“Have you ever found yourself unexpectedly influenced by a moment from your past?”
I think much of our fascination with the natural world begins with experiences we’ve had as children, whether it’s catching your first fish or discovering a snake curled under a woodpile.
It seems to me that this appreciation carries over into adulthood. You can see many elements of the outdoors that we’ve brought into our home – houseplants, china patterns, textiles, aquariums, and the artwork we choose.
My experiences with the outdoors as a child definitely inspired my work. My first pet, a skunk named Jackson, provided the original idea for my first oil painting and probably started me on my path as an artist to capture the wild on canvas.
The Suburban Wildness
My fascination with urban animals has something to do with my perception as a child of them being wild – creatures of the fields and woods. Seeing a skunk crawl out from under a neighbor’s house one evening in the summer when I was maybe 6 years old added a great element of mystery to our otherwise plain suburban neighborhood. It was as if something wild had just crawled through a portal into our civilized neighborhood.
A National Geographic article introduced the possibility to me of having my own skunk. I discovered and pored over an article about skunks as pets. There were photos of kids playing with their skunks outdoors, walking them on leashes and feeding them with baby bottles. They were as cute as could be and I wanted that wildness as my own.
Around the same time as the National Geographic article, Frank Tolbert, who had a column in the Dallas Morning News, wrote an article about John Anderson, a man who lived in a little town called Newharp outside of Forestburg. John lived in a ramshackle cabin surrounded by pens and enclosures of every description with a menagerie of animals that he had collected close to his cabin. He had kit grey foxes, great horned owlets, raccoons, box turtles, bull snakes, and skunks. He raised and sold the skunks, which he had de-scented himself. His practices of acquiring these animals wouldn’t be considered environmentally friendly in today’s world, but as a boy…
I begged and pestered my dad for months before he agreed to drive 80 miles to purchase my first pet ever. I bought Jackson as a baby skunk for $13.50 with money I had saved delivering papers. I took Jackson home to live with me, excited about my skunk, an animal I would be the only one to have in my neighborhood.
My time with Jackson
I was very responsible with Jackson. I had a complete book, Your Pet Skunk from the pet store. I followed the recommendations to the letter – taking him to the vet for shots, – just like a cat, and more. He slept in my room when he was a kitten, which didn’t work for long due to the musky smell that permeated my sheets and I’m sure me too. To the great amusement of the people in my neighborhood, I attempted to train him to walk on a leash. That didn’t work very well and I never got him housebroken.
At a year old, it became obvious that he was a wild animal that wasn’t happy kept indoors as a pet. Jackson had never lost his desire to be in the wild.
I was sad to come home one day and find him dead in my bedroom. He just wasn’t meant for captivity.
I think I chose the subject of the skunk as my first painting because skunks have occupied a place in my heart and in my imagination for as long as I can remember. I am intrigued with creatures of the wild. However, I have found a different way of experiencing my passion. Now I use wild creatures as subjects in my artwork.
Skunk was my first real oil painting effort. I didn’t really know how to handle paint and parts of that painting (a thick area of Alizarin crimson in the lower right-hand corner of the painting for example) did not dry completely for over 30 years and may still not be completely dry!
The skunk with its bold markings and limited palette of black and white was an ideal subject for an early painting. Set against a sky of flat grey punctuated by a slice of yellow moon it covered the whole value scale (from light to dark).
Through sheer intuition, I stumbled onto the graphic simplicity of a reduced palette and realized, perhaps unconsciously, the power of simplified forms. In that painting I achieved simplicity and complexity simultaneously and more than half by accident. It remains to this day one of the favorite paintings that I have ever done.
My experience with Jackson taught me skunks are not meant to be in captivity. I realize now how apt the quote is: If you love something set it free, if it comes back to you it’s yours, if not, it was never meant to be. This experience influenced my work today. Nearly 50 years later, I am still inspired by the creatures of the Earth – whether it be turtles, fish, or the blue jay in my backyard.
Bringing the outdoors into people’s homes satisfies a longing we have to connect every day with nature.
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