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  • I learned about symbiosis during my high school Biology class. A young woman coming of age in the nineties, the dynamic of equitable relationships appealed to me. My role models were insurance men and farmers, business women and--in what seemed a faroff world--writers. Finding harmony among disparate species appealed to me. If not a learned behavior, it seemed one that might be found.

    Some symbiotic relationships are obligate, meaning the organisms cannot exist on their own. Others are endosymbiotic, meaning one creature lives inside the other. Some are facultative and can--unlike the U2 song--live with or without each other. Kiki Smith suggests with her sculpture "Woman with Owl" (2004), a mutualistic rapport, since the owl rests its talons on the woman's shoulders while she does not clutch its wings overhead. The porcelain figure is more metaphoric than biologic, but the concept of give and take has its point.

    The woman's nakedness caught my eye first, followed by the spread of wings, the owl's eyes. They might be about to take off in a flight of pure vision. Or they might be in midair, an image of grounded transcendence. Certainly they loom physically larger in partnership than either would alone. It's a striking pairing, and I refuse to read one word by the critics who could educate me about it. Sometimes I like to be left alone with art, almost always.

    I am willing to consider what the owl might represent in the figure. Symbolically owls conjure stealth, wisdom, intuition, enlightenment, night, femininity, and--according to one animal totem website--the "voice inside you" by which things are revealed. Because intuition is sometimes a sense and not a voice, I let both qualities stand.

    Just one more thing I want to say about the figure, which on the simplest and perhaps most direct level could stand in for being and consciousness--or life and limb. Of course, both creatures are alive and neither--caught in delicate ceramic, held together long enough to form a concept reassuring to me now. That one gives the other wings. And the biped? Arms raised and heart spread, a place to touch down.

    I took this photograph of Kiki Smith's sculpture at the Gund Gallery, Kenyon College, June 2012.
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