August 30, 2013
From the introduction to Dream Animals, a book written by James Hillman with paintings by Margot McLean:
James Hillman: Are you saying that studying animals, knowing about them, even feeling for them isn’t enough? We have to imagine them. Get into them as imaginal beings, into them as images . . .
Margot McLean: What I’m saying is I believe a little anthropomorphizing is necessary. For me to be inside means entering the animal’s body and trying to see the world from there. It simply does not make sense to separate ourselves from the animal world when there are far too many concrete similarities.
I am hard at work preparing for a show opening at The Gallery at Town Center on October 8. Putting together a body of work is always a compelling experience for artists, a creative process with its own agenda. With little more than a month before the show opens, I do not have time to over-think anything, and figure that after invoking my muse, I should follow her prompts, even if they seem random and arrive at 3 a.m. If I resist, I work against her, myself, and all the animals asking for form.
So, while I keep up with my day job, I allow my subconscious self to be overtaken by the images passing through me. With equal amounts of focus and fortune, some of them make it to sketch stage, and then into a paper collage, and finally into a frame, ready to hang on a gallery wall.
But I can’t really surrender until an animal steps forward as a mentor. As I prepared for a significant show in 2002, the first one to show up was a nighthawk who flew into my lap during a strange and wonderful dream. To this day, I remember how happy I was collaborating with that bird as it emerged on my drafting table, and then stayed to supervise the rest of the work I created for the show. I couldn’t sell the piece when the time came, but was happy to hang it with a Not for Sale tag as it oversaw the exhibit.
This time, long before I sent out a request for a mentor, I let the theme of October’s show move through a few iterations. My intention is to pay homage to animals with whom I have a deep connection, ones I have actually, physically worked with. At first, the title “Indicator Species” surfaced and stuck around for a while. When I read about another animal going extinct, my thoughts about the future run dark. While every loss is critical, there are some species I cannot bear to live without in this world. They are my personal indicator species. Tigers gone? I’m not far behind if that happens. How could I exist without knowing they still roamed free somewhere besides my imagination?
My next working title was “Familiars,” until I considered the implications of the word. It suggests an exchange of sorts, and probably not a very equal one as I ask animals to do something for me. Over time, they have done more than enough. I am alive because of their generosity, and that is not an exaggeration. Now I want to give back, no strings attached, except for the inspiration to make the art. And then the big Aha! The animals themselves are the muses who wake me up at night and tell me what they want to happen. “Muses” it is.
And into this awareness strolls a Canada Lynx, my main muse for this collection of portraits. While I worked at Woodland Park Zoo many moons ago, we received a pair of lynx from Assiniboine Park Zoo in Manitoba. Shy animals to begin with, these two were nearly invisible at the back of an enclosure that did not serve their needs. Before we could make changes, we needed to know how they were using the space, and what stressed them. That meant observing them when they were most active: before dawn, without human activity on the grounds.
For two months, I arrived at the zoo every morning before 5 a.m. I perched silently on the back of a bench, binoculars in hand, to watch Pierre and Dominique, as we named them, interact with the enclosure. In time, I knew what we could do to make life in captivity better for them. Most of the changes were easy – moving a marking log to the front so they could claim a corner, putting a small shrub in the back so they had more privacy when eating, changing the placement of their den door so it opened out of public view. With each modification, the lynx relaxed a little more. They eventually moved into their new space.
And I fell completely in love with these ghost-like cats. Of course, they sensed me in the early morning, but got more comfortable as the weeks unfolded. During my regular shift in the feline unit, Pierre and Dominique allowed me into their enclosure to clean, and sat quietly watching. In their presence, I moved slowly, consciously, gratefully. Time was suspended, and nothing else existed for me but two beautiful, silent, intense beings.
Seeing my increasing devotion to the lynx, Helen Freeman, then Curator of Education at the Zoo and founder of the International Snow Leopard Trust, encouraged me to get involved in their protection. Years of trapping and dwindling habitat has forced these cats to the brink of extinction in many places. I volunteered with Defenders of Wildlife to help get Canada Lynx listed as a threatened species in states with remnant populations, and it was after the conference in DC that I began to perceive other ways of bringing attention to their plight.
On the way home from the conference, I sketched on the plane, faint images of cats in the wild, still visible, but retreating deeper into their disappearing habitats. The idea was there, but my artistic skills were not. They are now. I started the work that is currently on my drafting table a long time ago. In the intervening years, the cats I imagined seemed real enough to speak, and they challenged me to learn my medium well enough to create portraits, to make their gaze so convincing that no one could ignore them.
Of all the animals I have worked with, Canada Lynx are not the flashiest, but they are the ones I have missed the most. Or maybe what I long for is the sense of peace I felt in their presence. Life so often feels loud and out of control, and I am left exhausted. I cannot create from that place, and I certainly cannot hear the whispers of my muses. As soon as I slowed down to focus on this show, Pierre and Dominique brushed quietly against me. They offered to see me through this process, to be my muses. I will soon get to the big, sexy cats, but for now, I am grateful to have my work seen through the keen eyes of Canada Lynx.
James Hillman: . . . some theories say that we got our words from the sounds of animals. So, I like to think that the right words say something to the animals, too.
Margot McLean: That’s nice, a message to the animals. Hmmm . . .
James Hillman: In part, I am trying to tell them something: a message about how they register in the human imagination, in our lore and fantasy, in our symbol systems, even what our zoology says about them. Like a report to them about how they are perceived. . . Our civilized mind makes a terrible mistake by contrasting “real” animals and animal “images,” as if the one standing in the zoo and the one you meet in a dream are two different beasts altogether.