"Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice: the Mythic Journeys Art Exhibition" was on display at the Defoor Centre Art Gallery from May 1- June 12, 2004. This multi-cultural art exhibition boasted the work of over 20 artists who draw on myth, folklore, and vision to craft evocative imagery that resonates deeply with the mythic heart of the human spirit. Featuring artists such as Alan Lee, Meinrad Craighead, Brian Froud, Stu Jenks, Lorenzo Scott, Roxanne Swentzell, Gabriel Bien-Amie, Greg Spalenka, Mara Friedman, Helena Nelson-Reed and exciting works from the Southern African American Vernacular vein, and Australian Aboriginal, Native North American, and Central American tribes. The exhibition, coordinated and curated by Charles Vess and Karen Shaffer, contained over 100 paintings, sculptures, prints and photographs that depict a variety of traditions of myth, story and ritual. A catalogue accompanied the exhibit. Charles and Karen asked me to write the introduction, which you can read below. The red texts each refer to a specific work from each artist, but here may serve as a poetic invocation of their creations as they once appeared in the exhibit...a song of a moment, a gathering, now in the realm of memory...


Ancient Spirit, Modern Voice — Art as Myth


Ari Berk





‘A pool so clear it could be made of air

But light shimmers between two worlds.’


— from the poem “Day and Night” by Becky Gethin



The earliest human visions were rendered in pigment and ash upon the walls of caves, invoking lions, horses, light, and darkness. Those pictographic ur-myths danced and dreamed within the earth and then took other shapes: small carvings of secret gods hidden within stone, antler, and bone. Such images reveal flights of the shamanic mind, shifts of consciousness, and exchanges across boundaries — from vision to incarnation, from perception to form, from artist to beholder.

Illuminating sacredness and Otherness, the creation of art has always been a ritual matter. From the spiraled stones of Newgrange to a painted rood screen, from lines tattooed upon the skin of the body to the arrangement of horses in the grave of a Scythian queen, each informs a portion of a map that might, if we dared follow it, lead us back to the first lighting of the stars. These ritual presentations may take many forms, but each is always, in part, an attempt to express that which is ultimately numinous.

Ovid speaks to this ritual of making in the beginning of his Metamorphoses, when, as artist-creator, he breathes life and order into his studio of “scumbled elements.”* Of course, he is speaking of the beginnings of the earth, but he uses the process and language of an artist. He considers the pieces of his composition, his raw materials, as an “undigested mass,” scattered but full of potential. His poem invokes “a nameless god, and nature,” which together end the strife of a world existing “before the sea and lands began to be.” Each element of the world is then composed and assigned its place, “linked…all in peace.” And from this process — so familiar to every artist —the canvases of creation are prepared.

Like individual tales joined together to form an epic, these works in proximity to each other generate a palpable and compelling force on the imagination. One piece will affect the perception you have of the next, or change your interpretation of the one before. Yet even when considered singly, such works do not exist in isolation. They are crossroads, axes, the confluence of innumerable rivers whose courses we have followed since we first wandered dreaming out onto the land. These ancient streams still sustain and inspire us. By carving out sensual landscapes peopled by gods and spirits, they course through the world, making it explorable, habitable, and familial. Each place or being speaks its name and tells its tale, ensuring that something of its nature be remembered in the permanence of a physical artifact.

Though deliberately fashioned objects, these works of art need not necessarily be thought of as artificial. Levi-Strauss insists that a myth cannot be translated by anything except another myth; thus, art-making becomes a kind of meaning-making, a turning-over of a tale, an attempt to arrive at a new or deeper understanding by rendering the myth again in another form. The products of this visionary process are neither imitations nor recreations of myths; they are myths themselves — often compressed, but whole and redolent with narrative and symbolic potential. Alan Garner speaks to this paradox when he says,

“….what we feel most deeply cannot be spoken in words. At this level only images connect. And so story becomes symbol; and symbol is myth.”


Inspired by the essential human desire to create and maintain a dialogue of reciprocity with the storied lands around us, such symbols inhere within the natural world, continually returning us to restorative landscapes: the sky, the forest, the sea, the underworld, the garden, the cave, the arms of a mother. There are voices in such creations, and in their origins: ancestors and gods and the call of the river. Seen in this way, we find these works become like opened agates in our hands, revealing a glittering world of stars where once we saw only the water-worn surface of a stone.

When considered as myths, these works of art will also challenge the viewer’s expectations. There are many questions implicit within each of them, forming complex and subtle initiations that are by their nature invitational, threatening, and intimate. By considering even the simplest-seeming images in myth, by challenging both our senses and our preconceptions, we may receive — like those who sit upon the Mound of Arberth in the Welsh Mabinogion — both blows and wonders. Journeys in the Otherworld beget wondrous encounters; we find those in abundance within these artists’ creations. We view their works and find ourselves at a threshold. Just ahead, figures form in the twilight:


A Woman of the Wood hidden behind a mask of leaves. She has seen the fading light upon the boles, she says. She has been waiting for you, she says. Trees grow in a tangle from the knoll behind her. She holds the heart of the forest in her hands. A gift, she says.


A stag of innumerable tines, warden of the ways, the moon and night-mist caught in the boughs of his antlers. His breath and tracks are invitations to wander between the worlds under his care.


Women of the village, painted, dancing, Dreaming, the evening star newly born above them. They will sing until morning, when the men return home from the bush.


A curandero garners his gifts from the Sun. He sends out his helpers. Sacred water is brought back from the mountains. Hummingbird talks to the sky and asks for rain. Remember the gods, the scorpion will tell you.


An Anubian pack of dogs, carefully walking a path into the West, the light of sunrise hidden below their fur.


A guardian of the grove, grown bold beneath the moon, dancing out from the heartwood towards the hedgerow.


The dark, kind goddess with all-seeing hands, mystery upon mystery buried beneath her throne. Black birds move about the green and burning tree that forms her crown.


Adam and Eve upon the road, feast behind them, famine ahead.


The Corn King among the fallow fields, Autumn fading like the sun at his shoulder. The first and last fruits of the harvest are his by right.


Owl-girl, lonely by the tree-line, sings to the little lights moving along the road. You will want to follow that enticing tune right off the path, beyond the trees, into the fens, but remember: her talons are sharp and that night-song is not for you.


A wounded muse. Bare-breasted and undone, but wise and wild in her cape of bear fur. Her words you may trust because they have been paid for.


Mother and child. She will hold him for a time in peace, but soon she must give him to the waiting world. The angels will tell you this if you ask them.


A bone-white flower emerges into the night while the mother of evening begins her dance. Both are radiant in the sublunary light.


A sleeper dreams beside her winged lover. They are attended in their bower by Crow, and Moth, and the Dragonflies of Evening-tide.


Upon their customary carpet the idle children of Minos converse about their unfortunate upbringing before returning to their hiding places.


An exposed relic of enlightenment cast-up upon a far-distant shore. Because its eyes are closed, the light of a thousand years must seek another avenue.


Mad Merlin dreaming in the wood, his limbs become limbs of trees and hedges. Saplings hold his visions to the ground. A stream winds about his feet, moss grafting to his ankles. His bones are branches straining to escape his skin.


Here is the Emergence Place, the confluence of earth and fire. A path below, a path above, and you must choose a way.


Dreaming of the dead, dancers inscribe their songs into the cracked and brittle earth. Dawn will find the past falling back into the circle of the sun.


Earth Woman regards you from beyond a frame. Dreamer and dreamed, subject and object revolve. Try to remember your name.


Essentially, this exhibition follows the pilgrimages of these artists into the realms of wonder. Their hieroglyphic travelogues, here experienced as painting, drawing, sculpture, print, and photograph, are for us to decipher. Such journeys do not end when we leave the gallery or close the book. Here they begin.

The moment we regard a work of art, a conversation emerges and the artist’s quest becomes our quest. A gift is passed from the artist’s hands to ours. We must then decide whether to return home to the merely familiar, or to continue on the path that presents itself, making the Otherworld our world. On such a journey, we may find what we have been seeking since the beginning —to see a vision that will neither fade nor diminish, to see within our own tale something that might — that must — endure, to see at last the stars within the stones.

*From Allen Mandelbaum’s verse translation of The Metamorphoses of Ovid