Natural Instincts

Background Information

1990, Joe Fay (artist) and Gary Soto (poet). 1'8"h x 2'11"l (dog), 2' h x 2'4"l (cat), 1'10"h x 1'10"l (bird). 725 S. Figueroa Street 725 S. Figueroa Street (Poet's Walk)
The corporate world, represented by the 42 story office tower constructed in 1985 as part of Citicorp Plaza, is the backdrop for "Natural Instincts." Three animal silhouettes designed by Joe Fay appear like shadows against the building's rear piers. Together, the individual animals compose an ensemble in which a scruffy, homeless dog stalks a ragged cat, leaping up at a bird that is flying away.(1) Fay neither treats the animal kingdom as a symbol for environmental cleansing, which he did with his installation Golden State Fauna at the Ronald Reagan State Office Building, (2) nor celebrates it for its aesthetic power. Rather, he evokes nature by both his title and design as a metaphor for downtown's corporate culture.

Fay previously executed silhouettes of animals from burnished aluminum, but at Citicorp Plaza, he used polished brass to replicate the surface appearance of the building's dedication plaques. Each silhouette is incised with verse written by Gary Soto. (3) Though the poems stand alone, they can also be read as stanzas of a single poem. When all the art and poetry are read together, the separate themes melt into a barbed commentary on the juxtaposition of material wealth with spiritual and ethical poverty.

In May 1989, Kathy Lucoff, the project's art consultant, asked Fay to participate in a "small discovery project" which she described as a collaborative effort with an unidentified poet. By the time Fay completed the project, it turned out to be as much a collaboration with her as with the poet. Fay visited Citicorp Plaza before Soto joined the project, and discussed several proposals with Lucoff. She rejected his suggestions for an installation involving tiles, for animating the grassy knoll located south of the plaza with several sculptural coyotes, and for placing snake shapes on the benches where David Gilhooly's and Robert Mezey's work was ultimately installed.

After joining the project, Soto inspected the site with Fay. They decided to install their project at the rear of the office building because its piers were one of the few visible sites that had not been claimed by other artist/poet teams. They also agreed to depict a dog, a cat and a bird, which are all indigenous to the area. Fay then designed silhouettes of the three animals. After Fay prepared different versions of the cat, Lucoff selected the one that was installed. She also insisted on design changes to the paws of the cat and dog and advised Fay on the type of font to be used for the poetry. (4)

Working independently of Fay, Soto sent drafts of his poems to Lucoff for her critique. (5) An early version of his poems, which he wrote in both English and Spanish, (6) conveys a different mood and has a different structure from the English-only verse that was installed. The poem for the dog:

The business of stray dogs is to trot through rain,
bark and roll on grass. They follow smoke and leaves.
They sleep on flowers, which each morning spring back.

was originally:

So much for the dog,
Racing right paw over left,
and so much for us, glad workers,
Hurrying in and out shadows. (7)

The verse incised on the silhouette of the cat:

Like you, glad worker, the cat hungers before noon.
Its blood is alive. When it leaps,
Not even its shadow can keep up.
evolved from:

The cat leaps but gets nowhere.
The same with trees. In wind
Their limbs toss and struggle.
Our beauty is that we can get up and go. (8)

And the poem on the bird:

What scares us most is windy traffic,
A rushed step. The same with birds.
Men in suits toss bread when we should feed on love.

originally was:

This birdÔs feathers floats in stone.
We float on sidewalks. On rainy days,
We can look down and see ourselves
In the puddles quickly drying. (9)


1. "Proposal for Citicorp Plaza's Poets' Walk" submitted by Joe Fay, no date.

2. "Joe Fay," flyer on "Golden State Fauna" from Jan Baum Gallery, no date.

3. Proposal, Op. Cit.

4. Interview with Joe Fay by Michael Several, June 12, 1991.

5. Interview with Gary Soto by Michael Several, October 16, 1991.

6. Proposal, Op. Cit.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

Text provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1999.

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