The best any artist can hope for is that her work be seen or heard in someone else’s imagination.
I cannot count the number of photographs taken by me during my lifetime; it would be equally impossible to add up the ones taken of me. As I looked through several saved on my computer; I came across one of a pet I once owned. His life was beautifully tragic and I am moved into it once again as I looked at this picture of him.
There is a dog. He is standing on his hind legs looking up at the camera. His heterochromatic stare is unnerving and it reminds me of the imperfection of life. There is no warmth in his gaze and the ground around him is dead and cold. His coat is white. He appears unattainable like the beautiful patterns of frost on a window pane that vanish in the warmth of the sun. He stands solitary and trapped in the silent world of a photo. The red rimmed skin around his eyes seems to droop down reminiscent of a past connection to the sad eyed bulldog. His chest is broad and strong, his head is wide and his strength encompasses the entire photo. Two strong legs disappear into the edges of the frame, perhaps wrapped around the waist of the photographer proclaiming his ownership. His eyes are distant, and it is impossible to pick which to look in to, the cold blue stare or the soft dark brown gaze. The brown eye is comforting and familiar and all the more touching in contrast to the emptiness of the blue. A large black nose sits in the middle of his face; from the bottom of it two black lips descend and encircle his mouth. It is a mouth besieged with angry inflamed cancerous pustules, the sun’s gift to his rare recessive gene pool, and it drips with tiny droplets of saliva. He is magnificent and proud, ignorant of the appalling shortcomings dealt to him at birth. He is hard like the ground surrounding him, he is winter. He is the unattainable mixture of power and weakness used by God to blend creation and kept hidden from man’s inability to understand. He is dangerous and soft, tempting evil to use him and compassion to set him free. He is unable to separate himself from a world that placed him into a life of service. He gloriously mocks the color film that preserves his image, his one blue eye it’s only advantage. He is more than just another dog; he is a sentry standing guard over a magical world. Steadfastly, he refuses to give up his secrets yet silently he invites us closer to discover them for ourselves, if we dare.
The dog in this photo was born deaf; he became a member of our family at five weeks old. Having taught sign language to other deaf dogs, I took “Chunk” home knowing the road would be a long one. He was a sweet loving puppy who grew into a rambunctious teenager, he was always eager to please and we grew to love him very much. He adored his family, loved to chew on sticks and play in the water hose. I think he knew he couldn’t hear, although I don’t know how. He paid attention to our hearing dog “Grace” and was quick to react to anything she noticed. At one year old our sweet little puppy had grown into a 120lb dog with a broad tongue eagerly waiting to plant big wet kisses on the first available face. He was clever and quickly learned most basic hands commands, it seemed to us we had succeeded. But somewhere in his third year something changed; it was as if someone reached into Chunk’s head and flipped a switch. He became very aggressive, attacking our other dog multiple times. It was horrible and terrifying. He never turned on us, and our love of him convinced us he was not truly mean. Out of concern for my safety, my husband and I agreed that I would no longer be alone with Chunk. So I watched from the other side of our back door or our fence as my husband worked day and night with him. Chunk never came back from the darkness. Despite all our efforts, and after three different professional opinions, we reluctantly accepted the fact that Chunk would never be considered safe. We were told to muzzle him for the rest of his life. My husband and I felt our dog was imprisoned enough by his heredity; we could not face limiting him further. How could we take away his ability to chew on a stick or enjoy life as a regular dog? We loved him and so after treating him to a private ride in the car, windows down as we fed him dozens of Burger King Minis; we took our dog and handed him off to the people who would end his life.
Michael Kimmelman’s book, The Accidental Masterpiece is a collection of essays describing the journey an artist makes in the creative process. He writes , “Sometimes art works that way. It appears unexpectedly.” (1) Was my family’s love of our dog art? I think so. I cannot comprehend anything more genuinely joyful nor more tragic than love. Neither can I think of any emotion which occurs so accidentally. Do we plan to love? Or do we stumble into it blindly clinging to the hope that the object of our affection will never forsake us? And what happens if it does? What remains to us when our sight is restored and we are stranded in the darkness left by love’s absence? Is the loss of love also art?
This picture of Chunk shows him as he was at the end. Looking at it is uncomfortable. I dislike seeing my once beloved pet from such a distant and cold perspective. His image reminds me of the unforeseen inner demons we all fight, the never-ending battle of good versus evil. It speaks of the emptiness of ending a life. Unlike all the pictures of him lazily stretched out with a toy or jumping through the water hose, here he is the essence of the remote inner world only he knew. He was a magical creature, perfect in his imperfection and fearless in his pursuit of his imagined enemies. And when the day came and he could no longer face fetching another ball; his disdain was the last thing he dropped at my feet. There is almost some deviant sense of pride as I think I once ruled this formidable beast; I was his Hercules and he like Cerberus refused to be brought into the light. His one blue eye so like the light azure of my own haunts me; it is an eternal reminder of the life I could not save. There is a song by Don McLean about the artist Vincent Van Gogh that always reminds me of Chunk and it says, “For they could not love you, But still your love was true, And when no hope was left inside, On that starry, starry night, You took your life as lovers often do, But I could have told you, Vincent, This world was never meant, For one as beautiful as you.” (2)
Like the pensive emotions that stir each time I hear this song, looking at my lost friend touches me. The artistic merit of this photograph is clear to me but to anyone else it is nothing more than the likeness of a rather odd-looking dog. There is no great technique, no special use of color, it is simply a picture taken on a cold winter day with a cell phone camera. The humbleness of the tool used to capture the image seems fitting, the irony of a creature so incredibly rare preserved in such an average way lends even greater sadness to his life.
In the end this is only a picture of a dog, one who tried his best but failed in the ordinary world of our backyard. I keep it stored on my computer. I’ve thought once or twice of having it printed but have never been able. It seems fitting that I cannot hold it or trap it in a frame. Like Chunk’s life, his image speaks of impermanence as it teeters precariously between reality and fiction.
So many of our memories captured on film fail to show the true nature of their subjects, yet they hang on our walls, evidence enough that we view them as art. Like artists we invite others to come like voyeurs and stare at our tiny slices of time, hoping somehow to draw them into our lives. But in the end, they experience only what they are able to imagine or what we are willing to explain.
This seemingly unimportant image of a dog represents the incredible power of man’s desire to heal what cannot be healed and to love in the face of insurmountable obstacles. It shows a fallen hero and a friend whose family loved him enough to set him free. This is no simple picture and Chunk was no simple dog.
Kimmelman, M. (2005). The Accidental Masterpiece On the Art of Life and Vice Versa. New York: The Penguin Group.
McLean, D. (1971). “Vincent” from the album American Pie.
(1) (Kimmelman, 2005)
(2) (McLean, 1971)