Blog / 2022 / A Series Painted over Twelve Years
January 1, 2022
These are the animals of the Chinese zodiac that I painted over the last twelve years, starting with the piece I made in 2010 to celebrate 2011, which falls mostly in the year of the rabbit. Then there’s a dragon—a weedy sea dragon—followed by a ball of garter snakes and an Appaloosa Pegasus for the horse year. The goat year painting includes some sheep and the monkey piece gives a nod to the following year with the bird on chimpanzee’s head.
The year of the rooster, which is the year I was born in, is marked by some chickens, because, though it’s called the year of the “rooster” in English, the “chicken without a specific gender” is a more correct translation of the Chinese. A red fox appears for the year of the dog, and then it’s the pig year piece, which I made into a fairy pig year. A beaver stands in for the year of the rat, just as some unicows do for the year of the ox. And 2022, which falls mostly in the Chinese year of the tiger, is represented by a big underwater cat.
Originally, this series was my way of pushing back on the American tradition of sending out so-called holiday cards that are, realistically speaking, almost always Christmas cards. I prefer the French tradition of the New Year’s card, and I was looking for a way to give my annual card a theme over many years. That’s how I hit on the idea of looking to the Chinese zodiac for inspiration.
At the time, the concept was risky for me. If you look at my 2010 gallery, you’ll see that I was painting only portraits and almost exclusively of people. Painting an animal that wasn’t someone’s pet was big news at that point in my career.
By 2011 when I created this dragon piece, I was painting all kinds of non-portraits: I was working on a book with 56 animal illustrations.
In fact, this painting is from that book, and, though I love this piece, I barely sent out any cards with it in 2013, because I worried most people wouldn’t appreciate the snakes. That gives me a bit of a chuckle today, because this year I sent out quite a few cards with this snake on them, and, though I was thoughtful about who got a fierce rainbow serpentdove in the mail, I didn’t include an apologetic note about scary snakes with the image, so that’s progress!
The Appaloosa Pegasus is the first painting from this series in which I tried to insert layers of meaning in the imagery itself, drawing from not only Chinese tradition, but also Greek mythology and the American history of harming indigenous people. It’s all explained by baby Gwenn in this video.
This goat/sheep piece is the first from this series in which I got happily lost in translation, meaning that I was fascinated to learn that the Chinese word for this year can mean both goat and sheep. I talk about the implications of that double meaning in this video showing the making of the painting.
Looking back at this painting and the video I made for it, I can’t help but cringe. 2015 was a difficult year for me—I’d been driven out of Portland and then Richmond—but the worst was yet to come: Trump and then the pandemic. This image, which I completed at the beginning of 2016, feels painfully innocent.
As I mentioned before, I was swept up in a translation complication as I designed this piece, but, when I look at it now, I also can’t help but remember the larger context for this image. I started it just as Trump became the Republican party’s candidate, and the stupid sexism of translating “chicken” as “rooster” became symbolic of all the misogyny and racism of the 2016 campaign.
Here too, I’m deep in a translation issue, but this time it’s a French-English matter having to do with The Little Prince. Basically, I made this painting because, if you’ve only ever read the book in English, you cannot understand the story. Please allow me to explain.
Of all the pieces I made for this series, this is probably my favorite. It encapsulates the joy and hope that I put into all my work.
Generally, I tried to finish each painting before the Chinese new year, which usually falls in January or February, but I failed spectacularly with this piece, only completing it in September of 2020! If I had to name just one reason for the lateness, it would be having my art censored from a public library in 2019, because that definitely tripped up my creativity in unexpected ways.
In fact, I was so late with the rat year piece that I ended up working on it at the same time as this one for the ox year! The video of the making of these unicows is amusing to watch now, because the Gwenn who said all that stuff about the fascist in the White House had no idea that, five days later, that fascist would succeed in sending his followers to attack the Capitol.
This tiger piece—finished in plenty of time for the year of the tiger in 2022—is special to me, because it marks the completion of my personal zodiac. Now the question becomes: what will the next New Year’s card series be about?
Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!
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