"When Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines"
oil, 16 x 20 Sue Favinger Smith @2010
The subject for this painting is drawn from a Nez Perce story called How Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines, which I discovered on the United Cherokee Ani-Yun-Wiya Nation website. They indicated that the story was first recounted for the American public in the Journal of American Folk Lore, 1890. This was a period in American history when ethnologists went out to the people of the First Nations and attempted to "preserve a culture" before it was completely assimilated. Not all stories would have been recounted.
As with all First Nation storytelling,
there are multiple layers of meaning: some seek to explain the natural
world - why mountains and rivers are shaped the way they are, and others
speak to moral or behavioral dilemmas, codes of conduct, heroics and
honoring the earth and all who inhabit it.
Many First Nation Stories are deeply personal vessels containing the most sacred elements of culture, and are not in the public domain. As I've researched subject matter for this series, I've learned that if a story is not connected to its cultural roots, it loses meaning. And - as with painting - it is necessary to "find the story" first, to make that connection of meaning, and in context.
From an artistic standpoint, I knew that I did not want to merely "illustrate" a story. A core belief of First Nation culture revolves around honoring the wisdom in the natural world, in the ancestors, "before there were people." I feel that to merely illustrate - to depict a scene from the storyboard - would be to diminish the purpose of the story. I needed to first find the story, find the personal meaning within the story, and then attempt to communicate in paint an idea, a starting point for the viewer to step in where I have left off and find his or her own connection.
When Beaver Stole Fire from the Pines is not a safe painting. In a way, Raven Stealing the Hat from Fog Man was "safe." It was a basic notan painting, using the bold gestural marks that we expect in the Abstract Expressionist tradition. It communicated a clear idea. The painting "presented" itself to me fully formed - in that subject matter, composition, approach all worked together to communicate an idea. No doubt other work in this series will also utilize this visual approach, when it is an effective means of communication. But the Beaver painting needed to be something else. It needed to express some of the mystical qualities in First Nation storytelling, when Raven, Coyote, Beaver were not yet animals, nor were they entirely Indian.
It needed to be "almost real."