Friday, May 30, 2008

When art collides with conservation.

Striped Hyaena - IUCN Hyaena Specialist Group 
reputation is everything

In search of the aforementioned hyaena I stumble across a conservation site and am reminded that everyone from Hemmingway to Disney has given hyaenas a lousy image. It's not hard to see why, stories need conflict to propel them along and conflict is most dramatic when there is a good villain. 

I saw The Lion King on stage in London - the hyaenas were wonderful, they made great villains, slinking around in a pack, cunning, powerful, raffish and frightening. 

In reality, I learned that hyaenas are essential to the ecosystems they belong to, that one small Aardwolf hyaena eats termites, which would otherwise be hugely destructive. As scavengers they clean up the place and they have an amazing immune system which can withstand rabies and anthrax.

Most of the threat comes from habitat destruction and retaliatory killings when they've taken farmer's cattle. Hardly surprising that one! Imagine saying to your dog: I'm going to take your food away from you for a few days so you get really hungry. Then I'm going to leave this pink sausage on the floor right in front of your nose and I'm going to bed and you're NOT to eat it! 

I can feel a soapbox moment coming on so I'll get off it right now. But if you're interested in learning more click below the picture.

As an artist I'm left wondering where does my responsibility lie when using animals as characters in my books? I always do some research, but what I learn is usually about the individual animal, there is little about ecosystems. I already feel bad enough being part of the consuming human race - is it any wonder we need some villains to carry our shadows! - I hoped that at least in my art I could contribute to the appreciation of the natural world. Seems I may have to rethink my approach because as they say in conservation - reputation is everything.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

How to revive a creative project when it has gone stale

The energy was flowing on my latest project - a children's picture book - when I had to take a week off to go to the city. The city was great, I saw some intriguing art and had a great time with my friends. I arrived home eager to get back to my picture book, but to my dismay I found the energy had gone flat. What to do?

I remembered a great story that addresses this issue from Clarissa Pinkola Estes called the Three Golden Hairs. In the story an old man collapses across the hearth of a cottage. The woman inside takes him onto her lap and rocks him all night long. As she rocks and comforts the man, he grows younger until by daybreak he is a golden haired child. The woman then plucks out three of the child's golden hairs and throws them on the floor, ting, ting, ting.

So there was my teaching story, but what to do about my project? I decided the rocking could mean just spending time with it, not trying to do anything, just being with the work I had already done and the ideas sketched out. I spread it all out in my studio and just sat with it, I noticed details I had forgotten, challenges that had found solutions and appreciated the end result of some of the more laborious processes. I played with some of the coloured papers I had prepared and found unexpected pairings.

Next the three golden hairs. What needed to be thrown away? One answer was the elephant. I had been looking forward to doing the elephant, but I saw it didn't fit. There were rhythms and patterns in the book, the lion echoed the cat, but the elephant did not echo the dog, however a hyaena might. So the elephant went. 
The other thing I needed to throw away was my desire for detail. The collage technique I am using does not allow for a great deal of detail, certainly not the same level I am used to in my etchings where I can add in all kinds of small humorous extras. So I let go of that and re-oriented myself to what collage was giving me - lovely bold colour, texture and impact. Lastly, I sharpened up the text and revisited the rhythm of page design.

Phew! And after all that I once more feel excited and yes scared, hopeful and back on track.