The purpose of showing this now outdated video is to give the viewer the best sense of the actual size of the pieces.
The Story of How I Came to Paint Unicorns
I confess serendipity (or Coyote) led me to paint large unicorns. It began the day I walked into the rooms at The Cloisters in New York in 1988 and saw the wall-size fifteenth-century “Hunt for the Unicorn” Tapestries. The Cloisters is a part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art , but on its own site in Fort Tryon Park at the northern tip of Manhattan. It features art and gardens from medieval times, and was built out of the stones of several monasteries that were shipped over from Europe in the 1930’s.
In Medieval art history (which was basically the history of the Church), the unicorn was a symbol of the purity and energy of Christ. The seven tapestries that comprise “The Hunt for the Unicorn” tell the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, where Christ is depicted as a unicorn. From a meta physical standpoint, the unicorn comes from the seventh dimension and is the highest energetic being of the Elemental Kingdom . It’s vibration of purity and innocence is most easily recognized by children (something not lost on today’s manufacturers of children’s toys and products.)
How I even ended up at the Cloisters is interesting in itself. I was attracted to the brochure amongst dozens of others on New York’s things to see and do, in a rack in the foyer of the YMCA where I was staying with a number of other fine art students from the university I was attending. We’d raised money for two years to come on a week-long trip to see first hand much of the art we’d been studying in books for the last four. Curiously, I’d ended up going to the Cloisters alone and on a ‘whim’ as the rest of the group were already going other places. I’d only glanced at the brochure to look for the address so I could get there, and hadn’t a clear idea of what I was going to see. Once I saw the tapestries however I ended up staying for hours, drawn into a medieval religious fantasy so exquisitely rendered by weavers whose skill and dedication to such a complicated project it boggled my mind. Before I left the Cloisters I bought a book about the tapestries, knowing in my heart that something signficant had just happened, and that someday I was going to create art work that honoured them in some way.
Time and life went by. For six years I lived in a small hamlet called Cluny east of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. By this time I’d started the “Black Collage Paintings”. On a number of occasions I felt compelled to get out the book I’d bought at The Cloisters in New York and marvel over the beauty of “The Unicorn Tapestries”. I couldn’t think of what I might create so I kept putting it away. Finally I read the book from cover to cover and was stunned to find out there was another famous fifteenth-century set of wall-size unicorn tapestries still in existence at the Cluny Museum in Paris. Cluny isn’t a common name and here I was living in the only place in Alberta, maybe even in Canada with that name! I vowed somehow I’d get over to Paris to see those tapestries.
By 2002 I was sitting in the middle of a hushed, climate-controlled circular room staring at the five “The Lady and the Unicorn” Tapestries in the Cluny Museum. It’d taken eight years, but I’d finally made it to Paris. As I sat there with a few other people literally surrounded by these medieval masterpieces, I felt cocooned in a red world of unspeakable beauty. No one said a word. We’d entered a sacred space. The visual richness of what I was seeing permeated my being in a way few other masterpieces have done. It was magical. I knew then with certainty a time would come when I’d do a modern painted tribute to the two sets of tapestries.
Upon returning to Calgary I decided to paint a horse series and remembered in university I’d discovered a photographer named Robert Vavra who’d made horse photography an art form. His coffee table books, Such is the Real Nature of Horses and Equus became world-wide best sellers. He hand-painted and manipulated his photographs to ‘fantasize’ his images long before digital effects came along.
I’d been inspired by what he’d done and wanted to look at some of his pictures again. I went to the local library and typed in his name to see if it had any of his books. The first two that came up were not on horses but unicorns! You could have knocked me over with a feather (Coyote was no doubt rolling around on the floor laughing!) This was just way to coincidental! Horses were forgotten. In a flash I knew how I was going to paint my tribute to the tapestries. If I could get Robert’s permission to use his images as references, I’d make large, painted hangings of unicorns. It was time.
The first thing I did was contact Mr. Vavra to request copyright permission. I faxed a letter explaining who I was and what I wanted to do. Ten days later he faxed back saying he was touched, and normally his photographs sold for $20,000 US each. He would however, make an exception for me if I was willing to pay $1000.00 for a one time use of all the images in his two books. It was such a generous offer I immediately got back to him, thanked him for his kindness and told him I’d send the money ASAP. We later spoke by phone and I promised him if I ever ended up doing any major reproductions, I’d give him 10% of each sale. Then I started painting.