Thursday, July 9, 2020
Robert McCauley Ushers Viewers into the Eyes of Bears
While everybody likes the eyes, Robert McCauley said the animals’ muzzles are very important to him, as well.
Thursday, January 2, 2020


Every morning Robert McCauley turns on the lights of the tiny 9- by 14-foot studio adjoining his Skagit Valley home to find dozens of eyes looking at him.

The eyes—each pair as different as snowflakes—greet him from the canvas on which he painted them.

“They’re my audience—these animals,” he said. “And when I turn on the lights, they always say, ‘Hi.’ I love painting them. I feel you feel like I’m not alone—I’m one on one with them.”

Robert McCauley said the bear in the 50-by-26-inch “Day Watch #2” looks like it’s perfectly okay with having an octopus on his head.

McCauley has spent a lifetime painting the original natives of North America from bison to bears, utilizing his art to speak to environmental ethics and humankind’s impact on nature.

He’s painted so many bears over a lifetime he doesn’t even want to know how many. But it ranges in the dozens, if not the hundreds.

“The polar bear has been the Arctic canary for a number of years,” he noted. “You’ll find dark skies in the background of my bear paintings--a storm on the horizon.”

McCauley has long been represented by Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum, which is having a solo exhibition of his work through Feb. 3. And he talked about his art there this week during a holiday Artist Chat.

Robert McCauley addresses man’s attempt to create artificial fish ladders with this 34-by-25-inch framed painting titled “Fish Ladder.”

The son and grandson of loggers, he was born and raised in Mt. Vernon, Wash. He went off to teach at Rockford College in Illinois, where he chaired the art department. But, upon retiring, he moved back to the Skagit Valley, setting up home in what he called the ideal place—20 minutes from the ocean and three minutes from the Skagit River.

But things had changed in his absence.

“The river used to have all five salmon species. But it’s disintegrated to the point where there’s no more fishing,” he said. “And the Dungeness crab harvesting has disintegrated, as well.”

He recounted standing on a river bank as a stream of light through the trees hit a salmon in the eye.

Buddy Paul and Bev Lingle were among those who turned out for Robert McCauley’s Artist Chat.

“I sat for the longest time making eye contact, contemplating what the salmon was telling me about what it had gone through.”

The stories McCauley’s father told him about close encounters of the bear kind created an early reference for the wild in nature. In one case, he recounted, his father found himself with just a big boulder between himself and a grizzly bear. He shot his pistol in the air and, fortunately, the bear turned around.

McCauley’s concern for the extinction of so many species led him to believe there should be a census taken of wildlife showing how the destruction of habitat has affected so many species.

That notion gave rise to a number of paintings in which McCauley painted bears, bison and fish boasting numbered tags. He’s assigned the paintings names like “The Great North American Indigenous Trout Census” and “The Great North American Polar Bear Census.”

“The Great North American indigenous Trout Census Project” is a 20-by-42-inch oil on canvas on panel.

“The census project reflects my notion that we see ourselves as caretakers of nature. We have the sense we’re in control of nature and that I find a little bit annoying. We’ve lost our sense of wildness. We’ve lost our sense of wild.”

McCauley says he often turns to Google for help with his paintings.

“I will ask Google: ‘Cinnamon bear nose. Front view.’ And I’ll get 200 to 300 images,” he said. “If I want to depict a polar bear waving, I’ll punch in, ‘Human waving’ to see how a human waves, then transfer that to a bear.”

McCauley says he has no problem with assigning human characteristics to his bears.

“Some of my bears look like men in bear suits. If you pay attention to what the world has done with animals in ads, the world’s put them in human roles.”

A framed 6-foot-by-2-foot painting of a bear hanging in Gail Severn Gallery is meant to depict a bear being squeezed out of its habitat. A painting of a bear wearing an octopus on its head calls attention to a bear’s massive bone structure that open the door to such a possibility.

“When I taught, I talked to my students about trying things upside down. Play with gravity and see what happens. Again, it’s a story, not reality,” he said.

McCauley says one of the reasons he paints so many bears is because of the fact that they can stand upright.

“It gives you a chance to look into their eyes. It’s like looking into the eyes of your own species,” he said. “You couldn’t do this with a zebra.

“The eyes are very important,” he added. “I take bear eyes and tweak them like human eyes, make them look more sympathetic to pull you in. Once you’re in, you’re trapped. You realize things have gone awry.”

That said, McCauley said his paintings are meant to raise questions, rather than offer answers.

“The best that can happen is if one of these triggers something in you,” he said. “If you can make a difference even in the life of one animal, then you’ve done something.”


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