Seeing Through The Camouflage: Animals On Canvas At HSV
By Shawn Hartley Hancock
If you’ve ever watched a wild-animal nature documentary where a cheetah runs down an antelope for supper, you know why camouflage is central to survival.
“Wild animals have it down,” says artist Susan Merrill. But Merrill’s latest exhibit of animal paintings at Hancock Shaker Village, called “Colors & Camouflage,” explores this primal survival tactic as it relates not to animals in the wild but to barnyard animals.
“Like everyone, I got interested in camouflage by reading How the Leopard Got His Spots,” she says, referring to one of those wonderful illustrated Golden Books from the 1940 and 1950s based on the Rudyard Kipling Just So Stories.
Barnyard animals are always the subject of Merrill’s exhibits that coincide with the opening of the Village and its signature three-week event, Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm, a time when visitors turn out in droves to meet the newborn lambs, goats, chicks, ducks, piglets and calves. Merrill’s previous shows have explored how animals move and cluster, how they eat, and how they “pose.”
While her work elevates and educates visitors, no recent theme brought up more anxiety for the artist than “Colors & Camouflage,” which ratchets up the discussion to serious Darwin-esque levels, leaving both Merrill and her devotees to wonder how barnyard animals — presumably semi-domesticated — protect themselves from predators…or do they even need to?
Merrill initially thought farm animals might be exempt (having fences, farmers and guard dogs to thank). Nevertheless, she thought it a worthy topic for this — her eighth — annual exhibit in the Poultry House Gallery. “The show is fun and colorful and every animal is truly known to Susan,” says Lesley Herzberg, curator at Hancock Shaker Village.
“I looked at many different animals in their field,” Merrill says. “When there was a perceived threat, all of them behaved differently, depending upon their species.” Sheep for instance, would fold themselves into a flock making themselves indistinguishable, while belted cows would subtly turn to make themselves look like tree trunks.
Merrill says other farm animals adapt to their environments. As depicted in her work, several white horses sidled up to the tall white grasses in the back of a pasture to make themselves appear less noticeable when a stranger appeared. In another painting, a brown donkey stands against a dark doorway, while a lighter donkey stands against a white fence.
“These patterns kept repeating themselves. Brown baby ducklings ‘hide’ in a brown mud puddle, and speckled hens hide in plain sight in their multi-toned nests,” she says. “But how could this be possible since these animals don’t get to choose their environment? I realized they simply make do.”
Merrill sorts out the real from the imaginary in these paintings. “I had to go back and re-paint some work to reflect the actual appearance of the animals. The better the camouflage, the harder these paintings are to paint. If you know the answer at the start, however, it’s not really art,” she says. “You have to be ready to jump off the cliff, and always be learning about your subject. In some ways, these are the best paintings I’ve ever done.”
Merrill grew up on a farm in Maryland, where her love of animals began, but she is, without a doubt, Berkshires aristocracy. Once married to Jarvis Rockwell (Norman’s son) and a long-time resident of Stockbridge, Merrill taught art to children for many years while herself a single mother, and had time to paint only two or three works a year. Merrill and her current husband, fellow artist Carl Sprague, the Oscar-nominated designer for major movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel, have two almost-grown children. “He’s always my right-hand man when hanging a show,” she says.
Colors & Camouflage runs through May 22.
Hancock Shaker Village
Located at the junction of Routes 41 and 20, Pittsfield, MA
Open every day from 10 a.m. -4 p.m, starting April 16.
Baby Animals on the Shaker Farm runs through May 8.