Sunday, February 16, 2014

Spirit Helpers - Arctic Peoples

Close up from "Spirit Helpers- Arctic Peoples"

Last December we were settling into our new life, working daily in the studio and living in a small house in the woods in Door County Wisconsin.  It happened to be an early, and somewhat snowy winter.  The studio is in a very open area; being a farming region, we are surrounded by fields.  The result is a view out of my window that often looks like the arctic tundra, snow blowing across a palette of white, gray and blue, with a backdrop of a dark tree line and big sky that often calls me to the window at sunset with its breathtaking and bone chilling beauty.
When a friend from Europe contacted me with a request for a commissioned painting I was thrilled of course, and when she told me she was fascinated with Arctic Peoples and culture, I had to marvel at the serendipity.  Looking out my window, I thought I already have a great deal of inspiration in my daily routine.  So began a long distance collaboration of ideas between Brussels, Belgium and Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, connected by gusts of snow and the howling of the bitter wind.

Research and Inspiration

Before embarking on a new painting I spend a little time hunting and gathering.  The inspiration that Kerstin felt from her new found fascination and attraction to Arctic Life opened the door to many possibilities and directions for research.  I started with a gorgeous and sparse film called "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," an Inuit Film that opened my eyes to the qualities of Arctic life that I have come to deeply admire.
After watching the film, I contemplated the harsh day to day realities of Arctic life and the pared down and elegant cultural solutions to these challenges developed in Inuit culture.  I dove further into the concept of Spirit helpers and Shamanic Culture, an aspect of the film that I loved.  An online search led me to the work of Abraham Anghik Ruben, an Inuit carver whose work and life story I won't get into here, but would urge readers to investigate, not only for art, but also for the lesson in history:
After a week or more of reading, watching, and reflecting I had my own ideas forming.  The physical and spiritual life of the Intuit ignited my imagination, the all too common damage caused by the introduction of Western culture and it's colonizing mentality dug into my heart, and the cold winds outside my window haunted my dreams.  I was ready to begin.

The three levels of existence are beginning to appear.

The Blood and Guts: Paintings have a life of their own.

My painting immediately began to evolve into three levels, and I saw, in my interpretation of Arctic life, three very clear experiences of reality which, unlike our Western experience, are not compartmentalized.  The levels of existence: the human world, the natural world, and the spirit world are all very intertwined and interdependent.  My personal belief is that, despite our Western dichotomies, this is always the reality of experience.  In the vision of Inuit Life I have captured they are all one, and working together with elegant grace.
Images of a Swan Maiden, fox spirit and a canoe as a vehicle of transpiration between the worlds are my own iconography, a symbolic language and story that developed while painting.  Although not directly borrowed, the symbols and characters that arose were very much influenced by Ruben's Sea Goddess and the spirit helpers in the film.

Color, texture and pattern: Sun and blood add life to the monochromatic landscape.
During the weeks I spent painting this piece, Kerstin and I occasionally emailed each other with thoughts about the painting.  I shared my discoveries and she sent images and ideas that inspired her.  Although the exchanges were brief and arrived over the tangled web of the internet crossing an ocean, it seemed as if our minds were meeting in a way that transcended words.  I would describe it as a meeting of not just minds, but of hearts and souls.  The serendipity continued to inspire new developments and strengthened my trust in the process.  Doing a commissioned piece is not always easy for an artist.  Expectations can hinder creative thought and and outside influences can muddy the clarity of the process.  I am fortunate to have had very good experiences, I only take commissions if I feel the buyer loves the innate qualities of my work, not just the superficial formal look of it, and he or she does not have a restrictive definition of art.  Each painting has a life of it's own, and when it is a good commission, it has two minds behind it, working together.  And when this happens it's magic.  I often charge less than my customers expect for commissions, because to me these projects are a gift, and a shared effort and experience.

Finished Painting with fabric backing and bamboo rod.
Technical Issues

The final issues with this piece were technical, how to ship this Belgium without adding hundreds to the price.  I solved this by sewing the canvas to a large piece of fabric.  I chose a Batik from Ghana in deep blue and gold.  The African pattern and colors worked so well with the painting I had to chuckle.  A little symmetry between continents, pulling us all together.  I added leather loops on top that support the entire piece with a bamboo rod.  When Kerstin opened her shipment all she had to do was unroll it and hang it from a couple of nails on the wall!
She emailed me to tell me she cried when she saw it in person, and it hanging on her wall it felt like it had always been there.  What an amazing experience for both of us.  I couldn't be luckier, doing what I do.

In the middle of painting this I had a little story arise.  It captures, for me, the essence of this experience.
Fox speaks to the swan maiden. Both are protected by the sun spirit. Fox tells the maiden, "you are going to grow up and forget, but never forget. Those who have grown up do not know everything. They have forgotten more than they remember."

May we all find ways to remember.  

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