It is a hot summer afternoon and I am looking at a pig. Large, pale pink, smeared with dust, bristly, and panting, the pig lies on its side in the shade of a wooden shed. It hasn’t moved in the past twenty minutes. My brother sits cross-legged on the cement, having positioned himself directly opposite the pig, so that he can look straight at its face. He is staring attentively at the pig, watching its every move, even though it never moves. He looks like a besotted lover watching his beloved sleep. In fact, the pig is probably asleep; its eyelids are almost closed.
Leo Wong, 10 February, 1985
I examine my brother’s face. Chin propped in his hands, elbows on his knees, he is blissfully unaware of my impatient mood. He is daydreaming about the pig, perhaps imagining the pig’s dreams. He is utterly content and at peace.
“Leo? Let’s go see the river otters. Remember when we saw them playing in the water last week?”
He doesn’t turn his head towards me. “Not yet. I’m watching the pig.”
“Still? Why do you have to stay here so long?”
“I love pigs.”
Leo Wong, 24 November, 1985
This is our weekly routine. Every Wednesday, our mother teaches violin students in our living room. She hands me money and kisses us goodbye as the doorbell rings. Hand in hand, my brother and I walk up the hill, then down the gentle slope to the Storyland Valley Zoo at the end of the road. I pay our admission, and snatch glimpses of other animals as Leo pulls my hand with determination, heading straight to the pig. Leo sits down in his appointed spot, right across from the pig, and refuses to budge until he has had his fill of pig-watching.
I am bored. I explore the entire area adjacent to the pig’s enclosure with my eyes. I see dirt, dead grass, the fence against which Leo presses his face, an intriguing house-sized cage next door with tropical birds drowsing in the afternoon heat. I sidle toward the cage and position myself so that I can watch the birds while still keeping an eye on my brother in the background. I could walk further away from him, probably visit two or three other animals while he is entranced by the pig, but I can’t take that risk. If anything happens to him, my parents will never forgive me. I’m responsible for getting him back home, safe and happy, once the lessons are finished. I am the third parent.
Leo Wong, undated.
During Leo’s pig phase, he drew pictures of pigs, made pig-like sounds, received toy pigs for every special occasion, and watched that same pig every week for the whole summer. When we asked him not to “eat like a pig,” he would reply, “Why not? I love pigs.” He squealed with delight when grandmother brought him a huge life-sized pig toy from Japan, covered with fabric in a curious floral pattern reminiscent of an Irish granny’s dining room. The two of us spent many happy hours playing with that huge pig.
My Christmas card for Leo, undated
As Leo matured, he stopped worshipping pigs. Now, as an adult artist, he paints many kinds of animals, especially African wildlife, and his #1 top favorite is hyenas. I think he first fell in love with hyenas when they appeared onstage as masked humans in military-style khaki combat boots, snarling rebelliously and plotting against the Lion King.
In India, on the last day of his trip, I ask, “Why do you like hyenas so much?”
“Because they’re carnivores.”
Hyenas are powerful, strong, clever animals who eat fresh meat. Like dogs, but running wild and free. They watch larger predators kill their prey, then move in to scavenge their meals. When Leo eyes my unfinished plate, asking “Ummm.. do you have plans for that?” he is scavenging extra food along with the hyenas.
Leo Wong, Tuesday July 20, 2004
Leo opens his mouth and emits a sound I’ve never heard from any human throat before. It is a low growl, almost like a Tuvan throat-singer’s undertone, which I cannot reproduce no matter how I try. After years of voice lessons, he can relax his throat and reach below the normal range of his baritone voice to produce this frightening, throaty growl.
When I heard that sound, I knew I had to make a hyena mosaic. I started by collecting all the baddest hyena photos I could find, making a collage to inspire me as I worked on the mosaic.
Collage of hyena photos from various sources
I made the hyena mosaic using Mexican smalti (glass) for the hyena’s body and mixed grey marble and glass in black and shades of dark purple for the growl. While following the shape of the hyena whose photo is bottom center in the collage, a bright red/orange crown emerged unbidden on her head, so I let it stay. The tongue, eyes and nose are custom-made glass fusions that I ordered from the British mosaic artist Martin Cheek.
Snarling Hyena, March 22, 2011
Tomorrow, on Thursday, July 28, 2011, Leo will be 40 years old. Happy birthday, Leo! May this Snarling Hyena Queen live in your bedroom and bring you the power to enjoy your life with gusto.