On Art and Alchemy
When most people hear the name Isaac Newton they automatically summon forth images of apples falling out of trees and landing on the head of a scientific genius with a huge wig that could rival any member of the rock band Kiss. However, he was an extremely complex dude. Being the epic nerd I am, I have always been fascinated with the work that Newton did which didn’t make it into the history books. Mainly, his alchemy.
It was a little-known fact that the man who is credited as being the father of modern chemistry was secretly pursuing and writing in the realm of medieval mystical arts. But he was. When he died, his home was filled with stacks and stacks of papers he had written on the subject, dwarfing the already impressive amount of scientific publications he had already produced over the course of an honorable career. It should probably come as no surprise that the classic chemistry lab is always reminiscent of an alchemist’s workshop.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misunderstanding about alchemy. Most people know that bit about turning led into gold. However, there was a lot of other more practical changes done in alchemy as well. Basically, alchemy is all about change. It was for lack of a better description, chemistry. Of course this is chemistry a couple hundred years before the actual development of the periodic table of the elements. So when formulas and info are passed between two practitioners of this art, it is done so in a more coded visual method. This method is in the form of transmutation circles.
A transmutation circle is a circle that is usually filled with three to five smaller circles and with either a triangle or circle in the middle. The outer circles contain the primary substances that are being combined. One of these circles is devoted to expressing the catalyst for the change. A catalyst is usually fire. This catalyst brings about a new substance, which is usually depicted in the center. At least one other outer circle is devoted to notations, which are usually encrypted in some way or another.
I began painting with an intention of reflecting both chaos and change that was constantly happening in my own personal life. I like working with both abstract and figurative images. However, I wanted to discuss more with my images. I needed a visual language to embed more than just the emotions that are present on the surface of my work. I chose to incorporate elements of alchemy into the art. There are always universal elements represented by their alchemy counterparts. There is always a catalyst, usually fire to show that even in human spiritual transformation, there is always something that catalyzes it. The human figure or figures are shown in slightly larger circles to show the result of elemental combinations. And it is that simple.
The second more covert reason I chose to incorporate alchemy imagery was not just because it makes for good design elements, but also as a means of opening up dialog. I have a multitude of friends and family that are of the evangelical persuasion. I wanted to created dialog with them about the church’s attitude towards artists. I wanted to point out that there is a growing need for a more definable visual language and the shortcomings of what would be considered “Christian art”. This has not worked out as I hoped and is a bit more of a rant for me than a discussion.
Please feel free to ask questions and spawn some of our own discussion.
Till next time,
I often reference Republic, the classic Greek philosophy text, when I discuss the role of the artist in society. In the text, Socrates is having a conversation very similar to a million conversations I have had over a beer with any number of friends over the years. He is forming the perfect society. He believes that a sort of class system is inevitable. In the conversation, he discusses the creation of a political or ruling class, a military class to protect the political class, and so on. When he gets to the subject of what we would in modern day recognize as an artist or creative class, he basically doesn’t know what to do.
He recognizes right out of the gate that they are trouble. They are not ones to fall in line or be conformists. They have the power to make people think by presenting poetry, music and visual art that reflects images of the issues that may be going on in society. They have too much potential to make the perfect society not work. So his first inclination is that they should all be kicked out.
Upon doing so, he then walks back in his thinking. He then recognizes that a society without artists would be totally lacking. There would be none of the joy that is brought into people’s lives by music. No beauty by artists. So he eventually and begrudgingly decides that, ok, we can let them back in. But they must promise to be good. And that is the solution given by one of the greatest philosophical minds of all time. If you really think about it, there is a degree of irony in his view, given that he was constantly in question for corrupting the young minds of his day with that whole idea that people should think and reason intelligently.
This is where I have always thought he fell short. He had the wrong view of the artist. He saw them as a necessary nuisance, something to be tolerated. He saw them as a disruptive presence in society that could incite discord among the people who would have no reason to be unhappy. However, in real life there is no achievable state of perfection in a society. There is only the constant evolution of improvement.
Thus, the artist throughout the ages has lived as an outsider. Artists constantly observe and analyze, giving them the ability to recognize when injustice and negative aspects of society need to be brought to light. They are not the nuisance that Socrates saw, but instead are a steadfast tool that can help societies’ leaders identify and course correct when they begin to waiver from the direction of betterment for all.
Over the ages, art has evolved in a constant series of movements, each being a direct response or evolutionary step to a previous movement. So you have things like Dada, which moves into Surrealism, which moves through abstract expressionism and beyond. We are currently in a post-modern world. There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what can actually be considered art and what the purpose of art is in general.
This brings us to our current political climate. There is much injustice going on, no one can argue that. We live in a time when people can be complacent in that we have a leader who demonizes the media because the truth and the spreading of truth to the populace is a threat to him. There is corruption and abuse of power. This is the time when we need artists to stand tall and do what they have done throughout history. This is a time for artists to stand and make people think. This is a time when we need artists to be political and be the course correctors that the vessel of society needs to right its direction to continue a journey that is for the betterment of all. This is a time for artists to be ARTISTS.
So this is my challenge the five people who actually read this:
Make art. Make art that is political and full of energy. Make art that is thought-provoking. Make people uncomfortable. If you make people think and question, then everyone wins. Truth wins. Otherwise, you are just making pretty pictures with no real meaning or value.
If every artist in our nation were to stand and make just one piece of political art, the world would take notice. So go forth
If you haven’t figured out that I’m a nerd yet, then you haven’t been paying attention. While I am a total Star Wars superfreak, what I really mean by nerd is that I’d rather watch Neil DegrassTyson’s remake of the Cosmos series over the latest Marvel series on Netflix. As such, one of the episodes from this series really made me rethink how I use repetition within my paintings.
We live on a giant ball of rock and water, rotating in space around an even larger ball of fire in the middle of a galaxy among countless other galaxies. The ability to look up and recognize the movement of these other stars from other galaxies as they move across the sky over a measurable stream of time which repeats in a never-ending conglomeration of cycles allows us to measure time and map the universe. Over millennia, our ancestors honed this skill for pattern recognition, which set us apart from other animals on our planet.
Let’s face it, we are hardwired to recognize patterns. It is one of the cornerstones of the human intellect. Some of the more universal and frequently occurring patterns in nature are so magnetic to us that we give them names like Golden Mean. We are drawn to them. They effect our emotions. We can’t help ourselves. Not only do we see and recognize these things, we assign meaning to them.
My interest in pattern recognition began with my introduction to fractals when I was in high school. When I was still being diagnosed with narcolepsy but not yet medicated, I struggled in what would be the only class I have ever failed in my life, Algebra II/Trigonometry. The teacher was reasonable and gave me an opportunity to earn more credit to bring my grade up by doing a report and presentation, which ended up being on fractals. I still failed, but even in the failure I gained something I will carry and use as an artist for the rest of my days.
I think it was kind of a cascade of things. I was really drawn to the patterns of the Mandelbrot fractals, which led to an understanding of the Golden Mean, which led to a fascination with the mathematical elements of the Fibonacci Sequence. All of which show up on one level or another when I paint. There is just an energy to that pattern that stirs me to my core.
But it isn’t that pattern itself that fuels this. It is the recognition of the pattern and the ability to apply it. As I drew a lot of Japanese clouds from my tattoo influences, I saw these patterns and began streamlining and stylizing the images to fit the patterns. I do this in waves and fire depictions as well. It was another cascade that I just let wash over me and carry me away into the river that I currently navigate as a painter.
The pattern itself is uniform. It is the use of expressionist lines and variation of color that truly give the clouds and objects a life of their own, complete with attitude and emotions. However, there is also something meditational in the repetition. It is a process that is almost spiritual. It calms my soul and connects me to the vastness of the cosmos. It is here where the genetic disposition of pattern recognition synchronizes with the overwhelming need to create.
I’m sure that this need is also hardwired into some of us on the same level as pattern recognition. I’m sure there could be a whole episode of the Cosmos on this. But that is an episode for another day.
It was late in the evening, almost dusk. The hot August night was silent, no breeze. The only sound was the creaky gears of the ancient bike that my school had let me use. As I came over the hill I saw what I thought could only be a large snake crossing the road. Its dark menacing body moving awkwardly like the shadow of no snake I had ever seen. As I got closer in the darkening twilight I slammed on the brakes and creaked the bike to a halt several feet from where the creature had just moved from the concrete. Looking back at me was not a snake at all. It was the hugest most alien centipede I had ever seen, easily several feet long.
The next day I was trying to tell my boss about it. I kept using the word “centipede” and she looked back with a puzzling look. I reached for me my small purple pocket dictionary and found the Japanese word for it, “mukade”. I pointed and she let out a long sigh nodding her head. “Ahhhh.” Like it was no big deal. Perfectly normal.
So apparently this was a thing. This was a very real thing in the area I lived in with large tracts of bamboo forest floors for these little bastards to hunt on. And hunt they did. Hunt and grow. Did I mention they have large venomous pincers?
I did not think much of it again until I the next summer, sometime in July near the end of my contract. I was getting ready to unroll my futon for the night when I lifted my pillow to find about a three foot mukade rolled up nonchalant and relaxing as if I was the one invading ITS space.
I called my office manager immediately, yelling, “Big mukade!” into the phone.
It was not long before he showed up at my door with sprays and powders to arm me against the oncoming invasion. Apparently, they don’t just show up one at a time, but as whole families. Sure enough, I found the mama and a baby or two not long after that. Needless to say, I did not sleep well for the rest of my stay in my apartment.
I don’t know if there is a significant cultural meaning. They can be seen as large iconic emblems on the banners of certain Samurai clans. You can imagine the impact these frightening invaders had me. They became permanently etched in memory and in sketchbook entries as the most negative image of my time in Kyoto. I eventually began to use them in paintings to counter my use of the dragonflies. For me, you can keep your depictions of demons. This otherworldly and ominous insect is forever the embodiment of death, decay, and pure evil. Thus, when you see them in my paintings, that is what they are there for.
It was my last morning in Kyoto. My office manager, who I now referred to as my “Japanese Dad” was set to take me to the airport. We had loaded my bags into the car and I took one last look at the soft green bamboo outside the apartment that had been home for the past year. The air was thick with the late July heat in what the Japanese call “hatsui”, which I can best translate as being ball sweat hot. Sonoyama said with a solemn look that he had one special stop before we left Kameoka. He had something he wanted to share with me.
It was out on the outskirts of town in an area I had never been, under the soft shade of one of the smaller low mountains that surrounded the town. The small shrine stood majestically on a little hill overlooking a willow grove with a small stream running through it. We walked the path up towards the shrine, the sun shone through the trees with a radiant reflection on the small stream we were approaching. As I stepped onto the bridge I could see thousands of little black blurs zipping back and forth over the water. I stopped on the bridge to look closer and realized that these were thousands of tiny dragonflies, but not like any other dragonflies I’d seen in Japan. These had the most delicate black velvet textured wings, more butterfly texture than dragonfly. They moved slower and with a grace unlike the quick jerky motions of the normal dragonflies I was used to.
I can’t describe how amazing they were. I can only describe that the feeling on the bridge below the shrine was one of several experiences I’ve had in my life that I truly believe pierced a veil in this mortal world and allowed me to see something that was like another dimension. If you are a Godfearing person, then you would insist on using the descriptor “heavenly”. Goodness and light flooded my eyes without hurting them. Even the air I breathed seemed to be filled with sweetness and life. The dragonflies or tombo as the Japanese call them were burned into my memory as the visual key with which I still use to recall the memory.
Sonoyama walked me to the top of the shrine where he dropped a coin behind an ancient bell. We stood as he held his hands in a praying position and prayed for my safe return to America and for a time when we would be united in the company of friendship once more. He clapped and rang the bell. Then we left. I later came to understand that this was his family shrine and the honor he had given me by taking me there was not one given lightly, as I was not a member of his immediate family.
Cultural and Artistic Meaning
The dragonfly is an especially important creature symbolizing the coming of spring, rebirth, and new life. Most cultures around the globe have a specific image that is associated with life. For me, the dragonfly filled my sketchbooks from Japan and later became just as much a symbol for goodness and light to counter my use of the mukadai or Japanese centipede as an image of darkness and decay.
I generally portray the dragonfly using different techniques that give the illusion of motion, particularly in the wings. I have done three separate series with just this one image. I most frequently use a technique of erasure like the effect you see from the ukiyo-e artist Hokusai in the wings of some of his famous bird sketches.
Out of all the images I have used in personal artwork, the dragonflies seem to always get the most positive responses and I have done more personal commissioned pieces than any other image I use. People specifically ask for them. It is the one image that I never tire of doing, no matter how many times it is requested. I never turn down the chance to stand in front of a blank surface, recalling that one memory of a morning many years ago at a little shrine in Kyoto. It is always my hope that a little bit of that energy and goodness will shine through my colors and create a small piece of that world on whatever surface I am working on.
It is hard to pin down where to start. There is no definitive beginning. Probably the most significant place was in art school. I had several friends who were already tattooing. One of which was constantly telling me that was what I really needed to be doing. We all knew I wasn’t really going to do graphic design in the normal sense. However, I was stubborn. I finish what I start. I finished the design degree after brushing off the tattoo idea as unpractical. A few years later when I went to Japan for the first time, I not only got my first Japanese tattoos, but I recognized the extent of what you could do with tattooing as an art form. I wanted to do that. I wanted to take what I had learned about all the Ukiyo-e imagery that fed the Japanese style and learn to do that.
Eventually, after a couple years in the tattoo industry, my entire bread and butter was based on fixing bad tattoos. I never got to do very many actual Japanese pieces. That realization coupled with several other factors led me to take a break and go back to school. That break would, unfortunately, end up being permanent. I would not go back to tattooing. I would end up pursuing a doctorate in an area I was almost equally passionate about, linguistics.
It seems like a bit of a roller coaster career path. However, to me, it makes perfect sense. Everything flows together eventually. As I finished my Ph.D., I found that the art foundation from my undergraduate degree coupled well with my masters in ESL. I found myself dealing with creating ESL curriculum for art schools. Everything was connected and flowed together well.
As I have begun moving back towards a creative path, I began painting again. This is where the real challenge started. I have all this tattoo imagery in my head. I have all this Japanese imagery that yields specific symbolic images in my head. These are great fuel rods to thrust into your creative forge. However, I also still had this line-based tattoo drawing style ingrained in me. I couldn’t break it.
It wasn’t a matter of unlearning. I still find clean lines to be valuable. I don’t want to lose that. But I had to push past that to break free and be able to move with fewer boundaries. That is where the expressionism came in. I went back to my beloved books of Willem De Kooning. I wanted to stop being clean and get messy. I wanted expressive lines. So I began doing tattoo images in an expressive manner.
This was working fine until I spent one afternoon smoking a cigar and writing a list of symbolic imagery on my wall. I used a lot of Japanese images already. My sketchbooks from Japan are full of them. I had especially become fond of using Japanese cloud patterns, wave patterns, and fire as backgrounds to paintings. I became more detached in how I approached them. Then the fun element kicked in. I began streamlining the patterns into a more uniform pattern based on what is commonly known as the Golden Mean. The expressionist lines were masking the totally mathematical uniformity of my backgrounds. It masked them so well that only one friend was able to recognize and comment on the Fibonacci Patterns in my paintings. I’m still proud of her.
Then I began to organize my more overt symbols. Dragonflies or “tombo” were a lighthearted foil against the darker Japanese centipedes or “mukadai”. Other elements began to seep in with origins ranging from tattoo images to medieval alchemy transmutation circles. All of which flows together into what I like to call Esoteric Expressionism.
Note: I’ll be discussing each of these symbolic elements in future posts.
It is that ever annoying question you get asked when you meet someone for the first time or when you are creating small talk at a party or event, “so what do you do?” We all know that feeling of being judged and categorized by what we do for a living. If you are lucky and you are creative in a way that is easy to follow and categorize, then your life in this realm will be much less complicated. If you can simply say, “I’m a painter” or “I’m a graphic designer” then you will stumble far less over conversations at parties.
However, being creative is very seldom that easy in this day and age. It is a messy existence that requires constant explanation to those outside the know. I paint, but I don’t consider myself a painter. I write, but I am not 100% a writer. The new term that has come up over the past several years to rectify this dilemma is to call yourself a “creative”. Ok, I’ll bite.
The term “creative” loosely references the field of creative freelance professions like graphic design and photography, but it can be applied to much more. It still gets a raised eyebrow or two at parties from older people who would rather you give an answer they can relate to like doctor, lawyer, or mechanic. Technically, I’m a linguist. I mean I have a Ph.D. in linguistics. I feel weird self-applying the title of Dr. or Linguist, but it occasionally happens.
For the practical purposes of this blog, I am a painter. However, if you had to really push it, I am many things. All of which I do. None of which I use to define myself. I am other. I am in the margins making you feel uncomfortable because to define my existence requires you to rethink and question your own. You can’t just get a straight answer and feel like you have some idea of what makes me tick. You have to actually roll up your sleeves and get to know me. I like to think that most people find that experience worth it.
So, if you are still reading, then congratulations, you are clearly ready for the challenge of trying to understand a rather unorthodox approach to art, language, writing, and a general view of the universe that you may or may not agree with. Just do what I do, try to enjoy the ride.
As an artist, I have a degree in graphic design. I have worked in the tattoo industry as a tattooer. I have worked in photography. I have done various branches of design at one point or another. It just follows this crazy unorthodox path that is my life. I can do all of these things but am not categorized or defined by them.
This is my journey. I am just drifting through the creative ether. I am simply looking for a balanced existence where I can find that place where the verbal and visual meet. I write. I paint. I am verbal creative and a visual creative. This is my journey.