Coyotes are magical animals. They are common enough that I see them quite frequently in the wild, especially since moving to the beautiful Sonoran Desert. Their toughness, adaptability, and intelligence, have made them an icon of the Southwest. They play an important role in the culture, spiritual life, and mythology of many Native American communities, often acting as central figures in cosmologies. They are tricksters, thieves, creators, and destroyers, sometimes clever, sometimes bungling, but always distinctly coyote. In this piece, I positioned them on top of a saguaro cactus, another emblem of the southwest, and cast them in the golden last light of the day, emphasizing the union of spirit and substance.
The Totem series began in 2016, when a lifelong fascination with the totem poles of the American Pacific Northwest met with my new awareness of an unusual natural phenomenon, the “toteming” of Harris Hawks. For reasons ornithologists still don’t understand, these birds will sometimes stand on each other’s backs in stacks up to four birds high. Inspired by the sculptures of Tony Hochstetler and Peter Woytuk, some of whose works evoke totem poles, I had already been ruminating on how I could re-envision the Native American totem pole in a modern context within a series of paintings. The toteming of the Harris Hawks crystalized that idea, and I set to work painting stacked birds and animals. My own Native American heritage, however distant, was never central to my upbringing, but it always hung in the background, and it gave me an early appreciation for the art and culture of the First Nations, especially as it related to my own spiritual connection to nature. Though my own genealogy traces to the Sioux, who had nothing to do with totem poles, it is the iconographic and spiritual representation of nature, common in one way or another to all Native peoples, that most inspires me.
These tension-filled and gravity defying columns of familiar creatures suggest the fragile balance of ecosystems under increasing pressure from man, and they are yet another outlet for my continued obsession with pattern and repetition. The repeated juxtaposition of the same or related animals, and the re-contextualizing of those subjects outside of their natural habitats, encourage viewers to consider what they know (or think they know) about those animals in a new light.
Most importantly, these paintings explore the iconic significance with which human beings imbue wildlife. Just as Native Americans did (and still do) use characteristics of various animals as metaphors for our own human qualities and aspirations (the wiliness of a fox, wisdom of an owl, or speed of a puma for instance) so too do even the most technologically distracted among us use, recognize, and relate to animals in our logos, apps, and product branding. My totem series not only puts wildlife on a pedestal, it transforms that wildlife into the pedestal itself.