Shamanic artists in our midst

Dear Artist, In The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams tells us that cave art may have had more to do with early religions and shamanism than objects of the hunt or demonstrations of creative prowess. He makes the case that caves were deeply spiritual places — dark entries into the earth that directly sustained the lives of these early people. Dimly lit by torchlight, the animals and other motifs emerged, ghostlike from the cave walls. He suggests these walls were like thin membranes between the fearful and gullible Cro-Magnons and the spirit world behind. He theorizes that Upper Paleolithic Man harnessed altered states of consciousness to fashion his society and used imagery as a means of establishing social relationships. Shamanic trances and vivid mental imagery, early manifestations of what we now call the religious state, made it important for them to paint these images on cave walls. He feels that there’s a creative spillover between neural circuits in the brain induced in meditation, rhythmic stimulus, fasting etc. These conditions, in degree, are common to both art and religion. Thus his speculation that both religion and art may be hot-wired in the human brain. The book has enlightening ramifications for artists. A lot of us have noticed it’s precisely when we get into the business of magic, mystery and metaphor that our art becomes interesting. This observation might also explain why some connoisseurs go bananas over otherwise questionable art and are willing to pay big bucks to possess it. Furthermore, there’s the persistent idea that the making of art — and the consuming of it — is in itself a religion. If you’re picking up what this author is putting down, you may be spinning out a few ideas. For starters, here are some possible considerations for a modern shaman: Make apparitions emerge, dissolve, arise. Make talismanic, totemic or iconic images. Make your passions visible and tangible. Go for material that exalts and inspires. Convey your spirit, your magic, your trance. Make meaningful motifs out of slim evidence. Find a reliable order in the midst of chaos. Pay special attention to birth, death, and rebirth. If all else fails, tell a tall story. Best regards, Robert PS: “Physical entry into the caves reflected the entry into the mental vortex that leads to the hallucinations of the deep trance state.” (David Lewis-Williams) Esoterica: If ancient shamanic artists were in the business of coaxing animal images through from the spirit world into this world, might not today’s easel painters be doing somewhat the same thing? The tendency seems highly evident in abstract art. Even in realistic art, there are unique forms and images that miraculously appear from the artist’s hand. Is something else driving this hand? Or are we merely a brotherhood and sisterhood of calculating manipulators inflicting our magic on our followers? Are there deep-seated messianic tendencies over which some of us have little control? Is it worthwhile getting control of this tendency?   Icons of our beginnings by Adam Cope, Lanquais, Dordogne, France  

“The Abandoned Cradle”
watercolour painting
by Adam Cope

I live not far away from the painted caves in the Dordogne. They are deeply moving ‘sacred’ places that have moved me to paint them over the years and ponder on their ‘meaning.’ You can see a selection here with some musings. I doubt if we will ever truly know what these images meant to the people that made them, despite the efforts of paleo-archaeologists. We are distant and remote from the realities and the world view of the artists that made these images. But on another level, many human life-spans later, they have a popular fascination and probably a deep misunderstanding as well. However, for us now today, they have become iconic. They are icons of our beginnings, both as a species as well as artists, as magicians, as dreamers. They have acquired ‘mythos’ and thus now belong as much in our imaginations as in the caves themselves. There is 1 comment for Icons of our beginnings by Adam Cope
From: D. D. Jackson — Oct 01, 2010

Whether by design or happy accident, thank goodness that the first letter here states the truth, albeit with a few hedge words: that we will _never_ know the meanings or purposes of these images to the original makers. They can only be a Rorschach test to us of what we wish would be true.

  Dreaming in HD and colour by Russ Henshall, Pulham Market, Norfolk, UK   I connect the concept of ‘seeing the spirits’ with modern day dreams. It seems to me that when we dream, the subjects and ideas that come into our mind tend to be larger than life in many ways. I read a book some years ago called Experiments in Dreams by J.W. Dunn in which he tried to forecast future events from his dreamworld. Maybe we dream of art forms to come? I don’t know about any other creative minded folk, but I dream often and in full HD and colour. The thing that puzzles me most is the ability to see so much of what we want to do. Even now I dream of flying free as the wind, living beneath the deep warm sea, being able to stand up in one of the famous halls in the world and play any musical instrument we wish to at wondrous performance level….. and make pictures and ideas exactly as I intend to. I can imagine an early caveman standing at the rock face and being able to transfer in great detail the figures that are in his sub-conscious (conscious?) mind. Who else dreams of the impossible and uses creativity influenced by dreams? Did Leonardo dream of all his concepts and art during sleep time?   Metaphor and meaning by Suzanne Edminster, Santa Rosa, CA, USA  

original painting
by Suzanne Edminster

For several years I have displayed the book The Mind in the Cave at my open studios, and people are fascinated with it. It’s a great artist’s resource: it details a shared human “inner landscape” of a universal underworld river or sea, the earth as a cell through which images and animals pass by osmosis. All artists should be as aware of our shared human visual hardwiring as they are of the laws of perspective. My series “Sanctuary” was painted on hearing of my father’s terminal illness. You can see the underworld river, animal images passing through, and the sun as a gold point. The caves were cathedrals, and the herds of animals and abstract marks as significant as the rose window in Notre Dame’s nave. I don’t like the word “shamanic.” All too often non-referential artists are trivialized as lazy opium dreamers (not like those hard-working figurative painters!). Your list could be addressed not to the “modern shaman” but as a way of “invoking metaphor, meaning, and magic” in art. All art, from realist to abstract, needs to be imbued with metaphor and meaning to be powerful. There are 2 comments for Metaphor and meaning by Suzanne Edminster
From: Kathleen — Oct 01, 2010

Powerful painting!

From: Anonymous — Nov 04, 2010

The colors of your painting are truly shamatic and transformative. Very powerful.

  Shamanism shocking to students by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic  

“Black dancer”
wood sculpture
by Norman Ridenour

Teaching buttoned down business students and showing them Shamanism or to even bring the myths of the ancient world with their rich symbolism to the classroom is shocking for them. When they find out that their teacher has toted joints, dropped acid, meditated and pushed into altered states, I get strange reactions. Our modern world prepackages people as well as goods. When I did serious running I always carried a small notebook, about the 5-6km mark I would start to feel myself float and the ideas flooded in. My last sculpture series was a set of Shamanistic totems. If you have not seen it, there is a DVD from the BBC, How Art Made the World. (It is a zone 2 DVD so you will have to download an adapter to the North American code.) It has sections which deal with these same issues and wonderful photography in the caves. I actually believe that Dr. Lewis-Williams was a co-author in one section. What is a Gothic Cathedral but, ‘a thin membrane between the fearful and gullible Medieval people and the spirit world behind.’ There are 3 comments for Shamanism shocking to students by Norman Ridenour
From: Jim Oberst — Oct 01, 2010

Netflix has the DVD you mention.

From: Anonymous — Oct 03, 2010

Good thing WE are not “fearful and gullible,” huh. We have a tendency to ascribe lower intelligence to those who came before (they didn’t have electricity and buildings with right angles, like we have). It may have required more intelligence and acuity to survive in many parts of the past than it does, now. We are cosseted by the civilization we have built on the imaginative leaps of those who came before.

From: Carol — Oct 03, 2010

Thanks for the information about the art series “How Art Made the World” here is link to this amazing series I have just watched the first 2 and am down,loading the rest.

  The dangers of shamanism by Andrea Steffens, Hamilton, NY, USA   Picasso spoke of images that appeared in his minds’ eye and would not leave until he painted them — even though he was hell-bent on painting other images. If the spontaneous image was persistent, he surrendered. As a student of classic shamanism, I certainly believe that painting can be a shamanic experience. It depends on how willing the painter is to “allow” imagery and how “soft” they allow consciousness to be. A “hard-edged” consciousness — attempting control over the image, disallows spontaneous imagery. The more intellectually the painter approaches the canvas, the less likely images will come because the intellect is often a defense against what the unconscious is asking. The fact that the “person” in cave drawings is often rendered with an erection, speaks of an ecstatic state. Most of us are way too intellectually developed to experience this. You really have to have “soft” focus. Though I have to say, as one who taught psychology for years, the students who were most proficient at dealing with the dream-work phase of my class were the artists and poets — because they lived there. They were the ones who had the most difficult times in school because schools do not teach to their strengths. Additionally, education period — 12 years of it — is an induction into the linear mind — cultivated and reinforced. So the ability to enter a shamanic reality will only occur with a few. I believe this is why insanity is often a beginning phase of the shamanic process. If defenses are strong, nothing gets in and sometimes they must be shattered for that reality to become easily accessed — some people didn’t make it through the initiation. The process through which one becomes a shaman is not without its dangers. There is 1 comment for The dangers of shamanism by Andrea Steffens
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 05, 2010

Andrea- yet would you actually let fear stop you? The benefits far outweigh the dangers.

  The membrane by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA  

“The artist at work”
mixed media
by Warren Criswell

Here’s an excerpt from a lecture I’ve been giving this year at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, titled The Membrane: Some Twisted Thoughts on Creativity.  In The Mind in the Cave David Lewis-Williams suggests that “Upper Paleolithic art was implicated in various shamanistic rituals that took people into the subterranean spirit realm and through the ‘membrane.'” He was thinking of the cave wall as a membrane. It seemed to me that the membrane which shamans penetrate could be thought of as the corpus collosum, the structure that divides the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Or you could think of the membrane as the wall between the conscious and unconscious minds. There are many conflicting theories about the art of this period. Some, like R. Dale Guthrie The Nature of Paleolithic Art, 2005, want to do away with all the rituals and life-quest nonsense. He’d rather see them as Alaskan big game hunters and naturalists like himself than as Bushmen in Africa. He makes a valid point that eyeball realism like this, obviously the result of intense observation in the field, has rarely been used as mythographs. Religious art is usually stylized or abstract, as in the Middle Ages, for instance. Renaissance art is a return to the more secular vision of the Greeks, and 20th Century abstraction was a turning away from the reality of war to a more spiritual realm. But personally, I suspect that both theories are correct, and that at the time of this Big Bang of great art 30,000 years ago specialization between the spiritual and natural had not yet taken place. And even if that’s not the case, as an artist, I still think Lewis-William’s metaphor of the cave wall as a membrane makes sense. My metaphor gets twisted into a Mobius strip, then into a Klein bottle, and it ends like this: The membrane gets twisted into Moby Dick and swallows us up like Jonah, and God only knows where we’ll get spit up. There is 1 comment for The membrane by Warren Criswell
From: DA — Oct 01, 2010

What a fabulous piece of art you’ve shared with us. Thank you.

  Only the instrument by Carol Beth Icard, Landrum, SC, USA  

“Another beautiful day”
oil painting
by Carol Beth Icard

One of my most recent paintings was a clear example of “making apparitions emerge.” I had begun a 48 x 48 inch canvas by gessoing it black. I hadn’t used black gesso in years, but just had the urge to begin this painting with a dark underpainting. Over the black I began laying on burnt sienna mixed with oil/alkyd medium, applying it with a wide plastic scraper. It was a strenuous and yet appealing exercise in “seeing what happens.” Because it was such a large canvas I ran out of my mixture towards the bottom, and when I stepped back I was flabbergasted to see a cat and some kittens emerging out of the remaining black. I continued to work on this painting for many days but could never bring myself to paint out those creatures. They feel very spiritual to me, guiding me and reminding me to “let go” and “be audacious.” On other occasions I’ve had “angels” appear, but these cats made me realize that I am but an instrument. There are 2 comments for Only the instrument by Carol Beth Icard
From: jtl — Oct 01, 2010

Gorgeous, evocative painting.

From: Mary Carnahan — Oct 03, 2010

We are all about pattern recognition — I have to stop myself from endlessly seeing all the dragons, lions, human figures, and other things one can see in clouds, cracks and oil spills in the pavement, shadows in the woods, etc. I think artists may have less resistance to the impulse toward pattern recognition.

  ‘False Artists’ in our midst by Scott Kahn, NY, USA  

“Saybrook Light”
oil painting
by Scott Kahn

It’s very interesting, Robert, that you mention “shamanistic” artists in our midst. I agree … they exist, and they oddly paint in a very similar style with lots of swirls and figures, symbols and animals … a whirlwind of imagery, imbued with light and painted with fairly good, even virtuosic, technical finesse. They all have a similar rhetoric, often describing themselves as a kind of “vessel.” In my opinion, they are ‘false’ artists … more illustrators of a rhetoric which has an appeal to those who are convinced that what they are saying has some kind of validity or truth. Such ‘art’ is nothing further from the truth as it is manufactured and not felt. I haven’t read the book you mentioned about the cave paintings. Who can truly know why they were painted. It’s open to many interpretations. But isn’t it interesting that these ‘primitive’ drawings still grab our attention and hold us captive in their mystery so many thousands of years after they were produced? Whatever primitive man was looking for and expressed in these drawings has great resonance and similarity to what we are searching for today in attempting to understand life and why we are here. There are 2 comments for ‘False Artists’ in our midst by Scott Kahn
From: K Brady — Oct 01, 2010

I fell in love with your painting. It’s very evocative.

From: Carol Spicuzza — Oct 04, 2010

Dear Scott, While the idea of “shaman” often evokes the kind of formulaic art you mention, I think your work is truly shamanic and points to a meaning that lies beyond apparent reality. Fascinating.

  Collective mind of art by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA   From a broader anthropological perspective I’ve long been fascinated by the connection between creativity and the “mind” (which MUST be much more than just the physical brain and its electrochemical circuitry). Jung was perhaps the first notable person to point out that there’s something collective going on with us at a subliminal level, and it finds external manifestation in what we call art. Our individual control over its insistent energies is apparently rather limited, suggesting that there’s a powerful indefinable Force operating behind our creative efforts. Western culture teaches us to call it “self-expression.” This is amusing. Like, who or what is this self-aware “self?” (A koan, if ever I heard one.) The insight that we are connected with each other (and everything else) on some primal level is a — pardon the expression — no-brainer. Art-making puts us in touch with stuff we have no other way of knowing/experiencing. I surmise that on more than one occasion, nearly all artists have found themselves watching the nascent image unfold and thinking “Woo, now where did THAT come from?” One’s initial tendency might be to quickly expunge or dismiss any unplanned element that may creep into it, because of our learned notions about what art and artists are supposed to be. Lots of people even abandon creativity, dissuaded by their own self-talk around this dynamic. After all, they think, the artist is supposed to understand and control everything in his/her own work. Therefore, “since I’m not doing that very well, I should just bag the creativity and go sell insurance.” Or run for public office, haha. One very interesting thing about cave art is the relative scarcity of depiction of humans. Nonetheless there’s still a kind of self-awareness evidenced by those hand prints alongside the other Paleolithic imagery. Someone ‘signing’ their work? Or telling themselves something like “I manifest, therefore I am.” ? Anyway, it seems that tens of thousands of years later, we as a species are still grappling with the same mystery that baffled cave people. We encounter it every time we engage in a creative act, it seems to me. How we interact with it is what shapes us as artists, and as people.   Circle of life by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA  

“Love and Patience”
original painting
by Helena Tiainen

Who knows what kind of spiritual and emotional implications traveling through the birth canal has on any of us. Even those born via cesarean still arrive from total deep space and deep ocean darkness to light and start breathing in water so thin, called air, that lungs can handle. This experience must be very influential in yet unknown ways. I strongly believe that in some very subconscious level going into a cave may remind us of times prior to being born into the world and provoke mystical sensations. The primitive man knew that their existence in the world depended on them consuming the life of another living being, whether animal or plant. To them this was sacred. They were connected to the circle of life more than most people are nowadays. There are children in cities who now think that their food comes from the supermarket. They are disconnected from the sacred circle of life through lack of education. To them food magically appears. The sacred cycle is broken in the mind of the child, yet exists in real life. I often wonder how many untrue stories we all live within this illusive world. I am certain we all hold true realities that would not stand further inspection. These illusions usually play protective roles for our frail egos and systems we have built in this world. None of us are totally free of illusions. However, there are many connections between ancient wisdom and what modern science is proving to be so. Maybe one day we can, like Captain Picard, talk to a machine that knows how to make “tea, Earl Grey hot” out of seemingly thin air. But until then, our sustenance is more grounded on other living beings. I actually think Quantum physics is very shamanic on a profound level. We are all manifestation of the one and not really separate even in physical levels. We all constantly exchange molecules with our environment. I think we truly do live in a magical and mystical world and will always be reminded of this by appreciating the sacred in all that we experience. Making art and other means of tuning into so called altered states of consciousness allow us at their best to quiet down the chatter of the mind and experience the vast ocean of peace and silence that exists beyond our normal day to day states of consciousness. Ideally eventually we will also learn to silence our minds when we desire to do so. The ability to do this will likely become more and more important in the information filled world we have created. Without selective listening one will be lost in the modern world and using wisdom is perhaps more important now than ever before.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Shamanic artists in our midst

From: darla — Sep 28, 2010

With many artists, motifs arise by themselves. We can choose to put in personal spiritual and symbolic images or not, but to do it just for the sake of making our art more marketable seems sort of fake. Just two words: cozy cottages!

From: Chris Everest — Sep 28, 2010

Would it be fair to suggest the late Susan Seddons Boulet fitted into this shamanic artist category ?

From: Dianne Mize — Sep 28, 2010

Finally, somebody with credibility is addressing this topic. Thank you, Robert.

From: Arthur — Sep 28, 2010

What’s that stuff you’ve been smoking?

From: Elihu — Sep 28, 2010

That smug phrase “gullible Cro-Magnons” gets me. It would appear that these early humans were more in touch with spirit than we are. A remarkable amount of work by younger artists around here (Tyler TX) is notably shamanic.

From: Deb Sims — Sep 28, 2010

Robert, you struck a special chord in my life today. I am in the midst of “finding my voice,” getting over the doubts and inertia that have always dogged my art making. I am following Tory Hughes “Five Simple Directions” and at this point am setting my intention. One of my passions has always been prehistoric and primitive art, petroglyphs, etc. They move me in a way that I cannot adequately describe. One of my intentions is to include this passion in my art making — no idea how yet! but it will become clearer as I work through the process. The list of “considerations for a modern shaman” is electric for me! I have printed them out in bold colors and they are hanging over my work space! Thank you!

From: John DeCuir — Sep 28, 2010
From: Forrest Boden — Sep 28, 2010

If we learn to listen to the earth and to her children through an open heart, we will re-member how to live.

From: Linda Saccoccio — Sep 28, 2010

Yes!! This letter brings to life what may be hard for some to accept, but the artist who has engaged in the magic of surrender and visionary pull will no doubt feel this is the reality. Thanks for sharing these potentially expansive portals about the experience of the mystic artist. I concur! :)

From: David Mosier — Sep 28, 2010
From: Ron Lightburn — Sep 28, 2010

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” (Albert Einstein)

From: Helen Musser — Sep 28, 2010

Robert, thank you for directing us to the book you talk about. Life is so full of mystery every day; especially for the artist. How images spontaneously appear in our work has been a puzzle to me for a long while now. Is it from the brain or the spirit of the artist? Perhaps both have a part to play. However the images appear; it is wonderful to see in our work.

From: Michael Young — Sep 28, 2010

Were I to tackle a metaphoric sculpture of the Shamanic hypothesis it would be in Swiss cheese.

From: Diana Lancaster — Sep 28, 2010
From: Peter Brown — Sep 28, 2010

We must first admit that we do not know whether men or women were painting cave art. If you start with this most rational question, you should be very careful about making assumptions. The newest cave discovered, with art from 35,000 years ago is Chauvet Cave. It has no arrows, just hundreds of animals. It also has several depictions of the female human vulva. David Lewis- Williams is perhaps making things up? You say torch light, the evidence in Chauvet Cave says huge fires. Personally, I do not think my ancestor humans were mixed up with magic. They were mixed up with survival. As are we. You make a huge jump from cave art to shamanism. The cave artists depicted animals, and the birth canal. They suggested the real world. There is no hint of magic. There is no hint of shamanism. Check your facts. You are discussing human beings that survived an ice age. That suggests that they were tough, intelligent, and smart. I doubt that they had time for magic. Think. We humans are incredible. We were not born of magical thinking. We are the smartest apes that ever lived! We made art to prove it. I do not think that we humans made art to serve some shaman. The human goal is to be human. We make pictures! We sing! We die. Do not insult me with shamans. I am a human being! I walk this earth the best I can. I need no shaman, no ghost. I am a human being. My ancestors go back about three billion years. I am happy to live and die.

From: Puravida — Sep 28, 2010
From: Thierry — Sep 28, 2010

Peter Brown, you are NOT careful about making assumptions: 1. “my ancestor humans were mixed up with survival”: you don’t know that Peter; for many it may have been a leisurely time. 2. “human beings survived an ice age, which suggests that they were tough, intelligent, and smart”: you don’t know that Peter ; I have seen some pretty stupid people survive against many odds.

From: Melanie Harth, Ph.D. — Sep 28, 2010

What an intriguing topic! I often work shamanically, which ultimately can be defined as how one lives one’s life. It isn’t relegated to making a piece of art. Can’t be. Meaning, I strive to live in ways that a) honor the natural world and all its inhabitants, b) acknowledge my own two-legged humbleness and its proper place (often full of ignorance and ego and rampant, radical stupidity), c) keep me open to and connected with the worlds beyond the one we think we literally see. It means I have to surrender to not-knowing, I have to give up at least some control of the piece, I have to understand that it will emerge as it needs to. At the same time, I am the one holding the brush and working the support. I am the one who’s got a deadline for a finished piece. Big paradox, full of mystery and mystical understanding that is beyond human ken, in the end. It also demands a far different criteria than the one used exclusively to determine “good” art, meaning salable art. Working shamanically can be an easy out for crappy quality. Which, of course, depends on the intention of the piece — if I’m wailing a soul longing using paint and canvas, that is decidedly not (necessarily) me getting the representational tree just right. Or maybe it is. Perhaps it’s both. I’m left with this: it’s quite the ride to have been chosen to be an artist working in this manner. Wouldn’t — couldn’t — do it any other way. Sing –hallelujah! — and sigh, deeply, at the same time.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Sep 29, 2010

Interesting! I’d like to comment on Peter Brown’s rational “debunking”. We don’t know the impetus that drove our ancestors to create cave art. But the fact remains that in lives (as are ours) focussed on survival, they found the time, interest and compulsion to create images. I would like to think that the images they chose were ones that were important to them. But image-making, itself, does not contribute to survival, so there has to be some sort of spiritual component, if we assume that these ancients were not just practising interior decorating. The point could be made that caves were special because they referenced female anatomy: entering a cave symbolized procreation. Image-making takes place for many reasons. In some societies, it is an uncomplicated pastime, perhaps a way to record one’s life and “keep” the important occasions within it. Some societies are very suspicious of image-making, and some attribute religious overtones to certain images. I think that, while we may all be “hard-wired” for religion and art, some people are either naturally, or by training, more attuned to those neural pathways, and perhaps, the images thus depicted resonate in some intuitive way.

From: Pete Gerard — Sep 29, 2010

What on earth did you mean in today’s column by people “consuming” art? Other than professionally arranged bowls of fruit, I was not aware of that much edible art on the market. Or are people acquiring art and then consuming it in bonfires, as the Nazis did? If I was a buyer of art of any style or media, consuming it would be the furthest thing from my mind. Robert Hughes said on a recent Ovation TV program (and I paraphrase him here) that the purpose of art used to be to remind us that there’s more to life than our everyday concerns. But the purpose of art today is to hang on the wall and grow more valuable. Consuming art does not align very well with either of these ideas, and for this reason I feel you’ve made a poor choice of words. Most of us are consumers to one degree or another but I don’t believe I know any art consumers. Santa Fe, N.M.

From: Lynda Lehmann — Sep 29, 2010

I have often thought that creative process is hard-wired in us in the same way that a need for religion or spirituality is. Particularly in the case of abstract art, because it carries ambiguity (and therefore mystery) and pertains to universal and timeless patterns and strivings that we cannot readily name. While realism may also convey beauty and mystery, abstraction strikes more deeply into the essence of creative heart and energy. This is my opinion, based on my own experiences with abstract painting. When I “draw” a subject, I feel the need for a measure of exactitude and the finite dictates of the moment. For me, this feels academic and quickly becomes limiting and boring. But when I enter the creative process in a spirit of adventure and willingness to confront the unknown, magic really happens! I become excited, animated, eager, and often my movement around the table or easel escalates into a joyous dance. I always feel, in that particular state, a sense of freedom and abandon, and a connection to what I would call the “primordial forces” that propel us all through life. It is then that I feel the vastness and mystery of the cosmos, the stream of human consciousness and experience, and absolute joy — all through my own tiny channel. Yet the idea that I can connect with this state of being whenever I will (or can afford to) give myself the time and space, is exhilarating!

From: Shirley Fachilla — Sep 29, 2010

For me, magical thinking and magical painting just happens. I wish it happened more often, but it isn’t something I’ve been able to consciously summon. Maybe your tips will help me call forth the magic. The painting I’ve attached is an example of unexpected magical resonance. It’s one of my open studio attempts to make the very typical and often-seen, open-studio pose more interesting for me as a painter. I painted the same model twice on the same canvas but from two slightly different perspectives. This is a strategy I’ve used several times, but the first time (this one) was the most successful. Not because it was the best rendering or the best composition, unfortunately, it was neither. And not because it was of the best model, she wasn’t. She was lovely but bored. Yet somehow the painting ended up conveying mystery and carrying layers of meaning, some of them downright sinister. A friend called it, “The Evil Twin.” I think he caught its atmosphere.

From: Carol Spicuzza — Sep 29, 2010

David Lewis-Williams’ ideas come very close to describing my artistic practice. For me, the connection between religion and art revolves around the experience of the “numinous”. The religious thinker Rudolf Otto defined the idea of the numinous as an experience that underlies all religion. It is a deep emotional resonance with something and I find it central to my creative process. The numinous is a quality that seems to exist outside ourselves and it is as though due to an invisible presence. My paintings usually begin with a numinous experience of an everyday object or a scene. The experience can be described as a feeling of being transfixed by the thing before you. It seems to exude an aura of meaning and existence beyond its apparent worldly one. A vital connection to it is felt that belies its mundane reality. There is a feeling of being caught in an electrical current, an energy that would convey its significance in the form of a feeling. I try to suspend the intellect and accept the reality of the unseen, remaining in a state of suspension where I don’t distinguish between what we think of as the real and the unreal, the seen and the unseen. Through the suspension of the intellect I attempt to maintain a state of receptivity in order that the unconscious can come in and guide me. Upon confronting the object, my eye turns inward to experience the response of the unconscious, to intuit where the thing has come from, where it is going and what wants to be associated with it. In this way, I attempt to create an image that joins the subject’s unconscious, archaic roots with its modern meaning. It is as you said – like conveying a trance.

From: Diane Furlong — Sep 29, 2010

Isn’t this what is happening when a painting seems to paint itself? Haven’t we all had the experience of working to express a vision that does not want to appear but upon stepping back and giving over to contemplation, the way becomes clear? Or when those magic strokes seem to drop off the pastel stick (or paint brush) without effort or prior thought? These are always the best works and come out of the artist’s cosmic connection to the Universe.

From: Kim Rody — Sep 29, 2010

Every once in a while, things just appear. In this piece, it was only after I completely finished the jelly fish painting that I stood back and noticed all the female body parts and shapes. I have no idea where they come from, and I wasn’t conscious of them during the process. It’s never quite happened to me again, but I’m waiting for it.

From: Edith Rae Brown — Sep 29, 2010

I just love reading each and every e-mail you send. Every topic is so well written and thought provoking in just the right amount of words. Thanks so much for giving your artist community such worthwhile material to read and to whatever assistance you have in the way of staff. I’m not sure about your set up as it all just seems too good to be true. I am very selective of what I read but when your e-mail comes I am sure to open it before anything else. Thanks for sharing your insights along with your gift for putting it down on paper so well.

From: Wes Giesbrecht — Sep 29, 2010

Lately I’ve been playing at bringing some spirits back from the past with an art form of my own devise that I’ve been at for about 11 years now. Movie and rock music icons to be precise. The ‘pixels’ are one inch squares of wood of various species mounted on a cloth backing. They hang loose and floppy and can be rolled up for shipping. I also do abstracts and geometric forms in this medium as well as abstract paintings. I wouldn’t call my work religious. It’s about connections. Person to person.

From: John Smith — Sep 29, 2010

In your esoterica you talk about bringing entities and images for some other world or plain to us. In studies of Rock painting in South Africa and in Europe it seems the intention was just the other way around and that they saw these animals and images as a means for us to visit the other side. In many paintings the figures are actually hanging on to the tails of these ‘departing’ creatures and they seem to believe now that when these images are surrounded with little dots it indicates that they are spirit or heading into the spiritual realm. Also it is interesting that the same imagery and symbolism applied to the cave paintings in Europe and the early San people of Southern Africa. e.g. the little white dots surrounding images. This link between artists and religion has endured till fairly modern times and one thinks of Native American Indians symbols and totem poles, The Aboriginals of Australia and the all the symbols and deities of Christianity. Angels, halo’s and what God and Jesus Christ looked like. All figments of the Artist’s creative imagination…….or were they?

From: Nicholas Diment — Sep 29, 2010

Inasmuch as most artists have delusions of grandeur, crave messianic power over others, we are all Shamans. You are on to something here Robert, I think, but I have to go tend to my sheep.

From: Jim Carpenter — Sep 29, 2010

I have been asking myself many of the same questions you pose regarding the figures that *appear* on my paper. My work changed rather dramatically two years ago, after about 6 months of beginning my daily practice of Cosmos Chi Kung, a meditative healing martial art. I went from painting the flowers and landscapes in front of me in watercolor to painting from a more intuitive place with nothing in front of me but the paper and paint. At first the images that emerged on the paper seemed to be connected to my theatre and dance background, although occasionally a figure which seemed to harken back to my spiritual and religious training made an appearance. I considered that I might be cycling through deeply imbedded images in my subconscious, but ultimately with a shrug and a smile I acknowledged that the painting is telling me something about who I am. I believe that my practice of Chi Kung has opened the pathways that allow me to paint this way. I don’t know that I’m a Shamanic artist, but I do find myself talking about the paintings as if I’m just doing their bidding as they tell me what they want to be. I have to laugh! I do feel fully engaged in a creative process that constantly surprises me.

From: Thierry — Sep 29, 2010

After some consideration, I find that Robert’s suggestions above are exellent. Who cares what our forefather did or didn’t do. Who cares whether shamanic is good or bad: the suggestions are great. I can’t wait to get back to my atelier.

From: Mark Pringle — Sep 30, 2010

We have a source of inspiration for this genre here in the American southwest. Rock art images that depict animal/human/spirit being interactions are common throughout the region. One artist/archaeologist has called these images “spirit windows” into another world. You might enjoy the American Rock Art Research Association’s web site that links to photos of some these images.

From: Caroline Planting — Sep 30, 2010

It’s sometimes hard to put your fears, feelings, etc directly on the canvas/paper. While I was in Vermont (just an incredible residency, it changed my whole idea of my art and who I am as an artist!) I saw a crossing guard cross two children near an elementary school nearby and started a painting of them. I realized she was myself, letting go of my older son, who moved back for 7 months and is leaving tomorrow for Denver. So I was able to go with it and make it somewhat abstract.

From: Susan Lewis — Sep 30, 2010

Your essay on art as totemic icons really connected to the point of nudging me to write back, as that is a theme I have worked with for the past 10 years. I would love to invite you to peek at my website The portfolio areas of “Dancers”, “Birds”, and “Vehicles” all have been based upon that thinking. Art is a powerful spiritual clarifier.

From: Gerry Petersen — Sep 30, 2010

Simply the best and wisest art forum on the net, this one.

From: Nancy Chargualaf Martin — Sep 30, 2010

In my daily meditations – apparitions and totemic images show themselves. I allow them to lead me somewhere, anywhere. Driven by the not knowing, shadows miraculously appear leading me into the magical awareness of self.

From: Eustace Delahunt — Sep 30, 2010

Cro-Magnons were likely to be even more fearful, ignorant and gullible than today’s crowd. Although today’s crowd can be pretty slow at times.

From: Jack T. White — Sep 30, 2010

Although Cro-magnons were supposed to be smarter than Neanderthals living at the same time, who, according to some experts, had little in the way of imagination, and died out because of this shortcoming.

From: Cheryl Renee Long — Sep 30, 2010

I wonder why you think Cro-Magnon man was fearful and gullible? I think that is a questionable presumption. Also, I wonder if it is appropriate to parallel shamanic trance with the religious state? I think we can probably language it a lot better than that although there is some overlap. As you know, Shamanism is widely practiced today, it is very current. Michael Harner, pHd is one of the respected key authorities on this subject. For any artist who wishes an good introduction to shamanism without drugs, Harner’s beginning course is probably the best available. Thank you for bringing shamanism to our attention

From: Susan Elizabeth Hale — Sep 30, 2010

I read your letter with much interest. Twice I have been to France to visit painted caves. I was able to obtain permission to go to the prehistoric cave of Lascaux (not the copy) as I was doing research for my book Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places. I asked to sing there and had a very altering experience. It was only afterward that I read the research of Iegor Reznikoff and Steven J. Waller that suggests that the animals were painted in the most resonant part of the cave. Later, I went to the Grotte de Niaux and again experienced great resonance in the Salon Noir where the bison were painted.One of the things about shamanism is that all the arts are integrated: dance, music, painting, incantation,nature. And the senses of sight,sound, smell, and touch are also part of ritual. Our bodies are involved in sacred communion where our extra-senses can come into play more easily and we can receive messages from the Otherworld, from the place of the ancestors, to guide us.

From: Shayla Markham — Sep 30, 2010

Hi, Jill! I find your artwork to be downright inspiring! Your subject/theme choices, your sense of whimsy, and your great sense of color combine to serve up appealing life topics to ponder! It is quite challenging to paint in your style, and I can’t help but wonder where this curator received her education in art! I hope you can eventually move to another gallery! In the meantime, please continue painting these fabulous works of art! I’m trying to select a favorite out of your paintings which Robert is displaying today on his website. It’s tough! I like them all, but, I will make special mention of your farm work that shows farm animals on the hill and garden veggie roots underground in the foreground. To me, it is a precious reminder about where our resources come from! I love gardening and animals as much as painting, and this painting speaks to my heart!! Best Wishes for Continued Success! :) Shayla

From: Laurie Fox PESSEMIER ( — Oct 01, 2010

Disposable? that’s fine — they can buy more of your art! I have clients who purchase my art, give it as gifts, put it away, buy more… Happy art gets around.

From: sharon cory — Oct 01, 2010

I too love Jill’s work. It’s fun and happy…no wonder people buy it. It’s easy to step on toes in the Art World. Let the criticism roll off your back and paint your own paintings.

From: Robert R Moore ( — Oct 01, 2010

I haven’t read these comments before but will certainly do so in the future. I have read your most welcome letters for some years now and have gleaned a lot of very useful ideas. The reason for this note is your letter on symbolism. Our weekly painting group was discussing your letter and I noticed that the words symbolism and mood seemed to be used interchangeably; I don’t agree that they are the same but maybe in some areas they complement each other. I find it interesting, what do you think Robert?

From: Kristi Bridgeman — Oct 01, 2010

The creative relationship with basic human archetypes can be communicated through art to human perception. I am inspired to partner the healing, the meditation, or prayer, with a theme in need of consideration, like world peace or awareness of our environment. The central motif, the Khamsa (Hamsa, Eye of Shiva) is a protective amulet found in several eastern cultures. A Hamsa is meant to be hung in the home – often with a Hamsa prayer for peace and protection. I chose to create this Khamsa mandala as a form of personal meditation that was cathartic in time of crisis, but in this same way, it also feels a fitting time for a global peaceful Mandala with a Khamsa symbol. Khamsa Prayer Let no sadness come through this gate. Let no trouble come to this dwelling. Let no fear come through this door. Let no conflict be in this place. Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace.

From: A Bray — Oct 01, 2010

Jill, “disposable art” are not the right words, but you know what the curator was trying to express. Your work is different. As long as you are creating your infectiously accessible style of art, you will be dismissed by some as “not serious”. Many art snobs will reject your work. Others will love it. Personally, I think you know exactly what your work is about, and that’s all that really matters.

From: Dereka Ogden — Oct 01, 2010

I love Jill Dukovnik’s work and I certainly don’t think it is disposable art, but very “now” work. Keep going Jill.

From: Herb — Oct 01, 2010

Were you the shaman who gave spiritual guidance to this lost soul the other day when I was looking for a Starbucks on Fifth Ave between 54th and 55th? I was the one with paint on my pants.

From: jon — Oct 01, 2010

The word spiritual has lost its strength along with the word awsome.Its used to describe almost everything.Aphrase that is seldomly used in art circles anymore is good art.

From: Monica — Oct 02, 2010

I love Jill’s art! My husband (an artist as well) have always been drawn to art with a feeling of happiness and humour. Who says that art needs to be dark and disturbing to be of quality?! Jill shows a beautiful personal style and I completely understand why it sells so well.

From: Marie-Therese Forand — Oct 02, 2010

Jill Bukovnik’s painting are inspiring, colorful, and happy. His work stands out in a crowd, I love them! Please continue on your way to greatness Jill, you will succeed the way Norval Morisseau did. I was told that my paintings were ‘crap’, at first it really hurt my feelings, then I thought, that is only one bad opinion in a thousand – so I continue to paint!

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 02, 2010

I’ve been an artist all my life. Due to the need to get out of a suicidal depression I had to heal myself- 25 years ago. That process involved my DJ career paralleling my visual art- while my mixed music provided a soundtrack to mystical dancing- which opened me up to the energy forces of the Universe. Then- simply learning how to use these forces made me a shaman- and my work an outplaying of that. My 3-person Show “conStructural” with Clark Richert and Lydia Brokaw opens at the Boulder Colorado Public Library on October 17. I am presenting a lecture and (virtually obsolete) slide show titled “The Sacred Path of the Artist/Mystic” beginning at 7:15 pm on Wednesday November 17 with a 73 minute mixed music meditation just before (doors open @ 6 pm). The auditorium seats 250 people. I should have an email invite next week- Info Requests:

From: Mary Carnahan — Oct 03, 2010

Peter Brown — thank you.

From: Gavin Logan — Oct 04, 2010

Mr Peter Brown asks no questions. His world view is pat. Robert asks questions. He makes most people think. That’s why everyone reads him.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 04, 2010

I would suggest to Mr Peter Brown that he has- as almost all humans do- limited himself to the mundane world. I have not. I pity him his limitations- Anything is possible right now- especially discovering the magic that is everywhere present- And then living in and even becoming fully part of that magic!

From: G. W. Emprise — Oct 10, 2010

Imagination is not only one of the greatest strengths of humans, it is also one of the greatest dangers, when run amok. The use of imagination and the exploitation of it in others must be done with great care, and responsibly.

From: Erika Ponderevski — Oct 10, 2010

All this talk of magic, shamanism, and spirit has geven me a craving for peanut M&M’s and Hulu. It’s cold outside, so I’ll put my jacket on when I walk to the Dollar Store for the candy. It will be dark, so I’ll watch traffic carefully when I cross the street. Sometimes a stop light is just a stop light.

From: Dr. Jody Bowle-Evans — Nov 02, 2010

To Jill Bukovnik, Disposable art indeed. This it is not Be proud of what you do jody

From: Robert Isler Wanka — Nov 24, 2010

One might ask, why in this age, does the Shaman not play an important role in our culture? I think the answer lies in comments like what I read in “This letter on Line”. It is easy to get mired in projecting ones own negative connotations into another’s art. As well, it is equally easy to write-off another’s ideas and intuitions unless and of course they posses the proper standing . . . as in an intellectual standing of some publicly agreed upon measure of legitimacy. In either case, history has shown us that it can be dangerous for individuals of no particular public measure of respect, to speak openly as a Shaman or to demonstrate an understanding of the important questions in our lives. Being crucified comes to mind both figuratively and literally. This is the case because there is a resistance in this culture to believing that within us all there resides a Shaman. It is in that resistance that one is blinded from seeing the spiritual causes behind life’s important questions; it also has the resounding effect of questioning the validity or existence of the Shaman in another. This is the root of disrespect and misunderstanding in the world today, a vacancy of a sense of the sacred in all things, and especially in oneself. An artist may ask “how does one project a spiritual, Shamanic answer to life’s important questions in a painting, and do so in a way that can bridge the chasm of misunderstanding?” The answer, by respecting and listening to the Shaman in you.

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Sun Shadow

acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches by Sharon Cummings, FL, USA

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Linda Saccoccio of Santa Barbara, CA, USA, who wrote, “This letter brings to life what may be hard for some to accept, but the artist who has engaged in the magic of surrender and visionary pull will no doubt feel this is the reality.” And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Coquitlam, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Art has been abused to manipulate people by totalitarian regimes and revolutionaries even in the recent history. Many of us manipulate the viewers with the objective to provide a positive experience — ‘white magic’ I guess.” And also Maxx Maxted of Nimbin, New South Wales, Australia, who wrote, “Some of my best work has been done in that ‘freedom’ of nebulous blotches, the da Vinci device, that resolve somewhere into an internally identifiable image.” And also Marney Ward of Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I think we are coming out of a period of deep spiritual alienation, and I think that artists of all kinds can lead the way. Our consciousness does inform our art, and our art carries our consciousness within it, transferring it to those who view our work. Our art can heal. It doesn’t have to echo the dissonance of the world; it can echo the most profound harmony deep within our own souls.”