Just Completed! Birds of Pray (Not Prey): the Death of Greg
This is the fourth and final painting in the series, "Ways of Dying: a Chronicle of the AIDS Epidemic"
Birds of Pray [Not Prey], was originally conceived to honor a psychologist, turned HIV researcher, who was my boss in a clinical trial testing an AIDS medication. Greg was very close to Native American culture—he had attended the Sun Dance ceremony and had close Native American friends.
My original idea was to paint Native American symbols all around an image of Greg wearing his signature cowboy hat. I envisioned a copper background and even purchased expensive copper leaf. I did some studies in watercolor but pronounced them trite. As part of my search for interesting Native American references I went to a fair where people buy and sell authentic Native American crafts and related objects. It was there, while leafing through some very old magazines about Native American basketry that I came across the Native American custom of "burying" their dead on a platform placed in a tree. This is called “sky burial” and has existed in cultures throughout the world.
The painting seemed to be asking for a very large space—so I prepared a monster-sized 4 x 8 foot sheet of hardboard. Because egg tempera is labor-intensive most tempera artists work small and many seem to work smaller and smaller each year. But my paintings in the last few years are gaining height and width.
What came to mind in dreaming up the composition were the “birds of prey” such as falcons, hawks and vultures that were found at sky burial sites and served to “wipe clean” the flesh of the deceased off the bony structure.
I tried sketching scenes of sky burials with birds of prey hovering near the body but it seemed too violent and too literal. What came to mind were mourning doves, a bird I’ve always loved in it’s gray humility, and mournful coo. It turns out that the coo of the Mourning Dove is a mating call of the male dove and has nothing to do with mourning. However my beloved artistic license has allowed me to fill the painting with mourning doves and title the painting “Birds of Pray (not prey): The Death of Greg. I included the parenthetical “not prey” after “Birds of Pray” because people commented that they thought I had misspelled “pray” and still thought the title was “Birds of Prey.”
This was the only painting I worked on for two years and it seems to have come to a point of completion.
I’ve removed Greg’s last name because it feels like the painting is now so far removed from and has little to do with the actual person.