I interviewed a number of women at a shelter in Asheville. The idea was to create a series of paintings that would symbolize their experiences, while maintaining their anonymity. One story took me some distance from Asheville. I found the place she had left behind.
Her story, like some others, involved evangelical judgement on the part of the abuser. A church nearby had some overturned statues in the graveyard.
This was the starting point for the painting, ‘I have led you’ (Proverbs 4:11)
In researching this one place, I had stumbled upon the history of another close by- a story I was surprised I had not heard before. In 1916, a circus elephant had been hanged for trampling a handler. They managed this execution by using a great crane in the railyards. A festive crowd had gathered to watch the event. I drove over there and walked around.
I don’t feel comfortable naming the town where this happened. Next year, the centenary, I’m sure the press will dig up this skeleton once again to the dismay of the people who live there now. But the story, which could have happened in so many paces back then (another elephant was electrocuted before a crowd at Coney Island in 1903) really affected me.
In an interview later, I was asked how being a parent has altered my art. Being a parent made me want to paint something that began with the story of this elephant, Mary.
I am opposed to the death penalty. It confounds me that this overwhelmingly Christian country ignores the direct teaching of Christ- a man who was executed for doing things like personally intervening in executions. And, in a country so suspicious of government, I am surprised its citizens are content to give the state the power of life and death over them.
I was educated in part by the Jesuits, and have always wanted to paint my own version of the stations of the cross that lined one cloister wall where we lined up before meals. Those beautiful bas-reliefs had amazed me. ‘Ecce Homo’ says Pilate, “Behold the man”. But I will make Mary the elephant the symbol of suffering. A ‘Mater Dolorosa’.
My little boy loves washing trees, to make them well. I have no idea where he got this idea, but the trees in the yard are cleaner for it. The elephant is covered in graffiti. I will paint Finn trying to wash the insults off the animal. He watches the crowds, frantic in his elephant mask.
There is no need for any suggestion of a railyard. It becomes a playground. A house will burn in the distance. Finn wants only to hear stories of superheroes conquering evil. For him, the ‘bad guys’ must always lose.
His toys rush to his aid. ‘Curious George’ is a superhero as far as Finn is concerned. The little monkey helps with the rest, pulling at the ropes until his fingers bleed.
I can do nothing to protect my son from the fact this world is so often unkind and unjust. The story of Mary might have happened here, but this painting is a response to the great arc of pain happening now across the Middle East.
When this is finished, this will be the central panel of another sixteen foot triptych. I suppose an artist’s work expands to fill their studio space. The paintings I once painted for myself alone used to fit in a closet, or under the bed- not anymore.