Singing the Animal, Singing the Earth

My exhibition with the ceramic artist Shelly Fredenberg, "Singing the Animal, Singing the Earth" opened last Friday at the Maude Kerns Art Center here in Eugene. We worked incredibly hard to bring this vision forward. Michael Fisher, the director of the MKAC, told us that there was possibly more work in the gallery than in the yearly members show that takes place there during December. I am sharing here the artist statement I wrote for this show, which provides a good sketch of our aims and the journey we took to get here. Thank you Shelly, for sharing this journey with me. Yes, we are indeed wrangling each other into the light.

Learning to clay, Learning to Listen

Shelly and I began this conversation a year ago. I was drawn to Shellys ceramic forms, and I approached her about doing a collaborative exhibition where we have a mutual conversation around our shared creative interests. As I got to know the artist behind the forms, I realized we had tremendous affinity between our artistic visions and creative sensibilities. I wanted to see if we could work together to create a unique body of work around a conversation about compassion. I had been reading E. O. Wilson’s work about the dramatic decline in biodiversity, and I was moved by his call for artists to colonize the sciences and provide direction and voice alongside scientists who work around these issues. The extinction event we are living through is heartbreaking. There is a political will behind our collective inaction, and I have always felt that artists have an ethical responsibility to speak out in their work. Before I began focusing my work on animals, I worked figuratively in painting and drawing, but I was tired of that voice centering everything around the human story. When I was in France last year during the early planning for this show, I saw many foxes, and I was moved by this idea that foxes have no nation. When I shared this idea with Shelly, she shared with me the Mary Oliver poem, “Straight Talk From Fox”, and I knew that the affinity and vision we shared around animals and life on this planet ran deep. We have shared a lot in this journey. I stopped painting for a year to learn ceramics so that I could learn the language of clay and work more closely with Shelly to develop this vision. Shelly responded to my drawings and created animals in response. She also pushed her work in entirely new directions. We worked alongside each other, usually late into the night, bouncing ideas, sharing. We found voices in the birds, the moths in the forest, the rabbits who listen, the stars, and we found joy and trust and shine. The quiet voices of this earth speak to us and move us to speak in our work. Our best minds are currently peering into the cosmos looking for real biological signatures of life on other worlds, and when we make first contact, it is not only the human animal that makes contact with that other life, it is also the life of the bear trundling under the stars, and the foxes in fields, and the turtles in the river, and every other life form that we currently have stewardship for on this world.

This exhibition is composed of many parts, like a great chorus, and the Salon Gallery installation is the Shadow side to this celebration of light that comprises the larger gallery. This part of the exhibition, Nine Passages From the Gift of Sorrow, developed intuitively and quietly between us, without a lot of planning or direction, and it is a testament to what people can do when they trust one another and let go. The loss of one human life is an extinction event in itself. That life will never be repeated on this world, and this installation sings of the loss of nine lives and how that loss from years ago could inspire Shelly and a stranger to create something moving out of so much pain.

We offer the viewer celebration. We want people to take this beautiful energy into the world and push back against the darkness that often feels like it is working against us. There is much discovery in this show, and we hope the connections and the surprises people find bring them joy. This is a beautiful life we share.

The artist standing in front of his charcoal drawings, Bone Rabbits. This was during the early setup for the installation.

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