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Animal Esperanto 

click to enlarge _Cat with Raw Nose_, Jan Harrison, beeswax, damar resin and encaustic sculpture, 2006
  • _Cat with Raw Nose_, Jan Harrison, beeswax, damar resin and encaustic sculpture, 2006

Jan Harrison has invented her own language, literally. It’s called “Animal Tongues,” and she began speaking it in 1979. Though she doesn’t consider herself a performance artist, Harrison sometimes publicly sings—and speaks—in Animal Tongues. One such occasion will be June 24 at the Cabaret Voltaire Gallery in Poughkeepsie. A show of Harrison’s works, “Bestial Beings,” is at the gallery until that day.
As Harrison prepared to speak her language for me, she explained: “I always have to take my glasses off. It just doesn’t seem right with the glasses.” Then she began:

In toillay canto
om payin cainniko
oy sakilanna intu umminant
ki ki ki ummani uwi canuwee kai...

It sounded like a combination of Chinese, baby talk, and a born-again Christian speaking in tongues. When she addresses animals in this language, they often nuzzle her or gaze respectfully, Harrison said.
Her visual art is similarly a meditation on animal life. Recently Harrison has been sculpting heads of cats out of beeswax. The heads are hollow, about 6” x 6” x 8”, with titles like Lace Mummy Cat and Cat Origin.
Harrison’s wax sculptures evolved from her previous paintings in wax on wood. “I was doing the encaustic paintings and, you know, working with the wax, and then I picked up the wax one day and just started modeling it,” Harrison recalled. “And then I realized, ‘My God! They look like they have jumped out of the paintings!’”
There’s an element of collaboration between Harrison and her materials. She just lately made her first bronze sculpture, Bronze Tendril Cat, depicting the head of a cat whose jaw has sprouted tiny tentacles. “The thing that’s so interesting to me is that the bronze one is going to last much longer than me. It’ll be around forever!” Harrison observes. “The wax ones are pretty sturdy, but the bronze one you could throw!”
Also, bronze suggests a monument, like a statue of President Grant—but in this case, the sculptor is honoring a tentacle-cat. (Harrison grew up in West Palm Beach, and would observe creatures in the sea: starfish, brilliantly hued fish of all kinds, and even octopus—all of which influence her art.)
“Bestial Beings” includes four encaustic paintings, each composed of 20 wooden panels. (The panels are one foot square.) They were all painted within the past four years. The titles are: Nativa, Fuser, Dog plus Cat, and Scratcher.
A prolific artist writes many titles. She becomes a kind of one-word poet, choosing words to express ideas that are hidden in the paintings. Harrison pays close attention to her titles. She also closely watches her five cats, including a feral pixie bob named Zoe. Zoe has seven toes on each foot, lives outdoors, and only visits to be fed and petted. Her face, with its wild intelligence, often appears in Harrison’s art.
“Some of the most profound moments I’ve had have been spent very quietly with an animal,” Harrison says. “To me, they know a lot. And so I feel like I’m their spokesperson, somehow.”
Jan Harrison’s “Bestial Beings” will be exhibited at Cabaret Voltaire, 358 Main Street, Poughkeepsie, until June 24. The artist will give a gallery talk, and speak and sing in Animal Tongues on Sunday, June 24, at 6pm. For more information, call (845) 473-7800.

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