What Dogs Dream
Like many of you, dogs have run rampant through my life, and over the years forced their way into my art. When Morris Museum director, Kevin Grogan, approached me about this exhibition, our conversations turned on a common theme he’d observed in my work - the use of animals in general, and dogs in particular as substitutes, stand-ins and visual metaphors for an often absent human presence.
The phrase “What Dogs Dream” came out of this discourse and seemed an inspired title that could cover a world of aesthetic sins. It was agreed that the exhibition would be made up of new work especially for the occasion, and older pertinent pieces that seemed to predict this mad rush of canine activity.
Dogs, it is generally believed, were the first animals to be domesticated. That this close cousin of the wolf and jackal would so readily attach itself to man, is as curious as it is a universal cultural commonality. Some civilizations adore and worship dogs, some work them, others put them on the menu. Whatever it is they see in us or we in them, the bond is mutual and operates on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.
I’m looking at a photograph circa 1951. In it my brother and I have set up a lemonade stand. “5 cents a glass,” the sign says. In the frame are our two dogs of no discernible breed - Prince and Yellow Pup. Their tails are wagging and we are smiling. The image fairly exudes a kind of timeless, giddy affection.
Later that summer, I watched as Prince ran after and caught a car. My grandfather and I buried him in the woods behind their Webster County, Mississippi home. I can still find the spot - and, on occasion, do.
That same grandfather was a foxhunter of the old school. He bred and hunted generations of pure blood Walker Hounds. With names like Lucky, Mary, Speck, Sally and Bo, these dogs were all legs, lungs, nose and heart. They lived to run, but spent most of their lives laying around the kennel, eating, sleeping, stretching and occasionally giving off the deep-throated mouth that would send any fox in earshot scurrying for the nearest hole.
The hounds would perk up their ears late of an afternoon when a pickup or two with dogs in the back pulled into the lot. The men would stand around, talk, chew tobacco, and then about dark, load up the dogs - who by now were in a high state of agitation - and off they’d drive. There was sure enough about to be a fox race.
The men would release the hounds as some pre-ordained spot and then ride the ridge roads all night listening for the telltale sound of the lead dog opening on a fox. The race was on, not to be watched, but rather followed by ear. From this high-pitched cacophony of the “dogs’ mouth,” the men could identify whose hound was ahead, whether they had struck a gray or a red, and whose farm they were tearing up. “The race” was one man’s dog against the others, the fox almost peripheral to the real contest at hand.
By dawn, with the prey gone to ground and hounds quiet, the men would blow their truck horns and shout their dogs’ names. My grandfather’s pack came to the call of an old hunting horn that had been his father’s. The foxhounds would come straggling in, exhausted, tongues hanging out, limping and bleeding from barbed wire cuts.
Not all would be accounted for. I once rode around for several days with my grandfather looking for a favored dog, still missing. I’d never seen a grown man so distraught. A friend pulled up beside him and the conversation went something like,
“Cas. I think I seen your dog.”
“Back at the Osborne place. Laying up on the porch.”
My grandfather narrowed his eyes and in a steely voice said, “No dog of mine would ever lay on somebody’s porch.”
We drove away.
But that is all gone now. I was back at the old house place not long ago. We’d cut some timber and the ground was all distressed. The sweet gum tree where Prince is buried survives. Near where the kennel had been, the glint of a piece of metal caught my eye. It was a brass nameplate still attached to a decaying leather collar. It read, “C. L. Cooper, Mathiston, Mississippi, Phone 3451.”
Gone to be sure, but not forgotten.
That otherwise mature men would willingly jeopardize their manhood by so clearly and completely identifying with the performance of a dog was not lost on me. I hope I’ve found an alternative means of channeling this vulnerability.
But what, pray tell, does all of this have to do with Art, the South, and an institution dedicated to both - Augusta’s Morris Museum?
In 1935, Tulane’s Ellsworth Woodward issued a clarion call to generations yet unborn when he wrote, “what the southern artist comes into the world for is to find a symbol (italics, mine) for the south.”
I expect there might be enough evidence to convict me of being an artist, but to have set out to be an artist of the “Southern” variety is something that initially never occurred to me. The classification “Southern Artist” has been assigned to me by others (I am not alone here) but I offer no resistance and am, in fact, flattered to be in the company.
To be a “Southern Artist” in the manner in which William Faulkner was a “Southern Writer,” his postage stamp of native soil yielding so rich a crop of universal truths and verities, is high aspiration indeed.
Symbols, I like to think, offer themselves up at just the right time and place.
To self-consciously go out into the southern woods symbol hunting could prove as disastrous as a canoe trip with James Dickey. However, were I to nominate a contender for Professor Woodward’s Southern Symbol Sweepstakes, I don’t think we could possibly do better than to elevate the ever-present, ubiquitous, obedient, intelligent, loyal, devoted, dilatory, lazy, noble, faithful, libido driven, sly, sneaky, benign, slobbering, dangerous, mangy, flea-bitten, rabies-carrying, chicken-killing, car-chasing, egg-sucking, Southern Dog.
With all apologies to the Agrarians on this, “I’ll take my stand.”
Copyright 2005 William Dunlap. All rights reserved.