On the Santa Barbara Artwalk, I’ve been drawn again and again to Neal Crosbie’s booth. His golden Labrador is preparing to move on, which has occasioned deeper conversations. At the same time, three pieces caught my eye as being unusual in his oeuvre. I lingered over them each week.
All of Neal’s pieces have a figure he calls “coyoteman” as the central element. Among the Native American animal gods, coyote is the weakest and least reputable. He is unable to impose himself in any situation, and so must use misdirection to achieve his aims. As Neal recounts, eventually he achieves the ability to transform every situation, and so becomes the most significant of the gods.
This story resonates strongly with my own. Unconditional Love is the most powerful force in Creation because all things desire it, but cannot betray it without alienating themselves from it. Being so powerful, Unconditional Love cannot compete against the other elements of creation, lest it exclude them and lose its purpose.
Both coyote and Unconditional Love must therefore enter into relation with things – coyote because of his weakness, and Unconditional Love because of its strength.
Neal finds this characterization of coyote disturbing if not perturbing. When I realized how it related to the three pieces I was fascinated by – and a fourth that I had purchased already – he thought that I was describing his art. But I wasn’t – I was interpreting his art in a manner that allows me to relate better to my journey. I was talking about myself, and allowing compassion for myself in my empathy for coyote’s pathos.
So these are the images. All are oil crayon on paper.
The first is a black sketch that I think of as “Primordial Coyoteman.” It is coyote in his original state, denizen of mountains that we have rendered less and less habitable. He offers thanks for being allowed to testify as to his relationship to them – for being allowed to recall himself to us.
The second is the most complex of the pieces I have seen, and the least sympathetic. Titled “Three Views of Mount Fuji,” it is Neal’s homage to mayorana Buddhism, the “Greater Vehicle” at the top of the piece.
Probably the dark and dense section around Coyoteman is to suggest his relationship to the earth, but I see it as an arena of mental and emotional turmoil. Coyoteman is alone, beset by threats, and has only the weapon of his wits. Under the strain, he seems ready to crack, and the boat flimsy.
The third is the most beautiful, both artistically and psychologically, for it places Coyoteman in the context of supportive relationships. “Relax Your Teeth,” it says. The bear-like figure to his right suggested to me Emerson, Neal’s dog. The fish figure is a metaphor for Neal’s wife. The teeth are shown twice, once of to the right, as though clenched, and again in a relaxed pose.
And the fourth, the one that Neal told me he had trouble letting go of. “If You Were a Tree” shows Coyoteman in his final state, bearing the Great Spirit feathers.
What does this mean to me? It grounds me in my journey. It reminds me to be open offerings of support even when they arrive in a context of struggle. And it gives me hope that I am not on this journey alone.