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A Confession

One intelligence flows through all creatures, but as it is channeled it is focused in many different ways through the various dimensional levels, like high-voltage current moving through a series of step-down transformers.  - Ken Carey

At first, I cannot believe my eyes as I catch a glimpse of a large bird in the sky.  I am used to seeing lots of geese flying here in their customary V-clusters, some families of Sandhill cranes, also ducks and smaller birds love this spot along the clear ditch which runs parallel to the Rio Grande.   On this mid-January day with my new pup, Belle, grace soars above us.  We have been coming to this place everyday for a week or more in the afternoons to walk along a narrow path protected on the east side by residential fences.  Belle can be free to run off leash and play at the waters edge along the trailhead.  This afternoon, I feel inclined to walk farther. It is windy, cool and the sun is angled in the southern sky, a bright radiance against a cerulean blue hue. Just the right direction to light up the white head of the bird in the sky.

Above the clear ditch on the west side the landscape rises above my eye-line.  I can see bare-branched cottonwood trees moving with the wind as I catch sight of two floating forms.  Snow white head and tail, a black body, then another marvel, two eagles soaring above the tree tops.  Incredible, a pair of bald eagles! They seem to be completely liberated from gravity. A feeling of ecstasy rushes through my heart expanse as I watch them sail on the air in tandem. I have never seen a pair of eagles in flight before, it's a gift- rare and uplifting.  Their heads and tails appear to be bleached white against the ever so blue New Mexico sky, there can be no mistaking these magnificent creatures. 

Too quickly one recedes from my view, we turn around toward the other and follow it though it is soon gone swiftly out of sight as well.    I walk on in reverie, expanded by their presence, I can only imagine they must be a mated pair.  Afterward, I note a large round clump of matter in one of the cottonwood trees and speculate if that could possibly be their nest. Or maybe they are just passing through.  I am so grateful to have witnessed them and to Belle, for without her, I would likey not be out on this cool windy January day.  

Something I have been considering for over forty-five years came to a closure this week.  It’s conclusion and this sighting underlines it for me.  A few years ago, I sent an email letter to a professor who had a great impact on my life - for the positive- when I was in my freshman year of college.

I was just seventeen when I started at Kent State in Ohio and not too far from where I grew up in Cleveland.  But far enough away to feel that I was independent from what I perceived as too much control at home.  I was under the spell of the energy of the times, with everything that the late 1960s had brought including: sex, drugs and rock & roll. Never a particularily meaningful combination, it would not help that I was confused and yet oddly determined, disconnected from my sense of self and some how totally self-absorbed. I was elated to be away from home and pursuing art. Free.  And for a time, at least during the first semester, I was a fairly focused student.  William Harper was the professor for my first college level studio art class, a foundational art class.   I was coming in with a strong background in art from high school and throughout my preparatory years, I was engaged with art. Fortunately, in that era, the arts were given respect and support.  Professor Harper was a pivotal facilitator in my art education, as he made the suggestion that I apply to an art and design school, I did, and that absolutely changed my life.  

I looked Mr. Harper up online a few years ago and decided to write a thank you letter to him for how he had helped inform my world.  And also to hopefully start a dialogue of apology in regard to a project I created while I was in his visual studies class. When I did not receive a reply in short order, I forgot about it, figuring he either never got the email- maybe it was an old address- or he was not interested, busy, or perhaps I was just too late.   But this past week, three years later, I received a reply.  

I once killed a bird for art.  It was a beautiful blue parakeet which I purchased live, in a pet store in Kent for an art competition.  In 1972, I did not know this act of murder would continue to be a haunting theme for the rest of my life.  At the time, it seemed okay, I thought I was following directions.  In hindsight, of course, I can look at the bigger picture of my life: a childhood fraught with objectification gets projected onto the world, i.e. the small caged bird.  Emotional turmoil, a disturbing world of war and young men, my friends and peers, being sent off to that immoral war.  Four students killed at Kent State in 1970, by the Ohio National Guard, for protesting the Vietnam war. Nine more students injured.  It was a confusing time to be a teenager to say the least. Disharmony in the nation: an unpopular war, civil rights movements, womens rights all happening center stage on the news each night and in the streets each day with immense outrage between the generations. But all things considered, there is no doubt, my inner moral compass was off.

When Professor Harper gave the assignment for a competition in his studio art class, one on a list of requirements was "something that was once living."  Looking back, I am certain the idea was meant to inspire the use of something like a leaf, a tree branch, a dried flower or a found feather, bu not to cause cruelty. Unfortunately, I took it quite literally and though I could not face the act of killing the parakeet personally, a friend, Tony, did the deed for me, I take full and total responsibility.

I wrote about this piece last summer, in relationship to another artist’s work recently on view in an Albuquerque gallery, before I had heard back from Mr. Harper. (see below at   http://www.deborahgavel.com/blog/2017/8/22/bee-pastures-factory-farmed-insects-a-parakeet-and-a-solar-e.html)  My piece, an assemblage in the manner of the artist, Joseph Cornell, was constructed with a wooden cigar box I painted a  dark- blue glossy enamel and lined it with blue cotton velveteen, a remnant from a dress I wore to a high school prom. The metal prongs inside the box for holding cigars, I painted metallic gold and placed the dead parakeet between them.  I remember the piece clearly:   on the inside lid, mounted upside down, I glued a small classic 1950s image of Jesus, from Sunday school, about the size and shape of a credit card.  It seems obvious to me now that I was an angry adolescent. Inspite of that, the little coffin remained only a subconscious expression of my inner turmoil. 

The piece won the competition, however, when I was asked where I had acquired the parakeet, things changed dramatically.  Word got around school that I had killed a bird for art and someone I didn't know came up to me in the cafeteria and told me off.  Mute, I recall, I didn't know how to respond.   

But this week, five decades later, I made an apology to my former professor.  When I opened his email, three years after my initial letter of appreciation, I took the opportunity to write back to him about the parakeet  and my regrets. This time, he responded immediately that he absolutely remembered the incident, and the blue bird that was intended to be a pet.  He said, “the faculty was irate,” and that he thinks of the parakeet every time he sees an animal abuse story on the news.  Even now, those words cut to my heart.  Then he reminded me of the work of Damien Hirst, in particular a piece Hirst created using a specific shark, a Tiger Shark. When it started to deteriorate, his collector wanted to have it replaced, which led to a hunt off the coast of Queensland, Australia to kill another.  Here are a few notes found at Wikipedia on the history of the piece:

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is an artwork created in 1991 by Damien Hirst, an English artist and a leading member of the "Young British Artists" (or YBA). It consists of a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine. It was originally commissioned in 1991 by Charles Saatchi, who sold it in 2004, to Steven A. Cohen for an undisclosed amount, widely reported to have been $8 million. However, the title of Don Thompson's book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, suggests a higher figure.
Owing to deterioration of the original 14-foot (4.3 m) tiger shark, it was replaced with a new specimen in 2006. It was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from 2007 to 2010.[1]
It is considered the iconic work of British art in the 1990s,[2] and has become a symbol of Britart worldwide.[3]

Mr. Harper also wrote me about a piece of his own in which he had used an ivory chopstick-later replaced with a found animal bone- before it was bestowed to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.   

During the days that followed this email exchange. I imagined the assembled coffin I created, burning on a funerary pyre and with it, going up in smoke, my guilt. I don’t imagine I will ever forget that beautiful bird. I live now with a handsome yellow canary and I don’t take him for granted, his presence in my life has been a great joy. His intelligence and life force is astounding. When I see/hear him singing opera trills in his cage, as well as many wild birds, each one in their distinctions :  a Great Blue Heron I saw today, a speckle-chested woodpecker in a tree, a brilliant red Summer Tanager, or the recent spectacle of two eagles soaring, I am humbled.

For the past few years I have been painting portraits of specific birds, to honor them and their gifted wings with this story in the background of my consciousness.  I cannot lay judgement on Damien Hirst for his work but I know where I stand with my own.  And hopefully, I have repaid the karma.

Notes, 1-3 from a Wikipedia article on Damien Hirst’s piece:
Smith, Roberta (16 October 2007). "Just When You Thought It Was Safe". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2007.

Brooks, Richard. "Hirst's shark is sold to America", The Sunday Times, 16 January 2005. Retrieved 14 October 2008.

Davies, Serena. "Why painting is back in the frame", The Daily Telegraph, 8 January 2005. Retrieved 27

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