Ten years ago I took a leave of absence from my 9-5. I was tired of the factory hours and exhausting office drama. I was tired of feeling like my life, my happiness, was inextricably weaved into my j-o-b. I needed to put my energies elsewhere for a while and see what happened.
For 5 months I focused full-time on all the things I’d otherwise reserved for the weekend. I started writing a lot, taught a ton of yoga classes, took on more reflexology clients. I even busted out some old paint supplies I’d been lugging around for decades.
I’d be remiss not to mention that when I put all my hustle into things I actually enjoyed doing, I was able to cobble together enough financial means to pay my necessaries. Rent, student loans, groceries, and an occasional beer outing, all covered by diverse streams of hobby-driven income. It was a real eye-opener.
Of the 4 categories—writing, yoga, reflexology, and art—art proved to be the most elusive. It stopped being as much fun when I realized I was painting for the sake of a coming show or gallery hanging. So I fired it as a revenue-generator and kept it solely as an amusement.
In terms of style and craft and what’s commonly perceived as “fine art,” I’m not much of an artist. I don’t have a steady hand or any knowledge of color theory. What I do have is a drive to create. To make. I can’t stop.
This era in my life coincides with the release of Exit Through the Gift Shop, a documentary film by and about the anonymous street artist known as Banksy. I already knew of and revered this graffitist, but the film inspired me to move beyond admiration. It propelled me to do.
So I watched YouTube videos on how to create graffiti stencils. Made a big one of a gorilla’s face and tagged it a few places around town. Of course the results were amateur. The process, however, was thrilling. But I admit it caused more anxiety than delight. I was terrified of getting caught by local authorities. Didn’t want my middle-aged mugshot to be for a vandalism bust. That would have been lame.
Still, I continued to practice on cardboard boxes and was never happy with the results. These failures shifted my direction of interest and soon I was stockpiling thick swatches of cardboard and cutting out negative images with my new set of X-acto knives. Spraying the paint through the cuts always brought me joy. The toxic smell of aerosol fumes, the stray droplets left on my hands and trigger finger, the cardboard cuts suddenly alive on the medium. This new art form filled me unlike any had before.
But as much as I thought I wanted to be like Banksy, I only wanted this in theory. So I compromised. I started collecting scrap pieces of wood from construction sites and affixed my stencils to them rather than the sides of buildings. I signed the back, “Art Gorilla,” as tribute to my failed effort as urban artiste. Each piece also had a note on its reverse saying, “Take me home!” and provided an email address after asking the finder to, “Please write back and tell your story.”
When I had a substantial collection of finished completed work, I hung them randomly around town. I lugged others out of state and hung them in cities I didn’t know. Time passed. But soon I got my first response. It said, “I salute you! This is exactly what I love about living here!” Another note from someone who found one in Seattle. “Thank you so much for hanging this piece! It absolutely made my day. I live for little secret love art gift treasures!”
Somewhere along the way my desire to make stencils shifted to using a brush. Can’t claim to know my provenance of thought as to why I started (and haven’t stopped) painting bunnies, specifically, but once I did, they kept coming. Something about their simplicity, probably. Also how so much emotion can be conveyed through the size and angle of their swatchy eyes, the trajectory of their whiskers, the girth of their bellies, the tilt of their heads, the flop of their ears.
Since 2010 I’ve hung more than 1000 pieces in the US and Mexico. I carried a paint pen while I walked across America and left behind many Art Gorilla bunnies marked on lost car parts, tools, and other roadside finds. I’ve upgraded my anonymous artgorilla@yahoo email to an Instagram page (@art.gorilla) where the bio summarizes my mission: “Spreading love. Anonymous art for all.”
I’ve also stopped trying to keep it all a secret. Why? Because I get as much joy from making and sharing these works as (I hope) people get out of randomly finding them. And connection is way more fun when we’re able to do it with another human being, rather than with a faceless email account.
I thought leaving North Carolina would mark the end of the bunnies era. But I was mistaken. My return to it was kick-started last week by a patron in New Jersey who reached out asking if I’d make some bunnies for her walls. I am grateful for her nudge. As I perused my local art supply store to replenish paint and canvases, I knew I was back in the bunny game. Probably for good.
Anything we can do to spread a little bit of love is a fine idea. Most especially now. This is one of mine. What’s yours?