Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber, founding members of Winnipeg’s Royal Art Lodge, have been collaborating for 17 years. Their most recent project, Animals With Sharpies, is a collection of 64 paintings and text, published by Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly (2013). (Their first book with the press, Constructive Abandonment, was released only two years ago, in 2011). In previous joint ventures both artists made equal contributions to every aspect of the project. Here they assumed a clear division of responsibility; for this book Dumontier did the painting and Farber supplied the text. The result is a delightful and instructive menagerie that combines a negotiated anthropomorphism with an engaging sense of being inside the animal. These creatures use their mouth-held sharpies to deliver observations and reactions that run the gamut from the absurd to the poignant.
In his writing, Farber wanted “to think like an animal. I was imagining them as smart for an animal but still pretty dumb.” The poster animal for this challenged comprehension is a dog who writes out of a belligerent resistance to the idea of evolution, that he “didn’t come from no monkey.” “The dog is trying but he hasn’t quite figured it out,” Farber explains.
Other animals, though, are in full command of their wits, wisdom and wings. The small black head of a songbird barely enters the right-hand side of one page and writes, heartbreakingly, “I loved you one second before I was born and I will love you one second after I die;” a red-winged blackbird laments being dumped by her boyfriend of three years; a goose sends a Dear John letter that simply announces, “I’m pregnant.”
These animals are pretty horny, a condition Dumontier accepts as natural. “Don’t you think that’s what animals would be focused on if they could write?” That said, they do have other things on their minds; some of them are well-read in tooth and claw. They communicate through various codes: a red-eyed mouse is into witchcraft; a bilingual bird composes like a French statistician; a dog writes his vet, Doctor Middlesworth, a polite thank you letter for saving his life; and Roger the Badger draws up a competent Last Will and Testament.
Dumontier regards Farber as “a shockingly good writer,” and admits that his task provided less personal satisfaction. “I don’t like painting very much, particularly not these animals,” he says. “But they can’t be too simple or stylized; they have to have the right neutrality where you don’t really think about the painting very much.” He did take the finished works and arranged them in sequence, based on formal relationships, like colour and the way the animals sweep onto the page, and sometimes on style. Three cats that have “the same juvenile quality” are separated because of their similarity; a bird who writes, “I’m loosing my mind” and the pig who says, “I’m going oinkers” are linked on facing pages for the same reason that separates the felines.
The final two images in the book restore the balance of fun. On the left side of the page a black Labrador holding the sharpie backwards in his mouth presents a painting that is an endgame; there is nothing for Farber to write. Then the last image sets an optimistic tone. “I think there is enough darkness in the book that we didn’t want to end on that note,” says Dumontier, and his partner agrees. An unrecognizable rodent writes on a green background, in large capitol letters, the heartening message; “Don’t give up.” That animal’s a sharpie.