Pet Project

Published on 28 January 2018

In the Year of the Dog, we check out how canines — as well as other household pets — have served as muse and friend to artists.

By Jo Tan

CONSTANT COMPANION John Steinbeck’s dog, Charley, was a source of inspiration, giving the novelist insights into human nature. (Credit: www.steinbecknow.com)

Muses originally referred to goddesses of Greek mythology who inspired chosen mortals to create spectacular art; and more recently, to humans who provided similar inspiration. But what about the humble household animals that inspire artists? We spotlight some legendary pet muses and their Singapore counterparts.

THE CANINE-CHARMED CELEBS

BEST BUDDY During Mr Ricky's lifetime, the pup was integral to Inch Chua’s songwriting process. (Credit: Crispian Chan)
FAMOUS PUP-STAR Other than being an Instagram celebrity, Celine Tan’s dog Plato also stars in her children's book. (Credit: Celine Tan)

John Steinbeck, Chopin, Inch Chua & Celine Tan

This year of the dog, we’d like to highlight certain canines who were featured in and/or inspired great oeuvres, such as the French poodle of Nobel-prize winning American author John Steinbeck, who starred in his best-selling travelogue Travels With Charley — In Search of America. Charley’s constant companionship on the cross-country journey offered Steinbeck numerous opportunities for insight into human nature, for the author once said, “A dog is a bond between strangers.” Steinbeck’s setter, Toby, also influenced his work — the scribe claimed Toby once carelessly destroyed the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, necessitating a complete rewrite. The result was a piece of celebrated American literature that is studied in schools and has received acclaimed adaptations for stage and screen.

Pups have also inspired great tunes: composer Chopin was supposedly very fond of his paramour’s little pooch, Marquis. Reportedly, both humans were watching Marquis chase his tail when Chopin decided to compose a waltz for the creature. This resulted in The Minute Waltz, nicknamed The Little Dog Waltz by Chopin.

Singapore boasts its own canine inspirers. Singer/songwriter/actor Inch Chua has referred to her late shih tzu, Mr Ricky, as her magical muse. “During his lifetime, I doubt I ever wrote anything without him there, trying to find space between me and my guitar. He actually listened to my music. Even after he went a little deaf, he would sit near to the amps, or even try to be right in the middle of all my electronic equipment, to feel the vibrations.”

While sometimes a fluffy distraction rather than a driving force, Chua believes Mr Ricky always had perfect timing when it came to claiming her focus. “I’m very task-oriented — even when I’m writing myself into a hole, I won’t stop. Ricky always knew when to interrupt and help me to relax just by petting him. I found that helped me go on for longer.”

And while some might assume it’s dedicated to a romantic partner, Chua actually wrote ‘Glow’ — the closing tune on her album Bumfuzzle — for Ricky. “He was getting older, with a growing tumour on his paw and worsening dermatitis that led to balding. I just wanted to tell him I loved him, and he was still pretty to me.”

Despite Mr Ricky’s passing, you can still hear his contributions to Chua’s music. He once jumped on a pedal board in the recording studio and Chua left the effect in a song, crediting him as ‘pedal-board fidgeter’ — just one of many Ricky credits in Chua’s work. Chua believes he still constantly inspires her art in deeper ways. “Dogs offer unconditional love so much more freely than humans. That’s something I aspire towards, to give that much of myself, whether as a person or as an artist.”

Journalist Celine Tan agrees. “My dog thinks I’m this perfect person. That inspires me to just be a fraction of who he believes me to be,” she says of her French bulldog Plato, who is also this issue’s cover model, an Instagram celebrity and the star of Tan’s children’s book, Plato and the Missing Bed. “One thing he’s definitely taught me is patience. I always call him my first kid because I had him before my actual children, and he prepared me for them by teaching me that looking after another living creature requires patience above all.

“He’s a patient creature himself. He treats me as the alpha dog and waits till I’m ready when he wants something. These are all very useful lessons for a journalist — I always have to wait for the right moment to ask the right question. Or, to throw in a pun, be dogged in getting good answers from interviewees.”

Tan realised Plato would be the perfect teaching aid to impart values to fellow humans, and since she had always wanted to write a children’s book, he became the star of an adorable story about learning to share, self-published by Tan and well-received by parents and tots in Singapore. “Learning lessons from animals is cute and accessible, I’ve done it myself,” says Tan. “I don’t know if I would have managed to write a children’s book without Plato.”

THE EXOTIC-CREATURE FANS

Credit: Self Portrait With Monkeys by Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali & Janet Chui

Many cutting-edge visual artists owned pets that reflected their non-conformist attitudes: Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali had an ocelot, while Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had monkeys, Itzcuintli dogs, various fowl and a fawn, which provided the subject matter for 55 out of her 143 paintings.

Singaporean watercolour artist/illustrator/history guide Janet Chui certainly creates unconventional images. This painter of angels, goddesses, fairies, mermaids and dragons was even a finalist for the World Fantasy Award in 2009, yet she doesn’t believe you need an exotic creature to evoke the imagination.

Credit: Janet Chui
Credit: Janet Chui
FELINES, NOTHING MORE THAN FELINES These ostensibly unremarkable pets have found their way into the works of literary great Ernest Hemingway. (Credit: JFK Presidential Library)
SOMETHING FISHY Animal City, a book of poems by Marc Nair, features a flashy luohan. (Credit: Marc Nair)

“People approach me to paint their pets, but these days, I only do so when intrigued by the personality or story behind them. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with species, the first animals I ever painted were hamsters,” shares Chui.

She adopted these particular hamsters after they were rescued from an experimental testing facility. Despite not being from the same biological family and thus not expected to get along, the two creatures were close, with one constantly staying by the side of its blind compatriot.

“It was such an unusual circumstance that I had to paint them,” says Chui. And so she did, depicting the two friends journeying through a snowscape, with one hamster leading its sight-impaired pal with a piece of thread. “It was winter where I was, and looking at these guys who had escaped their lives behind laboratory walls, I wondered what it would be like for them to further escape into the wide world and the snow. It wouldn’t have been safe to put them out there in real life, so I did it on canvas.”

Chui feels this is an example of how her pets have helped her to be a better fantasy artist, even if she more often paints dragons rather than fluffy rodents. “Living with something that is so different from you, you really wonder what they’re thinking and feeling at any time, and how they view the world. This helps an artist exercise different perspectives, break rules you might not have known you had, and open up different ways of creating pictures. Pets bring out a vastly different side of people that can be useful to explore — sometimes when you ask a very serious person the name of his pet, the answer can really make you laugh.”

While the snow-journeying hamsters have long passed on, Chui has yet another pet, a Jack Russell mix. Though this once again seems a less-than-exotic choice of companion for a fantasy queen who does tarot readings, she explains, “I got a dog instead of a cat because I read somewhere they get along better with fairies.”

THE FELINE FANCIERS

Credit: Marc Nair

TS Eliot, Ernest Hemingway & Marc Nair

Many writers love their cats — American author Ernest Hemingway (For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea) once quipped that they alone have emotional honesty, and wrote the story, Cat in the Rain. He is also said to have owned up to 150 cats, descended from one Snow White, a six-toed kitty gifted to him by a ship’s captain. Meanwhile, British writer TS Eliot (The Waste Land) wrote numerous poems about cats, compiling 15 of them in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in 1939, which in turn inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the hit musical Cats.

Singapore writers are also fond of felines. There is a whole collection of feline-focused work by various wordsmiths in From the Belly of the Cat, which offers to let readers “discover the Lion City through the eyes of its cats and their humans”.

Poet/photographer and Young Artist Award recipient Marc Nair has also penned his share of cat poems, despite only acquiring a cat by marriage. “I had never owned a pet before, but my wife had a cat so it was ‘love me, love my cat’.  It’s been wonderful, there are many truths you learn when caring for a life other than your own.”

While cats are sometimes thought to be aloof, Nair’s relationship with his pet is far from hands-off: Chubs (above) has chronic kidney disease, which requires a drip and regular monitoring. This means that Nair has been on hand to observe many of the cat’s adventures, spawning works such as the recent poem Nemesis, inspired by a rooftop episode when Chubs faced off against Ziggy, his cat arch-enemy.

Yet Chubs is far from the only cat Nair has written about. “About two years ago, we took over a cat from a neighbour. She was very ill, and we only had her for a week before she passed away. We buried her and for months after, would put flowers on her grave. Perhaps it was especially traumatising because we were just getting to know her, but I think the loss of a pet affects you in extreme ways — most pet owners spend more time with their pets than they would with their parents.” Nair channelled that unique grief into a poem, which will be published in his new poetry collection, Vital Possessions, to be released later this year.

Nair also believes that his feelings for his felines have crept into his artmaking as a whole. “When you write about people, you find your way into their narratives by speaking to them, listening to their stories, and observing what goes on in their lives. You can’t do that with animals, which are creatures more of instinct than reason. My experience writing something about animals is that you have to step into their shoes to invent their narrative. Along the way, you might draw on human behaviour as a point of reference to explain why these animals might do certain things.” A good example of Nair writing about animals to offer perspectives on humanity is Animal City — his book of poems starring a gangsta luohan fish, a monkey mafia, rabbits who have taken a vow of silence, and other creatures seen in Singapore.

THE CHICKEN CHRONICLERS

feathered FRIENDS Other than writing famous novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker has also written a book starring her pet chickens. (Credit: Laura Balandran-Garcia)
CHICKEN OR FISH? Ernest Goh’s vivid photo-documentation of the two species encourages people to see the animals as more than faceless food choices.

 Alice Walker & Ernest Goh

American novelist/activist Alice Walker won a Pulitzer prize for her fearless novel The Color Purple, about a black woman fighting racism and patriarchy. She has also dedicated an entire book, The Chicken Chronicles, to the pet chickens she cares for and speaks with. In Singapore, photographer/artist/activist Ernest Goh — winner of the Discernment Award at the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu Awards and the Sony World Photography Award, among others — is known for his documentary photography of healthcare workers during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak and the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Aceh. He’s also dedicated an entire book of photography to majestic chickens, salaciously titled Cocks.

Goh’s preoccupation is less with chickens and more on animals in general. His company, The Animal Book Co, promotes animal appreciation through photography. It also supports animal welfare organisations with photographs they can use to create awareness of their causes. He also does not necessarily believe that rare, endangered animals are more photographable than everyday ones: before Cocks, there was The Fish Book.

“One of the first family pets I had was an arowana fish that my father bought. While you wouldn’t call it terribly affectionate, you still form a relationship with it because it’s a living being sharing your home. Its tank was behind my desk and sometimes it would jump and make a big sound against the roof of the tank, which would terrify me into turning around and asking what it wanted. And I was probably projecting, but I thought it would sometimes give me a ‘feed-me’ look. Even if I didn’t always read it correctly, having a pet around made me want to empathise with animals and their needs.”

Years later, Goh was again examining his father’s fish tank, this time containing a regular goldfish. He realised that with all the darting around fish do, few people notice extraordinary details on their faces and bodies. So he started photographing the goldfish. “I was amazed. I caught different fish expressions on camera! Were these actually expressions of emotion?” Goh couldn’t be sure, but he kept snapping and The Fish Book was born, capturing various fish in surprising and beautiful attitudes.

“Chickens, longkang [drain] fish… these often overlooked animals intrigue me. They are seen as so mundane, we forget they are sentient beings that can be incredibly beautiful, with tons of character. I don’t feel that photographing chickens, or fish, is less important work than say, documenting scenes of the SARS outbreak. In the same way that encountering animals from my childhood inspired me on this career path of working with art and animals, I’d like to offer a way in for people to start understanding and empathising with the creatures they come across every day. It’s from beginning to care about things on a more intimate scale that we can really start to care for issues like species extinction and climate change.”

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