Arts

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

Book Review: The Muralist

muralistI read B. A. Shapiro’s bestseller The Art Forger when it came out and enjoyed it immensely. When art is the backdrop against a true-life story, and I can learn something along the way, I’m automatically drawn. So when I stumbled upon her next novel, it was a shoo-in that did not disappoint. Plus, I became aware of shameful things in US history that certainly have been downplayed, but absolutely relevant today. A horrendous part of French history is also enlarged upon beyond what I’d known. These two areas are largely why I’m reviewing this historical novel here.

The storyline is introduced in present-day when art historian Danielle Abrams, working for Christie’s auction house, received boxes of paintings to research and authenticate. Knowledge and gut feeling told her they were likely Abstract Expressionist pieces, potentially pre-WWII. She felt the stirrings of excitement, a possibility arising. Could they be early works of renowned Abstract Expressionists? With that, her thoughts turned toward her great-aunt Alizée Benoit, the family legend and mystery surrounding her. In the first stirrings of WWII, Alizée had moved to New York for the sake of her art, leaving her Jewish family in France. Family stories had it that she somehow became connected with Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and others, little known at the time, and played a significant influence on these giants in the Abstract Expressionism movement and their styles.  But suddenly in 1940 she disappeared. No one knew where or why. Attempts led nowhere and there were whispers of mental illness. Only two of her paintings remained, given to her US family by a patron.

An unexpected find that she believes was somehow connected to her missing great-aunt causes Danielle to undertake her own search to resolve the mystery. We are ushered back to the late 1930s, a couple of years after Alizée’s arrival in New York, as she is making her way in a country critically affected by the Depression. By this time, she is working for Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Art Program (FAP) on murals, destined for public sites like government buildings, train stations and the like. She rubs elbows with serious artists of the time, and becomes part of the close-knit group that include those mentioned. The narrative follows Alizée as they work and practically live on top of each other, arguing about art and loving in the midst of uncertain times.

In the meantime, the threat of Hitler becomes more and more real. Alizée’s close and extended Jewish family in Europe enlist her to help them apply for US visas to escape the tyranny as it becomes increasingly dangerous and communications diminish. The one bright point in her life is art and the unforeseen patronage of Eleanor Roosevelt, a champion of the FAP.

Alizée bumps up against block after bureaucratic block in rescuing her family. She learns that Breckinridge Long, the Assistant Secretary of State in President Roosevelt’s administration and an anti-Semite, was actively withholding granting of visas to Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany, stating they may be criminals and spies. President Roosevelt, for his part, turned his head away from this matter as too politically sensitive.

Rumors of the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Gestapo, police raids in Paris, where her family lived, and transfers to a “holding camp” an hour away by train trickled through. Becoming more and more desperate, Alizée found no recourse but to join a dissident group and take drastic measures.

Danielle’s painstaking search for the fate of Alizée Benoit uncovers answers, piece by perturbing piece, that bring resolution from the past to the present.

B.A. Shapiro was faithful to documentation of the bohemian and sometimes tragic lives of the Abstract Expressionists, WPA/FAP and Eleanor Roosevelt’s support of the arts, which I found quite interesting. More so, she built a poignant story against the terrible landscape of politics, war and genocide of those times…some of which sound all too familiar today.

Here are the facts.

Ultimately, the effect of the immigration policies set by Long’s department was that, during American involvement in the war, ninety percent of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German and Italian control were never filled. If they had been, an additional 190,000 people could have escaped the atrocities being committed by the Nazis.

Source: Wikipedia.

The Drancy camp was designed to hold 700 people, but at its peak held more than 7,000. There is documented evidence and testimony recounting the brutality of the French guards in Drancy and the harsh conditions imposed on the inmates…upon their arrival, small children were immediately separated from their parents for deportation to the death camps…

Of the 75,000 Jews whom French and German authorities deported from France, more than 67,000 were sent directly from Drancy to Auschwitz… As the Allies were approaching Paris in August 1944, the German officers fled, and the camp was liberated on 17 August when control of the camp was given over to the French Resistance and Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling…

Source: Wikipedia.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s son James told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin that the greatest regret of his mother’s life was her failure to convince her husband to admit more European refugees to the United States before World War II. Her lament is a warning to all of us.

Source: Salon.com.

The Muralist is available in print, audio and ebook through Amazon and wherever books are sold.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Book Review, Global Consciousness, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Neither Wolf Nor Dog…Or When a Calling Comes

This is less of a review and more of a story about how I came to learn of the book Neither Wolf Nor Dog, and then my process through attempts to understand its full, often uncomfortable meaning.

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About this time a year ago I received an invitation, really it was delivered as a demand, from a Lakota elder that I come to South Dakota to receive teachings. It came at a time I was continually traveling, barely home but longing to be. When I thanked him and attempted to arrange a time that made it easier for me, he became insistent. We finally settled on a time. For me, it meant giving up the only travel-free week I’d had in some time. I wasn’t sure what this was all about, and didn’t know the elder. The prior contact we’d had was relatively brief, a long phone call. I finally decided it was something I was being called to do.

I would like to say it was a meaningful journey and a great sharing passed between us. Instead, our time ended abruptly. I left with even more confusion than I’d periodically felt over those days and a high level of frustration, angry at myself that I’d been talked into coming. Clearly, there was much he kept tightly wrapped. Although, it sometimes emerged in ways I wasn’t used to dealing with, much less how to respond adequately. But I was going directly to another commitment, one that mattered a lot to me. So I tucked the strong emotions away and chalked the whole thing up to a mystery of the Universe.

Before I made that trip to South Dakota, I’d mentioned it to a friend. She said there was a book she thought would be good for me to read. I dutifully ordered Neither Wolf Nor Dog but didn’t have time to read it before I left. It found its place on my bookshelf where it languished. I hadn’t known it was made into a movie. Some months later it was being shown where I live, and I followed the strong urge to see it.

The film hadn’t progressed very far when I began to get the eerie feeling of dejá vu. An author from Minnesota, Kent Nerburn, received a cryptic phone call out of the blue from a woman saying her Lakota grandfather wanted to see him. No reason given but delivered with a sense of urgency. Some months later, Nerburn—as he came to be called—finally was able to free up some time to make the long trip to the isolated place the elder Dan called home.  There were few explanations given to Nerburn, punctuated with a lot of silences. Quickly, Dan’s younger Lakota friend Grover was introduced into the story, a caustic individual with barely contained anger frequently directed toward Nerburn in clipped tones and looks. Frankly, I wondered why Nerburn stayed around. I think he did, too. He wrestled with his own responses and ultimately decided to let things play out. Plus, he had the nice guy syndrome going.

I experienced repeated slaps in the face watching all this. It was visceral. When Dan and Grover threw Nerburn in the car and took off on a little explained, exhaustive trip across the Dakotas, my forearms puckered into chicken skin that didn’t go away until the film ended. There were just too many parallels. The places they went, the flavor of the discourse. Showing rather than telling. When Dan broke silences to hold forth on what he wanted Nerburn to learn of the Lakota people…what he wanted Nerburn to put out there in writing… Well, I don’t have words for what I felt.

Clearly, I was not going to be allowed to tuck away my still strong emotions and bewilderment about the journey I took to the Dakotas. I can only believe unseen forces were taking me by the hand to engage with all of it.

So I started to read the book. It was not easy going for me. I could only read a few pages at a time. Then I’d have to digest the contents. Most of the things covered in Neither Wolf Nor Dog I knew about in some form: the atrocities done to Native peoples by whites, cultural differences in beliefs and values…and then there’s appropriation of Native traditions by white people searching to find spiritual grounding…or those who seek to do good but hold a hidden agenda. But I hadn’t found anything to the depth or in the frame presented by Dan, and even Grover, in this writing. The book naturally goes much deeper than the movie ever could.

It took me over two months to read Neither Wolf Nor Dog. I stepped back numerous times to examine the level of my own assumptions and awareness, as well as my motivations behind the work I’ve devoted twenty years of my life. It was a necessary, intensive process. I can’t say it’s over. Instead, it’s all percolating some place inside. I don’t know what will finally emerge.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog is book one of a trilogy that recounts the story of an Indian elder, the surrounding Lakota community, and the white man who somehow has been called to be part of the Truth-naming. The Wolf at Twilight is about Dan’s search for his long-lost sister Yellow Bird who, kidnapped from her home some eighty years before, never returned from the Indian boarding school. The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo brings back the things many have forgotten: the meaning of dreams, the abilities to engage with nature and speak with animals. Sadly, it uncovers the existence of a secret asylum and events that took place there.

Kent Nerburn says these books are fictional accounts of actual events. The truths are in each sentence and have global application. This isn’t merely history. It’s today.

The books are available on Amazon or elsewhere. The movie may still be making the rounds in theaters. Hopefully, it will be offered streaming soon.

***

With many thanks to Karen Marchetti who turned me on to Neither Wolf Nor Dog. Without this guidebook I may never integrate the odyssey I was strangely called to undertake.

Categories: Book Review, Film, Global Consciousness, Indigenous Rights, Indigenous Wisdom | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

When Art Preserves a Legacy

Written in collaboration with Tat Apab’yan Tew.

In February, I traveled to southern Guatemala with Maya Daykeeper Apab’yan Tew to put the final touches on the spiritual travel program we would lead in that region and Chiapas, Mexico in January 2019. When we stopped at Lake Atitlan for several days, I made sure to revisit La Galeria in Panajachel. I retained fond memories from twelve years before when my friend Will Crim and I stumbled upon the place while wandering the streets of Pana.

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Vintage. ©2006 Carla Woody.

We were first attracted by the vintage Mercedes planted in the garden, and then became enchanted after entering the gallery. While making our way around the exhibition, a spare man engaged us about the artwork and offered us an expresso. We took him up on his offer and got to hear Thomas Schäfer Cuz’ stories about his mother, German-Guatemalan bohemian artist Nan Cuz, for hours. We were even invited into the inner sanctum to view his grandfather’s collection of Maya folk art. I was fascinated. This time was much the same, but we also met Sabine Völcker, Thomas’ wife, who was equally as hospitable.

This article could go in any number of directions. For now I’m going to focus on the artwork and background of Rosa Elena Curruchich ⎯ and why such works are important. In the main gallery, there was a grouping of Naïve art that caught my eye. At first glance, these miniature paintings looked simple. But beyond their style became complex, quite detailed, and there was a narrative to each one. Only that grouping was up for display at that point.

We returned a couple of days later, invited by Thomas and Sabine when they would start cataloging the entire collection. They had received boxes upon boxes of the tiny paintings to be sold on behalf of the family of a collector, possibly Anna Paddington, who had recently passed.

Rosa Elena Curruchich was the first female painter in San Juan Comalpa, a highlands town known for its artists. Her grandfather, Kaqchikel painter Andrés Curruchich, started the tradition of oil painting there in the 1930s documenting celebrations, ceremonies and lifeways. Rosa Elena followed in his footsteps. Based on her grandfather’s teachings, the subject matter explains the detail of the pieces. The more you look, the more is revealed.

But most of Rosa Elena’s are just 4”x4” or 6”x6” – none larger. Why so small? Here is the story she told her benefactor, as it was passed on to Sabine and Thomas. She was married to a prominent, authoritarian husband who forbade her to paint. So she would sneak off to paint in secrecy and limited the sizes to what she could slip into her pocket to hide. Then she would make trips to the old capitol Antigua Guatemala and try to sell them in the market. After she sold the first one to the collector, this woman became almost her sole buyer.

Another story told by Rosa Elena that I uncovered through research said after she got her first exhibition in Guatemala City, the male painters in San Juan Comalpa were jealous. She received threats and fled to Chimaltenango, about 10 miles away, to live.

The common theme being oppression by men. Sabine had already told me the story about Rosa Elena’s husband may be questionable, told in the hopes of increasing sales. The same is said of the second story. It’s called survival.

The important thing though is what Rosa Elena Curruchich and all those who followed her grandfather have done. Through their artwork, they’re documenting ways of life that are precious, many threatened. I’m a fan of narrative art. In the true sense of artistry, they are preserving what’s important. A meaningful story, an emotion, ordinary things that have a deeper meaning.

It was quite exciting to me to go into the inner sanctum of La Galeria that day Apab’yan and I were invited back. There all laid out on two tables, side by side, were about 60 or more of Rosa Elena’s works. Several boxes were still unpacked, totally about 200 in all.

As Apab’yan examined them, he began sorting the pieces into an order…each ceremony as they fell according to the calendar. It was remarkable, really. Others he separated out having to do with daily activities. I ended up purchasing 3 pieces depicting ceremonies, and wished it could have been all that fell around the calendar. Below you will see them with Apab’yan’s explanations. He told me the ones I chose depict ceremonies that are nearly gone.

Rosa-2

This painting is showing a private celebration inside the cofradia house. In here we can see a woman and man making an offering to the patron saint. There is incense and food offerings as payment. The patron saint image is dressed as a full high-ranking member in the cofradia hierarchy. Inside the house there are the special objects to perform ceremony and celebration: a big drum, incense burners, paintings, old textiles. Cofradia members are holders of ancient ways of Maya spirituality, beyond the image of a western cult. There is always a nawal, or spirit, related to some aspect of nature.

Rosa-1

Once again we are inside the cofradia house. In here we can see the healing of a baby. By burning specified dried herbs and exposing the baby eyes and breath to the incense burner, she or he is going to recover. We call this awas, meaning secret or taboo. It is hidden ancient knowledge preserved by cofradia members. This practice is becoming extinct except in the far away mountains where elders from a direct Maya background continue to keep a huge quantity of spiritual and medicine knowledge.

Rosa-3

This is a celebration. There is fiesta and dance, food is prepared and musicians playing chirimia flute instruments.

Thomas told me directly this was a very important ritual done if a baby reached the age of 8 days. Infant mortality is high. This ceremony reinforced the health of the baby, who you can see laying on top of the mother, and that it would live to be an adult. The next marker was at 3 months, I believe.

This work is Rosa Elena’s legacy. Not only her own but that of her people. She passed too young at 46 in 2005, complications of diabetes.

We will be making another visit to La Galeria in January 2019, and I’m looking forward to it.

 

Categories: cultural interests, Maya, Spiritual Travel, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Lines of Life

Lines of Life: Ancestral Shipibo-Konibo Textile Traditions in the Peruvian Amazon

Xapiri has published a report, as they label it, of their work over the last nine months, in collaboration with Alianza Arkana. They’ve chronicled all that it takes to create the traditional textiles of the Shipibo-Konibo people who live deep in the Peruvian Amazon. These people are renowned for their textiles, the designs coming from ceremonial life, along with spiritual and practical understanding of medicinal plants. This is hardly a dry recounting but instead a visually beautiful multimedia document that includes text, photography by Tui Anandi and video by Leeroy Mills. Really, this is a rare opportunity to enter the village Paohyan, the culture, and particularly the life of textile artist Pekon Rabi.

These textiles may be familiar to many of you having traveled in Peru. The process to create them is long, no shortcuts here. The chitoni, a traditional cotton wrap skirt woven on a backstrap loom, takes about two months from picking the cotton to painting the final pattern.

LinesOfLife

Artist Pekon Rabi with her textiles. Photo credit: Tui Anandi.

Kené is the artwork that symbolizes the cosmic path and order. Done only by women, it comes to them in visions and dreams from Inka, the celestial woman. This description so reminds me of the Maya weavers of the Chiapas, Mexico highlands, always women, who also receive their designs in dreams.

This tradition, as many, is becoming a lost art. In this documentation, Xapiri and Alianza Arkana hope to further their common mission of supporting Amazonian traditions. Lines of Life will be for those who appreciate tradition and its ability to cause us to come home to what matters.

Read it here. It’s an invitation to savor the richness of this culture and its art.

 

Categories: Indigenous Wisdom, Sacred Reciprocity, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review – Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London

A flâneur, the masculine version of the French word designating one who wanders aimlessly for pleasure or to incorporate what is seen into artworks and writing, invariably a male of means, leaves out the possibility for a female to do the same. It first came into use in the 19th century. The feminine version flâneuse didn’t make an appearance for a very long time, the obvious reason that such behavior went against social mores. Working class women would have had access to the street but limited to certain areas—and never given to just meandering.

When my friend Linda Sohner mentioned she was reading Flâneuse, I thought—of course—women rarely ventured out of the confines of their homes back then except perhaps escorted by an “appropriate” companion, usually a older family member, husband or maid. Or, if strolling alone, were often harassed and saddled with a questionable reputation. A rare few would have had the freedom to walk solo in cities or travel alone to far-flung, often remote places. Only in the last fifty years is it more common. I don’t forget those who came before me…so I can have the freedom to flâner as I so enjoy.

This book features those explorers and adventurers. That’s what they must be called. What we may now take for granted was once uncharted waters. Such a timely reading in the midst of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and just after the Women’s March. Females were kept under wraps in so many ways that, when it began to shift, it was those, in that first flush, that took the initial steps, who must be applauded. Their courage or maybe the “arrogance” to show that they were just done with it all…those “things that just weren’t done.”

The book opens with how these women wanted to be seen or unseen in public spaces. Did they want to merge with the shadows or stand out in the crowd to make a statement? That question may still valid to any of us but typically unconscious. During those prior times, as suggested, it would have been at the forefront.

Against the backdrop of their time, city, political atmosphere and personal struggles, Laura Elkin features writers Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf and George Sand—my personal inspiration since my 20s—filmmakers Sophia Calle and Agnes Varda. Then she adds her own present-era experiences showing what is different and what of the past remains the same.

It also points out a trend: No matter the gender or socio-economic status, the art of walking with all it brings—and freedom of movement—is again becoming increasingly lost to us.

I found the book quite interesting and learned some things I didn’t know. One amusing example: In France, a law against cross-dressing was introduced in the early 1800s, to keep women in their place. George Sand was never arrested for her blatant disregard, and the law remains on the books.

Flâneuse was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2017. Available in print, ebook and audio at Amazon and elsewhere.

Categories: Arts, Book Review, Travel Experiences, Women’s Rights | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Xapiri: A Matter of Spirit

In November while in Cusco I was referred to a gallery named Xapiri said to feature textiles and other artwork from the Amazon. It’s unusual to find such a collection in Cusco. So, I was quite intrigued about what they may have but also the name. I was to discover that “xapiri” is a sacred word identifying a collective of spirits consulted for their wisdom and guidance. It comes from the Yanomami people, a somewhat isolated tribe of the rainforest and mountains of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela.

Before I go any further I really want to introduce you to Jack Wheeler, who is the one responsible for birthing the gallery and its work. His story is compelling. He’s an example of someone who received a calling…paid attention…and followed it. Jack and I have corresponded and agreed a full-blown video interview will take place when we can both fit it into our calendars. In the meantime, I can share a shorthand version of his extraordinary story directly from Jack.

As for my story, these are the main points. It’s been eight years ago now that I left my position in an English bank to explore. My first stop was Cusco. I always felt like it’s my spiritual home. But over the next five years I traveled high and wide in South America, and I’d return to live in different European cities for my work. I was never content when in Europe.

Three years ago, after a long travel, I started to get more involved with Indigenous culture, specifically from the jungle. My first inspiration was from the Yanomami lands on the Brazil-Venezuela border. I met Indigenous supporters in Brazil who helped at the beginning of Xapiri with the initial introductions and contacts to the start the fair trade with art. Now full circle, I returned to Cusco, this time to live where my mind was first opened.  The Xapiri Gallery opened its doors in April 2017.

Jack Wilson image

Jack Wheeler at the opening of Xapiri in April 2017.

I truly resonate with Jack’s story. When the calling comes, if we then sort ourselves out and step fully on the path…all begins to slot in along the way that will further the journey. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Usually not so much when it comes to breaking out of the mainstream. But through it, intent drives the process until we’re delivered⎯and beyond.

Xapiri has an important mission.

Xapiri supports Amazonian Indigenous culture by unifying ethical art, emotive photography and informative media. The vision is to increase awareness and inspire positive change.

I purchased three pieces. One small Yine textile and two larger Shipibo pieces to add to one I’d purchased years ago. As a narrative artist myself, I greatly appreciate works like these that tell stories, documenting their rituals and traditions.

About the Yine piece, Jack told me:

Yine image

 

I collected this fabric in person when visiting their communities a few weeks ago. Their community is in the Madre de Dios region, 10 hours from Cusco by bus. Then a 2-day boat journey from Puerto Maldonado… then you reach their community called Monte Salvado! By buying their art you are helping maintain their rich culture and identity.

We have only started to work with the Yine people recently so still learning all the time about their fabrics. The fabric is dyed the brown colour by using mahogany and then painted using clay. The Yine have 31 different designs, with this being one. In the next few weeks I hope to have a full collection of these graphics with their meanings! 

Of the Shipibo textiles I bought, he said this:

 

 

Shipibo image 1

Shipibo image 2

 

In the two Shipibo pieces, you can see the leaves in both. This is the chacruna leaf, influential in the Ayahuasca brew.

The Shipibo people live along the Ucayali River in the Amazonian rainforest of Peru. These pieces were created through a hand printing process that takes about a month or so to finish. Such textiles are central to their culture and show their communication and merging with the spiritual world of the jungle, particularly through the traditional ritual engaging Ayahuasca.

I’ll leave with this for now until Jack and I can get together for a video chat. If you’re in Cusco, be sure to drop by Xapiri. Aside from the art and film events, they also invite Amazonian artists and shamans to share their traditions. Xapiri’s website is also a wealth of information on different Amazonian tribes.

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Join me for The Heart of the Andes, our spiritual travel journey to Peru in Fall 2019. We’ll be dropping by Xapiri for sure.

Categories: Indigenous Wisdom, Spiritual Travel, Visual Arts | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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