Sometimes I feel like grabbing someone and pleading with them to please remind me what I'm doing, pretending to be a painter. It's a term I can only offer with the following (usually unuttered) disclaimer:
I don't know how to use a paint brush. I am intimidated by the notion of mixing my own colors. In fact, I have no formal education in art of any kind - and so I use paint markers on foam board. I borrowed an easel to do my first show.
It's one of the enduring ironies of my existence, that I define myself by my work but the best descriptor for what I do is something I don't consider myself to be. There's more than a little imposter's guilt in me when I carry my easel into the Trilogy Wine Bar every Wednesday night to be a painter, like I accidentally received an invitation to the party and I don't have the guts to admit I don't belong there. Like I'm a wild bird that snuck into the aviary to live off the free food. Like I'm a fox pretending to be a lapdog.
But I might make up for my lack of disciplined training with twenty years' experience of doodling in class, at parties, on planes, and in my sleep (although those images rarely survive the morning). A childhood of dinosaurs and aliens carried me into a scientific illustration course in college, from which I was hired directly to draw plates of frogs, snakes, and lizards for species descriptions at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum.
Frogs, University of Kansas Natural History Museum
I reconstructed the fossil armor of bizarre pig-crocodiles, two hundred million years dead...
Aetosaurs, July 2005
...and pieced together the awkward gait of extinct flying reptiles from trackways preserved in the mud of an ancient lake.
Pteraichnus, Tate Museum of Casper College
I brought to life numerous prehistoric invertebrates in ink - alternate-reality lobsters with rows of flippers and compound eyes.
Nettapedoura, University of Kansas Department of Geology
Over the three years that I was working daily hours at the museum, I must have drawn at least a hundred thousand scales.
Gekko, University of Kansas Natural History Museum
How I stumbled into live painting is easy to see, in retrospect: those were three years I spent drawing with headphones on, learning to make the cleanest possible lines with the smoothest possible strokes, making immersive and meticulous detail my natural habitat. Training and straining my attention. Doing my best to hold the pen as lightly as possible and push the rate at which a person can stipple in a relaxed and even rhythm. Dot after dot, slowly sculpting the contours, ridges, recesses, tubercles of creatures as long as my thumb, working under a microscope, moving through my whole arm in slow sweeps and hypnotic pointillist pecking.
The living pulse of this work is trance-inducing, tunneling through boredom into exultation. Hunched and squinting, I felt connected to the ocean of nameless monks whose gilded script illuminates our ancient sacred manuscripts. And there was never any doubt for me that I was working in a church - a temple to the natural world, complete with byzantine catacombs of holy relics, shelf after shelf of preserved creatures from all over the world, soaking in alcohol jars.
But then, I was probably the only one having such thoughts. I was the contract artist in a hall of scholars and their graduate disciples, a hundred others who would probably have balked at the notion of science as a religious institution. (Kansas is, after all, the epicenter of a fierce debate between Evolutionary Biology and the so-called science of Intelligent Design. It's a tender topic.) Not a grad student, not a field researcher, not an official employee, I worked as someone whose dreams of paleontology had evaporated and left me in the alkaline and existential expanse of accidental mercenary illustration.
And so, long before I had ever entertained the notion of live painting, the whole foundation had already been poured. A degree-carrying biologist pretending to be an artist, or an artist pretending to be a biologist? Whether inking frogs in a corner of the herpetology library or staking out easel space to the side of the stage, I can't shake the feelings of being a peripheral animal, living on the fringes. The meditative and monastic quality of my experience as an artist, ritually ornamenting some precious text, has flown from the stone cloisters of the halls of science and landed in the whirling ecstasies of more embodied worship.
While illustrating descriptive papers and field guides in the museum, I used the creative faculties of my right brain to present ideas with fidelity and frugal care. While tracing psychedelic lattices and floral blooms in vivid color at concerts, my left brain remains engaged in executing emergent rules and patterns, the visual genome and evolving geometry of pieces I consider living and breathing artifacts of the evening's energies. The organic metaphors that pervade my identity and work, my doing and being, point to the deep structures of my ecological education - while the creative yearning and the commitment to exact visions are the signature of a poetry that runs through my life in settings hushed or boisterous, scholarly or celebratory.
With all of this in mind, my inability to paint (according to my definition) makes little difference to my identity as a naturalist-artist-monk, exploring the strange fauna of the subtle energy worlds conducted by heaving bass and dancing throngs. Plate by plate, I'm assembling a new field guide: a field guide to living jewelry, the bizarre beauties of a mind just on the other side of this one.
2007 12 14, Trilogy Lounge
2007 12 19, Trilogy Lounge
2008 01 29, Avalon Ballroom
Whenever I set up my easel and pull out my bundle of paint markers, I remember one passage in particular: Aldous Huxley's introduction to his essay, "Heaven and Hell." Before my work in the museum, before I recognized the sacred responsibility of the artist, this passage fell through my eyes and down into my deepest reaches - rippling outward until now, finally, I hear it and know who I am:
"Like the earth of a hundred years ago, our mind still has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins. In relation to the fauna of these regions we are not yet zoologists, we are mere naturalists and collectors of specimens. The fact is unfortunate; but we have to accept it, we have to maket he best of it. However lowly, the work of the collector must be done, before we can proceed to the higher scientific tasks of classification, analysis, experiment, and theory making.
Like the giraffe and the duck-billed platypus, the creatures inhabiting these remoter regions of the mind are exceedingly improbable. Nevertheless they exist, they are facts of observation; and as such, they cannot be ignored by anyone who is honestly trying to understand the world in which he lives.
It is difficult, it is all but impossible, to speak of mental events except in similes drawn from the more familiar universe of material things. If I have made use of geographical and zoological metaphors, it is not wantonly, out of a mere addiction to picturesque language. It is because such metaphors express very forcibly the essential otherness of the mind's far continents, the complete autonomy and self-sufficiency of their inhabitants. A man consists of what I may call an Old Wold of personal consciousness and, beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds - the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal subconscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious, with its flora of symbols, its tribes of aboriginal archetypes; and, across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness, the world of Visionary Experience.
If you go to New South Wales, you will see marsupials hopping about the countryside. And if you go to the antipodes of the conscious mind, you will encounter all sorts of creatures at least as odd as kangaroos. You do not invent these creatures any more than you invent marsupials. They live their own lives in complete independence. A man cannot control them. All he can do is go to the mental equivalent of Australia and look around him."
So that's what I do.
(Written for iggli.com.)