February 2nd, 2017
Sarah McRae Morton, The Mountain Whale
The centerpiece of the show is the unlikely composition of animals from all continents defying gravity. It echoes the obsessively painted 62 versions of Peaceable Kingdom by Pennsylvania artist Edward Hicks (1780 – 1849). My version omits the vignettes of European settlers and Native Americans. The animals were painted from the dioramas from Natural History Museums and the 19th century cabinets of curiosity - predecessors of museums which cataloged specimens of the natural world. A seed of inspiration behind the paintings is the legacy of Charles Wilson Peale, the Philadelphia painter and naturalist was a founder of the art school PAFA where I attended. He was influential in planning the first US scientific expeditions and was the recipient of some of the specimens that Lewis and Clark collected on their journey- he taxidermied some animals, and others he kept alive and on display in Philadelphia to bring Science to the public. The tickets to his museum read “The Birds and Beasts Will Teach Thee”. Two Grizzly bears were among his menagerie in center city. In his theatrical self-portrait the bones of a mastodon skeleton are in the floor of the foreground. He was first to unearth and assemble a complete mastodon skeleton, and recognize that it was an extinct species. Extinction was at the time a controversial concept, as some argued that such a creature must still exist, in a wilderness that had yet to be discovered.
Peale’s Mastodon Skeleton now resides at a museum in Darmstadt Germany, not far from where I now live. The story of the Mastodon was one seed of inspiration for “The Keeper” . The Elephant was studied from life at the zoo in Cologne Germany, and the painting is meant to raise the question “Why is there an elephant in the room” It should be odd and unsettling that an artist from rural Pennsylvania who now works in Northern Europe could paint an elephant from life.
Displacement and unlikelihood have been themes running through my work in the past year. The mid-19th century painters Millet and Courbet used tricks of geometry to buck their subjects from the ground plain of their compositions. By distorting the perspective of the scene they conveyed the disharmony of their subjects’ lives. I have borrowed such pictorial devices in this series of paintings and have looked to paintings from around the time of my subjects’ lives to help tell their stories : ‘Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,’ by George Caleb Bingham, ‘The Peaceable Kingdom,’ by Edward Hicks, and ‘The Artist in His Museum,’ by Charles Wilson Peale, “The Arctic Council” by Stephen Pearce, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Francisco Goya to name a few. I have drawn on history- the painted, the written, the told around campfires to compose these paintings, but the paintings are also my diary entries. They are records of my observations of the world around me. While I was working on the painting of Sacajawea as she beheld the “Monstrous Fish” as she called it, 13 Sperm Whales washed up on the beaches of the North Sea in Germany. It is the kind of solemn, but serendipitous occurrence that tells me to keep following the wind of curiosity, the trail along which I have found interconnectedness.
The journal of Lewis and Clark has been near my easel for the past few months, as I have been trying to imagine the wilderness that lured one of my ancestors to the North West a few years before it was charted by Lewis and Clark. His story is one of a few I have referred to in my recent work, making constellations of the flickering worlds of the past, spinning thread between recorded history, family lore, mythology and the natural world. Stories of the my ancestors, who crossed vast oceans and treacherous fossil pocked mountains in search of home, work, safety or adventure are still alive and relevant as history repeats itself , or as William Faulkner says “The Past is Never Dead, it is not Even Past”
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