KANAB — Last year, 5 million homeless dogs and cats died in animal shelters across the United States.
To draw attention to this little-known fact, artist Cyrus Mejia is creating works that translate the statistic into terms people can grasp. The result, unveiled this month, is the first in a series of artworks dedicated to the memory of those animals.
Mejia is one of the founders of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab. Although his art has appeared in galleries, museums and exhibitions throughout the West and often includes animal themes, he said this is the first time he has tried to make a social statement with his work.
The project's name, "575," cuts the statistic down to size. "It was the numbers," he said. "I realized that 5 million was just too large to comprehend. I wondered, how many is that per day and per hour?" A few calculations pulled the figure sharply into the present — 13,000 animals a day, or 575 killed every hour.
To create the project, Mejia has gathered 13,000 items from shelters across the country, an assortment of collars, leashes, dog tags, food bowls, cat toys and other objects that tell the story of animals' lives. He plans to display them in 24 separate works, each containing 575 objects and representing one hour in a day, all highlighting the plight of homeless animals.
Despite the project's dire message, Mejia doesn't want to overwhelm his audience with negativity and is taking pains to make the work a loving, tasteful memorial.
Mejia displayed the initial piece in the series, "575 Candles Blown Out," for the first time on March 20, the vernal equinox. Friends and well-wishers gathered outdoors at twilight in a natural amphitheater called Angel's Landing, located on the grounds of the sanctuary.
He and the group set up the work, consisting of 575 cat food cans made into candles, on the ground in a rectangle about 4 feet by 15 feet. Mejia and the others lit the candles until the assembled cans formed a glowing memorial. For a few minutes, onlookers stood admiring the shimmering work, then he instructed everyone to blow the candles out, symbolizing the extinguished lives of euthanized animals.
Another work in the series, "The Migration of 575 Good Souls," is a wall display of ceramic ravens poised in flight, carrying canceled rabies tags.
The piece "3 to 5" is a set of drawings of cats done on Japanese Sumi paper, a translucent, fibrous paper used for brush painting. Its name refers to the length of time, three to five days, that the average cat spends in a shelter before being euthanized. Each drawing contains three to five brush strokes, and Mejia completed the entire piece, five 8-foot-long scrolls, over a period of five days.
Kanab resident Cathie McCormick, a teacher and artist who attended the unveiling of the candle piece, was enthusiastic about the project and its potential impact.
"I think it will really bring awareness to people that this [number] is so excessive. The time is right for it; we need to know this and do something about it," she said.
McCormick added that since many people are visual and experiential learners, hearing statistics doesn't always bring the message home. She said Mejia's project could create awareness where words and numbers fail.
"Art is a language that conveys things in a non-verbal way. This is really going to connect the viewer to the idea that these animals aren't alive anymore."
He has four pieces in the project completed so far and hopes eventually to display all 24 works together in a gallery or museum.
In the meantime, Mejia plans to make individual parts of the series available to humane groups around the country, as a focal point for fund-raising events. He hopes the art works will help these organizations further their own altruistic goals.
Mejia compared his career as an artist with his long involvement at the sanctuary, where people use their talents in positive ways to help animals.
"It's like the message of Best Friends," he said. "We just do our work and let the message speak for itself."
For more information about the 575 project, contact Cyrus Mejia at www.cyrusmejia.com or the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary at 1-435-644-2001.