DIPLOMACY IN ART by Matt Clysdale

When I collage a person and an animal, and perhaps a landscape as well, I work real hard to give each one equal weight. I want each to have the same perceptual presence, because they're all important and it's as if each is fighting for attention. In that regard, I'm practicing the art of diplomacy.


In quantum mechanics, there are two principles that really resonate with me and my art.

First, you can observe the sub-atomic as either a wave or a particle, but never both at the same time. It requires a perceptual shift to go from seeing the atom as particles, to seeing it as a wave (a bunch of particles). And despite their difference, they're actually the same "thing". The other kicker is that the observer changes the nature or behavior of the observed. 

It's the wave/particle perceptual shift that has always stuck with me ever since I read about it in high school. 

In my collage work, I strive to make that same perceptual shift possible with a person and an animal for instance. You can perceive the animal or the person in their totality, but never really both at the same time. You have to shift your perception back and forth. There's also the hybrid view of the two where they are fused in some fashion, appearing as a singular "thing". Not only is it perceptually fun, and gives the work a vitality and depth, but it's pretty close to the reality of life where perception is such a dynamic and shifting phenomena. Ask two people what they saw and you'll get two different perspectives.


Katie Timber and a Pit Bull by Matt Clysdale

Katie Timber is the Executive Director of the SW Michigan branch of the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and a committed advocate for pit bulls, working tirelessly to de-stigmatize the breed and rescue them from neglect and abuse. 

Contrary to public opinion, pit bulls are very calm, loving dogs, and not genetically predisposed to aggression and attacks. Having said that, they're very powerful animals, bred originally for blood-sports in the United Kingdom. They’ve consequently become a highly desired breed for dog fighting in the United States. They’ve also been implicated in a number of fatal attacks on humans, all resulting in a pretty bad rap for pit bulls and even laws banning the breed in some communities. 

Katie and the SPCA have campaigned against breed-specific legislation and worked to shift the concern and responsibility back on the owner and away from the dog. It’s an extremely controversial issue with the pit bull suffering the most in the end. Pit bulls constitute the majority of dogs entering shelters all across the U.S., with nearly 1 million being euthanized every year. Only a tiny percentage ever find a permanent home because people would much rather adopt the yellow lab over the "pitty".

Working to end this trend is Katie Timber.

Coincidentally, I came across a stray pit bull earlier this winter, wandering down my street with a scared look about her. She was extremely emaciated, and the moment I stopped to check on her she rushed to my car with a loving desperation and wildly wagging tail. She was starved for food and love - and terribly appreciative. I took her in for the night before finally delivering her to Katie and the gang at SPCA the next day. They immediately received her with open arms*. 

Katie and her daughter were immediately drawn to “Della”, and following her full recovery at SPCA plan to adopt her. It would actually be Katie’s very first pit bull as a pet, although she’s taken in hundreds through SPCA, and successfully adopted out every single one of them to a new, loving home. 


*Katie had to get approval from Kalamazoo County Animal Control since all strays legally need to be received by the County.

Colleen and Mr. B by Matt Clysdale

Colleen is an animal sitter with a special affinity for cats. In fact, a mutual friend described her as the cat whisperer, something I personally attest to following a week long sit with my own cat, Uno. Colleen bought Uno a peacock feather and a stuffed, raking toy, both of which she would use daily during their quality play time. Upon my return he would meow incessantly, insisting I play with him. My first thought was she spoiled him rotten, but the truth be told, I wasn't giving him enough attention, on HIS terms. And he let me know it. Colleen brought all that out. 

Her work also includes tending to numerous feral cats, whose trust she's earned with her quiet, patient, cat-like demeanor. Of all the cats she works with, her favorite is Mr. B, an extremely independent black cat with a distinct patch of sable fur around the shoulders. He's an indoor/outdoor cat and very handsome. And considering the ridiculous amount of superstition heaped upon black cats, Colleen and Mr. B are perfect ambassadors for restoring their due dignity and respect. 

Where is the snow? by Matt Clysdale

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, two days before Christmas, it's raining. Yes, raining. Which pretty much rules out any possibility of a white Christmas. I like winter, and I like snow. So, I miss the purity and sanctity of a white Christmas (please keep in mind that I'm an agnostic but have always participated and appreciated all the good things of the Christmas holiday).

It was in this longing that I dug up some old photos of a snowy owl I photographed at the Muskegon Wastewater facility in 2012(?). It represents all that I love about winter.


GRACE AND A WATER SPIDER, Version 1 - (Grace is a pseudonym since this person chose to remain anonymous)


Grace sees her relationship to Water Spider as sacred and spiritual, rooted in shamanic teachings and the Cherokee creation myth, describing Water Spider’s role in bringing earth up from the depths of the ocean, after the flood, and placing it on Turtle’s back, thus leading to the creation of Turtle Island*.  

She views Water Spider as a source of empowerment and wisdom, embodied in part by their ability to hang upside down and view the world from multiple perspectives (of course amplified by their eight eyes). Water spiders can also walk on water as well as submerge themselves while hunting for prey, all making for an animal that moves freely between worlds - a truly unique ability.

*Other versions of the myth attribute this role to muskrat or a water beetle


Mike Donenfeld is a prankster at times. He showed me a photo on his iPhone of a dragonfly that allegedly landed directly on his nose. Well, it turns out that dragonfly was deceased, and he simply planted it there. 

This second portrait of Mike and a Dragonfly* is a tribute to that prank, and the prankster within.

* Click HERE to see the first portrait of Mike and a Dragonfly

Roy and a Muskrat by Matt Clysdale

I recently had the pleasure of creating an animal portrait of a long time friend of mine, Roy Weber. We spoke at length before arriving at a Muskrat, since he was adamantly opposed to my suggestion of an Opossum, for reasons I expected and understand. It's unfortunate though, since they're a terribly misunderstood and under appreciated animal. But that's another story.

Roy’s relationship with muskrat is karmic of sorts, beginning early in life when he was assigned the task of rounding up the day’s catch for his father, a part-time trapper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Rooted in consumption and use-value (and of course death), it's none the less a relationship that can foster a connection and understanding with an animal, whether conscious or not. Usually the exception, there's a breed of hunter and trapper out there who's very respectful of their quarry. Although I'm not entirely sure where Roy's father fit into this spectrum, I thought this story, as well as an intuitive correlation on my part, made for an appropriate pairing of man and animal. 

There's a visual resemblance in the eyes and hair, as well as a behavioral parallel. Roy inhabits his world in much the same way a muskrat inhabits theirs, living to a large degree comfortably beneath the surface, emerging for food and other needs. And given the sometimes treacherous nature of the world, with it's pitfalls and challenges, Roy keeps an eye out for life's many trappings. He often achieves this by denning up in his apartment, where he finds great comfort and sanctuary.

Roy also reminded me of a muskrat because he's a creature of habit (true for so many of us), with well worn trails emerging from his day to day activities. I saw this echoed in the water-trails created by a local muskrat living in an algae covered pond. His comings and goings left distinct, dark lines in the light green surface of the water. 

Roy and a Muskrat - Muskrat photo by Ashleigh Scully


The very talented Kallerine Strazdas, a self proclaimed tree hugger and practitioner of yoga.

After all the rush to seize the day and capture the colors of peak autumn, this shoot ironically looked best in black & white.

My Neighbor, the Coyote by Matt Clysdale

I had a very rare sighting of a coyote right across the street from where I live. I hear them all the time, and even have them in my yard at night, leaving gifts of scat in the cyprus mulch around my newly planted trees. But I never actually see them, except for maybe once a year. This was my one sighting for 2015, and oddly enough in the exact same location, and roughly same time of year, I saw one in 2014. Not sure what's behind that, but it's a nice pattern emerging. 

What thrills me about this coyote is the magnificent coat on this animal. I'm also seeing the wolf and maybe dog mix in this particular animal, traits unique to the Eastern Coyote, or what is more commonly being referred to as a coywolf. And to think they're living in my neighborhood, as families, navigating the risks and perils of the urban landscape, moving through our neighborhoods practically in a parallel universe. Moments like these are when our worlds briefly intersect. What a special moment.


Mike and a Dragonfly

I recently had the honor of creating an animal portrait of a long-time friend of mine, Mike Donenfeld, who lives in Hilo, Hawaii. Having once lived in Kalamazoo, and periodically flying back and forth between the two cities, migration and flight have always been central to Mike's life and being.

Mike originally requested a Red-Tailed Hawk as his animal, since he's spiritually identified with them for years, but after some consideration, he floated the idea of a Dragonfly. He had just finished a beautiful painting of an Orange Black Hawaiian Damselfly (in the same order as dragonflies) and was feeling an affinity for these remarkable creatures.

He was drawn to their ability to move in all directions, at any given moment. As a lay brother of Thich Nhat Hanh's Order of Interbeing, Mike saw this aeronautic agility as a metaphor for the lucidity and detachment of the mind. The idea that our thoughts move here and there, come and go, and we should never cling to them; and yet we possess, as do dragonflies, the ability to hover over something, and keenly focus our attention. The dragonfly also knows how to rest. If you've ever seen a perched dragonfly, then you've seen profound stillness in an animal.

I loved the idea.

After working multiple versions of the collage, shifting the focus from the wings to the eyes, I discovered another, added dimension to dragonfly: they have those big, compound eyes, allowing them to see the world in all directions, at all times (that's why they're so hard to catch!). They can also see the world in ultra-multicolor, which means they can see ultraviolet light and even the polarized spectrum, all adding up to pretty remarkable vision. They can see things we simply can't*. I also liked the idea of the eyes making a dragonfly more personal - not always the easiest task with an insect. The eyes are of course windows to the soul.


*at least not without mechanical aids.


Fishing at Dusk by Matt Clysdale

Greater Yellowlegs - Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery, Kalamazoo, MI

Greater Yellowlegs - Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery, Kalamazoo, MI

Greater Yellowlegs - Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery, Kalamazoo, MI