April 15, 2010

Meet the ESPP Artist: Christopher Reiger

Christopher Reiger is an inspiring fellow. He creates wondrous paintings and writes extensively on art, ecology, philosophy and theology. Reiger's writing appears on his blog, Hungry Hyaena, right here on the ESPP blog, and in various print and web publications. April marks the release of Reiger's Javan Rhinoceros, one of two ESPP prints he has created for the project. 100% of the proceeds from the sale of Reiger's ESPP print will support The International Rhino Foundation. Interested parties can purchase his print here. Our lively discussion with Christopher Reiger follows...
Christopher Reiger
Javan Rhinoceros for ESPP

Hello! We are rather excited about your Javan Rhino print. What piqued your artistic interest in the rhino? How was the experience of creating your print? I know that you did not have much photographic reference material to work with.

Although animals figure prominently in my artwork and I consider myself an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, I knew very little about the Javan Rhinoceros when I chose the species.  I did so because of their remarkably dramatic decline, uncertain future, and relative size.  There are many critically endangered animals struggling to hold on, but the Javan Rhino is one of the largest.

As you mention, there wasn't much photographic art scrap to use as source material.  In order to minimize stress for the critically endangered rhino, researchers study the species via fecal sampling and camera traps, and the animals are rarely encountered or observed. Moreover, as a general rule, the Javan Rhino is wary of humans and retreats into dense forests when they sense our presence. When humans do approach, the Javan Rhino often becomes aggressive and might attack, stabbing with the incisors of its lower jaw while thrusting upward with its head. Obviously, this makes the rhinos difficult to study or photograph, other than with the camera traps!

Because so little photographic documentation is available, this drawing marked the first time I've had to work from both images and written descriptions. It was a very curious process.

Your story reminds me of Albrecht Dürer's legendary rhinoceros woodcut.  Dürer had never seen a rhino, but in 1515 he created a drawing based on written description of the beast.  For three centuries artists had Dürer's print for reference and it was copied many times.  Dürer 's depiction was not quite accurate, although it was considered to be so, well into the late 18th century.
 
Albrecht Dürer 
The Rhinoceros

As a natural history and art aficionado do you have a favorite natural history illustrator/illustration?  Some of the original visual depictions of animals can be quite strange.

Yeah, the Dürer rhinoceros story is fantastic.  It's the art historian's version of the telephone game!

There are too many talented natural history artists and illustrators to list, and a great many more works produced by anonymous artists.  I'll just stick to one particularly formative, little known work.  My dad gave me Keith Brockie's Wildlife Sketchbook (1981) just a few years after the book's publication.  Initially, I was too young to fully appreciate it, but I grew into it with time.  The pages of Brockie's book include sensitively rendered drawings alongside sketches and field notes.  His style is graphic and illustrative, and many of his observations about behavior are engaging.  It's a stunning achievement, really, and it's too bad that it's out of print and that Brockie, from what I see online, has moved in other, less exciting directions.  In any case, Wildlife Sketchbook opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career spent depicting animals.  Essentially, that's what I think of myself today, still a kid happily drawing animals.  Life is good!  If Mr. Brockie should stumble upon this interview: thank you.

Page from Keith Brockie's Wildlife Sketchbook

Besides including elements of the natural world, your works often seem to contain elements of the spiritual or occult, alongside and even blending into references to science --- such as the graph in the Javan Rhino print. Can you tell us a bit more about how you developed this interesting co-mingling? It occurs to me that the two very different types of 'languages' blend seamlessly in your work.

My drawings include a lot of esoteric imagery; I'm very interested in mysticism and in the anthropology of myths and belief systems.  To my mind, metaphysical musings are intimately connected to our investment in natural history.  Moreover, I'm part of that unfortunately small group of people who believe that science and religion, or materialism and metaphysics, are both of value to our species.  A lot of my work is inspired by the give and take of that relationship, and by my personal investment in both spheres.

The 19th and 20th century economist and sociologist Max Weber famously bemoaned the secularizing of modern society and the increasing specialization of professions because he felt these processes led to a "disenchantment of the world."  Even though the development that began in the West with the European Enlightenment has reaped great rewards, Weber was right about the cost.  A world view drained of magic and mystery is a meager one.  Fortunately, I find magic and mystery abounding in natural history, evolutionary biology, astronomy, theoretical physics, theology, and philosophy.  All are legitimate "languages" of wonder.  If I can communicate some of that happy babble in my artwork and writing, I'm a happy, happy man!

Christopher Reiger 
"Without Maps or Manifest"

I just so happen to know that you have had some amazing animal encounters during your time on our planet. Care to share one with our readers?
Sure.  My father is a conservation writer and his assignments afforded us some exceptional travel opportunities when I was a child and teenager.  One of my most nerve-wracking moments occurred during a trip to Botswana, when I was 19.  My father and I were staying at Selby Camp, a very comfortable tent camp in the Okavango Delta that was named for the celebrated professional hunter Harry Selby.  The camp had only recently been constructed, and we were the first guests to be hosted.  As a result, area animals were not yet as wary of the camp as they may otherwise have been, and our wildlife encounters were fantastic, if sometimes unsettling.  Sitting around the campfire on our first evening in camp, lions coughed and spotted hyaenas whooped beyond the play of firelight while I gazed up at a broad, well-populated night sky.  It was magnificent.

That night, some hours after I'd fallen asleep, I was awakened by a screeching bird.  I lay quietly for a moment, but heard nothing more.  Still feeling alarmed, however, I turned on my flashlight and cast the beam toward the open door of the tent.  Mosquito netting hung over the opening, and the beam of the flashlight reflected off this netting, casting light around the tent's interior.  I leaned toward the door and stretched my arm out so that the flashlight was pressed against the netting, allowing the beam to illuminate beyond.  What I saw then frightened and humbled me.  My tent was surrounded by a pride of lions. Not eight feet from me, her broad chest squarely lit by my flashlight's beam, stood a lioness.  She stared into the light...which seemed, at the time, to be a stare less at the light than at me!  Just behind her, a fully maned male lounged on the ground where I had unpacked my bag that afternoon.  In the few, long seconds before I clicked off the flashlight, delaying only because I worried that the sound or the sudden darkness would inspire the pride to dine, I noticed more lions moving about on either side of the two cats directly in front of the tent door. I remained in the same position, arm outstretched, holding my breath, for what seemed like ten minutes. I was very frightened, certain that death was imminent.  I heard nothing.  No padding paws, no coughing, no twigs.  My father snored on alongside me.

The next morning, over breakfast, we were told that lions are often drawn to people who snore loudly.  That's definitely useful information should one be camping in Africa.  Heavy snorers do so at their own risk!


Christopher Reiger
"The Bird that Stands Against Time's Desolation"


Besides your lush, lovely paintings and your always thoughtful considerations on Hungry Hyaena, any projects you would like to mention?

At the moment, much of my creative energy is being given over to more mundane considerations, all of which are related to my upcoming move across the country, from New York City to San Francisco.  I am, however, working on the foreword to a book of poetry and prose by the very talented writer, musician, and multimedia artist Yusuf Misdaq, and I have a number of exciting painting ideas currently in the sketch stage.  And, as always, in-progress works are plentiful.  Some will find the cutting room floor, others will be part of future shows.  Information about current projects can be found on both Hungry Hyaena and my portfolio site.


ESPP Note:
Read more about Dürer's rhino here. 
Purchase Reiger's Javan Rhinoceros print here.

3 comments:

  1. Christopher, have you read Suzi Gablik's "The Reenchantment of Art" and David Abram's "Spell of the Sensuous"? --- my guess, is yes, but if not, you have to. :)

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  2. Hi, Jenny.

    I have read Abram. His essays in other publications are also excellent, but "Spell of the Sensuous" is definitely a formative book for me. A brilliant philosophy professor and friend recommended it to me, insisting that it would resonate with me as with few others. Frankly, I think there are a good number of us out there that find Abram's perspective familiar and important.

    Suzi Gablik, interestingly, was only recently recommended to me by Yusuf Misdaq, the talented multimedia artist whose upcoming book I'm currently working on the foreword for! Funny how recommendations are like newly learned words! ;) I'll have to check her out!

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  3. The Okavango does not really cater for the 'Budget Traveller' - This is deliberate policy on the part of the Botswana Government. They are anxious to avoid the mass tourism that has been allowed to spoil other areas of Africa, but also to protect the fragile eco-system that is the Okavango Delta.
    Okavango Delta Camp

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