“One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss, eleven for health, twelve for wealth, thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.”
So goes the old rhyme about magpies. I have wanted to paint a magpie for over a decade, but it’s been one of those subjects that, however frequently observed, seemed determined that I not acquire reference materials. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to photograph these common birds, only to have them fly off an instant before I can take a picture. This experience is nothing new to me or any other wildlife painter or photographer, but it does underscore the satisfaction I feel upon finally bringing this painting to life. Fortunately, my luck changed last year while staying with Greg and Sierra Fulton in Jackson Hole Wyoming, owners of Astoria Fine Art.
I was so excited to finally “get my magpies,” but then came the question of how to capture them in a painting. Magpies, like all Corvids, are highly intelligent, social, clever, and mischievous, which is no doubt why so much myth, legend, and intrigue surround them. With that in mind, I ultimately decided to approach these birds through the lens of my totem series, which is very much about the symbolic use of animals in popular culture.
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.