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The Bison Thing Explained Pt. 2 — How I got hooked on Bison

July 6th, 2011 · 1 Comment · Art, Bison, Comments on Process, Concept, Digital Process

It all started with the book American Buffalo, in which author Steven Rinella wins a lottery and gets approved to hunt Bison in Canada. Along the way he explains the history and myth of the American Buffalo. Soon after the book I found myself infatuated and started on a mission that is the subtitle of the book: In Search of a Lost Icon.

The book got me thinking about the symbol of the American Bison. The bison has a complex and tragic back story that most Americans are familiar with; They once roamed the plains in great numbers, but were driven to near extinction by mass killings during westward expansion. We also know some Native American tribes had a special connection with the creature.

The Bison has developed into an icon that represents early, unsettled America…a ghost of the plains.

Specifically, two things stuck with me after reading this book;

  1. Bison are big dumb animals — This rich symbol of early America is one dumb-ass animal. They are fast and strong, but NOT smart. Bison would slide off cliffs into the Mississippi like lemmings. It would not be uncommon to see their drowned carcasses floating down the river.
  2. The model for the nickel was a tortured zoo animal — “Black Diamond” lived under tortuous conditions at the Central Park Zoo in New York and is considered by many to be the model for the bison nickel. This animal stood for hours in a cramped cage and developed an unnatural posture because of it. The animal which was supposed to represent the idea of wide open spaces and hope for the future, actually lived a caged and miserable life.

Those two things stuck in my mind. Was the bison really this majestic iconic animal? Or was it really just a big dumb animal destined for extinction? The symbol of this animal is important to our history. But it’s not what I thought. Maybe I can create my own symbol of what the animal is?

I’ll leave you with a quote from the designer of the coin;

I felt I wanted to do something totally American—a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country’s coin. It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100% American
— James Earle Fraser, The designer of the coin in a 1947 radio interview.

Next time we’ll talk about artistic inspiration and generative code.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Kathy // Jul 7, 2011 at 11:01 am

    Wow, that’s really interesting. Oh the irony.

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