I'm at work on a number of blog posts--bones 2.0, 3.0 etc., thoughts on giving new life to "dead" materials like shells and bones, making vessels, and more. As a kind of placeholder here, I'm sharing images I've taken on recent travels that I enlivened with some photo editing, usually with the Prisma app. I see this as quite similar to the "re-animation" I do with natural detritus. That will follow soon. Meanwhile, enjoy the images.
Today, the topic is bones: musings and images, both of bones themselves and some of my pieces that incorporate them. This is a huge topic to tackle, for I have been collecting and working with bones for decades. I have wonderful stories--boiling down deer legs to extract the animal’s toe and shin bones, playing with sea robin skulls, hanging out at the (sadly defunct) Bone Room in Berkeley... I will certainly post Bones 2.0, Bones 3.0 and so on as I am inspired in coming months, and will share more of the particulars. May this entry serve as a teaser that will pull you in for more.
I am drawn to the remarkable forms that bones take, each of course serving a specific and essential structural purpose. And so different--the weightlessness of bird bones, supporting the bird but allowing it to soar; the solidity of a buffalo jaw; the strength for bearing down evident in a horses' tooth; the mandala-like form of concentric rings on a fish vertebrae. Each a truly magnificent design.
It's fascinating that bones hold such a draw for me, since at this point in my life I am quite concerned with bone density. I can almost feel my own bones tingling in sympathetic recognition as I handle the bones of other creatures, feel their heft, clean them, sometimes drill through them or even dye them. I am saddened by the fact that for most people the typical first association with bone is death. Yes, the bone I work with is no longer living tissue, replete with blood and moisture (living bone is one fourth water), but it holds the imprint of the animal it supported.
Here is a selection of pieces I have made with bone.
One of the most powerful things happening in the culture today is the rise of the deep feminine. We see it manifest in the #MeToo movement where women are standing up to not only speak their truth, but to insist on having it heard. But this rising energy goes far beyond women’s rights; it is about a new level of consciousness where the sacredness of all life and its concomitant values—compassion, inclusivity, the impetus to heal and make whole—are taking hold. The deep feminine is heart and spirit- (not logic) based, and it values creativity, imagination, and intuition. It sees earth as holy, as a living (mother) being. This is reflected in the growing awareness of ecological systems. The place I see it taken to its fullest expression is in the permaculture movement, whose advocates understand that it is the earth itself that holds the answers. Permaculturists are paying attention and learning to follow her wisdom.
The deep feminine is incompatible with most of the values that have governed our culture for so long—the patriarchal reality that has winners and losers and cultivates competition—ultimately, cultivates war—and values hierarchy and differential power. Even a cursory look at the world around us shows us that the old male paradigm is still ferociously trying to hold on. Nevertheless, the emerging energy is increasingly palpable and undeniable.
For quite a few years, I have been making collages that image this shift. (They have primarily come through in my SoulCollage® cards, and that is what I am documenting here.) I did not do this intentionally, but after several of the images began to speak to me, I realized I was seeing an actual theme, one which was showing up quite insistently. At first I was surprised and even confused by this, for I didn’t feel the issue of patriarchy was directly relevant to me. I had spent time uncovering it in the 1970s and speaking out for the women’s perspective in my academic work, but I was not feeling personally oppressed or needing to work through anything about the issue. But over time I came to understand the images were reflecting what was going on not so much in my own life, but in mass consciousness. The theme went far beyond patriarchy, moreover, and was about the more mythic and paradigmatic deep feminine. Once I saw what was emerging in the collages, I was fascinated to notice how the imagery and messages evolved over time, reflecting—or even presaging?—the evolving paradigmatic shift.
These images started to come through in 2011. THE WOMAN WHO MUST WATCH came first. She wasn’t expressly talking about male or female issues, but she was pretty powerless. She said,
I am a witness, without hands to fashion and create, without a strong voice. I must watch in silence. Fire may rise in my breast (my heart is alive) but it remains contained; I stand quiet and witness as the vast sea.
Someone else who saw her dubbed her “Our Lady of Perpetual Cleanup”—the one who has to clean up after everyone. I felt she stood for the housewife of the 1950s, the female ideal I grew up with.
About a month later, two other images came through that were very clear about male privilege.
THE FATE OF WOMEN; VOICE OF THE PATRIARCHY had something of the same message as The Woman who Must Wait, but it was much more overt. The central figure carries Eve’s apple, representing a temptress or a kept-in-place scarlet woman, but she is actually a wooden figure, a stiff early American folk sculpture. The idea that she is a temptress seems ridiculous since she is only a child—an innocent—but she was still portrayed that way. She is, ironically, holding the “good book”—the Bible of Christian patriarchal culture. The red tufts in the background are part of a knitted textile, a type of fiber art. Since the 1960s, when the wave of consciousness-raising was at its peak, I have been conscious of fiber as a woman-identified and poorly respected art form. This detail thus also expresses the same idea of the devaluing of women. The collage said,
I am the one who carries the old woman’s place, constrained and taught young to keep silent, fear of the temptress. I live in the world of women’s work, fiber forms, encoded memory of being kept in line.
THE AUTHORITATIVE JUDGE appeared the same day. He said,
I am the one who screams at you and tells you that you did it wrong. My…heart is icy; I hold cold judgment. I am male judgment and superiority. You cannot find me because I live in an underground landscape, on an icy planet.
GRANDFATHER SHEPHERD came through a little later. I found this image both ambiguous and disturbing. The man literally reminded me of my grandfather and seemed to have a kind face, but his flock was puzzling. I wrote, “He is tending this flock of obedient, women, who we cannot see. They are sunlit, maybe praying, but always hidden. He guards them. He holds some wisdom, but he is tired, he has been doing this a long, long time.”
When I asked him to speak, he said,
I am grandfather, the old one, surviving a century, and I touch with the flippers of the mighty turtle. I hear echoes, and am curtained by generations of women, subservient, obedient, silent, who echo ritual through time, long echoing prayer and chanting. That is behind me, but I am not part of that, I look forward, touching into female power of the deep. I am a guardian at the edge and I gently nudge you on.
In hindsight, I see him as the first transition figure that came through. He was an old man—a male caught in his long-entrenched role, and he needed the women to bring forth more, something new.
In 2012, there was more about the blending of male and female.
CHAND’S SWEET BEACON is an intriguing, almost amusing image, where the central figure is coming out of a pastry. Nek Chand was a self-taught artist whose community was devastated by the partition of India and Pakistan. He lived in Chandigarh, a city created out the remains of 26 villages on the Indian side of the border. In 1958, he secretly began creating figures for a sculpture garden in the forest buffer area between the two countries. He did this in secret, using waste materials such as broken glass, bangles, and crockery from the demolition sites. A 13 acre park eventually contained about 2,000 statues, one of which is included here.
I am one who emerges from the yin and yang of sweetness, I am a masculine-looking woman—a somewhat everyman/woman who was made by a man obsessed with creating a world of peace—in an ugly place, made beautiful. I am transformative power. I hold a glowing jewel, amber frozen resin perhaps, or glass, or sugar candy—but it pulsates and is breast-like, with a nipple, to feed. I am an earth mother of sorts, holding nurturance not from my body directly, but the awareness I bring. I have swirls and waves of sweetness. I have jewels, reconfigured bits sometimes. I hold out this nurturing, pulsating gift to you, glowing, glowing. It is my gift, reaching to you. It’s always here, a beacon, I am balanced, balancing, in perpetual offering.
THE GENDERS SHIFT (RENAISSANCE HERMAPHRODITE) said:
I am the one who holds the shifting genders. I am the power figure, seeming male, but dressed now as a woman, fully clothed in veils and velvet, holding power in a crossed body, a new guise. The boys are the ones holding the apple now, or starting to, though there’s one who might be female too. We keep looking, staring not at each other, but at the hidden temptation. Flowing cloth, Renaissance splendor, turned around to an ambiguous moment, that turning of the tide, changing of the story, mystery of the golden apple.
Renaissance imagery returned in 2014. It was used in SISTINE BIRTHING (OF THE GENTLE MALE)
I am an odd creature, coming out of my chrysalis, still emerging into form—I come from the birth canal behind, which is full of mystery. I have multiple parts, maybe several bodies that will separate when we are no longer girdled. I reach for the energies floating around me, the nurturing orbs, though my eyes are still closed. Someone is watching me, perhaps another recently emerged or still emerging soul. I am masculine, taking form in a way recognizable to the male world, but I come from and am aligned with the female birthing place. I will be a gentler male force, as there is a glow from the female place and the glow from the orange orbs. I/we are wrapped in a light form, come here to this darker world. We have potential since we are lit with grace.
A Renaissance-era man was also featured in THROUGH THE GENERATIONS. He said,
I, the old one, hold the light of the future. I am a gentle male, fully birthed from the chrysalis of the Sistine Birthing, matured into a wise elder grandfather. I support the child, hold him gently and with reverence, as he/she contemplates the magic and the mystery and the beautiful world. I am well dressed and comfortable, well-fed, at ease, and the baby is as well, held in protective, loving cloth.
I remind you that we are all evolving, that you hold the future lovingly in your arms and support it as it—the children—discover their world. Teach them the magic and help them hold the glow. Boys as well as girls. I am grandfather, not managing the flock of shrouded women (Grandfather Shepherd), but with a new message about what is passed on. I am not a sufferer, and that is not the inheritance I leave; I am calm, stable, and reverent.
Please hold us with compassion and help us maintain the glow and female wisdom.
Renaissance-era figures even came through in some of the 2015 images. The Renaissance was apparently symbolizing the logical, “rational” element of the male paradigm—it was the “rebirth” of Western civilization, but it meant that much of the mystical, spiritual connection was lost.
LOOKING TO THE LEFT stated,
I am a young woman (still a girl) of the past—the Renaissance era, the big bubble hat keeping me off balance to the right as the male world pulls me there. But I look to the left,… with some longing. Behind me, beautiful order, light-filled and satisfying. I am centered within that. Over my head a powerful form, a scythe of sorts, dark, like my shadow, threatening; or an umbrella, sheltering me; or a staff, upright and empowering, though still overwhelming…
I am well framed, in a story, and we can step out of this picture at any time; the club/scythe is already breaking those boundaries of the Western world and its tale.
HERALD THE NEW ERA included a female figure exhibiting the classic “Gothic slouch,” again looking to the left. It also featured a group of huddled, seemingly frightened men. The card was made at the time of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when the ram’s horns (shofars) are ceremonially sounded.
The shofars are piled up, ready to be taken up and blown, heralding the new year, the new era, really moving into the 21st century and a new consciousness. There is a safe enclosing god-like figure holding those who are afraid, but it’s still a male, seemingly angry, clothed in the purple robes of state power. The people being contained are all men also. They are afraid, huddling together for protection. They can only see their own space and their own reality. Moving away from them, looking out to the left, is a woman, unafraid of the naked truth and going toward the newness the shofar is about to proclaim. Follow the feminine principle, with a different kind of togetherness and fearlessness. The light is glowing behind, this will be a time of a new consciousness. Join me, she says, she the new Eve.
Another 2015 image, THE BURDEN OF MAN, drew on other mythology. It features characters from Kolomon Moser’s 1905 painting, The Fight of the Titans, which references the epic battle of the male gods from the mythology of ancient Greece. It also incorporates figures from the East – iconic Japanese faces are attached to a woman’s body. The collage told me,
I am one who carries the weight of the burden—white man’s burden, every man’s burden, carrying the rocks up the hill, Sisyphusian, struggling. There is light, and we, the men, are lit by the sun, but we look away, ready to hurl and attack. I hold the woman whose face is hidden, the angry male voices coming forth from her, and she too looks away, but in her hand is the sun-orb, the coming day. We must look toward it, lift our heads and calm these orange men. See how beautiful our forms are, our curves, our lines, our humanity. Woman, earth-voice, raise your face to the sun you carry, let that dream fall away, their voices fade out, dream a new dream of warmth, and follow the coming day.
CONTEMPLATING THE FUTURE echoed the idea that men also want to transcend the male paradigm. It too went beyond the Western world, this time using imagery from Islam.
I am a lone man looking for the way out and through—looking to the future while still in the forms and spaces of the past. I am bookended and framed by all the devices and patterns of the old era, and I am trying to find god. My aloneness creates space but I need to join with others and move forward. There are openings here, and reminders of pathways and new perspectives. I can follow the light beams—the light path. The lavender is gentle, a sensibility not of machismo or the patriarchy, but a new middle way with feminized sensibility. The book I am reading is almost blank—just traces remain of the old and it’s time to stop reading the old or embroidering this old story and start moving down this path.
The theme of new futures showed up in a few other images in the next year or so, but they were less focused on the male and female paradigms. In 2017, however, the theme re-emerged, and the message was completely clear.
EMERGING PARADIGM was made after the Woman’s March with the “pussy hats” protesting Trump’s presidential inauguration, so the pink was a very clear reference to women coming together.
I have a face and an energy from the old reality, a bit sad or melancholy, caught as I am in the frozen stone of where women have been held. In my old form I do not have great color. But see my pink: pink arising—this feminine power still emerging. Note the communication cord, moving to the new unfurling, the new necklace. There is pink emerging even in the cornice, coming out from behind, and centering on the third eye. And there are angels there too, flanking that space. They hold this process in love. The necklace at the throat, the new open-centered (open-hearted) circle of the coming collective consciousness is the voice of what comes. The black and white is pinked—no longer opposites. These are weaver’s threads, cables, and cords. It’s all flexible medium, soft, coiled and expandable, expansive. It is/it will be round, open-ended, not fixed in place.
The last image I offer here was made in the spring of 2018. THE PAIN OF MEN goes even further with the idea that men are also oppressed by the old paradigm.
The background in this image is a vast crowd of protesting miners. There are also the minorities suffering the pain of abuse, the capitalists who exploit, and the men who are beginning to wake up to the pain of what has been going on, (an image from current news of the men being called to task for patriarchal abuse). The new men—in color—are looking on, the only ones looking to the left. They are not yet happy, but there is a hand on the heart; they are in transition. They know that the power-mongers always act that way because of their inner pain.
The image spoke:
I am another marker on the way, holding the pain. It is still there, but now beginning to be seen. Watch: we can emerge to the alternate universe. Send us love, we wish to emerge, and know it is a heavy, heavy burden for us too.
There are times when I am able to look at what’s around me with what I think of as my “poet’s eye”—a kind of alert, charged vision that holds the world in deep appreciation. Everything I see seems transformed; everything I look at comes into sharp focus, and seems to have highly saturated colors. It holds dramatic value contrast, and clear and shimmery light. I love that state, that way of seeing, and I am interested in cultivating it—it’s the place I would most like to live, all the time. One of the ways I do the cultivation is by purposefully taking photographs. I can even be feeling out of sorts or grumpy and decide to go out with the camera (and nothing fancy here—this is a simple iphone device) to start looking. I may be walking down a street I have walked down hundreds of times, but what can I see in a new way this time, what can I zero in on? These are not usually narrative shots; I like to get up close and focus on details, to reframe, to highlight particular textures or forms. The process both calls on and trains the poet’s eye.
All of the photos I consider successful embody this quality, but recently I have been playing with something that takes the poet’s eye exercise in a new direction. I have been using the free photo editing app, Prisma, and am experimenting with light and color. (I would not necessarily share the name, except that the app is free, and thus available to all.) Prisma provides unusual photo filters that are ostensibly about applying “styles of famous artists.” The developers claim they use “a unique combination of neural networks and artificial intelligence.” I have no idea what that really means in this case, but what happens is that each filter uses some kind of rubric to re-digitize the photo, applying the colors and line quality of selected paintings. While a few of the images might indeed evoke known artists, I find these are rare. Rather, what is exciting is that surprising effects come with these new combinations. What happens to many of the photos is that they seem to fill with light—it is as if they are lit up from within. (To throw in a little color theory: I think this has to do with the fact that the color mixing is in fact happening with light rather than pigment; it is an additive, rather than subtractive color system.) Photos transformed in Prisma can of course be further changed with other editing tools. This means that there are whole new possibilities and new ways to play that can help me move into the poetic/poem space. Having become familiar with what can happen with this program, I have even begun to expressly take photographs with Prisma transformations in mind.
Here is a gallery of images that hold the interior light I value so much. Included are photos of things I see in the world around me, and photos of my own work, transformed again and again.
(To the tune of Patsy Cline’s “I fall to pieces…”) “I comb the beaches…”
Living by the Gulf of Mexico, I have access to wonderful detritus that is cast off on the shore. I do indeed regularly comb the beaches, collecting what is offered up, sorting the materials, playing with them and their satisfying forms. Here is a sample of new collage pieces that have come together this winter.
The first few all relate to reaching up, a rising energy—to what some are calling an ascension process. I don’t plan it this way; I follow the materials and put them together as it feels right, allowing the composition to emerge. Later, I see how the same theme repeats itself in different pieces, showing up in myriad forms and variations. The sense of moving upward has been quite persistent.
CALLING TO THE MOON
Handmade paper, jingle shell, broken clam shells, fish vertebrae bones.
10” x12” framed
We long to be one with the beauty of the moon; we are hungry for its wholeness, its light and beauty.
JEWEL IN THE LOTUS: SPREADING SEEDS
Cloth, bony exoskeleton of the honeycomb cowfish, paint.
6.75” x 8.5” framed
Embodying perfect form, sacred geometry, I sit in perfect repose, like the lotus on its peaceful leaf. I am rising from my open container, opening out, and spreading seeds for the future.
The honeycomb cowfish gets its name from the protruding “horns” over its eyes. Although the bodies I found were washed up on the shores of the Gulf, it is generally considered a reef fish, common in the Atlantic and Caribbean. What I find most fascinating is the way its body is encased in a “carapace,” an armor of hexagonal scale plates that cover everything but its cheeks or gills.
Ladyfish(?) tails, whelk egg case sections, jingle shell, printed paper.
10” x 12”
Longing, longing for what shines above. Moving toward, rising up.
A mollusk’s egg casing is something quite astonishing. Whelks and conchs (see below) mate during spring and fall migrations, and the eggs are fertilized internally. The female surrounds them in a gel-like mass of albumin and lays them in a series of are joined-together protective “capsules.” A single capsule may contain as many as 100 eggs. The ones that whelks make form a long, snake-like chain–up to 150 capsules attached together. It’s a striking form that is sometimes known as a "Mermaid's Necklace." The mollusk attaches one end of the egg case onto a substrate in the sand, providing an anchor for the developing babies. When they have matured, they come out of the casing in their tiny (2-4mm) shells. Most, of course, do not make it. The egg cases themselves often get loose from their moorings and come ashore, but the whelks cannot survive out of the water.
video showing knobbed whelk egg case up close.
video showing a lightening whelk laying eggs.
The last collage in the sample is more topical, starting as it did with the image of a struggling refugee, fleeing from political turmoil. This woman too became uplifted, however, so it is not just a tale of suffering. The woman is set against the luxury of Tudor-era velvet and surrounded by a golden aura. She reminds me of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her spiky points of light are golden bits of Florida horse conch egg cases, which are in turn framed by 10 million year old fossilized pieces of sting ray spines and painted shell bits. It all comes together in a seemingly exploding form, love emanating from the anguish.
Printed paper, (painted) sections of Florida horse conch egg casing, fossilized sting ray spines, painted shell pieces.
5” x 7”
Through the pain of human suffering, she brings forth the aura of true compassion.
The Florida Horse Conch is closely related to the whelk. Her egg case is less linear. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fErY0AOfXsw
Something very amazing is happening, something that truly delights me as it unfolds. I’ve been connecting with my inner guide using a kind of channeled writing (some call the process “automatic writing,” but I like Janet Conner’s term, “deep soul writing”). This works very comfortably for me, and I’m finding it increasingly easy to access and recognize the inner guide’s voice, and receive its wisdom. The words come tumbling out, light-filled and clear, speaking as a deep, close friend. The voice has its own distinctive quality, and yet I also know is not really separate from me. In the last two months or so, one of the things that has been coming through in this writing is a list of titles for art pieces that I might create. The list as a whole has an additive or cumulative quality, but each title holds a particular vibration for a particular piece that may be ready to materialize.
These are resonant names, drawing from many parts of my bigger consciousness: “Counting Blessings,” “Step into the Mystery,” “Swan’s Grace,” “Being One,” “Baby’s Breath,” “Necklace of the Gods,” “Growing Roots,” “Inner Council,” “The Banquet,” and on and on and on. Some of the titles come directly from my own past work—phrases I’ve even used in my academic writing, such as “Fair Ladies,” ”Conflation” “Intimate Objects,” “Global Perspectives,” “The Fiber of Our Lives;” or in poems I wrote decades ago—“Somewhere in the Mountainpeace,” Tunnel Walls Unwinding.” Others come from my multifaceted spiritual journey, titles like “Kadosh” (holy, in Hebrew), “Medicine Bag,” ““Inner Focus,’ “Synchronicity.” Some are from spiritual practices or the Dances of Universal Peace: “Kyrie Eleison,” “All Here Today,” “Make it Ready,” “From This We Live.”
After the first outpouring came through, I copied the titles on a big sheet of poster board that I hung on the bulletin board in my studio. Yes, I might refer to it to for inspiration or even reference, but really I did it to bring the energy of the title-generating process into that space.
Soon that wasn’t enough either—more titles kept coming and my poster was full. I wanted to have the titles all together, so I started a journal notebook. I copied over the original titles, using the same format, and continued to add to the list as the terms came to me.
The flow hasn’t stopped. I may be reading something and particular words literally jump forward, asking to be recorded in this book. I hear someone saying something and it generates another idea. I think of a phrase from another context—a line from a song, the title of another artwork--and it calls out to be included. It is then transformed by being in this special company. The words begin to dance, to vibrate. Phrases take on new meaning. The title list is thus also deepening my relationship with language, giving me a new sense of long-familiar words or phrases encountered in very different contexts. It moves into poetry, what seems to me to be a poetic sensibility, poetic receptors that change words into something brighter and more shimmery. I keep thinking I will run out of titles, but to date there is no sense of slowing down.
I love this unfolding process! I have no idea how many of these names will ever actually grace new pieces, but they have a cumulative effect. The energy coming through the collection is literally a treasure house—the book of titles is like an energy accumulator, increasingly powerful and rich, and I can open it up at any time. It’s functioning too as a kind of journal of what has affected me over the years, the input and experiences I have taken in, the path I have taken, and what I have created. Clearly, it is skewed to the positive side, to the growth places and the nurturing qualities rather than the struggles. But of course: this is my spirit of guidance speaking, leading me on and working with me to remember, uncover, and further energize this spirit journey. The collection of titles forms an artwork in itself, not just as a physical entity, but as a growing energetic presence. It amplifies the world I believe in and am dreaming into being—actually, it is the world I believe in and am dreaming into being. This list stands alone (how exciting it is that it now exists!), but it is also unlimited potential. Any artwork that takes tangible, visual form in the future will be coming from the container of this dream and function as a holographic piece of it. This is awesome, awesome, awesome, and I am deeply, deeply grateful.
This is a long story, but such an interesting one that I couldn’t bear to pare it down. Do tell me which parts intrigue you most.
RISING FROM THE SEA
Mixed media construction: Altered paper, sea squirts (white crust tunicates), porcupine fish spines.
Like stars rising up out of the ocean… the elements of this piece are amazing, worthy of deep contemplation. When I was handling them I was indeed holding infinity in the palm of my hand (thanks to William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence,” for that phrase.)
The white cylindrical forms are (the dried-up bodies of) white crust tunicates (Didemnum vexillum). I found them on the beach on a calm spring day--nothing remotely similar ever seen before or after. The encrusted sticks immediately reminded me of the rock candy you make by crystallizing sugar over a suspended string. But this is not a crystallization process: tunicates are “sea squirts” --so called because when lifted out of the water, they contract and squirt water out, although it is hard to imagine these hardened bodies contracting at all. The animals formed a colony around some form of sea grass or other vertical element. Tunicates are filter-feeding animals with a sac-like body form. They live within this outer “crust,” which actually functions as a kind of living tunic. They reproduce quickly and in their larval stage, a square centimeter may hold up to 300 tunicates. Thousands and thousands must be in use of these forms—think of the amassing colonies, holding, enclosing, enveloping. It’s not rock candy, but it is a kind of eye candy, the always astonishing world of form, which is so complex and so simple, so much an example of her infinite variety.
A sea squirt (tunicate) colony that reminds me of rock candy. It’s an invasive colony growing on a suspended oyster growing device called a French tube, in Drakes Bay, Point Reyes, California. Photo from The Coastodian, March 2014.
I didn’t have to do anything to the tunicates, but there was a long process involved in extracting the other material, the tripod-like pointed forms, which are spines from the skin of porcupine fish. (These are sometimes erroneously called pufferfish, but they aren’t exactly the same.) I first discovered a washed-up specimen of a bulbous, prickly-looking creature on the Pacific coast of Mexico. It looked both faintly comical and frightening; the inflated body felt like an over-inflated balloon, but the spikes were formidable. I discovered these two features were the very characteristics of the way this animal defends itself; when threatened, it inflates itself to three times its normal size by sucking or pumping in extra water. Its stomach, which is pleated, expands to nearly a hundred times its original volume. Biologist Beth Brainerd observed the amazing structure of these pleats -– there are folds within folds within folds, down to pleats so tiny that they can be seen only through a microscope. (It’s like a fractal--isn’t this the way form keeps going, in our bodies too…)
When the porcupine fish inflates, its usually-flattened spines rise to vertical positions, forming an all-over armor reminiscent of porcupine quills. This happens because the skin is so stretched that it pulls two of the tripod-legs of the spikes backward and the other forward, snapping the structure upright. An inflated porcupine fish can’t move very fast—it is the opposite of streamlined—but it doesn't need to go fast with this kind of protection.
Inflated porcupine fish with extended spines.
I was immediately interested in the spines—beautiful white external bones, almost begging to pulled out. I started with brute force—tugging, trying to extricate them from the skin, but they wouldn’t budge. I didn’t yet realize the ingenious structure of the spines, or the two layers of skin they stitch together. I soaked the skin, making it somewhat more pliable, and with great effort and snipping, slowly retrieved them, one by one. I admired their tenacity. Removed, they were like trophies, and I loved just looking at them, at their smooth, plastic-like surfaces and their satisfying shapes. It was especially lovely to take in the different sizes and how they each grew to fit their position on the animal.
Spines still attached to organic matter.
Many years went by before I encountered this type of fish again, this time on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Mexico. The ones washed up there had different coloration, and they were smaller (no more than 10” long) and their spines less lethal-looking. I haven’t a definitive identification, but they may be what is sometimes called a striped burrfish. Its spines are always visible, and while the animal also inflates when threatened, it would only grow to about twice its original size. Burrfish live in seagrass beds in bays and coastal lagoons associated with reefs. They are nocturnal. They have widely-spaced, bulging eyes and fused teeth that form a beak-like structure.
I saw a number of partially dried-out porcupine fish in the aftermath of a red tide (an off-shore algae bloom that reduces oxygen in the sea), and was excited about extracting more spines, but I hesitated because the decaying bodies were quite rank. I also remembered how difficult it was to get the spines out when I was in Mexico. I took some home and kept them in covered container until I could decide what to do (fire up the new grill and risk getting a pot messy with the flame or stinky with the fish smell?). While I was deliberating, I found a remnant of another dead porcupine with just a bit of the skin left on the spines. As the skin dried even further, I was able to extract the spines with some poking.
This still wasn’t going to help me get them out of an intact fish. I put one in peroxide to soak and of course it bloated out, got soft. As it rehydrated, I was able to really see its patterning—to take in its stripes and the false “eyes” on its back.
I put on my gloves and got ready to gut the fish. It had few spines on the belly, so it was possible to hold the little fins and start there. I used a grapefruit knife with a serrated edge to saw away at the flesh. Once the innards were removed and the spiny skin was rinsed, I hung it up to dry on the clothesline. The smell was mostly gone after the peroxide rinse.
I varied the process to see what worked best. I never soaked the second fish, but wetted it down enough to rinse it off. It was easier to work when less saturated; I could actually get the inside out more easily. I peeled back the skin and let it dry further. The pattern of the spines in the flattened-out skin is stunning. They overlap in what looks like a mathematical progression, not unlike the “boots” of the sago palm that are so common in southern Florida.
The last steps of the spine extraction were done in the kitchen. I first tried to soften the skin in the microwave, but that only made the bones brittle. Remembering how I extracted hooves and bones from deer legs, I then boiled the spiny skins. This worked beautifully, especially because I could slit the skins to make even smaller pieces. The skin eventually broke down in the boiling water, and I could pull out the spines, much as one would extract a bone from a fish on a dinner plate. The spines were a little yellow from the fat in the skin, but a short soak in peroxide brightened them nicely. I love their form, which seems to hold a key to something mystical—it reminds me of some aspect of sacred geometry I can’t quite name.
Meanwhile, I learned more about the porcupine/pufferfish family, feeling more amazed all the time. I read that once the body of the puffer fish is fully bloated, its predators can neither take a grip nor bite through the skin. In fact, it has been found that its tough body remains unscathed even after a grown man stands on it. No wonder I couldn’t win the tug of war with my first Mexican find! (I can’t identify the particular type of that porcupine fish—there are more than 120 species of Tetraodontidae in all, and I only have my documentation photograph.) In addition to their inflation and spines, many of these animals also carry a powerful toxin. It is found in various parts, including the skin, ovaries, muscles and liver. This paralyzing poison, known as Tetrodotoxin, is about a thousand times more deadly than cyanide; one source says a single puffer fish (species or size not specified) has enough to kill 30 adult humans! There is no antidote. Nevertheless, the fish are still popular for aquarium displays, and some puffers are considered a delicacy food fish in Asia. The dish (known as fugu in Japan, and bogeo in Korea) is prepared by specially trained chefs who know how to reduce its poisonous effects. I cannot confirm this, but have heard that about a hundred diners die every year after consuming it. Even if the figure is apocryphal, we can see what a powerful hold this fish has on human consciousness.
The most astounding part of the story just came through recently in an excerpt from a BBC-Earth documentary that was posted on YouTube. In 1995, divers noticed a small mandala-like circular pattern on the sea floor off Japan. It was mathematically perfect, and nobody knew what it was. Once they started looking, they discovered similar circles nearby. The mystery was heightened by the fact that they came and went unpredictably, and they reminded observers of crop circles, though they were completely underwater.
Finally, observers realized that the formations were created by a newly discovered species of pufferfish—by male fish, who use them to attract mates. They laboriously flap their fins as they swim along the seafloor, essentially carving out the pattern in a circular formation by disrupting the sediment. They even use shell bits to stabilize some of the higher areas. The documentary claims a fish works non-stop for a week to make a single circle! One fish is only about 5 inches long, so it is quite a feat to make something of this scale. The video of the fish doing this is, in the truest sense of the word, awesome.
I have actually been slow to find ways to incorporate the porcupine fish spines in my work; their shapes are challenging to work with effectively. I do not want them to appear as they would on the fish, as I want the beauty of the whole tripod-like shape to be visible, rather than just the tip. (It’s as if I must peel away the skin for my audience, much as I had to do in processing the material.) Many of the spines I have are very small and delicate, and almost fly out of my hands when I try to handle them. In Rising From the Sea, that delicacy works well with the impressionistic forms of the background and the solidity of the tunicate.
THE 2017 EMERGENCE SERIES
As I was playing with images for new collages this past fall, allowing them to grab my attention and show me how they wanted to come together, I realized there was an evolving series that followed this same pattern and emergence theme. I decided to develop them as a set, with a consistent size and background treatment, so they could work and speak together. (Each is on an 8” x 8” ground.) The ten panels can be arranged in any configuration and any order. Collectively, they speak of a changing consciousness, something happening on an energetic level that I am giving voice and face to. Here’s what came forward when I asked them to speak:
SPEAKING IN A COLLECTIVE VOICE
We are all emerging now. We have been held in, often in exquisite containers, but we have still been waiting, we have been stored inside. Our faces and forms are from everywhere—from many peoples, many dreams, many imaginations and creativities. We are rising now to what has not been contained, what has been just beyond reach. See the light in each of us—we each embody it, rest in or against it, have it shining on us, pick it up and transmit it. We are classic, holy, revered, contemplated, we have halos and auras and transmitters. We are all stillness rising. Look: this, our community, that is coming out now.
SPEAKING AS INDIVIDUAL PLAYERS
Look at my cold, small-eyed face. I was longing for something enlivening. I now rise from a workbasket, holder perhaps of laundry, or apples, companion for everyday tasks. I arise to a new bubble, a bright aura, and I will be transformed. Soon my eyes will grow large as I come to see more and more. I am looking about, and it is stunning.
I have held pain and fear, buried in an elaborated vessel of ancient patriarchal culture. Mine was a grimace of pain. But I am coming up now, no longer stuffed down in there. I am emerging into my true filigree halo, and tears of anguish are falling off one by one
I am still contained, not pushed down or hidden in my container, but contained in my knowing. As I rise from this beautiful basket, my full aura comes through: my vitality, my quivering reds and golds, my shining nut body. Behold this holy mother with huge vibratory pulsing.
I am rising from stone, from snakes. I have been holding female power all along, and now I am coming out fully. I smile. I look with great love on all of this. I am jeweled, and I am listening. Note that I hold channels down to the earth, beautiful blue channels of wisdom and love that carry messages both ways. I bless you all with my peace, calmness and certainty.
I am a cosmic being, with snakes and birds and pulsing pulsars, with stepping stones, with alert pieces working together. Look how I beam forward from my heart. I receive, I broadcast. Connect with me, coming from this and other planets, coming out and beaming.
Prince Ganesha comes out of the cauldron—you can’t hold me! You see my energy rising. These wisdom pearls show you we are all coming up. Such beautiful materials, the coral and turquoise, the gold and brass, the pinkness of my body—we are light-filled and dreamy. Indeed, no obstacles. Do we surprise you? I am eternally ready, available. Hi there!
I have been masked. I had a golden mask, a valuable, golden diadem or crown, and a lovely, handmade container. Nevertheless, I have masked the truth. Now I am rising into something beyond. I am unmasking. Note the glowing necklace around my throat—the energy bursts all around. My disparate parts will now stand apart from one another, calling to the sun.
I too come out of a metallic prison, but I am turning the metal into a crown, into jewels that come to life. Look at my light! And I hold so much pattern—patterns of people from everywhere. I have receptive ears and eyes ready to fully open. I am a being of light and I cause my face to shine upon you.
I arise from a lotus, and hold to the ground as well as the cosmos. I turn everything upside down. I hold order and rising sun. I have large ears to get the messages of the cosmos. I see you from deep within and I hold fast, grounding you with the biggest messages and truth.
Watch me, hear me, use me. Deeply aware, my container is light filled, alive, shiny, moving. It comes from a pedestal. All is in balance. I hold old knowledge. My feather beard and big ears show that I am all about hearing, receiving messages, and bringing them out.
First, a photographic meditation/appreciation of the environment here in my Florida yard. This time I’ll focus on flowers, but there is so much more greenery for another time. Most of these images were taken on a single day in late January—these were what was in bloom somewhere on my “estate.” I've also planted a number of other plants that have yet to flower, but these were all here for me already. It’s quite awesome to really take in how much life and energy is happening at any one moment. Check out the captions --sometimes there are comments.
The first, larger image was one of the revelations of the month. I have lived with snake plants for decades, but had never seen these exuberant blooms. When many were blooming at once (and briefly, just for a few days) it felt quite astounding. the plant is also called mother-in-law's tongue, which probably refers to the blade-like leaf, but if the tongues are the flowers, the message is sweet. Since I am a mother-in-law, I vote for the blooms.
My birthday at the end of January was blessed with a powerful event in the skies. It was a supermoon, blue moon, and then early the next morning (or the same night in my experience), a lunar eclipse. I took a sunset walk along the (Gulf of Mexico) beach, as I often do, and the heavens were blessing (that is a line from a Shaker hymn I have long held dear). The sunset was stunning, and I turned around to see the supermoon rising. The pictures don't do justice to the moon, given the light and the lenses, but it gives a feeling.
I returned to the beach for the eclipse. What was exciting was that the parking lot was surprisingly full--many others had the same instinct (we were all drawn, almost magnetically, to the unobstructed view over the Gulf). When I arrived it was still dark enough for the full moon to reflect in the water, although the sun was rising and that soon faded. The eclipse began and the excitement was palpable; all those bundled-up people (it was less than 50 degrees) facing westward, migrating closer and closer to the water as if they could be closer to the moon. Unfortunately, in this time zone the moon set before the moon was even fully covered or the eclipse was complete, so we never got to see the whole thing or the blood red effect. But this was quite a birthday gift!
I'm sharing in some detail about two of my collages--their genesis, their materials, and how they reinforce my ongoing spiritual (and natural world) journey. The post weaves touches upon my nature adventures, my art-as-inner-guide insights, and my artistic process. Comments welcome!
Several years ago, I made a powerful SoulCollage® card. It was the night of the vernal equinox and one of the first water blessings associated with the protests over the oil pipeline at Standing Rock had just taken place. I was feeling happy, and experiencing a strong flow of energy. The card told me its name is Mor, which seemed almost too much of a pun with “more,” but that was clearly it. Mor had a lot to say:
I am the beautiful metallic man, covered with shiny coins and trailing orange wisps of energy as I ease down the river. I ride my bean raft, my living vessel, and I touch the water as its life-giving energy moves through my hand. It is clear, fresh, clean, and carries away debris in a constant state of renewal. I am abundance and radiance, the man of the future perhaps, the reflector (as a woman is a reflector) but also the shining sun. I am bringing forth this orange energy, which beams vitality and energy, a second chakra creative force. I am an empowered male with very strong legs, and yet my posture is reminiscent of a mermaid, and I am open and receptive. I am a guardian for you, one who brings ease, comfort in the body, and the ability to watch it go by. The orange bits are little energy pixies, enlivening, the forces around you—I show them to you and they trail in my wake, like dragonflies.
This past fall I made a dimensional collage that came to be called Riding the Waves. It was another manifestation of Mor, I realized, one incorporating natural materials, texture, and mystery. It features elements from a still-unidentified woody pod or root-like structure that I found first on the beach in the Pacific Northwest and then again by a riverbed emptying into Lake Superior. These “fingers” are smooth and almost silky, strong enough to have survived what may have been a long ride in moving water. I love handling and positioning them, aligning with the energy of their exuberant curves. The pointed shape of the figure’s body came from the image of a poulaine, an impractical and showy part of a knight’s armor, and I “tamed” it with a painted mesh paper. The figure’s head is made of soft feathers, and one arm is extended by a piece of fossilized shark’s tooth found near my Gulf Coast home. I created the warm background surface with layers of transparent paper. The oranges recall the orange pixies of the Mor images, and I feel the those colors work well with the pale blue of the frame—they are complementary colors, making the whole piece “pop” and hold the eye. This piece spoke to me, too:
I am riding the waves, skimming along the shifting energies. I am joyous in this ever-fascinating manifestation and pointing to the ever-emerging future. Note how my waves reach up ready to tickle and welcome me, pointing to the heavens and reaching from their own medium. Note my antennae-like hair strands, picking up the shine and energy of what is above. I too am confident, relaxed, and connected with the spirit world and emerging feminine.
When I make these collages, I let the images and the materials guide me—they have to feel and look right. They hold all the stories and associations of their components--Riding the Waves holds the embodied memories of being outside collecting in three very different natural environments, the years of teaching about poulaines in a costume history class, the satisfying tactile feel of working with paper and feathers. As the same theme comes through so much later, I am excited and gratified: this too represents ease and confidence, joy, the increasing strength of the feminine, the cleansing of water, and the ability to go with the flow. This is an ongoing more-ness (Mor-ness), both reflecting and foretelling the bright energies and the rightness of being in the ever-changing emergent moment.