West Coast Artist Finds Symbolism in Form & Movement of Orca Whales
May 31, 2013
Every city Claire Brandt lived in as a child overlooked the water. When you grow up in the Pacific Northwest as she did, you come to recognize orca whales as a daily presence in the collective imagination, from indigenous art to the mainstream media. When young Brandt looked out over the water, she says, “I always wondered if the whales were there. They represented mystery, possibility, and awe.”
It’s no surprise, then, that after years of working as a professional artist in San Francisco and Seattle following her 2005 MFA in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, Brandt has turned to the orca as a muse for her work. Until around 2010, most of Brandt’s inspiration came from land-based animal and human subject matter, including her own body. Her impressive portfolio of drawings, watercolors and cut paper installations explores the interplay between body, words and movement, depicting forms in motion that create abstract symbolism in relation to one another. She says:
“Drawing is movement that embodies thought – I keep my work loose and open, so that the vitality of making shows through the finished pieces. My goal for any figure I make, human, animal or letter, is that a viewer feels its movement in his or her own body, therefore viscerally understanding something of the connections I am drawing.”
Brandt’s work is intentionally open to interpretation. By featuring recognizable forms like that of a female dancer or the life-size fin of an orca, it allows viewers to relate while prompting them to interact physically and psychologically with the work. The emotional and symbolic links many people feel to orca whales may be why Brandt’s recent orca-inspired work is particularly exciting. Her childhood connection to orcas has deep roots: “My focus on orca in my artwork exemplifies my deeply held belief that the life of the mind, imagination, and spirit are both a product of what we come from and impact and create where we are.”
To Brandt, the fin of an orca seems to be as familiar a form as the human figure. She believes that the strong presence of orca whales in cultural imagination and myth give many people strong relationships to the idea of orcas even if they don’t have direct contact with them. The same goes for the other subjects of Brandt’s work, namely humans, wolves, horses and birds. Her recent switch from human to whale and other animal subjects highlights her belief that all creatures are connected through motion:
“I switched [to orcas] because the huge, central idea for me in my work is that everything is the same, but different. So, an orca fin, made at life-size, ought to do the same things a human figure does at life size. Of course, each comes with its own associations. This same but different fascinates me. It’s like each is a letter and has it’s own meaning, but all the letters belong to the same language.”
This concept of animal and human figures as letters in the same language may seem abstract (maybe it has something to do with Brandt’s Harvard degree in English and American literature), but it makes sense upon viewing her work. In her series of graphite drawings entitled Current II (Current I featured her own body), life-size orca whale fins breach the water’s surface in various positions and aggregations. A single fin appears monumental, demanding that the viewer imagine the gigantic creature below in relation to herself.
Brandt felt the need for more and more space as her large orca fin drawings (some of them nearly seven feet high) began to outgrow the paper. She wanted to “try getting off the paper and onto the walls.” During a residency at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco in 2011, Brandt discovered exactly that opportunity. Marisa Aragona, Exhibitions Director and photographer at “The Poppy,” encouraged Brandt to create a piece that would bring her forms into a much larger, more colorful and dynamic space. Brandt developed “Mission Lascaux,” a large cut paper wall installation featuring a variety of iconic animals (including orcas) as part of her newest series entitled Moving. Before this series, most of Brandt’s work put one figure in the spotlight without showing interactions between multiple subjects. In Moving, however, multiple animals in motion overlap one another and create depth and tension in the work.
The Mission Lascaux installation at the Red Poppy Art House went beyond even these new developments that added energy and significance to Brandt’s work. Through a collaboration with Marisa Aragona, dancer Carolina Chzechowska and the Embodiment Project dance company, Brandt’s cut paper orcas, horses, wolves and birds came to life as dancers moved about, activating the space and adding a theatrical element to the piece that Brandt says came as a sort of epiphany: “I did feel something was missing but couldn’t come up with a solution. When Caro first started to dance in the space that night, the missing element was present.” This dialogue between still and moving forms was what Brandt had hoped to create.
“Movement is the connection between all,” Brandt says. Although orcas, horses, wolves, humans and birds may not necessarily have a special relationship to one another in nature, each one is iconic and resonates to viewers in a way that increases our awareness about ourselves and others’ movements around us. When describing her work now, Brandt says, “If you as a viewer are confronted by a representation of a six-foot tall orca fin, or a life-size running horse, you have to think about your own body in relation to it, and therefore, you must also think about the animal’s being.” Perhaps if we become more aware of our relationship to life on earth, we will care more about protecting it.
Learn more about Claire Brandt’s work on her website.
Featured image (top): “J Pod III” 2012; 132″ x 48″; graphite on paper