In the center of this photograph, you see a Oaxacan wood carving of a big cat. With its stripes, it looks most like a tiger, but its vital association for me is with the mountain lion. Along with the jaguar, the mountain lion is one of the two big cats native to Mexico. But it isn’t zoology or geography that matters to me here, as I’ll explain.
This photograph, “The Friend Who May Not Seem a Friend,” is the second in a new series of mine. In December, I wrote to you here about the first, “The Friend Who Dies So His Friends Can Live (Golgotha and the Tomb).” A Pre-Christmas Christmas Card – LAWRENCE RUSS: Soul, Art, and Society (lruss.com) Each of the series images will feature a figurine that I keep in my study because, for me, it’s connected to certain priceless spiritual powers, virtues, or realities that I hope to evoke in these photographs – inviting you to feel why I call it a “Friend.”
I suspect that all of you keep near you some objects like these, that quietly spur or encourage or comfort you. I don’t include objects like rabbits’ feet that are somehow supposed to produce a general “luck,” despite the fact that the object relates to what? The killing of an animal and severing of its foot? What interests me are things that we keep with us because they summon up thoughts, feelings, memories that lift the spirit, brighten the heart, strengthen our resolve to live or create. In my case, anything connected with my wife has that kind of effect on me, though it might be quiet, modest, or even unconscious. It might be a religious medallion that she gave me as a present or a more casual object with shared connections, like a program from a concert that we heard the year we met.
To understand why I show you this carved cat in flames, you need to know that my childhood was plagued by sweat-through-the-night terrors, terrors that could take hold even in daytime. My parents gave no protection, no comfort in the face of it. In fact, they played parts in its causes. I felt abandoned, isolated, constantly under attack, and I prayed in silence for help. Part of the answer that came was the mountain lion.
I’d been drawn to that animal by what I’d read about it, by pictures I’d seen of it. I’d learned that it was solitary, elusive, able to make astonishing leaps. It was reported that it would not harm a human baby. I read that it was the smallest of the animals classified as “big cats.” Though I didn’t yet know about Native American power animals, that would be one way to describe what it was for me. In my harrowing nights, I called on its strength. It didn’t by itself win the war, but it helped my defenses to hold.
Was it a spirit sent by God to protect me? Was it a symbol of something that I reached toward? Was it a part of me? Maybe all of those. What’s important is what it was and what it did for me. If you want to see something of what my struggle was like and how the mountain lion served in that struggle, you can look to various myths, folktales, sacred books, and artworks, but you can also see contemporary counterparts in the occlumency and the petronus depicted in the Harry Potter stories.
At some point in my childhood, I heard in the Temple about “The Lion of Judah.” I also learned that my Hebrew name, Yis-ra-el, Israel, means “Champion of God.” To me that didn’t refer to Jacob’s wrestling with an angel of God and defeating him — which is part of why God renamed him “Israel.” In my mind, that phrase referred to someone who would fight and triumph over evil in the service of God, of His mercy, righteousness, justice, truth. My fervent, repeated prayer became: “Make me Your lion, Lord.”
My relationship with the mountain lion continued past childhood, though my condition and need were no longer so dire. It will always have a certain meaning and presence for me. When I was in high school, I bought the portrait of a mountain lion (cougar, puma, catamount, panther) that you see below. It has hung on the wall of my study or bedroom wherever I’ve lived since then. I’m not at all inclined to take it down. If you gaze at it intently, and perhaps if you imagine it as a human face, you may see what I see in it still.
But as you can see, there is a second element in “The Friend Who May Not Seem a Friend,” and it also has deep significance for me: the fire. In my next post, I’ll hope to engage you with some “Notes for a Biography of Fire.”
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .