Like many people who live in Idaho, I am an animal advocate and an obsessive hiker who encounters various animals in the wild in addition to the domestic animals that enrich my daily life. Rabbits, foxes, coyotes, wolves, badgers, deer, skunks, snakes, songbirds, birds of prey, moose, elk, and bears join me in nature, and I am made aware of the presence of more elusive creatures such as bobcats and cougars through the tracks they leave as evidence.
In 1978 the zoologist Donald R. Griffin proposed his philosophy of “cognitive ethology” (animal thinking).¹ This theory is now usually referred to as “animal consciousness”, or the idea that animals are sentient creatures. Many people have witnessed this phenomenon when interacting with their pets (for example, a dog that becomes “depressed” during the absence of his/her owner). I believe wild animals display a similar range of feelings.
The empathy and sentiment that I feel in the presence of animals inspire me to depict them in my artwork. Animals have appeared in my drawings since the early 1980s (in 1983 two of my drawings depicting birds and dogs were included in an exhibition titled Sawtooths and Other Ranges of Imagination at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution).
Like many children I grew up reading fairy tales such as Brer Rabbit, Reynard the Fox and Aesop’s Fables. A few years ago I began looking at 19th century illustrators of these books and other animal narratives. Three remarkable artists, J.J. Grandville, Charles H. Bennett and Wilhelm von Kaulbach, each anthropomorphize animals by dressing them as humans to act in nature as they comment on and critique human vices or foibles.²
In my recent drawings (and unlike Grandville, Bennett and Kaulbach) I place the animals–without clothing–in an abstract space that allows for a broad range of situations and emotions. Animals are depicted in curious encounters with other animals, objects, or entities. This interaction occurs in a dense, black, ether-like space that facilitates the cropping of their bodies as well as odd relationships of scale and placement. The creatures act surprisingly, or perhaps uncomfortably with their counterparts. Particular arrangements create a mini-narrative or implied dialogue that ranges from playful to confrontational. By focusing on the heads of most of these creatures I draw attention to their facial characteristics as emblems of their sensitivity. The animals are depicted as aware of each other or aware of their viewers as they perform in the roles I assign to them. For me these animals personify beauty and power–essences I strive for in all of my work.
1. His theory is further explained in: Donald R. Griffin, Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (University of Chicago Press, 2001).
2. See for example: J.J. Grandville, Scenes de la vie privee et publique des animaux (Hetzel et Paulin, Paris, 1840-1842); Charles .H. Bennett, The Fables of Aesop and Others, Translated into Human Nature (W. Kent & Co., 1857); and Wilhelm von Kautbach, illustrator for Thomas J. Arnold’s Reynard the Fox (Trubner & Co., London, 1860).
Ms. Shurtleff died in 2015.