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Symbols Tell Stories

This is the beginning of a participatory art project, using community-sourced symbols to create a visual language that tells of our relationship to local ecology. Folk art is derivative of direct experience with the landscape. Specific adaptations to local environments give rise to unique forms of creative expression, born out of necessity. The oldest known form of magic, pictographs were used to appeal to nature in an effort to obtain some form of control. In the current era, however, it is nature that requires our healing and protection through re-enchanting our relationship with her.

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Magical Midwest Folk Art Tour

This photo essay is from a Summer road trip around the lower half of Lake Michigan. Mostly in search of the beach, I’ll be honest, but also as a scouting mission to find out what folk art presents itself along the way. My mind has been filtering for living traditions, hidden in plain sight. Decorative marks form visual languages, speaking to our relationship with the landscape, telling of the ways we are beholden to and in love with creation. Traumatized by our collective past, we’ve stopped making folk art like we used to, stopped celebrating nature due to a psychic disconnection from it – as though we have been shot into space. Disoriented, we can start bringing ourselves back down to Earth, grounding through interaction with our local ecologies and healing community by observing ancestral art forms. This is an exploration of current stories being actively translated into new symbolic expressions.

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The Spell of High Summer

Approaching the Summer Solstice, it’s important to take pause and breathe it all in. The skin should be given freedom to soak in light and water in abundance, cleansing the static that clings to the soul. The lungs should open and with them the heart center, allowing radiant patters of thought to flow outward, mingling with the energy of the world. The greater the challenges presented on this plane, the more we stand to gain from cultivating open hearts and minds, shedding old ideas like skins, clearing a path for renewal. Mindfulness begets mindfulness, and lights the way for those who come after us.

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What we Feed, Grows

The theme of this year’s MayDay parade was ‘What we Feed, Grows’. And as I’m breathing in moist Spring air, fragrant with fertility, listening to the sounds of birds wooing each other; I have budding intentions myself. After Winter’s dormant research phase, idea-seeds have swelled, sent out roots and shoots, and will bear fruit in due course this Summer. If they are tended well and weather permits, creative outputs will grow, yielding their own form of nutrition. Filling a need for storytelling and meaning, the folk arts cycle with the seasons. 

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Ovo: Limitless Potential

Every year Leprechauns, denizens of the fairy realm, magically appear mid-March on every conceivable printed surface. These symbols are used in commercial applications, to be sure, but I would posit that they are also the remnants of very old, earth-based wheel-of-the-year celebrations. The shamrock and cauldron representative of medicinal food plants, and gold at the end of the rainbow referencing the abundance of life returning to the Earth. After the rains and greenery return, so too do frisky bunnies and the product of their energies, the fertilized ovum.

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The Doctrine of Signatures

As an extension of my last post, about learning sign-language and applying symbolic languages for the greater good, I’d like to talk about the role of healing and protection in this practice. Artists are trained to see, not just to create. Drawing, painting and sculpting are ways of seeing – seeing with the heart and seeing with the hands. The doctrine of signatures was a framing concept in medicine that hails from the time of Galen, and states that we should read the botanical world visually, and that each plant in our herbal medicine chest should be used to treat the body part or ailment it resembled in appearance. Paraclesus (credited with the illustration above) is quoted  “Nature marks each growth … according to its curative benefit”, in short – like treats like. 

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Seeing Signs

Initiated by my Daughter’s severe Childhood Apraxia of Speech, a large part of the journey this work has taken me on has been about communication. Through the use of symbols and sign language, we have learned to understand each other better, but there are still large gaps to be filled in, particularly around more subtle or complex desires and ideas that she has no way of expressing. This has been a huge challenge for her self-advocacy efforts, and often ends in tears and stomping fits that I find myself ill-equipped to diffuse. But the experience has helped me come to appreciate how much the able-bodied world takes for granted, and how little we appreciate the uphill battle that is experienced by the disabled. Every. Single. Day. 

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Seasonal Affective & Self-Love

Once the Yule log has burned out, the wine has been drunk, the feast consumed, gifts opened and songs sung by family gathered and now disbanded again – the darkness of the season finally sets in. It really is the most wonderful time of year, but on the other side of the holidays, there’s a struggle waiting to be wrestled with each and every Winter. I’ve always found that the darkness has value – as it allows light to shine, and the cold has value – as it allows the land to restore itself before fruiting again in the Spring, but with this utility comes suffering. I imagine that a diminutive Persephone lives inside of us, our emotional wells drying up with the deep freeze, becoming brittle after giving so much and having more still taken against our wills. Understandably then, we are in need of self-care this month – inner reflection and outward projection of our best possible selves. 

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Art is Medicine

Art is a way of understanding past experience as well as a way to see things anew. It allows us to contextualize and reframe ideas about ourselves and our place in the world. Most directly understood intuitively, with subtle forces at work on a subconscious level, both viewing and making art can elevate us from the slog. Carving out a physical anchor-point to mindfulness practice, an art object can trigger an opportunity for moments to breathe deeply with the senses and s – t – r – e – t – c – h calcified neural networks, opening the heart. Like utilizing a guided meditation, physical works of art can awaken the heart to itself by becoming a shelter for daydreams, intentions and quietude.

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Earth-Centered Stencils

This series came about as a study of of nature and it’s changes throughout the seasonal cycle, and blossomed into associations with folk tales, metaphysics and holistic medicine. Through the two-dozen stencil cuts shown here, I discovered that I can work with the photographs I start from and manipulate the image to give it a compound structure – a snake within an apple – alluding to Eve in the garden, but also to the poison apple in Snow White. Collage should have occurred to me as an obvious tool much earlier, as it’s something that I’ve worked with for decades, but being ruled by Saturn, I’m sometimes slow on the pickup.

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