A Highland Park Artist Uses Animals to Capture the Messiness of Human Life
Photo courtesy of the artist.

A Highland Park Artist Uses Animals to Capture the Messiness of Human Life

From her studio in Highland Park, Deedee Cheriel can gaze out at the natural elements that surround her. Trees, mountains and Southern California's greenery serve as the backdrop for the sound of birds chirping.

Stepping into her workspace, a studio that sits close to her home, Cheriel often takes the time to clean the area. She then focuses on clearing the cobwebs in her mind, meditating in order to let go of worries and to-do lists.

In front of a blank canvas, she thinks about nature again. But under her paintbrush, the worlds of humans and animals collide in ways that might seem off-putting at first but ultimately feel familiar.

After growing up in Eugene, Oregon, Cheriel made her way to Los Angeles after working on a film. Once she settled here permanently, she shifted her focus from film and music to art. Her paintings depict animals in strange worlds. They stand as humans do and walk in nature. But their heads are those of untamed creatures — tigers, bears, zebras, horses.

While nature surrounds them, a touch of magical realism makes their environment totally unlikely. Besides their half-human forms, other small details add to the surreality; sound, for instance, becomes color. As a bear figure opens its mouth to roar, a strip of colorful pattern unfurls from its mouth. The same happens as a bird figure sits at a harp and seems to sing a song.

A Highland Park Artist Uses Animals to Capture the Messiness of Human Life
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Cheriel continually brings these animals to life on canvas. Sometimes they interact with one another, seeming to communicate with strange gestures and knowing looks. Other times, one animal stands alone in a frame.

While Eugene fed Cheriel’s love for nature, L.A. serves as a good balance between city life and natural beauty. Since moving here, Cheriel has drawn inspiration from the desert and has begun inserting “a lot more sparseness” into her pieces. But her style evolved all on its own thanks to her background and culture.

“I was studying Indian temple imagery in college — my family’s Indian — and then I went to this temple with my father,” Cheriel says. “I was really young but I was really dramatically, profoundly affected by how beautiful the temple imagery was. The stone carvings, a lot of them were painted really bright colors. A lot of the Hindu stories are told using half-animal, half-people. I felt it was an effective storytelling mechanism.”

The anthropomorphic characters share more than just physical features with humans. In some scenes, they shed tears. In others, their facial expressions seem to communicate a range of emotions: fear, love, rage, confusion.

To Cheriel, these pieces don’t necessarily serve as a way of “exorcising some idea,” but they absolutely mirror her own personal challenges and experiences. At one point in her life, she discovered that a friend was “secretly pursuing” someone she was dating.

“I was so upset about it and I was so confused as to what motivates people,” she says. “And what do you do with the feelings of frustration and betrayal?”

Those emotions ultimately reminded her of teenage drama, angst and heartbreak. Cheriel envisioned these emotions through the eyes of a teenage girl who loves horses, a girl who is “completely obsessed with something big and strong.”

That exploration led to her “horse-girl people,” figures that resemble women with horse heads. In one piece, a horse-girl walks with her horse hands around what looks like a wounded bird. Her long blond hair cascades down the back of her blue and white dress, and a tear rolls down her cheek.

A Highland Park Artist Uses Animals to Capture the Messiness of Human Life
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Cheriel created another piece for a friend who felt “super isolated” after moving to a new city. Using a St. Francis quote as inspiration, Cheriel depicted this struggle with her figures, offering positive reassurance to someone who needed it.“It was a bear that was crying and this bird-butterfly bringing her light,” she says. “It was giving light and hopefulness to somebody who feels like they’re in the dark.”

The artist doesn’t give away the narrative behind each piece, letting the viewer instead come to her own conclusions. She feels she works with “a certain universal language.” These hybrid figures might seem fantastical but their stories can be very real.

“It is sort of like a meditation and consciousness and experience, just sort of navigating the truth of the world,” Cheriel says. “Making stories about my reality. But inevitably, even though we’re all different and we all have our different consciousness about what happens, we will have similar experiences.”

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