My kid was getting picked on in school, and it made me very angry. It surprised me how riled up I got. I painted this piece during that time, and choosing the animal to symbolize my reactions was easy. I have a history with bears.
In Colorado during the time I grew up, bears were almost completely hunted out. Even my outdoorsman dad went many years without running into one. Even so, I had an overblown fear of them. When I was elementary school age I read an article in the Reader’s Digest about a man in Alaska who was mauled by a bear and had to crawl for miles without legs to get help. (Or some equally disgusting story.) I had nightmares for months, and was very shy about how far I would go into the wilderness alone. Since the wilderness was literally right out our front door, it made for some limited enjoyment of the endless natural wonders around me. I never lost my apprehension about bears.
I was 13 when I had my first bear encounter. I was not far from our house, and I was rounding up my horse to put him in his corral. I turned to see the bear, and I ran and screamed. I’d been trained for years about what not to do when you see a bear, and that is, do not run and scream. The bear came after me, but I got to the house in plenty of time. This was the first of many bear encounters, which tend to happen most times I set foot in the woods. Hippies would say I’m attracting them with my weird bear energy, and in the South they say I’ve “called it up.”
All this to say that my bear connection is a primal response, and probably more than that, and it rang true as a representation of how instinctual my reaction to Annabelle’s situation was.
For my painting’s background setting I chose a fiery sunset scene from my original home in the Rockies. The bear’s dress is also blazing with red, which coordinates with the ferociousness of her expression. These elements best relay the intense emotion I experienced. The Mama Bear in me was on fire.
I contrasted the symbols of raw passion with more playful components. Mama bear isn’t just a raging beast. I had some fun with the sleeves of her dress, indicating levity and humor. And her heart necklace shows the sweet side of wanting your child to be OK. As I painted, the contrast of the powerful and the gentle reminded me of the situation at hand, and in many ways, of my own personality.
To address the matter of my kid’s hard time at school, I can say after the fact that I feel satisfied with how I handled it. Although I felt like Mama Bear (and my daughter knew it) I gave her every mature tool in the arsenal to attempt to deal with the problem. For the most part, I told her to suck it up. I told her that she’d run into problematic people (I didn’t use that word) everywhere she went, and it was good practice to learn to bear with, ignore, manage, outwit, or kill with kindness the meanies in life. She put up a gallant effort. In the end we moved her to a new situation—which turned out to be a giant blessing in every way—but her previous struggle gave her boot-camp-like practice at being strong, resourceful, and creative in dealing with people. It’s been Easy Street in comparison ever since.
Humor, as referenced in the painting, played an important part in our family’s struggle with Annabelle’s oppressing situation. If the challenge had been treated with grave seriousness only, we could have been giving it even more power. It helped to do funny imitations of her antagonists and make parody drawings about her experiences. The jokes were more clever than mean, and they embraced the cardinal rule of life: no matter what, Don’t Take Yourself So Goddamned Seriously. (I take the words from a great book called The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, where this rule is well explained.)
Logic and knowledge are useful tools for working through problems. A civilized approach is the way to go. But even though I imparted sound, practical advice to my kid, I couldn’t help but feel powerful instinctual emotions. It wasn’t that I was an over-reactive, over-protective meddler. I am human. I know my indignation helped her understand how much I cared, and validated for her that she was being treated unacceptably. It also showed her that it was OK for her to have strong emotions. Most importantly, it taught her that one can act with diplomacy, even right in the middle of having fierce passion.
Witnessing the power of my own instinctual response was a mighty thing. It rose not from anything I access on the surface, but from a consciousness that existed before I was born. To be so suddenly governed by it, and to easily comprehend it wasn’t a learned response gathered from environmental triggers, was a rock-solid acknowledgement of my membership in the club of Life on Earth. Just having a kid has given me plenty of opportunities to feel this primal drive, and often. But none were as potent as when she was under attack.
Sometimes I step back and look at my paintings and wonder why I chose animals as the symbol of my states of mind. I remember not thinking long about it. It seemed the natural and best way to represent humanness, of all things. We can’t help but see animal qualities, traits, behaviors, and spirit as indisputably familiar. Sometimes a particular animal’s essence resonates deeply, as in the case of the bear for me. I know some people call this a totem or animal spirit connection, but I’m too shy about sounding like a granola cruncher to expound on that. Anyway, I’m not sure I understand it any more than I’ve described it already.
As I explore and communicate about my inner world, I express Dori and humanness, but also a universality beyond people and society. We think our idiosyncrasies and machinations are far removed from the natural world, but it doesn’t take much looking to see how intimately and beautifully connected they are.
The more I paint these works, the more I see animals in everyday life. Not just in the wild, but in our yards, on someone’s T-shirt, in a turn of phrase, and in all those cat videos! As much as we try to do away with nature through technology and human expansion, it remains in our instinctual consciousness. I am better off when I embrace it and feel the surge of it. As of this week, cat videos have been viewed 25 billion times on the internet. Our animal connection is alive and well.