“We have now only to request the attendance of every man and boy who has any grudge or ill-will against the bear, wolves and panthers.”
– advertisement, American Friend, March 1821
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Circle hunts were held during the mid 1700’s through to the mid 1800’s in Hinckley, Ohio; Richfield, Pennsylvania and Beech Creek, Pennsylvania. In 2010, I visited these locations and sketched the current landscape following the guidelines William Gilpin set out in his book, originally published in 1792, Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; and On Sketching Landscape.
While Gilpin was writing his tracts on the “picturesque” and promoting the gentile occupation of sketching the rural landscapes of England; on this side of the the Atlantic, Euro-American colonists were coming to terms with the hostilities of their environment through a strange and brutal ritual called a “circle hunt.” An account of the Great Pennsylvania Circle Hunt of 1760 describes the gathering of 200 armed men who, forming a circle of 30 miles in diameter, marched towards the centre of this circle slaughtering every creature within its borders. Although many animals managed to break free of the encroaching circle of men, the final count of the day’s carnage included 41 panthers, 109 wolves, 112 foxes, 114 mountain cats, 17 black bears, 1 white bear, 2 elk, 198 deer, 111 buffaloes, 3 fishers, 1 otter, 12 gluttons, 3 beavers and “upwards of 500 smaller animals.”
With several dozen landscape sketches complete, I returned to my studio. Referring to historical records of the numbers and kinds of animals killed during these hunts, I drew the animals back into the landscapes, allowing them to posthumously re-inhabit their environment. Through this process, I endeavored to create a ritualistic reversal, a futile restoration, an archive and an epitaph, while at the same time illustrating the complexities and absurdities inherent in the relationship between civilization and wildlife.
The brutality of the circle hunt, which in its time was considered a social, sporting event with a practical outcome, stands in sharp contrast not only to concurrent ideas of the “picturesque” but also to present day efforts in North America towards wildlife conservation. I am interested in this historical period as it marks the beginning of a significant shift, indeed a rift, in the relationship between man and nature which, in turn, is reflected in visual representations of animals. This theme is explored by John Berger in his essay “Why Look at Animals?” wherein he writes “the image of a wild animal becomes the starting-point of a daydream: a point from which the daydreamer departs with his back turned.” With this work, I want to indulge these daydreams while simultaneously addressing the realities of our fraught history with animals.
That was the plan anyway. It turns out that drawing the way one drew in days of yore is a little trickier than following a guidebook. How does a hand that has held cameras and computers hold a pen or a brush in the manner of person living 200 years ago? And lollygagging around the tiny towns that stand at these sights proved far more discomfiting than I could have ever imagined. Included on this page are photos, ephemera and drawings from the Circle Hunt Project of 2010. This project was made possible with the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts.