Updated: Apr 5, 2021
My sister loved her rabbit fur coat.
She loved it so much that I figured I could make a killing off of rabbit pelts. There were cottontails and jackrabbit all over where I lived and they were ripe for harvesting. I grew up in the middle of the desert near Palm Springs, California.
There wasn't much to do—no TV even on a good day when the roof-top antenna was pointed in the optimal direction. There were no books to speak of, and art was not something we did. So I wandered with my dog Dexter, for hours, shirtless and barefoot, through the scorching desert heat until my ears would ring from dehydration and there would be layers of dried sweat and salt on my sunburnt skin.
Later, a 22 caliber Remington rifle for my Birthday gave focus to my aimless wandering and I shot at every bunny that moved. And got really good at it.
I've told this coming of age story to a lot of people over the years, and I'm always a little relieved and disconcerted when, after my lecture, men tell me of a similar experience growing up. To this day, I remember the trauma of the first rabbit that I shot.
In the backlight of the late afternoon sun, in the vibrating stillness of the desert heat, two ears glowed red in the distance. At about the same time that they triangulated danger and my location, I was drawing a bead and squeezing the trigger. When the scream and leap of the rabbit registered, the acrid smoke from the barrel was still hovering in the air.
I was instantly ashamed and sickened. I hesitantly tracked the rabbit, not knowing what I'd find, by following its blood trail. When I found it, it was in its final, death, side kicking throes. Through my tears and regret, I dug a hole with a stick and my fingers and laid its body just beneath the surface.
After covering it in a shallow grave, I built a little shrine out of twigs and rocks during the last moments before the last rays of sun disappeared below the San Bernardino Mountain Range. I stood over the grave for a few moments, my skin cooling in the alpenglow of the day, as night creatures began to stir and I committed to never experiencing that awful sound again.
It was several days before I picked the gun up, and when I did, I went back to shooting rabbits with a renewed commitment. After all these years, I'm still trying to understand why. Why, after the self-inflicted trauma of the first rabbit that I killed, would I do it again? Maybe it was curiosity, or I was just a roughneck kid with too much time on my hands and an eager dog ready for an adventure. Whatever the reason, I got to be a really good shot and could hit a rabbit in a full run.
I naively believed that all the rabbit pelts that I had piled around the yard would be discovered by a merchant. Or maybe I was just fooling myself to justify my killing, never mind that I was doing absolutely nothing to find this merchant or that the pelts were brittle and full of holes—or that real rabbit fur coats were made of Angora Rabbits and not the worm-infested black-tailed hares that were my bounty.
I'm not sure how I figured out how to skin rabbits. There was no YouTube or the internet. With a 16-penny nail through the tendon of their hind legs, I'd hang them up, head-down, cut the skin around the ankle, then make a cut from ankle-to-ankle through the groin. Then, I would grab the outer folds of skin with both fists and pull it off the carcass like a sock.
Out of curiosity, I would then dissect each rabbit to see what it was eating, often the rabbits were diseased with huge parasites enjoying themselves in its tissue. And every once in awhile, there'd be a female carrying embryos. Dexter was always hyped up and a little aggressive during the skinning waiting impatiently for his share. From as far as 30 feet away I could hear the crunch and slurp of skull and flesh from the shade of Dexter’s favorite spot under the tamarisk trees. All that skinning and dissecting taught me how the flesh might wrinkle, both when it is fresh and after it has baked in the summer sun of the Coachella Valley. This piece is a reference to that time and the rite of passage that the period represents. And all the rabbits that I make are a homage to the rabbits that I needlessly killed and dismembered.
Nothing ever came of the piles of pelts, and as I got older, my hormones kicked in and girls were all that I could think about. Wandering the desert with Dexter became less frequent after I got my driver's license and spent more time in town. My sister and her rabbit fur coat moved on as well. The styles changed, the coat collected dust and moths in the closet, and it eventually found its way to the Goodwill.
But the memory resonates, and it endures through my art.
The curator of an exhibit in which some of these sculptures were shown articulated it a bit more eloquently: "Russell Wrankle wrestles with existential questions of life and death through the symbolism of the body and various animals. His intensely saturated ceramic figures represent the decadence of worldly pleasures, a vibrant source of energy that is antithetical to death and dying. It is through embracing life and living that the pull of death and suffering is kept at a distance. Like Aesop’s Fables, animals such as dogs, rabbits, crabs, monkeys, and frogs provide a vehicle to express the human condition. Animal imagery is the beginning of a deeper understanding of humanity."