Beavers, Artists and Computers

Philip Koch, Beaver Dam, oil on canvas
48 x 36", 1985, collection Ruth and Frank
Yoash-Ganz, Davidson, NC

More trolling through my older paintings as I scan the bin of slides from my studio.

This was painted from on oil study I did up in Norfolk, CT in the extreme northwest corner of Connecticut where the hills begin ramping up enough to be called mountains. Like so much of New England, the forests have reclaimed most of the abandoned farm fields so when looking for places to paint one's eye is caught by beaver ponds. For just this reason, I've painted lots of these remarkable natural clearings.

With this one the beaver had used the trunk of an old oak to anchor one side of their dam. It looked plenty sturdy. I loved the way the big trunk leaned to the left at exactly a right angle to the largest branch in the beaver's dam. It almost felt like a piece of installation art where the beaver was saying his dam seamlessly joined with the forest from which it was made. The irony is that beaver, while not worrying about aesthetics, end up producing some of the most beautiful constructions we've ever seen.

As a child I remember having my mind blown away when I learned that birds and beaver build nests and dams using mostly just their mouths. Sure, beaver do use their front paws to push sticks around, but that hardly seems like much of an advantage. And they do these intricate constructions without going to school. Even now when I think about it it seems a little impossible. Somewhere deep in a beaver's brain a movie must be playing with dramatic footage of beavers building perfect dams. Maybe inspirational music swells at the end as the water rises in their newly built pond.

I'm using a new slide scanner at my art school, MICA in Baltimore. I asked one of the students who works at our tech Help Desk to show me the ins and out of this particular scanner. He was great, very helpful and obviously knew his stuff. We got to talking and not surprisingly, he does all his own art with digital media and photography. I wonder if I was just starting out today as a young artist if I'd be lured into digital media instead of making drawings with little burned sticks of wood and painting with colored mud. I'm looking at one of my brushes as I write this and thinking its technology (tying some stiff hair to a stick) hasn't changed in thousands of years.

The answer, I think, is that I would still stick it out with charcoal, oil paint, and hog bristle brushes. There is a romance and drama it holding these materials in your hand. They have a weight and texture to them. And when you have a good day in the studio you can utterly transform these most simple of materials into something completely other than what they were. Grey pigment can become a oat tree, a slab of limestone, or the face of moon. It's all in how the artist arranges the notes they are playing.

Thinking about the furry wet animals that dam up streams I feel I've met some kindred spirits. If beaver were give bulldozers and cordless drills to build their dams I don't think their results would still have the same magic. There is a something out of nothing performance to the beaver's artistry. I think early humans much have marveled at what they saw in this damp little rodent. And it no doubt stirred the early human imagination to move toward architectural feats of our own.


  1. Nice painting. Do you think that a digital beaver dam would hold water?

  2. Thanks Stape. Not sure about digital dams & water. I do know more than once I've been tempted to throw my misbehaving laptop in the lake.

  3. Very nice painting. Am looking at it right now, hanging happily in our family room...we love it!!

  4. Sorry, was so busy staring at the painting that I did not properly sign my commment.

  5. Philip, I simply love your paintings, always have.....and I also think I would have most likely at least tried to do some computer art courses at MICA...
    I am glad I took a peek in on your blog, hope you are well..from Susan In Scituate, MA.


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