Artist as Shaman: The Definition of Magic

I’ve been sick this past week! One thing about being sick is that it slows everything down and forces you to be quiet and still for awhile. I just wanted to share a few thoughts regarding magic and the creative process that came to me all in a rush and also share another concept I am currently preoccupied with: the idea of artist as shaman.

I was thinking about some of your comments about my work, and also about my method of working. The word, “magic” was used. That caused me to remember a phrase I wrote in one of my notebooks once, “Magic is willed.” Also another, penned by David Abram in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, “The most sophisticated definition of “magic” that now circulates through the American counterculture is “the ability or power to alter one’s consciousness at will.”

Abram was a magician who traveled to Nepal and Indonesia and hung out with shamans. His magic training got him to be accepted as one of them by many and the shamans shared a lot with him. The book is about man’s relationship to the natural world. Abrams defines a shaman as someone who can, “readily slip out of the perceptual boundaries that demarcate his or her particular culture… in order to make contact with and learn from the other powers in the land…” Their magic is their “heightened receptivity” to the “meaningful solicitations” of the “larger more-than-human field.”

That way of describing magic as altering ones consciousness at will, really struck a chord with me because I feel that that is what it feels like to make art sometimes. His description of the receptivity to the “more-than-human field” (I love that phrase!) is akin to something like I would put in an artist’s statement. There definitely seems to be a theme so far in my efforts at capturing a visual representation of emotion, unseen forces, natural intelligence… Which led me to see a similarity with some artists acting as shamans in the sense of creating visual representations acting as go between between a natural unseen world and                           this one. Or, better yet, evoking the feeling that captures the beautiful paradox of both worlds, seen and unseen, coexisting.. ala magical realism. There! Something like that. Anyway…

In passing I wanted to put in a word or two about the experience of rapture. I was writing earlier, and thinking about altered consciousness.. and how so many of the things we do that really drive us and make life worth living, aka sex, spiritual/meditative bliss, dancing, music, art, writing, dreaming.. these all involve altered states of consciousness.. (at least I think so..) I’ve heard this referred to as the experience of ecstasy or rapture as well. I feel that these altered states, this rapture is our way of touching a more whole view of who we are. It’s through shamanic rapture that shamans channel the pervasive presence of nature that they believe surrounds us… and I’m just a nobody.. seriously.. but I don’t think you have to be da Vinci to feel artistic rapture and touch something.. whatever that is.


About Beauty and Dreams

I'm just a lady in Portland, OR. Check out my blog! Drawings, collage and more!
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16 Responses to Artist as Shaman: The Definition of Magic

  1. Tincup says:

    Love your comment about being sick and how it slows you down. Your beautiful essay above is artistic in and of itself and close to my heart. I believe on occasion we reach a sense of enlightenment or moments of what you coin “more than human field”. A poet that was around not too long ago, Robinson Jeffers, was not so into the magical realism you probably enjoy, but “Jeffers coined the phrase inhumanism, the belief that mankind is too self-centered and too indifferent to the astonishing beauty of things. Jeffers articulated that inhumanism symbolized humans’ inability to “uncenter” themselves.” I am sure many of the Asian philosophies also coincide with this idea although I am ignorant of these treasures. Even Greek Mythology dealt with abstract nature….although even in this case they had to resort to human forms to come to terms with the abyss. I believe our current society is so focused on ourselves that such streams of enlightenment or visions “more than human field” are becoming less and less pronounced…which really puzzels my mind given all that we have learned recently about Earth and the Cosmos.

    Have a good night.

  2. I agree! The more-than-human field is less pronounced, yet as science progresses it seems more and more enlarged each day. Barriers between us and nature get broken down.

  3. Tincup says:

    In my imperfect perception, I believe it is our growing focus on economics which blinds and numbs us.

  4. clinock says:

    Hey Chrissy – I really appreciate your time visiting and ‘liking’ my posts at art rat cafe – it means a lot to me. This is a valued and magical connection. Just before I read your exploration into shamanism I gave a talk at my local art school that involved my experiences with shamanism in Mexico – coincidence, synchronicity – who knows? As you may have read in my posts, last year, in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, I rented space for a month on the patio of a local art school and painted every day in the dappled sunlight and heat. The patio was filled with brilliantly coloured tiles and flowers, carved wood sculptures of mythical Mayan beings, scrawny cats who came and went like silent ghosts, street sounds, the cry of nut sellers and the talk and laughter of art students. When creating I always work from intuition – applying multiple layers of paint until images appear that speak to me. I nourish those images and call them into life. The story of my Mexican paintings emerges from memories of the cold, dark north while I was immersed in the heat and brilliance of the south. The tree spirits of the northern forests dance to the songs of ancient Haida voices and merge with the passion and burning colours of the Aztec sun god.
    An essential theme in my Mexican paintings comes from my meeting with a Mexican artist, Antonio, whose ancestors were Mayan. Antonio spoke excellent English, which was just as well because I am a very poor linguist and my Spanish always caused gales of laughter from the locals.
    Antonio shared his knowledge of the Nawal culture and how it affected his life as an artist.
    Mayan culture goes back some 3,200 years. Like most native people in all of the Americas the Mayan are Naturalistic – they believe there is a particular animal or plant with which we each have a spiritual link. In most Mayan languages it is referred to as the Nawal.
    The word Nawal derives from Nawatl, not only a people and language but also an indigenous religious practitioner. Nawalism is a form of Animism. It gives a soul to all forms of nature and is similar to the Taoist experience of the universe. The Mayan shaman acts as a mediator between the outer and inner worlds and such, also, is the role of the Nawatl artist – the creator of images, a magician who harnesses the instinctual forces that animate us, a mediator between all aspects of life – a translator of emotions.
    The essence of Nawatl art is that it is created completely, absolutely freehand – with no sketch, copy or model – the process of creation implies a ritual journey inside oneself through which one evokes and collects the archetypical symbols and legends of one’s ancestors.
    My own art has always resulted from a convergence of chance, openness and intuition and has been strongly influenced by the Surrealist concept of automatism.
    When Antonio told me about Nawatl art, I was amazed by its similarities to automatism, which also evokes the inner image through a completely intuitive process, albeit with a western European, Freudian spin.
    Antonio’s teachings had a profound influence on my paintings and I intend to return to San Miguel to learn more about Nawatl shamanistic art.
    I am interested in your explorations of the writings of David Abram and will investigate his link. His “larger, more than human field” and “altering one’s consciousness at will” are powerful phrases that I, in agreement with you, relate strongly to the act of art. I also like the comments from ‘Tincup’. My ramblings are too long already so I will cease with this thought: Who are we and who do we become when we face the tabula rasa of the blank white canvas or paper?

    • Wow. Get. out! I am glad I started blogging, if only for a chance to talk about trippy business like this. (I feel like I don’t get to talk about it enough!) I am blown away by your descriptions of your experiences with shamanism in Mexico. I feel a connection with Mexico and South America, although I have never been to either. What draws me is the light and the heat and the magical realism..the colors. I experience synchronicity all the time.. it definitely make things feel more magical!

      My dad introduced me to a lot of what I am into today.. He is an artist, who should be in galleries.. instead he’s painted trucks my whole life. He taught me how to draw and shared his books with me. Mysticism, counterculture.. everything. The reason I mention him is that he first got me interested in shamanism in general and Mayan culture. He was working on an expansive series of works on the Mayans and Aztecs and the conquest of Mexico. He had all these books.. I used to look at them. He never finished it. It would have been brilliant. He also had all the Casteneda books and gave them to me to read when I was pretty young. It definitely drew me!

      I also had a family friend.. she was a widow who had no children, a friend of my stepgrandmother. We called her grandma too. She had been a missionary in South America. I heard that she fell in love with a man who was excavating Mayan ruins… Romantic! Anyway…

      I like how you describe bringing your work into being.. that is a nice way of putting it! I also like the description of your own artistic process, “resulting from chance, openness and intuition.”

      The Abram book is good. I thought it was slow going in parts, but I thought there was a lot of wisdom in it.

      Thank you for your thoughts! It was a nice way to start my morning. 🙂

      • @clinock, I just re-read your comment and where you describe Nawalism and refer to the similarity to Taoism, it made me think of a thing I just learned, that Taoism traces back to Ancient Chinese shamanic practices, which I had never heard of before. I have been reading up on Taoist Magic, which uses symbols as magical charms.. it is apparently pretty intense and to do it properly you would need to be trained. Interesting nonetheless!

    • Tincup says:

      I enjoyed your extension of BeautyandDreams essay…going to your page now. Both of you have inspired me to learn more about shamanism. I am no artist, but I enjoy the philosphical ideas.

      • clinock says:

        Not surprised you have picked up on this great philosophical chinwag, I’ve visited your site and discovered that you are refreshingly open to all aspects of our amazing world. I’ve also left replies to your comments on your site and mine. Thank you for all of your ‘likes’ – nice to meet you.

  5. clinock says:

    Chrissy – I’m sure you know that you are blessed and very lucky to have a dad who nurtured your creativity. I taught art to high school students for 22 years and I can tell you honestly that only one in ten had parents who supported their creative side. The educational emphasis was always on the left brain, pragmatic and getting a job approach – not only from the parents but also from the school administration. Even though the party line was “a Renaissance education” – graduating ‘all around’ students who reflected the Renaissance model; in actuality the creative arts were seriously downplayed. Despite vast research that shows that well taught visual art develops the critical and creative thinking desperately needed in the work force. Despite the obvious inner growth, both humanistic and ‘spiritual’ that deep exploration in the arts can develop. And despite my endless appeals on these grounds I met with closed minds from both parents and admin. Visual Art is a journey of exploration into the ‘inner world’ as well as the ‘outer’. It is an awakening or rediscovery of the imagination and the senses, which are rapidly fading dimensions of our twenty-first century lives. Our children need to know the Arts, not just as entertainment, but experientially, as a participatory alternative to the passive absorption of commercial mediocrity. Through their explorations of the creative process students develop the confidence to express their own ideas and feelings, to think in new and challenging ways, and to extend and vivify the human experience.
    You are an example of this last sentence, Chrissy, and this is why you are blessed and lucky.

    • Tincup says:

      Do you think that has been the case throughout time — parents or establishments not supporting young people in artistic endeavours? I experienced this lack of support firsthand in our family. One of my older brothers was very creative but was made to feel outcast within the family. At one point in my life, after living, working, and traveling throughout Europe, I declared I wanted to be a photographer and asked my parents for help enrolling in photography school. My parents said no but were willing to pay for graduate business school. On the institutional side…I explored photography schools and when asked what I wanted to focus on (I said landscapes and skyscapes)…they said you can’t make a living on that and suggested portraits, products, weddings, fashion. At this point I vowed not to corrupt photography and elected to make it a hobby. As you know, a hobby receives much less attention and energy and the results reflect such a mediocre effort. Bottom line, I wasn’t strong enough to push forward amidst little support…but I wish we could find ways to nurture and support young people in the arts without compromising the arts to money…yes…I am an idealist.

      • clinock says:

        Tincup – yes I do believe that parents, especially since WW2, have been reluctant to support their children in the arts. Your brother’s and your experience are very familiar to me. I think that the photography school you encountered was just another arm of the status quo. The inherent nature of most arts is to challenge the status quo. This reminds me of the writings of Canadian documentary filmmaker Donald Brittain, who in his NFB film ‘Bethune’ said: “An artist enters eagerly into the life of man, of all men. He becomes all men in himself. The function of the artist is to disturb. His duty is to arouse the sleeper, to shake the complacent pillars of the world. He reminds the world of its dark ancestry, shows the world its present, and points the way to its new birth. He makes uneasy the static, the set and the still.”
        And also I recall a quote by Naum Gabo 1953:
        “The tyrant wants us to be in fear of him and the artist’s task is not to perpetuate that fear but rather to encourage resistance”.

    • I am! Your students were lucky to have you as an art teacher, John. It’s been a decade since I’ve last been in school and I don’t remember much about my art teachers, other than their criticism! I agree that children need to know the arts, as self-exploration, self expression.. if you spend any time looking at children’s art, you see that even young children feel and think more deeply than they are often given credit for. Their individuality and self expression needs to be nurtured. My background is in education actually. I went to school to be a children’s librarian. I never actually got a job in a school.. Tough market! Many schools don’t even have full time librarians anymore. I’ve worked in public libraries and book retail focused on children most of my adult life. Literacy and art are such vital foundations of education.

  6. clinock says:

    Very interesting Chrissy – I actually went to court on behalf of our school librarian who was suing the school for wrongful dismissal – she was a creative thinker – too much so for the school admin. I believe that this led to my own forced retirement. That you don’t remember your art teachers is a telling statement – they could have been your most important influence. Because of your Dad though, you came through unharmed.

  7. lesleehare says:

    How wonderful to have found your blog! And what an inspiring comment thread too . Thank you!

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