June 27, 2013
I’m not a big fan of unexpected visitors on my doorstep when they’re of the human variety. As gregarious as I am, I enjoy my privacy. I also enjoy living in a location so remote and private, that I never need to cover the glass doors and windows. Instead, during tourist season I choose to cover myself, having been surprised once by a boatload of zoom-lens-enabled whale watchers peering directly into my bedroom. Lesson learned. And to the folks on that boat: I hope you enjoy the photos, even if you didn’t see an Orca that day.
I do, however, heartily welcome all unexpected visitors of the non-human sort (this would include extraterrestrials, because damn, if ever there’s a gal game enough to try to communicate with life from another planet, it’s ME!). E.T.’s aside, I did have my first close encounter of the river otter kind a few days ago. Working at my desk I saw movement outside and at first thought it was one of our foxes. A better look revealed that it was a dripping wet otter. I palmed my camera and got to the front door the same time that s/he did. The otter sat somewhat upright, looking quizzically at me, and it was a great, “Avon calling” moment (either that, or the Jehovah’s Witnesses are getting more clever about how to get me to open the door).
The photos tell the story of the next ten seconds: as I raised my camera, of course, the otter waddled away.
But still: while I see them frolic in the water* in front of me almost every day, I’d never been this close to one on land.
N.B.: *and frolic, they do. Here’s a pic of them making next season’s baby otters:
The next afternoon offered an ironic follow-up to this lovely, if fleeting, visit: I was sitting in San Juan Island’s brand spanking new hospital waiting room about to have my regular boob-o-gram. On the coffee table, surrounded by the calming peachy colors and mindless magazines, is this violent, life-meets-death, moment-of-truth centerpiece:
“Freshwater Lobster” by Doug Bison
Expertly crafted, it’s not small. It commands any already-edgy patient’s attention, even if viewed from the other side.
Not only is the hapless Signal Crayfish mortally maimed and on the losing end of the lunch menu, but just to drive the point home, it is staring at its own amputated limb which lies nonchalantly on the stone below. For a moment, I swear I thought I heard the soundtrack to Saving Private Ryan. I’m not quite certain what message the interior designers are trying to get across here, but gee whiz, people, this is a hospital!! With all due respect to the artist, who did a perfectly fine job recreating this Kodak Moment, I found it more than a bit unsettling to view as I myself waited to be squished like a seafood special in an otter’s jaw.
The following day, I stopped into the hospital again and asked the nice lady at the desk who I might chat with about relocating the artistic re-enactment of death and amputation currently soothing nervous patients in the waiting room. She pointed me to the administrative office, and I kid you not: as I headed for that door, with the otter-and-blue-plate-special bronze looming in front of me, I happened to glance to my right and lo and behold, this is what I saw:
“Great Blue Heron” by Barbara Duzan.
Yup: yet another re-enactment sculpture, by another fine artist: a Great Blue Heron with an extremely unhappy fish clamped tightly in its beak. MORE IMAGES OF DEATH! In a HOSPITAL!! Death by being squished, no less. Hmm, I sense a theme. And indeed, patients can enjoy BOTH the dying crayfish AND the dying fish-fish in the same view, as seen in the photos.
Dueling seafood platters.
Let me make it clear that I’m not criticizing the artists or the sculptures– only where those pieces ended up being placed. What IS it with these interior designers??? Okay, the heron and its meal are not only poised in a second waiting area, but are also within squawking distance of the lobby cafeteria. But really: this image is not making me wanna order the Caesar salad with anchovies.
I spoke to the admin fellow, and drew his attention to the subject matter of the two artworks. He looked at them as if for the first time (even though his office is in direct view of both pieces). Gently stroking the maimed crayfish vestige that laid pitifully, if artfully, at the otter’s feet, he, too, agreed that no one, not even he, had ever looked at the pieces carefully before; he just hadn’t noticed them.
And this, fair readers, is where Kelpville gets a tad pithier.
The stark and powerful violence of the representations in both statues is so blatant, that the gentleman’s comment really struck me. It tells me and my fellow artists a lot about how the public sees, or actually doesn’t see, our work.
This is not a question of the worth or beauty or quality of any particular piece of artwork. It’s an observation of the very existence of any art at all, and how unexpectedly invisible it can be at times.
Let me give you an example. Most non-musicians don’t notice the ubiquitous background music that plagues people like me, usually far too loudly, in every inch of our world: from restaurants to grocery stores, to the cramped and inescapable confines of elevators and airplanes. I don’t care whether it’s the latest vapid pop tune, or Beethoven’s Fifth, I tend to greatly dislike music in public spaces, because it interrupts my own thoughts, musical and otherwise. We live in a society in which we’re constantly bombarded by non-natural stimuli, and the message to our culture is that it’s scary and bad to be left alone to one’s own mental wanderings and imagination.
Well, of course it is: because were we allowed the quietude to become lost in our own thoughts, we might not be so easily placated by the inane, numbing, cultural opiates around us. Minus the patter of vacuous music, those few uninterrupted moments of contemplation as we stood dazed in the produce aisle deciding between a bell pepper and a zucchini, could quite possibly result in having a breakthrough idea. One that might even question things. Create things. Dismantle dogma. And replace it with better stuff. Oh, no, the Orwellian corporatocracy cannot thrive if this sort of thing is encouraged. Silent space must be filled at every opportunity.
As for visual art: most people are so inured by the onslaught of violence spewed forth in the media each time they flip on a TV or see a movie or cheer a sport, that they don’t notice artful images of creatures being torn limb from fin, even when walking past them every single day. How could we expect anyone to, when most don’t even bat an eye at the endless evening news reports of war, horror and cruelty that accompany them while they casually eat their dinner? Plenty of people wouldn’t view the otter and crayfish bronze in nearly as morbid a manner as I– they’d simply see a cute furry animal having lunch, and give no thought to the plight of the lunchee. I suppose someone could even look at that sculpture and interpret it as a sweet otter who is rescuing an injured crayfish and… has brought it right in to the hospital for re-attachment surgery! Brutality and suffering are in the eye of the beholder. Regrettably, I behold. Far too deeply.
For sure, here on rural San Juan Island, we’re a rough-’n-tumble, pull on yer mud boots, wildlife-oriented community, and as any reader of this blog knows, I’m the first one to shoot close-up photos of animals in the throes of mortal struggle. I love, love, love seeing wildlife in all its gory, fight-to-the-death action. It’s exciting, terrifying, sobering, and for me, often artistically inspiring. But I’d hate to be waiting in pain or grief to see the doc, suffering from an [amputation/rabies/broken arm/bad bite/otter scratch/seafood poisoning] while staring at representations of wildlife engaged in its own trauma, no matter how renowned the artist.
Seal vs. Giant Pacific Red Octopus. It was unclear for a moment just who was winning.
However: if you want to put these kinds of pieces in the insurance company’s waiting room, to accompany me as I review my hospital charges with steam rising from the top of my head… well, I think that’s a great idea. Because art is created to elicit emotion, and the vision of a creature being attacked and squished could indeed inspire emotion in the eye of the beholder. And I beholdin’ the bill!
Uh oh. Better turn up the volume on the cheesy background music, otherwise patients like me will start thinking for themselves. And we wouldn’t want that!