A lot of my art involves animals. Although I do love animals, this is not the only reason why I paint them, but rather because I feel that we are missing valuable lessons that other species have to teach.
One of the first questions I had as a child was just what it was that made animals different from humans. I had a cat named Byron who would follow me everywhere. Like many owners and their pets, he and I came to understand each other without words.
One of the more frustrating things about human relationships is that we limit our communication to just words a lot of the time. And the problem with words is that there will forever be the gap between sound and meaning. Not to dismiss language, it is elusive, fluid, and at the same point precise in action. Humans think in language, while animals, do not. This has for a long time, gave humans license to believe that animals must therefore not think, as we can no longer imagine wordless thoughts.
The more we study animals, however the more we come to see that there might be very little separation between us and them. The things that we hold as gifts from the gods, we are starting to see in the animal kingdom. For example, octopi can make and use tools, open jars and learn through observation. Rats feel empathy, elephants console, squirrels remember, and many species different mourn.
Most people have seen this video, or at least know of Koko the gorilla, but it's a good one nonetheless.
I have heard before that children dreams feature mostly animals. If you look at popular children's books and movies, it often seems like the more animals the better. Even in narratives staring humans, the protagonist best friend is often an animal, and the favorite of younger audiences. Stories that star animals are even better, and they often allow for far more complex story lines to be comprehendible to younger viewers. It allows for lions to act out Hamlet, deers to experience profound grief, dogs to become martyrs, fall in love and illustrate class struggles. Narratives that if given to a human character would make it not relatable, scary, or boring.
Stuffed animals are loved by both boys and girls. Some police and firemen have started carrying teddy bears around because of their proven benefit to help children calm down after traumatic events. I believe that animals' ability to wordlessly understand can be a great relief to children when they are still lacking in the ability to communicate.
But I believe that our relationship is quickly changing with animals, and that is what I suppose is what I am most currently interested in pursuing. Pets are becoming more and more a part of the family, while farm animals are becoming just a commodity and wildlife is becoming either a myth or a sport, depending on how endangered. It is distancing our world from theirs, because of this, we are starting to see animals loose their hold on the human psyche. We are starting to see more and more anthropomorphized inanimate objects replace animals in children's films, such as Toys, WALL-E, Cars, and most recently, Planes. I wonder what effect this will have in the future, could we learn to love machines and robots as much as we do cats and dogs?
Looking at pictures of various robot dogs, I don't think so. At least, not as they are currently. Although I won't mention it too much here, (I'm going to save it for a future post) it is worth bringing to mind Harlow and his monkeys, and how being able to touch, and be touched is an important part of bonding for all different kinds of species.
Humans don't bond with only humans, and animals have been seen in several different interspecies friendships. I think that it is time that human stop seeing the world as a polarity of humans and animals, man and critter, person and nonperson and start seeing it as a world full of animals, where we are just one species among many.
Kelsey Jenkinson is a 27 year old artist in currently living and working in Austin, Texas.