I wanted to make art that didn’t have a style. I thought style was where all the stupid problems crept in, and that I could avoid having one if I only outlined real things onto canvas. So I decided to spray-paint dead animals.
So my brother handed me a live pigeon, in a box, cooing befuddledly. My brother knew all about catching local birds because he had a six foot long rat-snake named Botox, living in what had been our toy-chest, and Botox had a bird-a-week habit. All it takes is a cardboard box in your backyard, propped up on a stick that’s tied to a long string, that leads back to a human predator waiting by a window. Bait it with a few breadcrumbs and you’ve got Instant Snake-chow.
I knew I couldn’t use a live bird. That would be cruel. I put the pigeon, still in his cardboard cell, into a garbage bag and hooked it up to the exhaust of my dad’s car. Problem solved.
That’s right. I set up an animal extermination gas chamber, right there in that suburban carport. Let the inevitable outrage begin. For the record, I was 12 years old and I had no respect for life. My home was a museum of taxidermy, and all the grown-ups I knew killed things for fun, every weekend, out in the country. I was just following orders from the voices in my head. I was just doing my job. It was just a pigeon.
By the by, what crimes against nature were you enjoying when you were 12 years old? Burning ants with a magnifying glass, while you ate a ham sandwich? Putting salt on snails, or Drano on anthills? Sticking firecrackers up frogs’ behinds like my neighbor, the preacher’s son? Didn’t you ever try super-gluing threads to houseflies, watching them zip around the room like an animated Fred Sandback? Were you shaving dogs? Hosing cats? Ever ate a chicken? I bet you took antibiotics, you heartless butcher of innocent bacteria.
Not long after painting with that pigeon, I was in my friend Bob Sivkosky’s backyard, high on a hallucinogenic drug called Windowpane. I was rolling around on the ground, out of my mind, and his cat Scooty kept nuzzling me. On Windowpane, Scooty was like something out of Carlos Castaneda, a beautiful animal emissary from the spirit world, pouring out psychedelic power. Good times! We left for a while to buy some snacks and when we came back, Scooty was lying dead on the road in front of Bob’s house. We’d only been gone 10 minutes. Time enough for our animal totem to be the victim of a hit-and-run.
Mom had trained me: never, ever touch dead animals. Always, just as I reached out in curiosity, her shrieks had frozen my blood. She had warned that no matter how pet-able their fur or feathers still seemed, they were in fact covered with a sheen of deadly, biting micro-organisms. Killer germs were poised to swarm onto my fingers, up my arm and then, all over my body. They’d be gnawing, chewing and burrowing their way toward the healthy, pink, internal organs they lived to destroy. Germs in a hurry would take the express route through my open screaming mouth.
Mom had further shrieked that the bloated, fly-swarming, maggot-crawling pile of remains I wanted to snuggle might turn out to be Not Dead Yet. Though it lay motionless, in a paralytic dream, symptom of the plague it carried, my slightest touch might rouse this four-legged Lazarus. It would open its rotting eyes, crunch me mercilessly in its razor-fanged, rabies-foaming jaws, and then probably drag me down into the giant pipe that opened in Mr. Kerr’s ditch. I knew from previous discussions that the Kerr-pipe led to a special hell God reserved for disobedient children.
Mom’s rule about postmortem critters hadn’t seemed to apply to ones I murdered myself. But I would never, ever have touched Scooty’s corpse. Bob didn’t know any better though and he picked him up by his tail. That broke the spell. In five minutes, I was in my carport, laying that dead cat onto a black canvas. One blast of Krylon later, I’d gotten a nice booster hit from the joy of creating, and the portrait of Scooty looked like a masterpiece.
My friends thought it would be cool to have their pets immortalized. Soon, people started bringing me all their dead animals, or as I called them, art supplies. Touched that the community cared enough to fill my needs, I became concerned about the health of everyone’s little friends. If there were Parvo puppies, or old cats about to be put down, I waited patiently for the inevitable. I moved away from roadkill — it was too sloppy, too stiff. I needed them fresh, and if not fresh, I needed something that had entered rigor mortis in a natural, preferably somewhat flattened, pose.
Traditional pets got boring, and I explored fish, crabs, squid and jellyfish at the beach. I had a fun moment with a dead bat. But there were so many animals I never got to use. Reading ads in the paper for livestock and exotic pets got me dreaming crazy art dreams. Horses. Ferrets. Monkeys. Lion cubs. Lucky for them my allowance was only $5.50 a week. I dropped hints but no hunter ever let me drench his trophy deer, elk, or bear in Krylon Super-coat. They wanted taxidermy souvenirs of their hunts; they were so selfish! In my imagination, I endlessly toyed with the technical problems posed by spray-painting longhorn cattle, giraffes, elephants, and 12-ft pythons on canvas. I would need a bigger garbage bag. I loitered at the zoo, but never found the bestial mortuary I imagined was there somewhere, waiting for me, its dumpster overflowing with art supplies.
In time, I outgrew making art from dead animals. I think I made a smoother, more socially acceptable transition than Jeffery Dahmer‘s, if you’re wondering. I did eventually make art from human bodies, but not dead ones. I had friends with older siblings in med school, and, if you don’t know, med students play around with their cadavers as casually as Boy Scouts light farts, so I could’ve made it happen. But I had a vision of myself explaining, to my irritated parents and maybe a cop, why there was a dead woman, coated in blue florescent paint, under the upside-down canoe in the carport. It was a negative vision. I decided human corpses were a hassle.
Trying to be responsible, I called OSHA one day and asked what kind of pigments would be best for spraying all over living humans. To my surprise, they said no pigment was safe and wanted a lot more information about my activities. My artist’s intuition told me to hang up.
I traced people instead. I stuck a pencil in one of those thin cardboard cores that form the bottom of pants hangers. I rolled this up in black velvet and use it for tracing around the still warm and ticklish bodies of models laying on my canvases. Everybody loved the Velvet Pencil. We’d get high and they’d get naked, and, to make them more comfortable, I would get naked too. The Velvet Pencil traced all around the naked bodies on the giant canvases, rubbing gently. Good times! Sometimes it took a lot of gentle rubbing between their legs to get a tracing right.
It’s been years since I even glanced at the exotic pet ads. I’m grateful I didn’t make all the dead animal art I wanted to make, back when I was Dr. Doolittle-Kervorkian. With that much blood on my karma, in my next incarnation I’d be a tick.
Nowadays, I have so much respect for life, I don’t even shoot burglars when I catch them in the act. As with any pest, like spiders or wasps, I catch them in a fast food cup or a magazine or a cloud of pepper spray, and gently release them outside. I’m a vegan and I open the letters I get from Robert Redford, concerning the ongoing gang-rape of Mother Earth, even though he’s old. I wear shoes made of woven briars, I sleep on a mattress of recycled tofu and I recently tore down our house with my bare hands because it needlessly consumed resources. My family and I live in a comfortable, electricity-free burrow on the lot, careful not to step on the many grubs with whom we share the place. It’s a lifestyle that relieves the guilt I still carry over all the creatures I sacrificed while blinded by the razzle-dazzle of art.
I’m happy now, and largely free of desire. The only thing I miss is the Windowpane. That stuff was the express lane for getting close to God.
Clark Flood is a freelance writer living in Houston.