Animal Magnetism

After hearing Markus Pierson's story, you may wonder why he paints and sculpts the coyote instead of, say, the phoenix.

In 1984, the artist's life hung in the balance. He was suffering from Crohn's disease, an inflammation of the bowel, and the prognosis for recovery was not good. To cheer him up, a friend made Pierson a cassette tape that included Joni Mitchell's carpe diem anthem, "Coyote." The tune became Pierson's favorite song and he began drawing the animals as a form of catharsis.

After surgery, the doctors told Pierson that even if he lived, he'd spend more time in a hospital than anywhere else. But Pierson had other plans. To give his body a fighting chance, he vowed to give up worrying. "I'll never see either of you ever again," he told his doctors.

Two years later, after what Pierson calls "a miraculous recovery," the then-billboard painter whipped up a romantic coyote painting as a frugal wedding present for friends. Guests at the ceremony were enthralled and, soon after, Pierson's first print sold for $150.

More than 40 of Pierson's original paintings, drawings and sculptures are on display at The Contessa Gallery in Lyndhurst's Legacy Village through Aug. 31 in A Coyote's View of Art History.

Pierson's coyotes, or "people," as he sometimes calls them, depict all the emotions of the human condition, from love to heartbreak. In this art-history series, Pierson uses his familiar "dogs in suits" characters to give the uninitiated a crash course on van Gogh, Dalí and other artistic heavyweights.

They run the whole gamut of sentiment from something foolishly romantic to something hopefully much more profound," says Pierson, 43. The Kansas City-based artist adds text to his works, creating commentaries on subjects, including emancipation throug optimism — represented by a free-spirited female coyote in the painting "The Wheel in the Sky" — and heartbreak — as depicted by a coyote in a prison uniform and shackles in "Fool That I Am." It's this universality, Pierson believes, that accounts for the coyotes' widespread appeal and occasional hefty price tags. (His most expensive piece sold for $70,000.)

"Can you frickin' believe that?" the artist marvels. "You could buy a house."

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