A little over 15 years ago, University of Alaska Southeast professor Jane Terzis was doodling, when she ended up drawing a character with a peculiar head shape. It was a kid, sort of, and the top of its head was flat, jutting out into two flaps, almost like horns.
"It feels primitive to me. It's funny to me," Terzis said. "I don't know where it came from, except that I love drawing and painting it. Sometimes I've been painting a head or a person, and the flaps just have to be on there."
The flaps have become a trademark of Terzis' work, and they've cropped up again in her latest solo exhibition, "The Prayer for the Protection of All Beings," opening Friday, Oct. 7, at the Alaska State Museum and running through Nov. 26.
The exhibit, 52 graphite drawings on 5-by-7-inch Strathmore paper, is Terzis' response to the ongoing War on Terror and the ease with which society labels groups as evil.
Each individual piece will be subtitled, "I Have the Capacity for ...," followed by a quality - kindness, evil, generosity, etc. Terzis will blindly assign qualities to each drawing this week.
"It's really an inquiry into the nature of good and evil behavior in the form of a confession," Terzis said. "I started with qualities of evil behavior, like dishonesty, violence and rage, and then I started to go easy on myself, since these are my confessions, and I included tenderness, kindness, things like that.
"I believe that wicked behavior is a consequence of fear and some kind of mistreatment, somewhere along the line," Terzis said. "If pushed, I'm as capable of guilty behavior as anybody. And If I can acknowledge those capacities in myself, that will be help me understand those behaviors in others."
Terzis has been working on "Prayer" for the last 18 months. Two of the drawings - a girl in a pink dress on roller skates and a boy in a Superman costume - appeared at the State Museum last fall as part of the 2004 All Alaska Juried Show.
Terzis began exploring the nature of behavior almost 12 years ago, when one of her head-flap paintings created a stir at the old Portfolio Arts gallery. A tourist complained that the figure resembled Satan. The work was soon removed.
"That wasn't what I intended," Terzis said. "I grew up Catholic, so the use of Satan was frightening to me and very real to me. I was aware that fooling around with a person's head shape might bring something up with people, but I wasn't expecting such a strong, negative, angry reaction."
Terzis started an inquiry into the origin of Satan and discovered "The Origin of Satan," a book by theologist Elaine Pagels.
"Her conclusion was that Satan is a construct we use to assign blame for when things go badly, and that we tend to use that as something to scare us into behaving appropriately," Terzis said. "Part of my inquiry was into the nature of evil behavior or wicked behavior and what has to happen in somebody's life in order for them to behave a certain way."
The idea behind "Prayer" came into focus after Sept. 11, 2001, when Terzis, like many, found herself prone to anxiety, rage, fear, paranoia, dishonesty, generosity, compassion, etc. At the time, she was struggling to finish "The Town is Changing," a series of oil portraits based on blurred photos of strangers.
"Like pretty much everybody, I found it really difficult to go back to work," Terzis said. "Everything changed for me, and I knew that my next body of work would be different.
The characters in the drawings - men, women, adults, children, even a dog - are captured in universal situations. Three children look off a porch toward the horizon. A man is arrested and hauled away by police.
"Some are based on photographs of myself as a kid or my husband as a kid, or my brothers or friends," Terzis said. "Some are of toys that I have, and some are just made up."
"I would just start drawing," she said. "Sometimes I would write down ideas and see what they turned into. They're different people in different situations, but they're all based on the same face. My confession is that they're self portraits. Because I have all these capacities and so does everyone else."
The drawings are all graphite on Strathmore paper and about 5-by-7-inches.
An altar under each drawing will hold bars of used bath soap donated anonymously by politicians, priests, felons, lawyers, police officers, celebrities and students. The soaps will be randomly assigned to the drawings and are meant to symbolize purification and self-cleansing.
"I just asked people for the soaps," Terzis said. "Some of them I didn't know; I got their name from somebody else. I knew somebody who worked with a parole officer in prison and made a connection that way. Some just showed up in my faculty mailbox or under my studio door in a Ziploc bag. Nobody said no, and that's what surprised me, how interested they were in collaborating with art."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.