Anyone who has ever hiked in Western United States has probably heard phrases like “bear aware” and been frightened by tales of backpackers attacked by mountain lions or campers by grizzly bears. In reality, even encountering one of these majestic predators in the wild is a rarity, and dangerous encounters are even rarer. The grizzly bear, which emblazons the state flag of my home state, California, has been entirely driven from the state by hunting and development, and the much-feared mountain lion is far more interested in evading encounters with human beings than in stalking them. Wolves have been maligned to the point of absurdity, and ever since their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park, are a topic so controversial that bringing them up in the wrong company can end any conversation faster than you can say “Timber!” Even those predators we do encounter upon occasion, such as coyotes, foxes, and the odd bobcat, pose a risk to pets, not people. Of course, banal realities haven’t stopped these animals from being steeped in myth and mystery as well as admired for their strength, cunning, and prowess as hunters. Given the fact that my totem series is very much about the human baggage we attach to wildlife and our perceptions of the natural world, it seemed entirely fitting to devote a totem piece to some of the most charismatic predators of the Western United States.
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.
These totem pieces are among the most time-consuming and challenging works I create. That’s especially true when a totem features multiple species, as in this case. Just compiling adequate reference takes time and energy, and then there is the added difficulty of realistically scaling the animals in relation to each other, as well as adjusting the lighting to convince the viewer that all of these animals are, in fact, existing in the same space. The fox, bobcat, and coyote references were shot at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum not far from my home. The cougar, Sam, lives at Project Survival’s Cat Haven in California, a non-profit that does valuable work raising awareness and funds to protect big cats around the world. The wolf, Takai, was owned by a friend of mine who used his animal for free educational programs all across the greater Bay Area for over a decade. Lastly, I encountered the grizzly in Wyoming on the Togwatee Pass, where it was feasting on a road-kill moose by the highway. It was my first encounter with a wild grizzly bear.