Life and Death

Published on 8 September 2023 at 22:51

Medium: Watercolor on paper

Date: 2019

Life and Death

What do you see in this picture? A dancing black bird surrounded by yellow, and a big rabbit with a white moon face standing in a black space. The rabbit is inviting the bird into this dark space. Why is the rabbit doing this? Is it a trap? A prank? A party?

Well, let me tell you a story. Birds have been important in Chinese mythology for thousands of years. An ancient painting shows a black bird in the sun. The Chinese black bird of the sun was something I had never heard of when I did my first sun with a dancing bird back in 1987. I really liked my drawing of this dancing bird that I did then. It was in a sun at dawn on a farm in Minnesota. Years later I found out its Chinese origin; I liked it even better. I am using it again on a drawing of the sun thirty years later in 2019.

I put this new copy of the bird from 1987 on the page surrounded by yellow. I wanted something to go with it. I put a dark area next to the yellow area. In this dark area I could see a white circle with a kind of rabbit's face in it. So, I had two sides: a bright one and a dark one. Could I be seeing the sun and the moon? What could these represent in my mind?

I could imagine the dancing bird in the sun as Life. I saw the moon rabbit in the dark night as, perhaps Death. I saw the bird in the sun being welcomed by the rabbit of the moon. I liked that idea. I had now made a whole rabbit figure, hand outstretched, inviting the bright and lively sun into the dark of night. I liked the softness of the dark, a comforting feeling welcoming the activity of the dancing bird. I liked the quiet of night. I decided this could be a good image for me of Life and Death.

This watercolor was done in 2019 before Covid-19 when I still had a lot of energy. I do like symbols of animals. I have created many pictures of these dichotomies of life using animal figures. The first painting I sold was to a very sophisticated woman poet at our church. I was age 14 and had just started to use watercolor. She had written a poem about the sun and the rain. She wanted me to make a visual of the poem. l imagined a tree slanting from corner to corner. Under the tree trunk was gray. Above the trunk was yellow. When I brought the painting to her after church on Sunday morning, she had a fist full of dollars to pay me. I charged her seventy-five cents, which was near to the legal wage rate at that time of forty cents per hour. I figured I had spent two hours on it. She paid what I asked. She did say, “Why did you do your interpretation this way?” I said, “The subject of the poem was two times of the day. I wanted to show both equally.” She said, “OK. That’s interesting. But why did you choose a tree?” I said, “Because trees are awesome.” She said, “Fair enough.”

I do still think of that picture many times. Why did I divide the picture into two moods? I cannot recall, but I realized that contrast and complexity became one of the central themes of my art. Later I did many pictures with two opposites. Now the images are Life and Death. But they are not enemies or rivals; they are friends and companions. They are like two bunnies who hop along together, sometimes in the light, sometimes in the dark, but always side by side.

I guess these comforts me to have the two opposites of life agreeing to be with each other. Living with opposites has been fundamental to my life and perhaps to yours, too. I do know that it has been that way for me during my first 80 years.

So, as we navigate the dance of Life and Death, let's remember that even in the most profound contrasts, there's room for harmony and whimsy, just like the dancing bird and the moon rabbit in my cherished artwork.

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