This 12th installment in my ongoing Totem Series focuses on one of the most unpronounceable birds of the Sonoran Desert, the Pyrrhuloxia (Pie-Ruh-Luck-see-uh, accent on the third syllable). Though their shape is similar to a cardinal (and in fact the females of both species are easily confused) the male Pyrrhuloxia has distinctly different plumage. Though it may be less flashy than the shockingly red cardinal, the Pyrrhuloxia’s unlikely combination of grey and crimson is striking and unique, as is the bright yellow, very chunky, almost parrot-like bill. These totem pieces are easiest when I am fortunate enough to photograph multiple birds of the same species in the same or similar lighting at the same time. When that doesn’t happen, as in this case, I am forced to cobble together different references from different sightings, adjust the lighting (sometimes radically) and try to make everything work together seamlessly. This particular piece even required me to transform a couple of males into females to create the composition I wanted. More than anything, I was taken with the palette of this piece. The background, a combination of greyed down mauve and dusky pink beautifully, compliments the saturated reds of the male birds but also plays beautifully against their less saturated hues.
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. 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.