By Justin Sorensen
Growing up, it was not uncommon to hear stories of mountain lion sightings in Pennsylvania. For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard about them moving throughout the Allegheny. Yet for all the time I spent in Pennsylvania, I had never seen one. On occasion, I would hear of people who heard from someone they knew that mountain lions exist in the state. Most likely they saw bobcats, as the last known sighting of a mountain lion in Pennsylvania occurred in 1871. In 2018, the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the eastern mountain lion extinct.
In 2011, a mountain lion was killed while crossing a highway in Connecticut. Genetic tests confirmed that it had roamed more than 1,500 miles from the Black Hills of South Dakota before arriving out east. To date, this is the longest recorded journey made by a mountain lion. Mountain lions are known to be highly reclusive and territorial. They tend to live in remote areas that have plentiful deer and adequate cover. Some claim that it was moving east to claim new territory, while the more probable explanation is that he was looking for a mate. Either way, the thought that a mountain lion was that close to Pennsylvania – that it could’ve crossed through the state – is incredible.
When I was young, I thought about what it would be like to encounter a mountain lion. It didn’t fill me with fear, as much as it made me wonder what it would be like to actually see one. I would go on hikes in the woods and frequently see some form of wildlife – coyote, black bear, fox, and deer were all common. A few years ago, on Christmas morning, I saw three bobcats running across the field in front of my parent’s house. I’d never seen them in the wild before. They were absolutely beautiful.
In 1978, Peter Matthiessen published The Snow Leopard. This book chronicles the story of two men – Matthiessen and the biologist George Schaller – as they traveled across the Himalayas. Schaller’s interest was in studying Himalayan blue sheep. Matthiessen, however, had an interest in the possibility of seeing a snow leopard. This is a cat that is so camouflaged that it’s often only seen by accident. Matthiessen traveled approximately 250 miles before heading home, never having seen it. For the past five years, I’ve been thinking about this book. Specifically, I’ve thought about Matthiessen writing a story about an animal that he never saw. And the question I keep returning to is this: what was that book really about?
The closest I’ve come to a mountain lion was during the Google image search I conducted while writing this essay. A couple months back, I hiked the Grand Canyon with my wife, so it’s possible that I was near one then, but obviously I can’t confirm this. I don’t regularly think about mountain lions, which is why I thought it might be valuable to spend some time writing about them. The fact that there’s an animal wandering the western hemisphere, whose existence runs parallel to my own, while at the same time maintaining a schedule that is in no way dependent upon me is amazing. It means the world I’m trying to manage is much, much smaller than I realize.
Last summer I traveled to China, where I spent over two weeks studying contemporary Chinese art and religion in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai. I was one of eleven North American artists invited to be part of a research seminar put together by the Nagel Institute at Calvin College. This seminar allowed us to interact with Chinese Christian artists as we engaged the overlap between our respective cultures and the role contemporary art can play in facilitating conversation. It was a powerful experience that I have spent the past seven months trying to process. While the seminar had its own set of questions that it set out to answer, I left the trip with some of my own. I wanted to know how I could bring awareness to situations that I do not fully understand. More specifically, what would be my role in all of this once I returned to my studio in Ohio?
I thought a lot about the studio while I was in China. During the seminar, we spent a lot of time sitting in classrooms listening to artist presentations, in addition to lectures about the state of religion in China. We visited historic sites, attended church, and moved through various points of interest in each city. Before departing for China, our team had been given a list of books to read. This gave us an opportunity to become more familiar with Chinese culture prior to arriving in Beijing. One book that especially impressed me was Wild Swans by Jung Chang. It told the story of three Chinese women who had lived through, or in close proximity to, China’s Cultural Revolution. While this book is currently banned in China, I found myself viewing everything through the lens of its story. Wild Swans made me aware of the psychological weight that can be embedded in a place. I found myself questioning what I saw while I was there, while also recognizing that I was contending with my own projection. Trying to understand a culture with a complicated past cannot be accomplished in two weeks, especially since my experience with that culture is inherently limited. For all the things I saw, it’s amazing to recognize that I was in the middle of a reality that I couldn’t see.
Since returning home, I’ve been making a lot of work in the studio. I keep returning to the sense of displacement I felt when moving through China. When I consider the question Are We There Yet? I can’t help but think at first that the answer is obvious. Nevertheless, the question is necessary. It acknowledges the inevitable weariness we all experience moving from one point to the other – that slow impression that forms over time. The tension exists in recognizing that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, while also understanding that we’re not there yet. And as far as I can tell, my time in the studio is meant to give shape to that perpetual absence.
Justin Sorensen received his M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design. He is Assistant Professor of Art at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. To view a short documentary video of Justin’s reflections on displacement, click here.