the Hyena as her mirror was a perfect choice. Hyenas are complex and paradoxical creatures. What people think of them, and what they are in reality, is often quite different. Hyenas are assumed to be canine due to their appearance and behavior, but are actually much closer to felines. Their reputation is as cowardly scavengers, yet most species hunt and kill all most all of their prey. It is extremely difficult to tell the male Hyena from the female, as external genitalia is almost identical. The female Hyena has the largest proportional clitoris in the animal kingdom, closely resembling the male penis.
As symbolic creatures, Hyenas are thought to be false, unreliable and treacherous. In Africa many cultures consider them vampires, were-beasts, and/or magically empowered hermaphrodites. They have been depicted as witches or jinns, The theme of their dual and unstable nature surely has roots in the gap between how we perceive them and what the facts actually are, a gap that must have existed for a thousand years.
Underlying all of these characterizations is the idea of Hyena as quintessential Trickster figure. The strange humanoid laugh of the Hyena must be responsible for the idea of the were-hyena. The Hyena characters best known to modern Americans are the three hyenas in The Lion King, Shenzi, Banzai and Ed, who are employed as evil and cunning henchmen set to kill the lion cub Simba. These characters are drawn as if they are insane as well as untrustworthy and vicious.
Not knowing what sort of creature you are dealing with is unsettling indeed. All of these versions of the Hyena comprise a clear illustration of the way that our assumptions about an animal form our construction of its narrative. Animals as a rule do not lie, not in the way that humans do. Our fear of unreliable people congeals in our half-understood confusion, which is resolved by creating a version of Hyena which is patently not to be trusted. The fact that they have been known to become man-eaters raises the stakes as far as they can go.
In Jessica’s portrait, she shreds scraps of color, which are consumed and expelled by the interceding mask, to form a hermaphroditic figure that blows apart even as it comes together.