Arts

Art and Energy

There is something about Marshall Arisman’s paintings that is…alive…like they’re going to spring right off the canvas.

I’ve never experienced them in person, and if they have this effect on me only by looking at a computer screen, I can only imagine what it would be like to see them in person.

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Marshall Arisman: An Artist’s Journey From Dark to Light, 1972-2017 Exhibition at the School of Visual Arts, NYC.

I first stumbled across Marshall’s Sacred Monkeys series on the web years ago, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. There’s something electric that wanted to draw me into another world where I wouldn’t emerge the same as when I entered—should I give myself over to the urge.

Then, I saw one of his bison. Recently, I learned it was from his Cave Paintings series, which explained my own response to it, but I’ll tackle that more later.

Some of his work is quite dark. I really cannot look at the Frozen Images collection, which is a statement on gun violence. His work has a visceral transference across the board, and some of them show us things we probably don’t want to see in ourselves, in other humans, or contained in otherworldly dimensions. Clearly though, this artist is offering this opportunity.

I’ve returned to his website periodically through time to see what’s new. I finally realized that I’m curious about the man himself. Who is this man who’s able to create such artwork? At least, part of that question has been satisfied.

On my latest visit, I noticed a documentary had been uploaded. A Postcard from Lily Dale is about the grandmother who figured so prominently in his life and art, and also showed some of his personal and artistic development. The film premiered in 2014 at the SVA Theatre in New York City. Within some of the high points I note, I’m also including a personal commentary because they ground my own experience.

Louise “Muddy” Arisman was a gifted psychic, medium, and Spiritualist minister. At the age of 10, an old woman appeared to her, overtook her hand, and Muddy began to produce automatic writing. She went on to find the first church dedicated to Spiritualism in Lily Dale, now billed as the largest Spiritualist camp in the world, located an hour south of Buffalo, New York.

One famous story involved a reading she did for Lucille Ball, who had been told she was a terrible actress and should give it up. Muddy told her she would marry a Cuban bandleader and have a wildly successful career as a comedian. The museum in present-day Lily Dale documents it all.

After Marshall’s birth, barely placed in the hospital nursery, his grandmother saw his aura and proclaimed he would become an artist. Muddy was a healer who read the auras of her clients to identify blocked energy and medical issues. This is the woman who Marshall spent weekends with as a child. Naturally, Muddy was a strong influence, even though his own mother believed all she professed was witchcraft.

As Marshall began to make his way as an artist, Muddy advised him that creating art develops intuition and opens the third eye. Beyond that, she said, “The energy you put into your art will live in your art as long as it exists, giving off an aura of its own.”

Hearing that statement validated for me what I secretly knew. The depth of exchange I experience in creating pieces of art is a sacred conversation that isn’t lost, even at the completion of the process. It becomes contained within the work and exists as an energy, which is an inherent aspect of the story it tells. Only this makes sense to me personally when viewers comment on the emotive nature of a work. The piece isn’t static; it conveys something.

Marshall began to see auras himself when he attended a talk by Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1978, at Carnegie Hall. Listening intently, he suddenly began seeing the speaker’s aura. In disbelief, Marshall rubbed his eyes, yet the visible vibration remained.

I had similar experiences in the mid-1980s when I attended an experiential weekend workshop conducted by scientist Valerie Hunt presenting her work on the human energy field. During a break, we came face-to-face as she exited the bathroom and looked directly into my eyes. At that moment, I felt as though she’d uncovered my soul.

I saw a strong yellow-gold field around her upper body. I was stunned at the time, blinked, and blinked. The impression didn’t go away, but it widened my capability to view the energy fields of others in the room. I had the same powerful experience with spiritual teacher Ted Andrews. The image of vibrating emerald green along his arms still lives in mind.

Marshall began to include his interpretation of energy and auras into his artwork in 1990. It must have been shortly after that when I first came across his paintings, and it explains to me now why I’ve found them so powerful: there’s a transmission.

When in the Dordogne of France, he secretly put his hand over a bison and felt heat coming from the cave painting, which is 12,000 or more years old. He proposes what he read in a thesis to be true. The walls of the caves provide a curtain separating the material world from the spiritual world. With the help of an invisible guide, the shaman crossed through the wall to another world, and after returning, he recorded his experiences in the form of paintings on the cave’s walls. In this way, the members of the tribe could place their hands over the cave art and receive the agency of the journey.

It was evident when I entered Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume a few years ago that each was a sacred space, a church of sorts, embodying the ritual transference of things unseen. The energy that permeates these places nearly overwhelmed me.

With this, I’m compelled to wonder if Marshall Arisman himself hasn’t made many explorations through the veil and then, upon returning, recorded what he saw and felt it, so that we could acquire the knowledge.

Muddy relayed a secret to him long ago:

“Learn to stand in the space between the angels and the demons.”

I’d say Marshall mastered it. Muddy said she was blessed with astral light and undoubtedly passed it on to her grandson.

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Watch A Postcard from Lily Dale on Vimeo streaming for free.

A Postcard from Lily Dale is a film that’s interesting on a historic level, a snapshot in time of the spiritualism movement. But more so, it’s a tribute that tells of the lifelong reverence that Marshall Arisman holds for a grandmother who so influenced his life that he still calls her mentor, teacher, and friend.

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Art and Energy was originally published in the Elephant Journal on July 14, 2020.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Film, Spiritual Evolution, Visual Arts | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

An Offering from the Heart

A  couple of months ago, the newly established Museum of Beadwork in Portland, Maine sent a call out for bead artists to participate in a very special project, which would become part of their permanent collection.  It was an invitation to a community undertaking. Artists would create a design of their choice on a six-inch square hard surface. All the squares would be put together in such a way to form a visual quilt.

The potential of such a project caught my attention. Decades ago in a college art class, the instructor assigned students to shoot black and white photos of the urban industrial landscape that were later cut up, pieced together and mounted on a large collective board. It produced an interesting piece of art. I’m quite sure the outcome was intended to probe the depths of a philosophy—because that’s who the instructor was—and open our sensibilities. I wish I remembered what we unearthed, quite unknown to us at the start. At any rate, the memory of that assignment, the process and result, stayed with me all these years and came to mind again after I received the call for bead artists.

I sat with it. I considered participating but nothing as far as design came to me. And frankly, I  work much larger than the criteria allowed, and it felt restricting. But then I thought about haiku and the six-word story. In their brevity, just the framework, much is left open to the reader’s interpretation.  And isn’t that what art is at its best anyway? Something evocative that touches you? Through which you can have an experience?

That still didn’t produce a design of any juice for me. Finally, something did. I focus my writing there frequently, and especially now.

 

…liminal space, the territory that holds the material and imaginal realms equally…until they come together as one.

—Excerpted from Liminal

 

In the last month I’ve written of immediacy and the process we’ve collectively undertaken one way or another produced by the pandemic: This Pilgrimage We’re On and Move Slowly Back Into the World.

Of course, I’d also want to commemorate my own process in a piece of artwork! But it’s even more than that. Within a rite of passage, it would become a sacrament. An invocation, an intent to release into the world held lightly by community. It takes on power. With shape, color and symbols, as the piece may speak for me, others may find their own meaning through what is left unexplained. The fashioning of form, the placement of each bead is no less a prayer, the embodiment of spiritual practice set into it, ultimately to be released to those who may feel and see, those who open their sensibilities to be touched in that way.

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Offering from the Heart. Bas relief mixed media, 6″x6.” ©2020 Carla Woody.

I finished my Offering from the Heart. Now it’s getting ready to travel across the country to finally find its placement in the community project.

An idea occurred to me after my own piece was completed. This really is a momentous time to make visible what comes from the core. While I usually don’t accept art commissions, I would be glad to do so for anyone wanting to mark their own rite of passage in this way. An intent to move into form, remembrance of a loved one, a blessing to release whatever it is whose time is past. The expression would be yours to formulate and provide me as the well from which to draw. The heart—being the carrier of love and resonance—and the square—as consciousness, Mother Earth, foundation—would remain the common elements. A piece to take its place on your altar, hang on the wall, or include in ceremony. I’d welcome any sacred items, symbols or anything else that would further personalize and would be possible to include within a 6”x6” or 8”x8” format.

See my artist website for detailed images, options and pricing.

Categories: Contemplative Life, Global Consciousness, Healing, Spiritual Evolution, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spiritual Travel and the Vanquishing of Dryness

It’s normal for a state of connection to wax and wane, to sometimes experience great spiritual presence and other times less or none at all. We’re human and influenced by so much swirling around us. That’s so even with a strong, consistent spiritual practice. Mostly, if we attend to it, we can weather the ups and downs. But when the absence of connection extends itself for months or longer, when instead there’s an ongoing emptiness, flatness…life feels brittle and sense of purpose becomes lost or heavily questioned…it begins to affect every aspect of our life.

When this happens, we’re actually receiving a special calling…not to succumb…but to evolve…to expand and deepen. I can say this because it happened to me.

In 2011, I traveled to northern Scotland with good friends Phoebe and Paul Hoogendyk from Australia, Jo Elliott of New Zealand and Lucinda Brogden and Doug Easterling of the US…in December. Prior to that I’d felt cut loose for quite a while. I may have hidden it well from others, but it was there.

I’d had a long ‘empty’ spell with my painting, and I was unable to get excited by much, akin to what’s called spiritual dryness. We went in December—Isle of Skye, Isle of Lewis with final destination the Orkney Islands. Paul had had a strong message that time of snow and strong, snatch-your-breath winds was the span to complete a ceremony in a long string of other ceremonies Phoebe and he had undertaken across the world. We especially spent time at standing stone circles.

That spare landscape did something to break me open. For years, I’d often call myself a monk. At some point in our travels, I’d decided that probably wasn’t a metaphor I wanted to embody—at least with some of the elements it contained. At the Ring of Brodgar, a place of significant lightning strikes, I spontaneously undertook my own ceremony, putting my back against each of the 27 remaining standing stones and ‘released my monkish ways.’

When I returned home my creative energy was so strong, I turned out a series of paintings in a flurry dedicated to the Druids, embodied in the stones, and landscape of Scotland.

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Callanish Croft. ©2012 Carla Woody.

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The Disguise. ©2012 Carla Woody.

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Winter Solstice ©2012 Carla Woody.

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The Visitation ©2012 Carla Woody.

These are the words I ascribed to The Visitation.

At a certain point in human time The Light appears, inviting us all to join our ancestors. In the next phase of the journey, the body is no longer needed⏤thus vacated. Our imprint on the landscape is left behind as legacy, as memories and deeds, touching those who will come after us. Connection endures.

The Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis in northern Scotland inspired this piece. When I visit such places, I see the stones as Druids who were transported en masse, through ceremony, leaving the physical remains as a testimony to timelessness.

Simultaneously, I picked up a barely begun manuscript for a novel, I’d put away in a drawer 7 years prior. The story fairly flew out of me, as a movie in my visual field. I merely had to write it down. Portals to the Vision Serpent was finished 3 months later.

The ‘dryness’ had left me through that journey in Scotland and has not returned to block my creative urge or sense of spiritual purpose. Paul was directed to hold the ceremony they had come for, and we others were to witness, at the very edge of the sea, right outside the isolated house we’d rented. A few months later, there was a discovery. Archaeologists had found another stone circle covered by water, just off the shore, where our final ceremony was completed.

From the point where I am now in my life, I look back on that journey and all it personally produced with amazement.

When you receive a strong calling, in essence you’ve been chosen. You’re being directed by a higher sensibility to depart the places known to you—through conditioning, mindset, outgrown choices, geographic location and culture—and strike out…to open up to the wider world beyond the point where you’ve been rooted.  You’re being asked to enter a land foreign to you, to partake of things outside your usual influences that strive to keep you tethered in the same old place. You need a disruption.

In order to take this step, time and space must be set aside from the ‘normal’ life, to the point it becomes sacred. It must be something finite, not a glancing thought or empty promise you make to yourself that you’ll get to it someday. It must be something clearly intended and acted upon so that it becomes a spiritual journey, in whatever form it may take, wherein you give yourself permission for everything to be presented that will usher you through the threshold, producing an evolution over time. Perhaps one never even imagined…until you look back on the path you’ve taken and realize who you are now.

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On another personal note: I’ve been sponsoring spiritual travel journeys for 20 years for those who are drawn to take a leap through the threshold this way. Leading these programs and making my own pilgrimages  has led me to consistently deepen my appreciation for the human condition—including my own—and informed the choices I’ve made. I’ve found myself undertaking things I never even dreamed of and live with great gratitude for the outcome.

As you’re drawn, here are upcoming spiritual travel programs.

Spiritual Travel to Bolivia and Peru: The Heart of the Andes, October 17-30, 2020

Spiritual Travel to Chiapas, Mexico: Entering the Maya Mysteries, January 18-28, 2021

For other spiritual travel programs, go here.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Spiritual Evolution, Spiritual Travel, Visual Arts | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Music Review – On the Wings of a Butterfly

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Kathy Marshall has released her third CD in just the time we so need her thoughtful, heartfelt lyrics. On the Wings of a Butterfly took five years to come into being. Worth waiting for, her words and music are reflected against the backdrop of a world that has gone off the rails. Kathy poignantly acknowledges her own challenges in these times, but gently pulls us back toward realignment. And she reminds us…together we matter in building a world that embraces love. We gather strength for this journey. That is the effect this new album has on me.

Some works of art unconsciously, naturally create themselves as a whole within the artist first. Then emerge in purity and perfection to touch others in such a way that we—the listener—become the one singing the song, having the experience.

From It Takes Love: Carry me across the water…Fly me through the air…it takes love to flow that way…Help me light the fire…Walk with me on the earth…

From Help Us Now: We were meant for these times…We were born to be here…The world is changing and fighting for her life…Today I said a prayer…That Love and Light is there…Shining brightly like the midday sun…

All lyrics and music written by Kathy Marshall. CD available to purchase or download via her website and CD Baby where you may also listen to individual songs.

For my review on Kathy Marshall’s second CD, Standing on Sacred Ground, go here.

Categories: Global Consciousness, Healing, Honoring the Earth, Music Review, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Film: Sacred Trances of Java and Bali

I want to say upfront this is the most remarkable film of its type I’ve seen. Just in the first seconds of the documentary, before an actual image came, the hair rose on the back of my neck. My skin tightened into goosebumps. The staccato chant I heard was well familiar to me.

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Bali Temple, 2007. Photo: Carla Woody

The film is specifically focused on the phases of ritual trance dancing of Java and Bali, particularly the horse dance where the dancer becomes the ‘horse’ he is ‘riding.’ It features elements to induce a trance: dance, drum, chant, whip, hyperventilation, meditation and acting ‘as if.’ Once entering trance, there’s no question the dancers are in another dimension altogether. To the point, after the ritual is complete, their fingers will not loosen from their stead or their body is completely rigid. These are no actors. You will see the dancers guided into and out of trance by the village shaman.

I appreciated the film underscored that these were ordinary people transformed into extraordinary personage through spiritual intent…and so affected return to their everyday lives. The shaman in one part was also shown in his work-a-day world as a government official in his village. One trance dancer was normally a farmer.

I know these things to be true through examples. Long ago, I remember participating in a Sufi retreat with a particularly adept Sufi teacher. At home he was a barista. I work with Maya religious leader-healer Xun Calixto who lives in a hamlet above San Juan Chamula in Chiapas. When not attending to his sacred duties, he works as a gardener.

Another interesting aspect highlighted is the syncretic nature of the religions in Bali and Java. Before other influences moved in and overtook them, Indonesia practiced pure animism. In Java, Hinduism arrived first, which the people incorporated for 800 years until Islam made inroads and prevailed. At that point, Hinduism moved on to Bali and remained. But in each instance elements of their original animism were maintained and expressed in isolated villages or special holidays, depicted well in the film.

To diverge a bit more, it made me think of the Maya people of Mexico and Guatemala, especially in San Juan Chamula. The church there was taken back from the Catholics in no uncertain terms. Yet, they have Catholic processionals on a saint’s day and allow the token priest to take part. The saints in glass boxes still line the walls. But the pews are gone and Maya forms of healing and prayer occur instead. It was a curiosity to me until I learned that the saints may be there, but the Maya people have their own stories about them, resoundingly connecting them to their land. The place is imbued with a sense of the sacred felt viscerally every bit as much as what’s shown in the film I’m reviewing.

You may be wondering how it is I immediately recognized the staccato chant that recurs throughout the documentary. In 2007 I was in Ubud, Bali presenting at a conference and elected to stay on afterward to experience more of its beautiful traditions. One night I attended a dance performance. I had no idea what it was but came highly recommended to me. I was myself entranced the entire time, not moving a muscle even for a while after it was over. It had a number of the same components I’ve discussed here—the ongoing staccato chant rising and falling—but also fire dancing and throwing with no one harmed. It was done at night. Mesmerizing. It’s stayed with me over the years. Whenever I thought of Bali, what I witnessed that night automatically emerged. Yet I had no reference for it until I watched this film. After I viewed it for the third time, I did some research and found the traditional Kecak ritual dance as a type of exorcism. The version I saw was created in the 1930s for Westerners by German artist Walter Spies and Indonesian dancer Wayan Limbak. Not exactly what was in the film. But still… Below you’ll see a good example of the Kecak dance I saw back in 2007.

It’s incredible the filmmakers—Elda Voelkel Hartley and Irving Hartley—were able to document these rituals, obviously done with great respect, which is why they gained permission. This 29-minute documentary is a true tribute to such sacred traditions. It doesn’t matter that if was produced in 1976. These things are timeless.

Watch the Hartley Productions full documentary Sacred Trances of Java and Bali for free streaming here.

 

 

Categories: Film, Indigenous Wisdom, Spiritual Travel | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

One By One

There are aspects of life I largely keep to myself. Not because I’m withholding—but because they’re too sacred to put into words. I’m quite sure that’s true for a number of readers here. When such depth exists, wrapping finite terms around it creates the risk of trivializing.  The vision or process leaks energy. The experience deflates to something more mundane.  That when the culmination—tangible or intangible—is meant to take its rightful place…as a part of who you are. Not what you do.

Good poetry or prose are exceptions. Now, there is specialized language, the kind that uses metaphor and symbol to transport. Stating it directly short-circuits the journey, cutting out the opportunity for readers or listeners to hitch a ride but find their own way.

I notice as I’ve been writing, I’m struggling with how to move into the territory I want to share here. I am a visual artist and rarely talk about my work. Although, I do regularly show my art online and in exhibitions. That’s different. The viewer can experience whatever they will. I don’t typically provide much input, maybe a simple narrative. At shows, I am sometimes asked to demo my work and am quite aware of my internal response.

How can I demo a process…that has turned into a prayer of sorts? A communion built over time? From the first vague spark of inspiration to that liminal point when something else takes over and I’m merely guided? That can be a long process because the spirit of a piece has lived with me for some time before it ever begins to take form? And I don’t create artwork…or write for that matter… just to do it? That’s the sacred part.

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The Ancestors Speak to Me  Oil and cold wax medium. ©2019 Carla Woody

There are the mechanics, of course. The how-to skill I can easily describe and sometimes show, taking the mystique out of the mechanics of artistry. I know someone is looking for something else when the conversation moves beyond the first question, how long did that take? To which I answer, depending on the piece, anywhere from a couple of weeks to a year or more. Then the next comment, you must have a lot of patience. To which I say, it’s a meditation to me.

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Hand of the Healer 3D mixed media. ©2019 Carla Woody.

If they move beyond that in the conversation, and it takes a deeper turn, I recognize someone who is on their own spiritual journey. We have more to delve into even if only for those few moments, and artwork has been the channel.

My friend Jacob Devaney, founder of Culture Collective and co-founder of Living Folklore, posted on social media about beadwork, his regalia and what it really means. I’m sharing it with permission here.

Beadwork is part of Creole Culture. It isn’t something for just women or grandmas. Not too different than Mala Beads for someone while meditating, or Rosary Beads for a Catholic. They are a prayer, each bead is the memory of an ancestor, it is presence, and it is an offering of beauty to the world when it is finished.

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Beadwork by Jacob Devaney.

 Life’s experiences are strung together like beads to make an expression of who we are, where we come from, and what we aspire towards. I don’t see beadwork as art, I see it as an expression of life itself, it is culture for me. In some circles, if I were to show up during carnival season with the same bead patches as last year, people would ask, “What did you do with your life since last year? We already saw these beads!” I know it sounds extreme and it is a form of teasing, but bead patches exemplify the time you spend reflecting, remembering your ancestors, being at home and giving to your community.

There are any number of devotional forms that express similar outcome. Several years ago, my friend Hilary Bee, a spiritual teacher in the UK, described to me how she was taught to make singing bowls, in the old way, by fire. That with each tapping of the small hammer shaping the bowl, a prayer was whispered simultaneously—and became integral to its structure. When I received the bowl she gifted me to carry, it was an incredible honor. I could feel the energy put into it, making its connection to me…and also release to wherever else it needed to go.

That is the intangible intent.

 

 

 

Categories: Contemplative Life, Creativity Strategies, Sacred Reciprocity, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

To Learn the True Ways of the Maya

Early morning on December 21, 2012, I was in Palenque, back in the Cross Group, sitting cross-legged just under the eaves by the doorway of the Temple of the Sun. I was hoping to witness the recurring solar alignment there on Winter Solstice—the sun rising over the dense jungle mountain directly above the Temple of the Foliated Cross, its first rays reaching across the plaza to fall within a hair’s breadth of where I’d planted myself. Maya ruler K’inich Kan Bahlam intended it exactly so.

There was a misty drizzle at the appointed time, and the alignment went unseen that year. But I remained, not moving an inch for four hours. I wasn’t hoping to be beamed up or whatever other nonsense was predicted. I was caught entranced by the ongoing chants, drums and singing bowls of a contingent of the Rainbow Tribe that had gathered in the interior of the Temple of the Sun. Others were engaged in not-meant-to-be laughable antics below in what had become a torrential downpour.

I may not have witnessed the solar alignment, but that day was still memorable. I finally made my way out, barefoot through the water rushing like a river down the many stairs and levels of Palenque. That was the only Great Flood that day. No cataclysmic demise of the planet or en masse spiritual transformation—depending on the believers’ camp—occurred.  The year 2012 and the end date of the Maya Long Count Calendar will be long remembered for its controversies, crazy predictions and theories, and ultimate ignorance of Maya culture and tradition.

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As seen on a street in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Photo: Carla Woody.

Early in 2012 I joined the Maya Research Discussion Group on Facebook as an interested observer. The members were a mixed bag but largely comprised of academics. The posts were often heated, pompous, sometimes nasty. Before I got tired of it and left the group, I did notice something pointedly. Maya members were few and those were mostly silent, maybe laughing up their sleeves or not wanting to enter the fray in this mostly Western group.

During that time, I was doing research to write an article on seed preservation and wanted Indigenous perspective. I’d privately asked an approachable member of the group if he could direct me to a Maya person who would be willing to speak with me about the subject. He connected me with Apab’yan Tew, a silent member, and advised he was open. After speaking with him via Skype for over two hours, I found him to be sincere and profoundly knowledgeable in the true ways of the Maya. His input ended up framing the article Seed Intelligence I wrote.

What started as a consult evolved into a continuing conversation, to the point that we’ve now been working together for the last six years. He’s become integral to the spiritual travel programs in Chiapas, Mexico and southern Guatemala I sponsor and other related undertakings. Apab’yan Tew is a K’iche’ Maya Daykeeper, spiritual guide, ceremonialist, male midwife, dancer and musician. Perhaps due to all the continuing misinformation, he has taken an active step forward in the last few years to become an educator on Maya traditions and the Maya calendar. This year brought publication of his first book The Birth of a Universe: The Maya Science of Pregnancy, which has been translated into K’iche’, Spanish and English. French and Hebrew are coming soon.

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Apab’yan Tew during fire ceremony in Guatemala, January 2019. Photo: Carla Woody.

 

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Blessing during fire ceremony. Photo: Carla Woody.

 In the last month, he has started offering short You Tube videos through his Brazilian friend Eduardo Ferronato, who produces and hosts them. For those who seek accurate knowledge on Maya cosmology, the traditions and practices of the Living Maya directly informed by their lineage and ancestors, this podcast is an excellent option. Each video is between 5-9 minutes, enough focused content for you to chew on and not too much so as to become overwhelmed with information. They plan for an initial season of 20 videos. Nothing offered is a misappropriation, an offshoot that diminishes the contribution of traditional Maya ways. Most importantly, you can trust Apab’yan to be true to his lineage.

Listen to the first video here. At this writing there are 3 available with another coming shortly. To subscribe and receive notices of new videos, go here.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Indigenous Wisdom, Maya | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Retrospective, Part II

Several months ago, I was listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2016 interview of Neil Gaiman on her podcast Magic Lessons discussing the creative process and other people’s expectations. If you’ve done something they like, they want you to repeat it. They don’t want you to surprise them with something else. The gallerist who wants a body of work. The publisher who wants a genre. No matter the author has a history of bestsellers. Write outside the genre they’re known for…and the publisher isn’t interested. What they’re really saying they want is consistency without risk to the bottom line…marketability.

Gaiman told a story. There are two types of writers: dolphins or otters. Dolphins are very good at doing tricks a trainer wants them to do — in exchange for a fish. They’ll do it over and over again. There’s some banter about the dolphin living in captivity and being very good about training the trainer to get what the dolphin wants. It all sounds like manipulation to me.

Then there’s the otter. No one can train an otter. Why would you want to do the things you just did when there’s the next thing to be done? That’s why there aren’t any otter shows…

It’s plain to see Neil Gaiman is an otter, quite the successful one. He’s readily described as a prolific creator of works of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics and drama.

Consistency — in the terms it’s meant by gallerists, publishing houses and art collectors — bores me to tears. That’s why I took a long break from oil painting. I’d done it off and on across nearly 40 years, with long pauses, until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. But the creative urges kept calling. So, I took up writing. Quite the divergence.

In hindsight, that was the point where I gave myself permission to be as diverse as I liked, and wish I’d done it much sooner. I’ve been so much happier ever since. It matches my nature, and I’ve never done well with attempts to box me in. I refuse to create in a formulaic manner. Fine for others. But for me, it would dull things down and dispel any feelings of awe the process can bring.

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Rolling Clouds. B/W photography, gelatin silver print. ©2004 Carla Woody.

My return to visual arts, finally, was black and white photography. It had always fascinated me. It was emotive. With tips from a photographer friend, I purchased a manual camera and began shooting black and white images. A few years later I discovered mixed media. By virtue of its very name it encourages exploring, combining things in ways to make it more than it would otherwise be using one lonely medium.

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Prophet Series: Warrior of the Spirit. Mixed media on gold leafed canvas. ©2013 Carla Woody.

Here at long last I’ve found a home. What it took was making the decision to create in the way that was most inspirational to me, not by the dictates of the outside world.

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Winter Solstice Mixed media on wood cradled panel. ©2015 Carla Woody.

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The Ancestors Speak to Me Mixed media on wood cradled panel. ©2018 Carla Woody.

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Of the Jungle Mixed media, 3D. ©2018 Carla Woody.

Second, after study about such things, I recognized how my mind works and why I rejected the formulaic method often preached. I accepted my difference instead for the formula my mind came up with that produces efficiently for me more often than not.

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I Hold the Keys Mixed media on canvas. ©2019 Carla Woody.

My personal strategy is in first creating the vision in my mind — the outcome — then gathering up piece parts, considering fit of different media, combining them in such a way most likely to induce the effect I envision. It’s a consistency I can abide by, and it’s rarely the same twice. The strategy isn’t step-by-step and usually not conscious, but a flow when functioning well.

But the most important thing I found? I said it earlier. Giving myself permission to hold the inspiration and strike out beyond any confine. Here is the same thing said in another form of mixed media.

***

Read Retrospective, Part I.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Healthy Living, Personal Growth, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Retrospective, Part I

I had an invitation from an art docent group to speak about my work a few weeks ago. Since I’m a narrative artist, the subject was art as a form of storytelling. Their preferred method was a PowerPoint presentation — a format I hadn’t used in decades — with real life examples displayed so they could encounter them up close and personal.

How to best represent my art? Going back 35 years, long before it became a conscious outcome, each of my pieces had a story behind them. They came from my experiences. Initially, they centered on villages I’d wandered through and trails I’d followed through forests, particularly in Europe.

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The Florist. Oil on canvas, 1988. ©Carla Woody.

Later, it was more about what came from sacred sites, ceremonies and people who populated Indigenous lands where I returned over and over, conveying in some way what had touched and changed me, deepened my understanding of what matters in this life.

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Maya Prayers Oil on canvas, 2011. ©Carla Woody.

I’m quite clear about my personal evolution over the years — changes I chose that placed me on another track entirely — but I hadn’t realized how it affected my artwork as well. How could I have missed that? I’m like anyone else. I’d gotten so immersed in the day-to-day I hadn’t realized what was evident. Creating that presentation became a gift. It caused me to stand back and pinpoint how I got from there to here. In that moment, I became the observer, not the artist. Each of those pieces were part of a history that generated a visual story. I used the same strategy on myself — in the context of art — that I facilitate with others who want to consciously create a transition in their life.

In being our own witness, rather than being in it, things become apparent. It helps us make decisions. It serves as momentum to veer off a beaten path, to move through a threshold with intent. It naturally gathers energy that provides courage and reinforcement.

So that was my first decision. If these folks really wanted me to relay how art could tell a story, they were going to get a retrospective peppered liberally with how I’d progressed as an artist, what influenced me, and finally what was behind each image in the PowerPoint.

That decision took me to another level. I became aware that, over the last decade, creating art had become integral to my spiritual practice. For me, that means there’s an excavation of sorts that occurs in the process of creation. My intent is to express something deeper than a surface level image and initiate an evocative response from the viewer. To do so, I require myself to go deeper.

During my talk prep, I came across a quote from the writer James Baldwin.

The purpose of art is to lay bare the question hidden by the answers.

 I’d written and taught of this before, although I hadn’t considered art when I did.

…Like an unconscious mantra held in the mind, we ask a question in any given moment. In asking the question, the answer naturally comes to us. Therefore, in holding the thought, we ask the answer. This is the paradox that guides our lives.

We cannot ask a question for which there is no answer. Our minds can’t conceive of such…Through some fluke of determination when our minds can conceive of a wider reality, or at least have some inkling of acceptance, that conception will generate answers beyond the questions. This opening will then move us into new experiences through the wider framework of the mind—and we wonder how we got there.

—Excerpted fromStanding Stark: The Willingness to Engage

I noticed there was increased depth in my art when I made a simple adjustment about five years ago. I sit in the same place every morning when I do my early morning meditation practice. I learned long ago that energy builds up in a physical space when I return to it over and over with such intent. It becomes a natural segue, an anchor or portal through which I easily enter a meditative state. Energy lingers there—like a booster rocket—the same as when I close my eyes in a certain way, signaling readiness for a shift from ordinary reality, a surrender to non-ordinary reality.

The simple adjustment I made was this. I began to bring whatever piece of art I had in process and placed it within direct viewing distance from my meditation spot. Then when I opened my eyes, still in a deeper state of being, a communication started to occur. A communion of sorts. No, I didn’t experience discourse with my ordinary ears or eyes. But something happened. I formed a much greater connection and knowing. The artwork came to life and had its own expression. The piece itself became my guide in how to express its deeper nature.

Of course, you can do the same for any context you wish to explore…whether you place a physical object as I did…or project some representation—via visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory manner—of what you wish to consider.

***

Read Retrospective, Part II.

Categories: Creativity Strategies, Meditation, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

The Fierce Devotion of Noor Inayat Khan

For nearly a decade I was involved in the local Sufi community. I studied the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan who first brought Sufism to the West in 1910 – directed to do so by his own Sufi teacher in India. I attended zikr, a devotional chanting practice, regularly and, in the late 1990s, went to India with a group led by Pir Shabda Kahn, now spiritual director of the the Sufi Ruhaniat International in San Francisco. In Delhi, we paid our respects at the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan and, encircling his grave, raised our voices in zikr. The vibrations of this dogma-free Path of the Heart remain with me.

Noor Inayat KhanYet never did I hear of his daughter Noor Inayat Khan in all that time I was so immersed in Sufi practice and study. Somehow, I came across a reference to her on the Internet. Curious because of her name, I did some research and was baffled by what I found.  The source said this first-born child of Hazrat Inayat Khan had been an agent for the Secret Operations Executive (SOE), an espionage agency known as “Churchill’s Secret Army.” I thought to myself, how could a young woman raised within that sacred lineage become a British spy? I delved more deeply and could clearly see what drove her.

Noor’s father — descendant of Indian nobility, Indian classical musician, Sufi mystic — met her mother Amina Begum né Ora Ray Baker — niece to a US Senator, cousin to Mary Baker Eddy who founded the Christian Science Church — at a public lecture he gave in San Francisco. Their love came quickly, but their courtship and prospective marriage were unacceptable to their families. They left the US and married in London. Four children quickly came along.

The family moved frequently and was largely dependent upon the generosity of followers. Her father traveled widely much of the time introducing Sufism to the West and forming centers. The family finally found a home in 1922 in Suresnes, close to Paris center, purchased for them by a wealthy Dutch devotee. Fazal Manzil, meaning House of Blessings, became their home and, for three months each summer, a Sufi school that overflowed with followers. There Noor grew up surrounded by family and community steeped in Sufi mysticism. She was a musician who played traditional Indian instruments and a singer of ragas, taught by her father. She was a poet and writer of children’s stories. Noor was consistently described as gentle, dreamy and shy even into adulthood. In some ways, it was an idyllic, if insular, upbringing. But her life changed dramatically when her father passed in 1927 while in India. Then in 1940 even more so when the family was forced to flee to London as the Germans advanced.

That was the significant point of departure from her former life. This introverted young woman, a practicing Sufi, was set on doing something to defend France. She volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was randomly chosen to train as a wireless operator. Noor was noticed by the SOE and subsequently invited for an interview, then offered a position.

At times she gave her superiors fits for she refused to lie, that necessary tool of a secret agent. They had to reframe the requirements of the job and relanguage things she would need to say in order for it to be palatable for her sensibilities. However, she wasn’t tricked into what she was about to encounter.

Radio operators had about a six-week survival rate in German-occupied territory. Their job of tapping out coded messages back to England made them prime targets by the enemy. Noor was the first woman to be dropped into occupied France, making her way to Paris. She had to move frequently to avoid detection, and faced danger continually. The radio had to be carried in a clunky briefcase, readily noticeable and an instant giveaway if cracked open.

The SOE espionage networks fell apart. One agent after another was caught, interrogated, jailed, executed or, worse, shipped off to concentration camps. Finally, she was the only remaining radio operator. Noor was alone. She was told to evacuate by her superiors back in England. She refused and persisted radioing coded missals on her frequency, Poste Madeleine.

How she remained calm in the middle of terrible danger can only be due to the great spiritual strength she carried. She steadily gave the Gestapo the slip until she didn’t. Enduring lengthy interrogation and torture, she gave away nothing. Dachau was the final stop.

She called out one word in the split second before her execution. Liberté!

Noor is a sacred Sufi word meaning light.

***

There is much to this story not mentioned here. Although posthumously awarded the honors, the George Cross by Britain and the Croix de Guerre by France, Noor’s incredible bravery and all the lives she saved by such fierce devotion went otherwise unsung for years. She was in the company of many equally as courageous but outside mainstream. She wasn’t a white man.

But over the last 15 years she is being given her due. The Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust was founded in London to “promote the message of peace, non-violence and religious and racial harmony, the principles Noor Inayat Khan stood for.” And her memorial was unveiled in 2012 in Gordon Square by Princess Anne.

The 2013 film Enemy of the Reich gives a good overview of her war years. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.

If you really want to understand how this unlikely young woman was so inspired, risked her life and maintained her unshakeable courage to the very end, read the 2006 book Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu. Available in the public library and wherever books are sold.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Sacred Reciprocity, Sufism | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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