I am excited and honored to have one of my virgin paintings selected to be part of Motherland, the 2019 Members’ Show at Seattle’s CoCA. This painting both takes me back to the beginning—it was made during my first trip to Oaxaca in 2002—and to the next chapter there. The sale of the four red Dolorosas funded my second stay in Oaxaca in 2005, when I created the Coatlicue paintings. This painting comes back to me, and thus on to CoCA, because of the death of my beloved Aunt Karen. A treasured reminder of her care.
That time in Oaxaca was energetic with thought, so I am publishing, below, some of the writing I did around this emerging series of paintings. It was my first attempt to pull together in one place a year’s worth of thinking and working on this subject. It’s long, but I kind of appreciate its lack of brevity, of “style”. I hadn’t learned to edit myself, for better and worse; and I haven’t changed what evolved into other artworks, other thoughts. I am leaving it in that time of fruitful conversation—before my loved ones started buying houses and having children and moving away in what would become waves of exodus, before the economic crash hit us all—a time when ideas were exciting. When my ties to my theater community were still strong, and that energy and imagery still flowed freely through all I did. And the following of those impulses and interests did not seem at all impossible.
A time before we, as a country, entered into war. And misogyny beyond what I could have imagined emerged. When my concerns were with archetypes, rather than survival.
Mythical Images of Faith, Power & Life
Madonnas The Face of God The Body of God The Divine Reflection The Divine Power The Divine Image The Divine Incarnate The Divine in Me The Divine in Me Bows to the Divine in Thee The Female Spirit The Feminine Divine
Much of my work as an artist concerns itself with archetypes, particularly feminine archetypes, and much of my handling of archetypes comes from the Theatre: the revelations of gesture, the significance of action and inaction, the use of dramatic focus and composition, the relationship of subjects to one another and to other objects, the presumptions of the audience and therefore the uses of contradiction—in form, in content or in presentation—to use those presumptions to effect. In Theatre, where character is lacking, where the story needs help, where an archetype is weak, one can often use contradiction either to flush out the vacuum or to comment on the absence by turning it on its head.
My work often seeks to expose one of those vacuums: the unconsidered feminine character, the one we recognize and admire in the women we know to be great, who provide us with our role models, and yet who are represented neither in the idealized and polarized iconography of the Western artistic canon, including religious/mythological art, nor in that of the ocean of commercial art that drowns modern society. My art is preoccupied with bringing to light the powerful force that lives in that gap, known and yet scarcely acknowledged. My portraits are not interested in the aesthetic façade of a subject, but rather in the character within, revealed by what the subject is doing and how their body is doing it.
I grew up Catholic, but have evolved away from any religious affiliation. I believe in something beyond the knowable, but believe that it is just that: unknowable. Nevertheless I am strongly drawn to mythology and its role in society, its relation to religions and history. I believe the soul of every culture craves a mythology along with an ethic to thrive.
Images of the divine live in our high places: public buildings, churches, seats of government, learning, justice, and (especially in this country) commerce. They are affecting, they are associated with power, they are archetypes, models, guiding lights, warnings. In these images we see our connection to the divine. In a consumer culture besieged with “ideal” images intended to inspire us to buy, and in a secular culture where religious images are considered inappropriate in public life, such idealized commercial images compete for the place of divine archetypes.
Mythological & religious imagery, particularly for women, has real value where it reflects a role more active, more morally, intellectually and socially weighty than simply being looked at. Even in a secular society, much of our moral training is received through religion, and the image of the imparter of wisdom, the go-between for the Divine, is important. Seeing one’s own image reflected in these roles of greatness is important.
As a girl growing up in the Catholic faith, I was fascinated by—and even for some time tried to emulate—the beautiful suffering of the Virgin Mary, her modesty and chasteness. But even as a small child, I was aware of the limitations of this model—and of the, it seemed to me, unhealthy representation of Christ and the martyred saints as a spiritual model, instinctively recoiling from the idea that suffering was the model for life-sustaining spirit. Possibly because, as a child, I was subject to considerable suffering at the hands of an angry mother, and I knew from the first blow that this was simply, inherently wrong; that suffering in silence was counter to all the forces of life. That same Catholic mother, to her eternal credit, encouraged me to read mythology of all types, and we shared a particular love of Greek & Roman mythology. When I asked her, after a day of catechism, how I was to reconcile the Church’s edict to pray only to its gods, when the Greeks and Romans expected homage to theirs as well, my mother suggested I pray to both until I figured it out. I have no doubt that I have been shaped by having had in my young mind in times of spiritual contemplation the images of Artemis, Hera, Hestia, Aphrodite and Athena alongside that of the Virgin Mary. And, of course, a white-haired, white-bearded, white-skinned God.
In my family, philosophy was imparted in equal parts by my father and my mother—my father’s philosophy was practical, non-religious, ethics-based, and joyous; he believed in living life with an appreciation of each moment, he did precisely that, enjoying his work and his family, constantly inviting us to laugh. My mother’s philosophies developed out of Catholicism, but quickly left it behind, based on her own very harsh experiences; hers was the tougher, more determined, angrier philosophy of a woman who experienced every injustice of a male dominated principle, and endured it with decreasing patience over time. Even as a child, I could see that both philosophies were true. And that my mother’s spirit was in greater need of religious support than my father’s, simply because of the construction of the time and the male-oriented culture.
So why didn’t her religion support her? Where were the female philosophers to help her? Where were the teachings of Mary? Why had no one bothered to codify her wisdom? The modeling given my mother (and all Catholic women) was to simply be, to be modestly acted upon, and to suffer with transcendent patience when the inevitable injustice or tragedy descended upon her; in her case, to bow humbly to training the man who was to become her boss, and then be so threatened by her as to try to force her out of her job. My mother did not find this satisfactory, eventually separating from doctrine and the Church itself, and leaving us to make our own choices.
I was first drawn to the art of Mexico for its embrace of the very contradictions that I, as an ex-Catholic sensualist, found so frequently of interest to me in my own life as a Theatre artist. The themes of death and suffering, of morality and conflict, of joy of life still appealed to me on a grand scale, at the same time that I felt that they could be dealt with in no better way than bluntly, with humor or irony, and with all their contradictions in full bloom. The art of Mexico, particularly that of Oaxaca, gave me the impetus to begin to paint, and eventually, I needed to make a pilgrimage to Oaxaca to see the culture that had inspired the art that moved me so deeply as to change my life to embrace it.
In Oaxaca, I saw again the figures of my childhood, this time rendered in the form of high art with a sinister purpose: to convert the colonial indigenous peoples of Mexico to the faith of the conquistadors. Martyrdom was a useful value to teach a conquered people. It struck me once again that it was similarly useful with women.
My response to the figures was all the more complex in adulthood. Their artistry spoke to me as an artist, the truth of their suffering spoke to me as an adult who has survived some tragedy. Their model of female passivity no longer confused me, offended me—especially because it was presented in such alluringly beautiful form as to be powerfully seductive—having lived long enough to doubt strongly the value or reward or indeed luxury of passivity, and to understand the default it implies: when one has no power of any social currency, one has no choice but to act passively and without pride.
On the other hand, there was something about the modesty, the very gentle forms of assertion I found in Mexican women that was deeply appealing to me. The brash tone, the tireless self-promotion and competition demanded of the American consumer culture, which forgives almost any bad behavior in the interest of getting ahead, truly wears thin.
I also saw the very real power of religion in Mexican life, the joy in family, the comfort in known gender roles, the openness and energy of the religious community, a relationship between religion and music and laughter and community that was, for me, a whole new view of religion. Could I say wholeheartedly that this was a bad thing? Did women suffer because of this ubiquitous model?
I didn’t know—though suspect that, as in America, much of women’s potential comfort lies in the law, in her legal rights. If the religious model doesn’t serve, does she have legal recourse to take care of herself? Since laws are influenced strongly by the roles a community believes a woman has a right to, based on its religion, there is a relationship.
I was very aware of how different the Mexican approach to “faith” was. It was truly that: blind, unquestioned belief. In secular America, we are expected to come at faith through an intellectual, even a historical context. Almost everyone I’d ever know had been through some version of a crisis of faith, most people I know would consider themselves “spiritual but not religious,” or simply intellectual as opposed to religious. In Mexico I met well-educated people who had never examined their faith through a historical, political or social viewpoint. Many of them just went through the motions, where the rituals were concerned, some viewed it with a cynical eye, acknowledging hypocrisy and corruption in the Church, but still they held deeply and unquestioningly with the moral regulations and certainties.
For all their devoutness, I found Mexicans to be quite comfortable with contradiction, and I was drawn to this quality, as contradiction is a cornerstone of all my work.
I began sketching the virgin sculptures, not knowing exactly what I wanted to do with them, but knowing that they were a compelling image, and that my very attraction to them was at the heart of one of those contradictions certain to be ripe with complicated truths. As I worked, I came to understand that their beauty, their suffering, despite its passivity, could not be refuted: every faith in the world—indeed every individual who practices no particular faith but has suffered—strives to make peace with pain. The representations of the Church—or perhaps more accurately, of the artists whose sculptures spoke for the Church—of perseverance, of surrendering control, of acceptance and continued life, were valid.
As I explored Mexican culture in and out of the churches, reading about indigenous myth and religion, along with my renewed reading on Western mythology, certain themes began to emerge: the Occidental separation of body and spirit and of spiritual life from this world (an anachronistic attitude in a tropical country where modesty danced hand in hand with joyous sensuality); the relation of woman to body and the world, and therefore to sin, leading to the polarization of female images—Madonna/Whore—that continues to pervade all Western and Western-influenced cultures, and which was achingly apparent in the constant confusion with which I was met by Mexican society as one not so easily classified; the rich variety of female images in the indigenous mythology of Mexico, and also in other, pre-Christian cultures.
Eventually, in the search for something more relevant to my own experience, I began to combine these supposedly contradictory images. The more I study mythology, the more I see that Joseph Campbell’s assertion that “the themes are timeless, and the inflection is to the culture” is true. The same questions, the same themes, the same journeys of discovery, maturity or transformation, and in fact the same images and symbols occur across cultures. They are given different values depending on the balance of power, depending on wars and economies, depending on moments in history. If these images have some eternal inherent emotional or spiritual values associated with them which pervade our consciousness, and if we are trained by our particular moment in history to attach certain values and lessons to them, perhaps I could use those images in unexpected relationships to shake up the more limited window of our time and push them into a larger context, one that allows for a more generous viewing than the one constricted by male-principled religion.
The first images I attempted were of the center of the visceral, life-giving pregnant female body superimposed with the Christian cross, also an earlier symbol for the Tree of Life, with male and female icons whose postures were recognized across various mythologies, Christian and non-Christian: a female figure in the posture of the Virgin Mary and of Aphrodite delivered on the waves; a male figure in the attitude of Christ on the Cross, Atlas beneath his burden, Prometheus ripped open for his gift of flame, Osiris regenerating.
While I continued to seek the most expressive, the most heartbreaking and sympathetic of the virgins, a friend in Oaxaca invited me to choose an animal card from her Native American Medicine deck. I chose the Snake, the totem of transmutation. From Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson:
“Snake medicine…initiation involves experiencing and living through multiple snake bites, which allows [snake medicine people] to transmute all poisons, be they mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional. The power of snake medicine is the power of creation, for it embodies sexuality, psychic energy, alchemy, reproduction, and ascension (or immortality).
The transmutation of the life-death-rebirth cycle is exemplified by the shedding of Snake’s skin. It is the energy of wholeness, cosmic consciousness, and the ability to experience anything willingly and without resistance. It is the knowledge that all things are equal in creation, and that those things which might be experienced as poison can be eaten, ingested, integrated, and transmuted if one has the proper state of mind….”
The snake was all over my reading about Mexican culture: Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god of air and learning of the Aztecs; Tlaloc, the serpent rain god; Coatlicue, the mother of the gods, who wears a vestment of serpents. In every culture other than the Christian one, the serpent is a positive, protective, regenerative, and often female force. In Christianity, coincidental with the subjugation of the Goddess religions, serpents took on evil significance when the Hebrews, practitioners of a male-based monotheism, were at war with the Egyptians and Sumerians, more given to Goddess worship. Thus, historically, serpents lost their positive value at the same time that women became the source of temptation and sin; that sex, the body and the world became unholy; and that the gaining of knowledge became a fall from divine grace. Perversely, Christian doctrine has developed around the notion of Mary as the enemy of Satan, with many images of the Virgin crushing or controlling a serpent beneath her foot.
These themes and their images struck me as inadequate to my own life, to my own experience, and desperately immature in relation to the progress of humanity. The literalness with which they were embraced and emulated in Mexican culture made me deeply uncomfortable, and yet I admired the apparent peace and certainty of those Mexican women for whom the model worked. The archetypes could not be completely false. I was compelled to try to capture some representation of the Divine, the Philosophical, the Great as incorporating both male and female, visceral and spiritual, worldly and transcendent.
Struggling for a way to illustrate a more complicated spiritual reality, I went back to the timeless themes and their images. I began placing serpents from various mythologies in a variety of close relationships with the Catholic icons of feminine grace. I juxtaposed the relationships and attitudes of those figures, not so much against one another—though the passivity of the virgins and the activity of the snakes are important considerations—but more against our assumptions of the relationships in which we expect to find them,. The first piece I executed placed a boa constrictor in gentle relation to a beautifully sorrowful Dolorosa, its head placed tenderly against her face, its body forming her halo: a harmony between sources of power, a peace between forces scripted in the Christian mythology to be enemies.
Next I became entranced with a piece I called the Cobra Dolorosa based on a figure from the central church in the Oaxacan community of Xoxocotlan, which I eventually paired with another beautiful Dolorosa from the Museo Franz Mayer in Mexico City. I expanded these two paintings into a series of four pairs, each in some way about the nature of idealization and iconization. In the first pair the virgins are gilded with all the artistry and gold the Catholic Church typically lavished on its sculptural emissaries of the time, both with tears and praying hands, one effortlessly handling an aggressive cobra, one tenderly surrounded by the protective vipera berus from the Balkan Snake Queen legend. In the second, each face, and her snake, floats in a saturated sea of red, the most primal of female colors. In the third, the virgins are unclothed and melded with an earth force, one with fire, the other with rain, but each is forged of a precious metal as in pre-Christian mythology. And in the fourth, the figures are human: imperfect, aged, showing the marks of life, but still in an attitude of devout prayer. Two of the four pairs are complete at this point.
The Virgin of Life Continuing is based on a sculpture whose name I could not discover. She is housed in the cathedral of Soledad, the religious heart of Oaxaca City, and I found the many contradictions inherent in her figure compelling: her features are strong and square, her complexion hardy, yet her face glows with grace; her hands are poetic and delicate, yet she holds a cloth—which looks like a cleaning or washing cloth—at her side. As women’s caretaking work is the stuff of eternity, I combined her with the image of the snake swallowing its tale, an image of life renewing itself which is common not only in Eastern tradition as the ouroboros, but which I also found in a carving in the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca/Ex Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzmán. Whether it was the result of outside influence, or an expression of an indigenous tradition, I do not know.
The first pieces I prepared, but which are still in progress, are more controversial than those completed at present. One is based on a Madre Dolorosa from the Iglesia Carmen Alto whose face is so contorted in suffering that she looks almost like a horror figure. Her gown is full of sinuous contour that I transformed into serpents, in keeping with her terrible aspect, and reminiscent of the Mexican goddess Coatlicue. The second is based on a sculpture of a modest Immaculate Conception from Oaxaca’s great Catedral in which a gold-robed Maria folds her delicate white hands chastely across her breast while two cherubs on either side gently deliver her to God. However, the sculpture has a certain effect, almost of a chuckle and a wink: it appears less that the cherubs are lifting the Virgin than that they are lifting up her robes. As the general public often confuses the Immaculate Conception—which is actually the conception of the Virgin Maria herself without sin, thus making her worthy to be the mother of God—with the Virgin Birth—the conception of Jesus without sin—the image is almost prurient, speaking of sex, conception, the getting into of Maria’s skirts, all within an almost ironically chaste glow. I used this misunderstanding and combined it with a traditional Mayan ritual still performed today in which male dancers place live snakes up the skirts of female dancers as a symbol of fertility; I changed the cherubs lifting her skirts to serpents.
It was essential to me to preserve the beauty of the original sculptures, to honor the truth that they indeed represented. To do so, I had to improve my ability to faithfully paint the human face and figure, so I intensified my studies at the Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca arts library, copying from books on human anatomy for the artist, and pouring over pen and ink studies by Lucien Freud, learning to do studies of my own, learning the proper proportion of the body. I adopted a new style of painting, working with layer upon layer of wet paint to achieve a subtler blend of color to represent the delicate features and colorations, the physical perfection, that so successfully captured the ethereal transcendence of the sculpted virgins.
In returning to the US, I am seeing the difference between the role of art in America as opposed to that of art in Mexico, and there is a strong tie to the different roles of religion. Mexico’s gods are still divine, whereas ours are commercial. We are used to intellectualizing matters of faith, we often deal with them ironically, or with classical distance. We are a little uncomfortable with the literalness, the visceral-ness, the sincerity and directness of Latin art. A religious culture’s relationship to art is directly influenced by its comfort with the realm of mystery, of the true heart, of love—these are acceptable, desirable subjects for art. They are dealt with in close proximity, not with the arm’s length, the abstraction, or intellectualism so typical of American art. Alienation is a very common theme in American art, as is dehumanization. In Mexico, evil will be the theme, exhaustion, greed, oppression, confusion, temptation, lust, joy, movement, music, romantic, familial, and sexual love—really, a celebration of humanness in all its forms—but never alienation or isolation.
In part that may be because art and artists in Mexico are actively embraced. Everyone knows artists from their region—they know about their lives, their work, their artistic progress, they own some of their work, they have a stake in their careers and celebrate their success. They never wait for anyone else’s validation, nor the validation of the marketplace, to embrace an artist. They are comfortable embracing what speaks to them. In America, we are almost nouveau riche about art; we have no confidence in our own judgement of what is valid, probably because so much of what we produce is intellectual and requires some intellectual background to appreciate, as opposed to emotional or transcendent, which requires nothing other than an honest attraction to and understanding of the work.
But how can that be trusted? And what should something so simple cost? Clearly if it doesn’t require lots of study and preparation to understand, if it doesn’t exclude the Average Joe from participation, it can’t be worth much. And cost is what sets value in a money culture. The desire for a “deal” is more likely to motivate a purchase than the moving of one’s heart. How often have I heard here, in response to describing myself as an artist, “Woah! That’s hard!” Why is that hard? Because we know our own ridiculous attitudes towards the arts in America? Because we assume that we must separate what we do for money from what we do for our souls for pure survival reasons, and therefore I cannot possibly survive?
Evolving thoughts/next steps: Am fascinated by the relationship between myth and religion. And ethics and religion. I think I place more faith in myth, as the embodiment of certain human characteristics, transformations and journeys, than in religion, which invariably transforms great wisdom into rigid, codified rituals and doctrine that are ultimately suffocating. I place more faith in ethics which demand real, moment-to-moment humanity, action and individual judgment.
And what of the relationship between religion and history, i.e. politics, which is history-in-the-making? And the relationship of art—and artists—to all of the above, as the mechanism by which the public is sold these ideas, these politics? To be continued…