Nearly two years ago, I painted “Totem #16: Stacked Predators,” my largest Totem piece at that time, which featured all of the iconic large predators of the West: Grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, etc.. The piece sold immediately to a collector who knew that I was planning a companion piece featuring “stacked prey.” It was my intention to pursue this piece immediately, but life had other ideas. Covid made travel impossible for at least another year, and I lacked sufficient reference photos of several key animals. Eventually I was able to go to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to photograph Elk in the winter and obtain some better shots of Pronghorn. Then of course life happened again, with everything from a great exhibition opportunity at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, to helping my parents move, to renovating their house, to renovating their rental property, to working on my own house, seeming to conspire to keep “Totem #18: Stacked Prey” off the easel. But if there is one thing I have learned since my career began at the tender age of fifteen, it’s that a painting is done when it is done, and there’s nothing that can rush the process without reducing the quality of the finished work. So, two years later, here we are!
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. I encountered this Bison in the National Bison Range in Montana, the Moose and Elk in Wyoming near Jackson Hole, the Mule Deer in Dubois, WY, the Antelope in Yellowstone National Park, and the Bighorn in Arizona. The challenge with the moose was completely recreating its legs, which were obscured by tall grass in my reference photos. The mule deer was photographed at noon on an overcast day, so all of the lighting and shadow had to be created from scratch, which meant sculpting a scale model of a mule deer and lighting it consistent with the other animals. It was a challenge, but one that paid off in the end.