My artist residency at at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is going well, very well. Scientists have lunched with me, summer camp students have made art with me, and I’ve come up with far more viable ideas for great paintings about natural history than there’s time for. Fortunately, a handful of those ideas are clear standouts, including a series of six paintings of nursing mammals that will be used to make a toile-like pattern to be installed as wallpaper in the museum’s award-winning dedicated breastfeeding room. The trouble is, I can’t decide which mammals to include in the pattern. Of course I blame my indecisiveness on the museum because taking stock of the mammals in the second floor dioramas induced an overload of inspiration. So, you get to decide. Between now and midnight on Sunday, August 28, you can cast your vote for the six nursing mammals you think would be best suited for this pattern. It’s hard, but I know you can muster the strength to choose between a zebra and a jaguar. Thank you for weighing in.
Ps – I’m dedicating this pattern to the all the moms out there who have trudged into a public bathroom to nurse in a restroom stall, or pump while trying to avoid eye contact with strangers reaching for a paper towel because the only outlet at your disposal is directly next to the paper towel dispenser. There soon will be an especially swanky place for you to feed your little one(s) that will be the envy of all non-lactating persons.
Today, May 4, 2016, is my second child’s due date. But there will be no trip to the hospital. No celebration. Not even eager anticipation of the little one’s late arrival on another day. It’s quite the opposite – my husband and I will anxiously wait for this day to pass because we lost the baby.
Talking publicly about such a personal matter is not therapeutic for me. Actually, I hate it. However, I’m going there anyway for two reasons. 1. Miscarriages are common (up to 25% of all clinically recognized pregnancies). Yet, since it’s rarely discussed, many people feel alone in the tragedy. So, if this has happened to you, I assure you that you are not the only member of this shitty club. 2. My particular experience rocketed me into an already budding and deeper path in my artwork – one that honors the beauty in natural life cycles. Since I anticipate this is going to be consistent theme in my work going forward, I might as well use this misfortune to unpack it.
And with that, here’s what happened:
Months ago, an ultrasound technician told me, as I looked at my little peanut of 14 weeks on the monitor, “I’m so sorry, but there’s no heartbeat.” Suffice it to say I was such a wreck that I couldn’t drive home.
Instead of waiting to miscarry, I opted to have a D and C procedure the next day. The 25 hour period between hearing the terrible news and having the procedure was awful. Really awful. I tried to watch as much mindless television as possible to avoid fixating on the deceased fetus I was still carrying. It felt like holding my breath so as not to breath poison.
The procedure was straightforward and quick. Physically, I felt as good as new in no time. My emotional well-being slowly started to follow suit. I was more grateful than ever for my son, my health, my incredibly supportive partner, and for life in general. Then, I got a call from my doctor. She told me that a test revealed that I had what’s called a partial molar pregnancy. In plain English, my egg had been fertilized by two sperm, and so there were three set of chromosomes (two sets from dad and one from me, versus the healthy scenario of one set from each). This fatal concoction meant the baby and placenta were following a disastrous recipe for development.
Having an explanation was somewhat of a relief, until my doctor told me that in a small percentage of molar pregnancies, tissue left in the uterus will continue to grow and develop into cancer. Think about that – pregnancy can cause cancer. The heartache came rushing back. Fortunately, after months of follow-up tests, it seems I’m in the clear.
In the thick of it, I felt fortunate to have painting as a means of processing what was festering in my mind. On one hand, there’s the pain and unfairness of it. On the other hand, there’s gratitude and trust in nature taking its course. Since my 2015 artist residency at institutions such as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I had amassed a pile of natural history books to nurture my new found love for science. Several of them were blissfully perfect at addressing this juxtaposition of destruction and beauty in nature, especially Bernd Heinrich’s Life Everlasting. With that book close at hand, I dragged an old botched painting out of storage and dumped my head and heart over top of it.
One of the first things I noticed about how I was executing this painting was that I loosened up – a huge departure from my usual style of very tight rendering. Once I got my fill of therapeutic “scribbling” on the canvas, I found that the small cluster of hyper-realistic pomegranates and a Magpie stood out even more distinctly on a messy background. It also felt symbolic of my mind coming into focus – from chaos to clarity.
Speaking of symbolism, this painting is oozing with it. I read up on symbolism in nature (on a myriad of topics ranging from Dutch still-life painting to religious texts), and found various interpretations of an egg representing life, resurrection and hope; a snake representing the “corruptibility of human flesh“; pomegranates representing fertility; a single magpie (a scavenger that will steal and eat eggs) representing death and misfortune; white lilies representing purity; tulips representing love.
And although I didn’t run across any references specifically to burying beetles, I was compelled to include three of them in my painting. Burying beetles are often described as nature’s undertakers because even one lone beetle can move a rodent carcass to soft soil where it will dig a hole under the deceased for it to fall into. There, underground, the rodent becomes the sustenance for new life. Some may find this repulsive, but without nature’s cleanup crew, circumstances would be far more unpleasant. Being grossed out by decay is probably some form of self-preservation, but I find it to be increasingly captivating and reassuring. Life doesn’t end at death, it starts anew.
Finally, there’s the pattern tile motif in pink. I wanted to continue using pattern in my work, so I designed a stencil in the shape of a seed sprouting into two fully formed blooms on the left and right and a single diseased bud in the center – our chromosomal mess. I didn’t realize until after I finished the painting that I had used the two most stereotypical baby colors to create the pattern.
The evolution of life naturally transforming from one stage to the next can be agonizing and painful, even violent and vicious at times (if the latter piqued your interest, look up “sky burial”). And yet within that there is incredible beauty and tenderness. There’s no grand conclusion to state here, rather a declaration of ease with my fetus with 69 chromosomes, my cancer scare, my husband, and I being part of something that supersedes our individual parts – something I find comfort in. Or better said by Bernd Heinrich in Life Everlasting:
“Just as space-time connects the cosmos, and the molecules that make up our bodies connect us to the past exploding stars, we are connected to the cosmos in the same way we are connected to earth’s biosphere and to each other. Physically we are like the spokes of a wheel to a bicycle, or a carburetor to a car. The metaphor that we are part of the earth ecosystem is not a belief; it is a reality. We are tiny specks in a fabulous system, parts of something grand. We are part of what life has ‘learned’ from its inception on earth and has genetically encoded in DNA that will be passed on until the sun goes out.”
Do you know what will give you a sense of invincibility when it comes to painting pet portraits? Nailing a commission to capture 37 dogs on a single canvas. That gig from way back in 2007 required multiple dog handlers and a spreadsheet to track each dog’s distinct markings and relative size. So when a long-time follower of my work recently contacted me about painting his wife’s two Indian Ringneck Parrots as a surprise birthday gift, I reflected back on the 35 Pomeranians, 1 Yorkie and 1 mutt, and thought to myself, “I’ve got this.”
This new commission was especially exciting because it was the first pet-specific commission I had received since delving into my textile pattern-centric style of work – a perfect fit, if you ask me.
The client sent me photos of the interior of their home where the painting would hang, including the wallpaper, decorative plates, and curtains. I wanted the pattern in the background of my painting to “fit” in the space as you would expect in a top-notch William Morris drawing room.
As with all of my commissions, I first sent the client this rough digital mock-up of the painting (hey, no jokes about my awful Photoshopping – I said it was rough).
And here’s the finished piece. I’ve never been so happy with gold leaf in my work – it must be the stark contrast of gold on top of the dark blues in the background (note to self). I also was in love with the red-ish orange African Tulip Tree blooms – they might become a regular in my painted flower repertoire. And, fortunately, my client’s wife was in love with the birds.
Clearly this client has set a high bar for birthday gift-giving. If you want to up your own game, let’s talk about how I can help you score serious brownie points with a commission for your special someone. Get in touch at ashley at ashleycecil.com.