RattlesnakesI love to look at rattlesnakes. I like snakes in general because of the incredible beauty of their skins and the almost magical way they move around. But I love rattlers.
Maybe it is because they were one of the first animals I became aware of as a child. I can still see my mother chopping baby rattlers with a shovel at our little house in Mentone, California right on the 2-lane highway that goes to Big Bear Lake. I was just turning 5 years old. I was very impressed by anything that my mother wanted to chop up into little pieces like that.
About 30 years later, in the middle of Mendocino County, California, I was doing the same thing to protect my own infant daughter from the lethal threat of rattlesnakes. Until I read the definitive two volume study of rattlesnakes by L.M. Klauber. After that, I have had great empathy and respect for rattlesnakes and I am filled with a sense of awe whenever I see one.
A few years ago I happened onto a garage sale being run by a retired carnie. I found a a huge box full of rattlesnakeskin fragments that he was selling. I wanted to buy it immediately and after a little friendly negotiating, it was mine for $9. We got to talking and he told me that he used to run a booth in a traveling carnival. One of the attractions in his sideshow was the skin of a 12 foot long rattler that he had mounted on red velvet framed in white behind glass. He took me into his house to show it to me. It hung over the fireplace in his living room and it was very beautiful.
I got the box of snakeskins home and sorted through it. The carnie man had told me that the box was full of scraps left over from a hatband and belt making operation. The snakes had originally come from the annual Rattlesnake Roundup outside a small town in Texas. I organized the strips by size and pattern types. I threw out the fragments of snakeskin that were rotten or dried and brittle. When I was finished, I had over 1,000 pieces of rattlesnakeskin ranging in size from 1/2" x 3" to 3" x 20". The dilemma was: what to do with them?
They were disgusting and tragic. Perhaps I should just bury or burn them and ask the spirit of rattlesnake to try to forgive us for what we have been doing to him for so long. But they were also incredibly beautiful. The power and grace of rattlesnake was in them. I wanted to somehow find a way to celebrate rattlesnake. About that time, I noticed the $2 thriftshop surfboard I had strapped to the big locust tree outside my kitchen window for study and weathering. I decided that after liberating the surfboard by cutting it into two pieces, I would cover the larger piece with rattlesnakeskin fragments.
It took me awhile to get used to the smell and feel of all that snakeskin. But during the six months it took to make the piece, I actually came to sort of enjoy it in a strange kind of way. By the time I finally had the surfboard covered on both sides, I had used 165 fragments of snakeskin! The Rattlesnakeskin Surfboard is the biggest collage I have ever made.
By making this piece, I felt that I was somehow atoning for the low esteem and slaughter the rattlesnake has had to endure for so long. The Rattlesnakeskin Surfboard is a very powerful and somber work. Viewers always comment on its beauty, which is, of course, primarily snake beauty. Oh yes, it still smells like rattlesnake when you get up close to it. Not real pleasant. But I sure do enjoy looking at it.
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