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House on Stilts with Infant

House on Stilts with Infant
oil on canvas
18″ x 24″

The baby figure in this painting appeared as a slurry of marks in the center of the “house” by accident and without forethought. I saw the shape suggested and pushed a bit until there was a child. After working the earth tones around the infant, I decided it needed some kind of emphasis other than the addition of details, since I wanted to keep the figure a simple shape, sort of glowing. So I introduced the ring around the infant.

By then, I was thinking of the preciousness of new life, the joy of parents, the promise of becoming. And quickly images of my son flickered by with all the little milestones and wonders: the physical changes as a baby from chunky to lean; the wistful transition when he became too big for the sling; his preternatural gift with language; the wry sense of humor developing in his toddler self; the emergence of his unique preferences—for food, clothes to wear, toys to play with (and dismantle), books to read (and dismantle); how he bloodied his nose by rolling off a sofa into a one-point landing (and dad freaking out); how, with no instruction, he instantly mastered a bazillion button remote control; how the terrible twos were never terrible at all; how, during his third Christmas, we sat in the car in the parking lot waiting for a choral piece to finish on the classical station, “Wasn’t that beautiful,” said I, and he replied from his backseat perch, “Was it about love?”; how I lost him in a Target store and, running the aisles, shut the store down with yells to “close the doors, there’s a missing child” (he had wandered into the refund/exchange section to play with some toys there); his love of water; his four-year old’s concluding remark when we left the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at LACMA, “I didn’t like that, there was too much anger.” The images kept coming, and then I knew the painting was about this profound phase of a life—his life, certainly, but all such young lives— the emergence of personality, the utterly unique amalgam of threads that swirl together in a miracle of a body, a mind, a spirit. So the painting was not just about my son, but about all sons and daughters, and parents’ joys and challenges. For a moment, I hoped everyone could see this. Then I discovered it was not a forgone conclusion.

I remembered the practice in ancient Sparta of leaving unwanted infants on the hillside to expire. That was a cold-hearted culture. Wondering if there had been others, I looked it up—“infanticide.” The facts and statistics relating to the killing of infants dumbfounded me.

In fact, Infanticide was not only practiced historically on every continent by all culture groups regardless of their complexity and refinement, by people of all religious persuasions, and  by all types of social groups regardless of economic means and methods of livelihood, but infanticide is still practiced today.

According to a 1998 study done by The Society for the Prevention of Infanticide, female infants are marked for infanticide more than males. There is evidence of this having taken place historically in Arabia, Early Christian culture, India, and China. Colonial America practiced infanticide, as well as the Native American tribes. While limited food supply seems to have been the main cause of the practice, punishment, especially by the Puritans in the American colonies and Americans today, was and is not uncommon.

Today in Asia, at least 60 million female children are missing and feared dead. In China, specifically, 30 million infant girls are missing, 28.7 million infant girls in India are missing, 3.1 million infant girls are missing in Pakistan, 1.6 million infant girls are missing in Bangladesh, 1.7 million infant girls are missing in West Asia, 600,000 infant girls are missing in Egypt, and 200,000 infant girls are missing in Nepal. The reasons for female infanticide are primarily food supply and the perceived economic burden of providing a dowry.

Though not so incredible, the numbers the study produced regarding infanticide in the United States should give us all pause. In 1966, the United States had 10,920 murders, and one out of twenty-two was a child killed by a parent.

“Statistically, the United States ranks high on the list of countries whose inhabitants kill their children. For infants under the age of one year, the American homicide rate is 11th in the world, while for ages one through four it is first and for ages five through fourteen it is fourth. From 1968 to 1975, infanticide of all ages accounted for almost 3.2% of all reported homicides in the United States,” reports The Society for the Prevention of Infanticide. In addition, they point out that while the number of homicides in the United States decreased in the 1980s, the rate at which parents were killing their children actually increased. “In 1983, over six hundred children were reported killed by their parents, and from 1982-1987, approximately 1.1% of all homicides were children under the age of one year. When the homicide of a child was committed by a parent, it was the younger age child who was in the greater danger of being killed, while if the killer was a non-parent, such as a boyfriend, then the victim was generally older.

The reasons are many: parental negligence, poverty and despair, young maternal age, impaired judgment due to low level of education, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The most common methods of killing a child, cites the aforementioned study, are head trauma, strangulation, and drowning. Most of the infant murders are committed by the mother’s hands.

So, now when I look at “House on Stilts with Infant” I see more than the sweet themes of parental joy, precious life, and a young life’s potential.  Reverberating inside is the knowledge that “the human species has killed almost 10% – 15% of all children born.” Children are beings cloaked with luck, and it can turn good or bad quickly. Infants, for all their frailty, are survivors—survivors of adults. Those who die fade into the earth with their bad luck as well as the same sort of unique qualities my son possesses.  Different flavors, but special gifts nonetheless. I am awed by the magic of the painting process—to reveal such a potent image—and disconsolate that that magic exposed such a vile part of the human tragedy. The ring I introduced did bring focus and structure to the painting. But now I see something different than a ring acting target-like, fixing our sights; the ring I see is a halo protecting the infant. Now when we look at the painting we can see a nimbus buffering the infant from death, and imagine it is the safeguard humanity has failed to consistently provide.  We wish the halo to remain until the infant is out of harm’s way. We can affect the infant’s luck, change its fate. It’s the least we can do.

A Man (Study for Four Fears)
oil and encaustic on canvas
20″ x 18″

What are your greatest fears?

loneliness     death     poverty     indecision     pollution     foreclosure     war     racism     crime     hopelessness     spiders     constricted spaces    rejection     old age     cancer          predatory bankers     clowns     rejection     snakes     heights     flying     doubt     the unknown     fire     thunder     failure     responsibility     water     injections     dentists          germs     honesty     crowds

What would these relationships look like? How many do you have?

A Man Study Sketch

Thumbnail sketch for Four Fears.  Lately, paintings usually begin with an idea caught in a small sketch like this.  A large painting (for me) is in progress pursuing this theme.

A Series Within a Series…

Within the new body of work, called Chronicle, is an ongoing series I am calling House on Stilts. These “House on Stilts” paintings share a similar format, except within the “house” of each painting a different scene plays out. They’re like still life paintings with different props.

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THE CHRONICLE SERIES

Have you ever seen reproductions of the Lascaux cave paintings and wondered what the creators of those cave paintings were like?

I have, too.

What do those fantastic drawings of bulls, ibex, aurochs, deer, and horses mean? Were they expressions of wishful thinking, drawn to attract animals for a successful hunt? Or were they overtures to some cosmic force giving thanks that the beasts were there to hunt? Or were they just expressions of awe and wonder? Perhaps they were accounts, Paleolithic ledger sheets, of what was out there?

What are we to take from the cave paintings?

We can see the artists’ power of observation, how they imbued each beast with an “essence” and flashes of narrative; we can see their inventive use of materials—chalk, charcoal, blowpipe, and we can imagine the necessary scaffolding, the ritual ceremonies, the procession of shamans and elders, and youths to be initiated. There is precision of light, the delicate shading of forms, the understanding of animal anatomy, and the flare of creativity using the cave contours and wall undulations to enhance realistic effects. We can see the artists’ transmission of spiritual and material information to the future. And then there are the hand stencils, positive and negative, that appear everywhere, as if to say, “We were here.”

These people were intimately connected to their environment for survival’s sake, and doubtless had a mythology or spirit world that gave meaning to their material world. Although we have no definite answers as to their true meaning, the paintings seem enchanted, attempts to communicate something extraordinary; they are expressions of something very specific (but unknown to us) in a visual language that is powerful and evocative. They were people with a full set of concerns, habits, and practices that framed their days, just like us.

So, I see their human-ness.

Don’t you?

Do you see like I do how the human compulsion to express something extraordinary still drives us? And do you also see how the human-ness inherent in the cave paintings and so much art, historical through contemporary, reaffirms our own humanity?

We need checkpoints that still our hearts. During the hustle and bustle of jobs and family, the challenge of maintaining home and heart, we fill our schedules with things to do, and this train of responsibilities demolishes any moment of reflection that might ground us in ourselves. Those cave paintings inspire me with their great passages of intense quietude, and they remind me how the human condition has not changed over time.

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A Paradigm Shift

I had an epiphany last spring: The landscape paintings I had been doing for years had lost some of their electricity for me. Even though I was working on several very good pictures at the time, there was something routine and unsatisfying about the process. It felt limited.

After soul-searching, I realized I wanted to comment on and respond to the human condition more directly, in ways pure landscape could not. The conventions of pure landscape were no longer enough, and so I decided to take a break from landscapes.

Teaching ancient art history again had galvanized many ideas, and, coupled with my interest in the poetic narrative aspects of image making, I began to explore. I poured over those cave paintings again, and their evocative power worked on me.

Soon I imagined myself a traveller venturing through time. In the distant past I encounter the stirrings of behavioral patterns that evolved into the human continuum. I imagine connections to community, the development of cosmologies and ritual, varied attempts to explain worldly phenomenon. Gradually the Chronicle series took shape.

These Chronicle images come to me out of the blue. Sometimes I will dwell on an idea—how early humans explained shooting stars; the edifice of superstition that governed ancient (and contemporary) lives; how ritual frames our significant experiences—and those reveries will generate some thumbnails that I’ll refine and rework into a painting. Sometimes content is clear; sometimes the content is only a feeling that becomes more clear during the process.

As the cave paintings provide a unique insight into the relationship ancient humans had with their manifold experience, the Chronicle paintings provide a unique connection to aspects of human behavior in the face of the known and unknown. By contemplating the narratives of the Chronicle series, you can explore your own sense of community, your relationship with governing forces, and experience a more personal connection to the human spectacle.

If you are interested in enhancing your sense of connection with our human-ness, and to have an emblem to reflect on and remind you that “You are here,” I would love to talk to you about ways to make that happen: rickderagon@yahoo.com.

In any case, I would love to hear your responses to this work. I want to know how they resonate with you.