Left: Portrait of Emma, cut paper, ©1998. Using a sketch of my Alaskan Malamute bitch Emma I cut out pieces of Canson Mi Tientes paper in 3 values to construct her portrait.
Getting up from the computer yesterday after writing about notan, I started walking around the studio and house doing a variety of tasks. Suddenly it struck me there were prominent examples of notan everywhere I looked. This was because I had images I’d made of my two Alaskan Malamute bitches everywhere I looked. Most people who know me are familiar with my Daily Dots project (for what was to be the last five years of Dottie’s life I drew her daily). But before Dottie (and together with her for awhile) her Aunt Emma was the graphical beast in the house. While I never drew Emma daily she was a frequent subject of illustration.
I joke with my drawing students that if they want to have a dog for a life model a black and white Malamute is their best choice. Looking around at the art on my walls I realized that my statement is much more complex than I even intended. Beyond the ease with which one can locate points of reference on a stately and somewhat symmetrically marked Malamute there is the issue of notan-beauty. They embody it.
When I started looking for a dog in 1989 I thought briefly about getting a wolf-gray Malamute. The selection of a breed was simple for me: prick ears and a tail. There is something about that combination which speaks to me about the dog’s wild ancestors in a way that other breeds’ physical aspects don’t. (Several years ago, I asked one of my search mentors, who trains dogs in England and uses border collies, how he goes about selecting dogs he is going to train. I was surprised when he told me that a good portion of the selection process, after he has determined the puppy comes from great working parents, is the look, the appeal of the dog. He’s been at it long enough to know that chemistry is a big part of the equation and some of that chemistry is based on visual appeal. And everyone’s got a different attitude about what is visually appealing in dogs.)
Almost the first day of looking for a dog, however, I switched my preference from wolf-gray to black and white. One only has to see a black and white Malamute in person to know why. “Striking” doesn’t really begin to describe it. “Dazzling” might begin to capture what I’m trying to express. Red or Sable and white Malamutes never appealed to me. They looked washed out.
I realize now that 19 years ago, when I walked up to the kennel where Emma stood, a gangly 18-month-old bitch, separated from her pack because she was in heat, that what attracted me to her, besides her calm confidence, was that she was also the perfect example of notan-beauty: a composition of dark and light spaces creating harmony. How could she not be my dog? And once she was my dog it was inevitable that she should select for me, from her sister’s litter that feminine little gem that was Dottie.
The concept of notan relates also to line and negative space. (Arthur Wesley Dow, in the book I mentioned yesterday has chapters and chapters to express and instruct on this topic.) It is understandable then that my favorite ways to draw Dottie were scratchboard and carvings: two values, line, and space.
When the time came for Dottie to be put to sleep (she was failing at 12 from complications with liver cancer), the vet came to the house. We had a nest for Dottie to lie on. Susan administered the meds while Dottie’s head rested in my arms. Dick knelt beside us. When I finally stood up there was complete silence in the room. Not even breath. I think Susan and Dick were both waiting for me to fall apart, to wail. But it didn’t happen. I looked down on Dottie, as I had so many times before when drawing her, and everything was peaceful, a collective sigh. We all just looked. Finally I smiled and looked up through silent tears at Susan and Dick. “Even in death she describes perfect negative space,” I said. And we all laughed; that soft laugh of joyful recognition you hear everywhere at wakes for individuals who have lived fully and who are remembered clearly with great love.
There’s no escaping notan-beauty.
So while we run around about our daily business, dealing with all the tasks mundane and fun, that life requires, there is always with us those things we learned early in life about art, beauty, balance. We may think that we have put them aside; there may be times we fear we have lost access to them; but always those principles are there, waiting to be called up. We know it. We only need to open our eyes and see; and celebrate the way it informs our choices in life.