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
‘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
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
of the grove, grown bold beneath the moon, dancing out from the heartwood
towards the hedgerow.
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.
Eve upon the road, feast behind them, famine ahead.
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.
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
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.
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.
bone-white flower emerges into the night while the mother of evening begins her
dance. Both are radiant in the sublunary light.
dreams beside her winged lover. They are attended in their bower by Crow, and
Moth, and the Dragonflies of Evening-tide.
customary carpet the idle children of Minos converse about their unfortunate
upbringing before returning to their hiding places.
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.
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.
the Emergence Place, the confluence of earth and fire. A path below, a path
above, and you must choose a way.
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.
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.
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