Seeing big cats in the wild is a rare thing, but bobcats, which have a well-earned reputation for being a bit audacious, are among the most likely one will see. I have seen them in the wild on only one occasion myself, though the reference material for “Totem #17” came from Project Survival’s Cat Haven in the Sierra Foothills. A non-profit dedicated to promoting big-cat awareness and to raising funds for grass-roots conservation efforts, they have been enormously helpful to me over the years. This bobcat, named Rue (after famous drag queen Rue Paul Charles) was a wonderful model. Though small, these cats are very feisty. In fact, on a different visit to the Cat Haven a few years earlier, another bobcat, Whirley, snatched hold of my partner’s shoe, and it took several minutes and patient tempting with bits of meat to get him to relinquish his prize; all the while he growled at us fiercely. The totem pieces are meant to be whimsical and suggestive, rather than literally descriptive, so of course this arrangement is entirely fanciful. I have seen several photos, however, of bobcats actually perched atop Saguaro cacti here in the Sonoran Desert. I don’t believe it is a common behavior, but if any cat could handle the sharp and unforgiving spines of the Southwest’s most iconic cactus, it would be a bobcat!
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.