Art, Absurdity & English Bull Terriers

As I walked up the steps and up to the front door of C. Spencer Morris’ home, I pulled my cloth mask from underneath my chin and secured it around my face. I knew the artist was older and we’d talked before about how it would make her more comfortable if I wore the mask.

So, I did. 

When she pulled open the door, the first thing I noticed was her mask, and then behind her, walls full of art. Full bookshelves with novels on social justice. A collection of Chinese checkerboards. A bathroom mid-remodel. A home full of projects — both complete and incomplete.

Upon looking closer, I noticed that much of the art depicted the same animal — a charismatic-looking English Bull Terrier. One might think Morris had an obsession with or deep adoration for the dog, but I soon learned the art wasn’t exactly the love story I had expected.

“A lot of my work, I think, for the most part, is about sort of things that play humans and humanity — I think the entry point to my work is the dog,” Morris said. “You don’t see a lot of [English Bull Terriers]. They’re sort of pugnacious ... their eyes are triangular shaped. Their heads are shaped like an egg, sort of. They don’t really have that dent that most dogs have in front of their eyes. They just look like they’re all nose. Their nose is this giant channel into their brain and that’s how they were bred.”

Morris first discovered the dog about 40 years ago while practicing figure drawing. When she wasn’t able to be in a place with a live human model, she would practice using dogs. It was simply by chance that an acquaintance of hers had an English Bull Terrier and allowed Morris to take him into her studio.

“This dog I took into the photoshoot and shot 300 images and used that to be able to draw this image,” Morris said, referring to the art right above us, perfectly visible from the small table where we were sitting. “It seemed like the dog was just so comical and so bizarre to me, its behavior was just … he was very much his own dog.” 

This isn’t the first time Morris has come across the English Bull Terrier. She recalled how, as a child, she had watched Disney’s The Incredible Journey, which also featured the unique breed. She’s even owned a few of them. Cosmetically, architecturally, visually, this particular breed is one that she just loves drawing.

Looking up again at the art that seemed to be watching over us, Morris said, “he’s like the island, the shape of the island I live on … It’s just become kind of this place where I live … it’s the country I live in. It’s the language I speak.”

While such language may sound ambiguous to the average person, for Morris, it is the culmination of years of making art, featuring this dog, that serves as an observation for pet owners’ relationships with their own dogs and how that never quite made sense to her.

“When I first started doing this dog, I thought dogs were okay, but what I was doing, it was more the relationship that people had with their dogs that I didn’t understand. I didn’t quite get why people love their dogs so much,” Morris said. “I just thought, you know, there are really sad things going on in the world and you’re so caught up with your dog. So, a lot of my work was sort of making fun of that, in a way, but it was this commentary on this relationship that people have with dogs.”

Morris has had dogs of her own and loved them each dearly. Even as we spoke, her 18-month-old Great Pyrenees and Labrador mix playfully pawed at my thigh.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done over the past 3 years if I had not had a dog. She is my great companion and any time I want to go for a walk, she’s for it. But, I don’t know. I don’t feel compelled — and this is probably where my work gets absurd — I don’t feel compelled to tell people about my dog or to tell anecdotes about my dog. My dog is my dog. It’s a dog,” Morris said. “Over the years that I’ve done these images, I think people are prone to tell me about their dogs.” 

However, the journey is often more deeply rooted within Morris than those viewing her art.

“I think most people don’t really care what art says, they just like what the image is,” Morris said. “Everything I’m doing is conceptual. I’m not trying to draw pretty pictures. I’m making this vast chart and map of these things that I see that do seem absurd to me, that do seem incongruous. That’s what this is.”

 As I peered back up at the nearby art for what felt like the hundredth time, I felt the coherence in the dog's eyes and the intimidating smallness from the upward angle the dog was depicted from.

“Dogs have figured us out in a way,” Morris laughed, recalling an article she had read about the things humans do that are confusing to dogs, such as hugging. “We use our arms in a way they don’t use their limbs … we assign meaning to that behavior.”

However, her understanding of dog and dog owner relationships, while still the focal point of her art, has evolved over the years, and even during the global pandemic COVID-19. Morris said that in the times that she did not own a dog, she was aware that she missed the companionship. Now with shelters across the country empty as people are forced to stay in their homes, she’s found a sense of grace for the dog owners of the world.

“I understand it now maybe more as I’ve aged, you know, more than I did in my thirties for sure. I give people a break on loving their dogs because I love mine and I pamper her and talk to her and hug her and vacuum up after her… ” Morris said.

Still, the sense of absurdity, as it is woven into these relationships, remains. 

"My kids are grown. I’ve had two marriages. I mean, I love my dog, so my relationship with dogs has changed, but still, there are still 25 million refugees in the world. There are 25 million people wandering the planet. There is so much racism. There are so many overwhelming things that plague us and yet we have these dogs. So, I observe this relationship with dogs as it changes throughout history and different paradigms, and now, look where we are in this new paradigm,” Morris laughed and shrugged. “Here we are talking to each other wearing masks.”