A marvelous menagerie: Brandice Guerra gives life to the weird and wonderful

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

EUREKA – “Animalia” is a marvelous show of small-scale paintings and works on paper by Brandice Guerra, only on display through Sunday, Jan. 22 at the Morris Graves Museum of Art, 636 F St. in Eureka. Run, don’t walk to see it before it closes.

The show is marvelous in the sense of being full of marvels, curiosities, oddities and wonders, as well as being executed with marvelous skill.

Godwits roll about in belly laughs, opossums pluck blossoms with human fingers, complete with manicures, and portraits of such hitherto unknown species as the lesser hot pink eyelash bird grace the walls of the mezzanine of the Morris Graves.

“I like to look at strange things,” Guerra said. The artist, who is an assistant professor of art at Humboldt State, talked about the diversity of her influences last week at the museum. These include birds, both real and imagined, 17th century painting, and 19th and early 20th century illustration. Guerra grew up in Chicago; when her grade school class was taken on field trips to the city’s famed Field Museum of Natural History with its dioramas and dark musty hallways, as she described it, she had to be “dragged out of the museum” when it was time to leave.

SOLENODON SUPPLICANT This pen-and-ink portrait of a well-manicured venomous, nocturnal, burrowing insectivorous mammal currently hangs at the Morris Graves Museum.

When she first arrived at her previous teaching job at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, Okla., her students asked her, “Have you seen it?” They quickly escorted Guerra to see the pièce de résistance at the campus museum – “a flea-bitten taxidermy mount of a two-headed calf,” said Guerra. Instead of shrieking or fainting, Guerra reacted by making a painting of the creature. “I like to think what a miracle it is that we are all walking around and don’t have two heads,” she said.

Guerra had a subscription to National Geographic Magazine as a child and did get to spend time in a cabin in Wisconsin in the summers, even though the closest wilderness was a grassy area near the power building in her Chicago neighborhood. “I wanted trees,” she said.

Besides her love of the beauty of nature, the dark side also attracts her eye.

“I’m a child of the ’80s,” she explained, citing such influences as the characters from the movie Gremlins to those in the illustrated children’s books of Maurice Sendak. “I loved Sendak as a kid because his characters aren’t always good.”

Guerra also likes “old nursery rhymes, especially the highly violent.” She’s done a series based on the 1774 saga of “Who Killed Cock Robin” that would give any small child delight and nightmares both.

“My practice is largely narrative – I enjoy telling stories through imagery,” she wrote in her artist’s statement for this show. “Sometimes my images are illustrations of actual nonhuman animal behaviors and at other times I bend the truth, using animal bodies to tell stories about human behavior.”

Now Guerra draws the hummingbirds in her own backyard, close to the Arcata Bottom. “I feel like I’m lucky to live on a migratory bird path,” she said.

A finely detailed drawing in the show is a a portrait of a Night Heron, so exquisitely done that each line appears as if drawn by a feather from the bird itself.

When she paints, she uses almost exclusively round paintbrushes that come to a point. “If you look at old self-portraits of artists in the seventeenth century, they have a mound of brushes in their hands and they are all rounds,” she explained. Guerra prefers a Spanish brush maker, Escobar, “because it’s a really, really fine point brush.”

She “draws daily” but has to “cram in painting after teaching and on weekends.” A painting can take several months from the initial drawing to the completed work. An anticipated sabbatical in the fall of 2017 may change that, allowing Guerra to paint, paint, paint in preparation for a solo show in Chicago.

“I’d also like to illustrate a book,” she said “That’s where my heart is.”



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