Friday, September 01, 2006

Totem Animals ~ Tigers!
(Part II ~ Continuation of August 30th post)

tiger doll by Mary Preston

Mary Preston is an artist who has always had a very unique and passionate relationship with animals. When I first met her in 1990, she was well known for her wearable arts - coats and jackets stenciled and embellished with animal forms (as shown below).
After getting an idea for a jacket, perhaps from a commission or inspired by a certain fabric, Mary always consulted the library for information about the animals - their behaviour, appearance, habitat and habbits. She then drew each animal and, from the drawings, cut stencils. Her coats and jackets had a magical quality and a great deal of "animal energy."

As her interest in animals, animal symbology and animal mythology grew, Mary began to study under a local Huichol shaman. She wanted to learn the methods used by these native peoples for contacting and speaking with animal spirits. After being tutored for several years, Mary is able to journey into a different world (called the lower world by the Huichols), where she can meet and converse with animals.

She is able to journey for another person and to speak with their totem animal. Let's just suppose that she is doing a journey for the purpose of meeting your totem animal. (This could actually happen... contact me for referral information.)

The journey requires that she fast for at least 8 hours and prepare herself emotionally, thus beginning the shift in her cognitive process. After several brief rituals, Mary starts each journey by imagining herself in a safe, pure and natural place, generally walking on a beach. After a while an opening occurs and she enters the lower world, where she asks politely to meet with your totem animal. Then she waits, observes, asks questions and avails herself to whatever appears.

She may see many different animals while in this trance-like state. When she has seen a specific animal several times, she will ask if it is your totem animal. She must see this animal at least four times and get confirmation from it that it belongs to you before returning to the real (or in Huichol terms, middle) world. Immediately she makes a written log of the entire journey, so as to keep track of all the nuances and details, which she then passes on to you.

Although it is not a business, Mary offers this service to those interested. If requested, she will also construct a likness of your animal, and costume it as suggested by her vision, including any companion animals that appeared to be associated with it. The doll image at the beginning of this post is the likeness she made of the animal she met while doing a journey for me ~ a Siberian tiger with rabbit, bear, otter, mouse and fish as companions. Here are two more pictures of him.
tiger doll by Mary Preston
tiger doll by Mary Preston

According to Mary, this is my totem animal - not necessarily my birth animal, but a very strong presence in my life at the time of thejourney she did for me. I find this quite amazing, because tigers have always held a great fascination for me. Always at the zoo, I've headed right for the tigers. At age 11, with my very first camera, a little Brownie, I took pictures of the tigers when we visited the Zoo in San Francisco on our summer vacation. I still have these pictures, sad as they are (because at that time the tigers were housed in bare cages, unlike habitat areas many zoos have nowadays).

Here are a few more recent ways tigers have shown up in my life.

A decade or so ago I was in Rathdrum, Idaho, and happened to hear about an animal rescue program that was open to public visit - Noah's Exotic Wildlife Shelter (no website). Somehow I found the place, which turned out to be a private home with government-approved animal enclosures at the rear of the 5-acre property. Glenda York and her husband, over the years had assumed the care for animals that were no longer wanted or needed by their owners (tigers and lions) or wild animals that had been injured or abandoned (bob cats and cougers).

Glenda took me out to see their brood, and there was Olivia, the most beautiful tiger I'd ever seen! Glenda showed me how I could put my hip against the heavy chain link enclosure so Olivia could strop or rub against me. I also put the top of my head against the enclosure, and felt/heard her gentle snuffle snuffle as she investigated my hair. Later I wrote the following poem about this experience.

making eye contact
with a 300 pound tigress
nose to nose
deep yellow eyes
and mine brown
held together longer
than comfort prefers
brain wanting to disengage
from experience
wanting to analyze my reactions
what reactions
there are no reactions
only the experience of it
of eyes meeting eyes
and meeting again
and meeting again
brain still working on it
still trying
to make sense of it
or maybe
looking for magic
on another level
a spiritual handle
a deep meaning
to be revealed
from this eye contact
in this time
we are inside
each others heads
I in her cage
she in mine
or are we
I don’t know

A few years later, I returned with a camera, and took this picture of Olivia.

Olivia, tiger at wild animal shelter in Rathdrum, ID

I keep in touch with Glenda, and send her donations whenever I can to help with food for Olivia and the other big cats. They operate on the edge, with donations from people like me, their own personal work income, local restaurants which collect and give table scraps, road kill from the country, volunteer veterinarian services, etc. Yet, for twenty years they've kept their big cats well fed, healthy and contented, while at the same time providing valuable education and opportunities to visitors.

This is one of Olivia's whiskers, as compared to one from our cat...

tiger whisker and cat whisker

Do you remember the needle-felted rabbit from the previous post, the one I made in a class? Well, the next day or so I made this needle-felted tiger mask.

needle felting, tiger mask by Robin Atkins, bead artist

Long before Mary journeyed for me, while on a bead buying trip in China, I learned about tiger shoes, lovingly made for Chinese boys and thought to bring strength and courage into their lives. As soon as I heard about them, I was determined to find a pair. Here's what I finally found in a small antique shop in Shandong Province (along with a couple of other tiger things from my studio).

antique tiger shoes from Shandong province, China

Here are two special tiger buttons in my collection. Both are hand done using scrimshaw techniques. The fist is Japanese, done on bone. The second is by an American artist, Diane Schefferly, done on mother-of-pearl.

scrimshaw on bone, tiger button, Japanese

scrimshaw on mother-of-pearl, tiger button by Diane Schefferly

Have you enjoyed being with tiger energy during this post? Even if you take the concept of totem animals with a grain (or even many grains) of salt, I believe that observing, learning about, and finding a way to assist an animal that seems special to you is something that circles back to you in a very positive way. Thank you for taking this little safari with rabbit, tiger and me!


  1. What joy and honoring!! I love seeing all the pictures of White Siberian Tiger!! Wonderful, Wise and Magical Post - you are working some Shamanic magic yourself with these animal posts - showing in the most delightful way how artists tap into inspiration and ideas for their work. Bless you and your totems, guides and helpers!!

  2. This is such a beautiful post on so many subjects that I don't know where to start! The poem is wonderful and I love the photo of Olivia, also the story of the tiger shoes. It's all magical and wonderful.

  3. Anonymous12:08 PM

    I learned a whole lot I didn't know reading this post. I am so enjoying learning details and seeing pictures. It's a blessing. I am always so awed by your creativity, talent, and energy.

  4. Anonymous1:09 PM

    Love the poem! Love the picture and love cats too. How great a subject to venture into.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing this part of your spiritual life and art with us, Robin. There was so much to take in....but what I loved best was that needlefelted mask!!!

  6. Thanks for the comments ~ I'm very glad you enjoyed this post. I was afraid nobody would read it because it's so long.

    Vicki ~ I'll answer you privately very soon.

    Janet ~ Several years ago Ornament Magazine featured an article on Tiger Shoes. Would you like me to find out which issue it was in?

    Liz ~ Glad to have you on board. Thanks for the compliment.

    Mary ~ If you'd ever like to comment here about how you see this concept working with Christianity, I'd welcome that.

    Allie ~ I always criticized it because the nose looked wrong or too big somehow. I'm very pleased that you like it.

  7. Anonymous5:03 PM

    Guess what, Robin? I am a Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac. A friend of mine pointed that out to me, so I created my Tigress.

    By the way, I love your needle-felted tiger mask. That is very striking:)

  8. There is so much in this post -- loved every bit of it -- your posts are always so very informative and interesting.

    Love your needle felting, your poetry, photography -- is there anything you can't do? Thanks for all the thought provoking posts.

  9. wonderful post and pictures, robin...thank you so much for starting your blog...I've a lot of reflecting and thinking about my work since visiting your blog and it's opened some new areas of interest for're just great!

  10. Robin, your posts and photos are wonderful; thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts in this way. Your photo of Olivia is sad and haunting, but at the same time, I am encouraged to know that there are people who care for "unwanted" animals and people who honor them in their art, whatever form it takes. As always, you are an inspiration!

  11. What a lovely post! That animal magnatism.......Olivia is beautiful as is the GORGEOUR tiger mask you made of felted fiber! WOW, you are something else....Love it all

  12. What a wonderful experience, what a wonderful friend. And woman, is there anything you can't do? =)

  13. P.S. Need referral information. =)


Thanks you for joining the discussion on this post today!