Descendants' Path seems to have struck a cord with a lot of people, and I confess that working on it was unexpectedly transformative. But before I "descend" into an unusual display of personal transparency, I want to get the ordinary business on the table, and those who are so inclined can pursue the novel below.
Here's the art description, along with the working title, that I was given when assigned this card for Magic the Gathering:
TITLE: [Natural Lineage]
Color: Green spell
Location: See below
Action: This is an abstract piece representing a human family's ancestry through history. This is a family of farmers, shepherds, and naturalists: people who are connected to the land and nature. You might show this as a sinuous, branching trail through some rural, lightly wooded hills, with small portraits of the men, women, and children of this family at the end of each branching road. The oldest family members might be closest to the "horizon," and the nearest are the children. Most of the people shown share a few physical characteristics in common (for example, wavy/curly hair, a certain half-smile, and/or freckles).
Focus: The overall sense of history
Mood: A journey through a family's history
When I get an assignment like this… complex, challenging, daunting, I just sit and go, "Wow… so how am I supposed to pull this off and not make it look stupid??… on the size of a postage stamp, no less…" With a Mormon mother fanatically into genealogy and family history (which I greatly respect) my first visuals were of what I did NOT want this to look like… a tree with branches and tons of little oval headshots plastered all over it.
There was a lot that resonated with me from the start, though… historical roots, trees: those one-leggeds who support life on the planet and whose esoteric meanings get top billing (or at least honorable mention) in almost all mythological traditions… people who work the earth (I grew up on a farm and had farmers throughout my lineage on both sides)… the phases of the moon that I immediately knew I would use to represent the passage of time, evolution, seasons, cycles, all of which conspire to breathe life into the newest descendants, christened by the "seed of life" with permission to shine, blossom… heir to everything that their ancestors have been, as well as to all they have not.
Being armed with what I didn't want, I started to reach for influences that would help me discover what I DID want. One of my first grabs was "Heck's Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science".
I have a long-time fascination with old diagrammatical illustrations such as those found in DaVinci's sketchbooks, and those tucked within timeworn books of science, nature and the occult. I love to incorporate layers of symbolism which allude to a deeper knowledge and understanding, demonstrating how something works or highlighting the relationship between parts of a whole.
Then I turned to some of my favorite illustrators… ones that I've admired for years and that are especially good at integrating layers of texture and meaning using various collage techniques. Fred Otnes does this masterfully, and Mark English harmonizes beautifully designed, flat, stylistic shapes with a soft ephemeral realism.
Leafing through books of their art provided oodles of inspiration for how I wanted to construct Descendants'. As you probably know, my library of art is extensive and one of my most treasured possessions. I'm not sure that I would relate the same to jpegs on the web… just like smelling the paint on my palette , there's something to smelling the pages and turning them, one-by-one. It's part of the meditative zen of my process. Not to say that I don't scour the web, it's just that everything usually starts with the intimate experience my books and I share together… sometimes they want a cappuccino….. sometimes a glass of red wine… you have to get to know them and give them what they want so they'll divulge their secrets and deepest inspirations.
And yes, to those of you who have been following my work for a while, you'll notice similar use of diagrammatical themes in Guru Lands, and also in Silverskin Armor
, to name a couple.
So… here's how I put all that together in the sketch:
13.75 x 10"
Graphite on tracing paper parchment
Using the inspiration gleaned from the design sensibilities of Mark and Fred, and also Klimt, this is how the piece revealed itself.
13.75 x 10"
Mixed: acrylic, oil, colored pencil, old etchings, skeleton leaves, gold and silver leaf
Just as trees with deep roots more easily weather a winter's storm, people with a deep sense of connection and family history are much more powerful and resilient.
I always had a longing to know my mother's mother, Grandma Gwendolyn Mouritsen Pitcher… I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it's because I knew she was a twin, just like me, only, her twin brother died when they were 17. Maybe it's because I knew it was she that gave my mother a deep love of music, which permeated my everyday life and eventually affixed itself to my own DNA. Maybe it's because she was a Pisces, just like me, but that would have had to be an intuitive hit as I had no concept of astrology back then. By the time my neurons were creating memories I could articulate, she was in a "rest home" (*cringe* – those were always creepy places to me). My most vivid memory of her was the last time I saw her.
She was talking to us and being generally kind and pleasant, and eating peas. I was painfully shy and quiet and thus could not speak up soon enough when I noticed something I wanted to warn her about. After she swallowed, she looked down at me gently and said, "Now what was it you wanted to tell me about?" Timidly I mumbled, "Well, it's just that there was a hair on that spoon of peas you just ate." Stunned for a second, she countered, "Well NOW's a fine time to tell me about it!" and we all burst out laughing.
But sometimes, you don't get what you wish for… at least not at the time. She died when I was five, the foliage of her life dropping into the soil of our lives… stories, memories and unmet longings left to compost over the years.
But in the between, I guess I didn't mind not knowing her. A rich sense of history can feel more condemning than consoling during certain periods of your life.
The farmers on my mother's side were also pioneer-stock Mormons, through and through. I came from a cultural heritage of strong and sturdy souls who stood for what they believed in, despite incredible persecution, ridicule and isolation. They often sacrificed everything to cross the plains and create a fresh start for themselves in a new place where they could fully express who they felt called to be… where they could live according to the dictates of their own conscience.
I was always proud of that, and probably would have followed suit the way everyone expected had I not discovered that I had my own pioneering to do, my own plains to cross (where do you think I got the inspiration for Guru Lands 😉
When I made the decision to leave the church so I could spend my life with the woman I fell in love with, it was, of course, terribly distressing to the family system… I was shunned, shamed and isolated. The rich family history that had once nourished and empowered me, now felt toxic and suffocating… yet even so, it was too late… the strength of the ancestors was already in my bones, and there was no turning back.
To punctuate the dishonor, my mother scolded me for being excommunicated on the very day that used to celebrate Grandma's birthday… how did I dare to smear her memory??? As if it were an event I was somehow in charge of planning, like a bridal reception or baby shower. No… the leaders of the church called me in at their convenience, formally removed my name from the records of the church, and made it home in time for Sunday dinner. I, on the other hand, went to the park, spread my arms, and ran through the grass like a bird that had been freed at last from a cage that had become much, much too small.
At the time, quarantined from all of my normal support systems, I had no way of recognizing that, in some corner of my soul, I was haunted by the imagined disapproval of my grandmother.
That is… until I accidentally summoned her through working on Descendants' Path.
As I began to wonder about who would participate in my co-creation, her face kept popping up… her and her father, my Great Grandfather, Mourits Mouritsen. I used both of them in the piece, enjoyed the process of adding them in, honoring my own sense of history, regardless of how fractured, and didn't really think much more about it. But Grandma Gwendolyn had more in mind.
She had apparently decided that this Magic assignment was going to do some healing between worlds and generations, defying perceived separations of time and space.
From the depths of the unseen world, beneath the surface where the ground seems solid, where roots steadily reach for water, sustenance, stability, she found a way to let me know that she was proud of me for creating the life I wanted, and approved of the person I chose to share it with. Imperceptibly, over days as I ruminated upon the experience, I felt the nourishment move up and into the little places, resulting in a cellular relaxation I was unaware of needing, probably creating the possibility that there will be new fruit on the vine next summer.
The Tree of Life… from the One Source spring the ever-reaching expansions of humanity and life in all its forms… and after our leaves have fallen to the ground, long past the glory of their time in the sun… long past the time when our branches, no longer heavy in juicy splendor, have dropped to the earth, they become the rich, fertile soil that enables a healthy new Spring to come again, ensuring that the seed of new life will be stronger than the last… but only if we remember… only if the stories become a part of us, and we know that our lives are much more than individual accidents of DNA and heat and light. A connection to the land, and to ancestral roots, seem vitally important… maybe it's the same thing.