Having just finished listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’, I realize I’ve been betraying myself. I have a book deadline in July of next year; it’ll be a book of my animal work. In it, I plan to talk about the painting process, what I think about while I’m working, stories about certain paintings and what brought about their existence.
I have been wrestling with one part of the larger story, however, most importantly deciding whether or not I want to include it. The reason is because it is deeply personal, it is the whole reason I paint these animals, especially the way in which I paint them, and it leaves me open to harsh criticism. I’ve only shared this story with a handful of people.
I’ve realized in recent days, however, that not to include it would be removing the very soul of the book. It would be robbing it of any honesty, and would genuinely be the worst kind of selling out, simply because I am worried about what people might think.
That’s not the book I want to write, and I wouldn’t be happy with it. Just as I’d rather give somebody a hug than shake their hand, you got to be who you are. So here goes.
In the mid-nineties, I worked at The Douglas Fir Resort in Banff, running the waterslide facility. A decent job, worked with some wonderful people, many of whom are still good friends. While I can’t be sure of the sequence of events, I do remember that my friends Michelle and Jeremy introduced me to Shamanism, which is a spiritual belief involving the natural world around us and most often associated with Native American culture, as I understood it. The general belief in communion with the natural world, however, is shared by many cultures on the planet. While I won’t go into it in great detail, I enjoyed the exploration.
I should mention that the only mind altering drugs I’ve ever done in my life was that I’ve smoked pot a few times. Let’s just say it didn’t agree with my naturally guarded nature, so none of this is related to illegal substances. Also, none of us was doing moonlight rituals or dancing naked under the stars in meadows, calling ourselves Running Deer or pretending we were in any way connected with a Native tribe. It was merely an investigation, just as I’ve done with many other supposedly fringe beliefs during that time.
One day, Jeremy and I were hanging out at the pool on days off and he gave me a drumming tape, which is just a rhythmic beating drum track that, when coupled with meditation, can often induce an altered perception called a journey. So I went into the sauna with my Walkman (remember those?) by myself, leaving Jeremy out by the pool and figured I’d give it a shot. When in your mid-twenties, you’ll believe anything, including that you’re invincible.
To spare you the detailed play by play, I’ll just say that it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. In the journey, I met a coyote, as vivid as if he was standing in front of me right now, more real than any dream, and he led me on a walk. In the simplest terms, I had met my personal Totem.
To even write this is daunting, because my instinct says, “right now, people are rolling their eyes and thinking, ‘wow, another flaky artist. What a shock.’”
If that’s you, feel free to stop reading. I won’t be offended.
Over the next few years, I was suddenly flooded with more animal dreams than I can count. I still have three or four volumes of journals I wrote at the time, complete with sketches of scenes and descriptions of the things I saw. These were incredibly vivid dreams and more journeys with the drumming tracks.
At our wedding the next year, one of Shonna’s friends gave me medicine cards. I still have them twenty years later. While in Anaheim in 2006, Shonna and I went to a mall and I found the book Animal Speak by the late Ted Andrews. I still open that book weekly and use it as a reference for the wildlife I often see. I was drawn to this stuff, it just seemed to show up everywhere, or I was suddenly just noticing it. I’m as much a skeptic as the next guy, so I’ll concede that point, as you often find what you’re looking for.
Over time, however, I lost interest in it. The flighty indulgence of youth has time for these things, but I became busy with my editorial cartooning career. Sure, I thought about those dreams once in a while and revisited it occasionally. When cleaning up my office, I might come across those journals and read a few pages, but as time past, it drifted away.
Around 2009, right after my first Photoshop World, I’d been looking for some painted work I could do that I could actually market. Up until then, I’d been doing a lot of painted caricatures of celebrities, but realized I wasn’t enjoying it much and that selling these likenesses would also present legal issues in the future and I didn’t like doing it enough to bother with that hassle.
So I thought about what I could paint. Given where I live, I figured I’d give wildlife a try. I’d done some renderings of animals for editorial cartoons, but wanted to see if I could paint them as well. A bear seemed like a good start. I made time for this experiment and the finished result looked sort of like a real bear, but it was definitely caricatured, which hadn’t been my original plan. It just ended up that way. The response was good, people liked it and most importantly, so did I. It just felt right. It was fun. I loved that bear and it’s still one of my favorites today, and one of my best sellers.
It was my first Totem painting, of which I’ve done almost thirty since, among many other animal paintings that aren’t considered part of that group. In February of 2010, with three of them done, I got into my first art gallery in Banff, seemingly by accident, and now my animal work is a large part of my career. With three galleries, two zoos and international licensing on apparel and other products, this part of my life is still growing. Best of all, it is still the most enjoyable work I have ever done and continue to do. It feels like a calling, like this is where I’m supposed to be.
Now here’s the spooky part.
About a year after I started painting these animals, I was getting rid of some books in my office. I came across those journals and got sucked into reading one of them. I discovered an entry that described a detailed dream I’d had right around the time I’d been introduced to the concept of animal spirits, about twenty years ago. In the dream, I was at a party in one of the chalets at the Douglas Fir Resort. I had gone into the bathroom to relieve myself but had been distracted by a noise outside. I looked out the small window and saw a grizzly bear walking toward the chalet on the path outside.
The bear approached the chalet, put its front paws up onto the wall, looked right up at me and grinned. The bear had human eyes. That was twelve years before I’d painted my first Totem, and I’d forgotten all about it.
It might surprise you to read that I’m an atheist. I was raised Catholic and know a lot about religion, but if I ever had faith in it, I certainly don’t now. In the simplest terms, I believe we get one shot at this life and I don’t believe in an afterlife. Or if I’m wrong, I don’t think we have the reference required to comprehend what a continued existence might entail, so I don’t give it much thought. I also don’t try to dissuade anyone who believes otherwise. Faith is faith, no matter where you place it. To each their own.
And yet, my personal paradox is that I do believe that there is a mysterious other level that parallels and interacts with our own. Something we can often feel and sometimes see and touch. I don’t try to define it, nor do I believe it’s the same for everybody; we might each experience it in terms we can understand. Whether through intuition, dreams, premonitions or just that gut feeling you have that tells you to turn left instead of right, there’s something indefinable that has an influence on our material world.
In every painting I do, and I’ve mentioned this often, there is a moment where the personality just seems to ‘show up.’ I’m not kidding. The technical brushwork might be to the best of my ability, but to me, it appears lifeless until that moment. When it happens, it is my glimpse into that other, because it’s so profound. It is a real experience to me. When it comes, there is often a sense of relief, that the work was worthy of it, but more often, it’s like greeting an old friend. I’ve even said aloud on more than one occasion, “there you are.”
It’s as if I did the work to create the painted body, and when it was ready, something else gave it life. That’s the best I can explain it. It moves me every time.
In June of 2013, I finally painted the Coyote Totem, and it was worth the wait. It was if I didn’t have the skills to do it justice until then. It is the only painting I have printed for myself and it’s framed in my office. It is not one of my bestsellers, but it is my favorite. My wife suggested I hang it where I could see it easily from my desk. I look at it often, especially when I realize I’ve learned something important or when a perceived failure yields unexpected dividends later on, the connection only apparent in hindsight.
His grin is all knowing and it always makes me smile, as if telling me to have faith in the process or simply to say, “told you so.” From Animal Speak, The Coyote is the wise fool, the trickster. “There is always hidden wisdom when the coyote is concerned. Its energies are tied to simplicity and trust.”
Recently, I mentioned on social media that I was thinking of getting my first tattoo for my 45th birthday in the spring. I’d finally realized that Wile E. Coyote would be appropriate, a frustrated, grumpy looking version that just suits my mercurial personality, and it’s a cartoon. Shortly after sharing that, my mother sent me this picture of me at 19 months old.
Seems he has always been around for me.
What I’ve learned from studying this Totem is that the best lessons are often learned in a roundabout way. When you’re failing at one thing, you’re probably succeeding at something else and you don’t even know it. While I was frustrated for years at not getting to where I wanted to be with the artwork I was pursuing, what I was really doing was getting better at drawing and painting, putting in those requisite 10,000 hours. Eventually everything came full circle until I found the work I love to do best, or rather it found me. I didn’t develop the skill until later to create these animals that make me so happy, but I’d always been working toward it, even if I didn’t know it.
So now you know. This is why I paint these animals, why they’re called Totems, and why I can never take full credit for them. It is a powerful gift, one I continually have to earn.
It’s my own brush with big magic, and I’m grateful.