The Alchemy of Art and Craft
Creating art is a dynamic experience. When one applies the concept of “use of self as an instrument for change” in regard to indigenous art and crafting, creativity becomes a breakthrough activity. Not only does the prima materia transform to a wondrous, awe-inspiring work of art, but the finished piece also conveys a sacredness that propels the beholder toward a transcendent awareness.
And the connection to a primordial past. The ancient ones and “holy people whisper down into [me] the artist” as magnificent pieces are created
(Daniel Stayley, 2002). These serve as visual metaphors for the ancestral bond that honors a rich past and extends forward as a bridge into an unknown future reaching seven generations to come.
According to recent research studies conducted with twelve Native artisans from three Southwest Indian tribes, reflections from both the natural environment and the ancient past greatly contribute to their sense of inspiration, motivation, and contribution to community development. On a personal level, each participant clearly expressed that through their relationship with their craft they have developed a stronger character and sense of self-identity.
Native peoples have long known and celebrated the benefits of spending time in an introspective state while creating objects with their hands. Inspired by the natural world around them, they were provided with everything necessary to live a happy, healthy, and harmonious life (Cajete, 1994). They were wizened by their interdependence with the environment that they lived so closely with. “To all my relations” is a Lakota Sioux concept that acknowledges the relational connection to all creatures (Storm, 1972). It shows evidence of the mutually causal relationship of all phenomena that is ever-changing.
Many young artists today are aware of an urgency to contribute to the creation of art objects as a means of preserving the past while simultaneously creating the future.
Many, though, are unaware of the alchemy involved in performing the seemingly simple, everyday tasks of creating beautiful art. From these intimate interviews, I have learned that the role of the artist in the tribal community is often taken for granted and has become lost in the translation between cultures. Also, many young people have fallen into the societal plight of indifference and alienation. They have forgotten how the connection to an ancestral past is brought alive in the present.
Creativity is a breakthrough experience.
By entering into the transpersonal realm of the creative process, one breaks through the confines of mundane reality and releases the self into a flow of creative energy (Harmon & Rheingold, 1984). A shift occurs into a dynamic state of being where profound ideas, images, solutions to questions and problems continuously emerge. They bubble to the surface from the depths of our unconscious mind. In the flash of an instant, profound insights are revealed. This dynamic movement is alchemical in nature as it transforms consciousness from one state to another. According to Travis Lasuvi from the Pueblo of Zuni, it is as if one is carried in the flow of the rapidly moving white waters through the subconscious mind.
The subconscious is a warehouse for the imagination and intuition, which stores all of the collective images, archetypes, and symbols that become accessible whenever the floodgates are opened (Jung, 1968). As we flow on the river of creativity, we visit nooks, crannies, and eddies of the unconscious mind along the way. The white-water rapids of the creative stream offer heightened states of consciousness and expanded awareness. Access to this interior realm is realized through the symbols and images that lie therein. Ideas bubble up from the depths of the unconscious mind into non-rational moments of profound knowledge. The twelve interviews confirmed.
Accessing the creative flow can be self-induced or spontaneous. One can easily learn the skill of manoeuvring through these uncharted waters. However, in order to find one’s way, it is necessary to have a boat. In this way, the voyage toward the pinnacle of heightened awareness can be traversed at will. One then has more opportunity to experience the full bloom of human potential that lies in the spacious lake of the mind. Maslow speaks of this state as self-actualization (1964).
Through increasing self-awareness, one may reach the state of self-actualization. As a self-actualized human, one becomes aware of the intricacies of the universe. All of life is said to be in a state of continuous change. As we interact with our world, we form connections. From this view, we see the web-like patterns of flows and connections throughout our universe. These fractal patterns, including the human form, are impermanent (Briggs, 2000). Within these connections, both change and impermanence are inevitable. With a perception of mutual causality, all of life is in process.
Everything is in a state of flux and flow. Within this fluid state, all sentient beings, creatures, minerals, and plants are energized with the sacred spirit. The spirit flows through creating a bond between all aspects of the natural world. In systems thinking, this flow is considered energy.
A systemic view reflects a mode of thinking that the western technological world is beginning to embrace. More recent discoveries in the area of quantum physics have prompted a paradigm shift in conscious awareness that is moving us rapidly toward a view of globalization. Yet, this systemic concept of globalization has been a deep embodiment of *primitive minds. Through patterns and symbols on ancient works of art, this idea is depicted repeatedly among native cultures worldwide. For it is here that we see the Lakota expression, “to all my relations” come to life in hozho (Dine word for beauty).
This fact alone is cause for the celebration of life that occurs on all levels. Spending time in nature is a technique used to master manoeuvring through the unconscious mind. Nature has always been a great teacher and agent of change. It is said that all one ever needs to know can come from spending time alone in Nature. First of all, from communing with nature, people of the past acquired the skills needed to survive in the natural environment. As Jerry Honawa, Hopi Kachina carver explains, they (the people) became innovative as the watched, copied and mimicked the ways of Nature. They watched the alchemy in process.
For example, sitting by a stream and observing the pools of clear water that collected in the curvature of the earth and rocks, inspired the creation of containers in an abundance of pottery forms. Cheryl Mahooty, Zuni potter tells how the ancient ones learned their trade. Likewise, by meandering downstream, one would notice where the debris of branches washed ashore in a tangled heap, forming somewhat of a shelter. Similarly, watching the wind blow furiously at tall grasses and reeds, illustrated the graceful ease in which the strands passed over and under each other forming an entwined fabric. Listening to the stories of Spider-Woman, as told by Hasbah, the web of a spider suggested the ancient arts of spinning fibres and weaving them into blankets, rugs, and clothing.
*(To clarify, when the term primitive is used here, it is used to describe a style of life that was simple, basic, close to the natural rhythms of the earth, and essential; not technological. The term primitive relates to some people of this planet who are indigenous)
Other important aspects of connecting to the natural world involved a keen awareness of the physical senses and perceptions, which were heightened by the ability to tune into the senses and read their messages. This means that the indigenous person was finely tuned to their physical body as the first and foremost environment. Both the interior and exterior environment was important for maintaining a healthy state of balance, beauty, and well-being. For the Dine, to “walk in the beauty way” is the ultimate life purpose.
I have often heard that the more time one spends in Nature, what is artificial falls away. Becoming authentic is a key proponent of current trends in transformational leadership. Again, primitive peoples related to their relations from essential nature, which is similar in concept to that of the eastern Indian concept of atman or jiva, or purusa (Prabhavananda, 1953). This essence is at the inner core of each being and is aloof from experiences. Being in contact with essence thus eliminates a need for false views or masked persona.
Indigenous people did not recognize separate selfhood, rather understood the illusion of the independent, separate, and enduring self as the human effort to claim a distinct nature.
In order to release attachment to a notion of self, first people realized that no experience was separate from the experiencer. Therefore, while hunting a buffalo, the hunter would become the buffalo, itself. The two were merged in reciprocity that bound the hunter inseparably to the buffalo and vice versa. The plants, animals, and all of nature were merged with the individuals as totems. This way of being in the world also reflected a uroboric stage of evolution (Gebser, 1984).
In like manner, when an individual merged with the plants of the earth, a sort of communion between the two took place. The plant was able to communicate its virtues to the recipient who then became adept at intuiting the medicinal qualities. These were distributed back into the community. This recycling of resources was a major factor in the promotion of healthy community life.
Similarly, individuals connected to the natural elements and discovered properties and uses by transmuting one form to another. These forms often took the shape of tools, ritual and ceremonial artefacts, and other utilitarian or decorative objects. The expression of creation involved changing one substance to another.
While engaged in the creative process, not only were a connection made to the material in hand but, also, a connection in the form of energy flow or dialectic was established between the artisan and the spirit within or the deep essential nature. In turn, this connection to deep Self had the potential for transmuting the energy of the individual toward a higher notion of Self, as a universal aspect that connects to the ultimate and absolute nature of reality (Ver, 2004).
The transmutation of substances into objects was a result of dynamic transactions with the surrounding world. Even though the interplay of opposing forces is in conflict, a delicate and dynamic balance occurs in the process. When a homeostatic state is reached, the object is complete. The transmutation has taken place.
MAGIC! is what occurs during an encounter with the creative process.
Many have described this process as a continuous feeling of flow and well-being (Csikzentmihalyi, 1990). This can happen as one engages in the process, say for example, of making a woven basket. First of all, the natural element of the materials themselves comes into play. “My hands feel the strength and suppleness of the grasses”…as they move over and under each other, they are reminiscent of the wind blowing through them on the sandy shore (Teiwes, 1996).
Another artist spoke these words, “ the colors and textures of nature come alive in my mind all over again. I remember times spent in nature, where I vividly see the colors and patterns engulfing me. Sometimes, I take a photograph to remind me and it all comes alive again. Other times, I can find a Nature scene in a magazine that has the same effect of color and pattern coming to life. So, I just want to recreate this with yarns of all colors, thicknesses, and textures” (Sarkett, 1996).
A woodcarver recently stated in describing his experience, that the wood takes shape as he holds it in his hands. It is almost as if it comes alive and tells him what he is to carve (Anonymous, 2000).
From intense concentration upon the material in hand, a centring occurs. One becomes firmly planted, stable and grounded in a physical sense. Also, from the concentration and focus of attention, the mind becomes supple, relaxed, and collected. These instances, when we are more awake, come about through persistent efforts of concentration and focusing on the subsidiary skills required to perform the task. In an artistic endeavour, the single-minded time and attention upon the object in hand with the full intention of manifesting a completed object of beauty births the creation.
The objects brought forth are manifestations of the unconscious mind.
They are the symbols in a manifested form containing stories of the mythic past. Through an alchemical process, the prima materia is transformed into an object of functional beauty. This is the place where the pragmatic and the spiritual meet. At this point, genius is born. The most superior capabilities of the mind become manifested in the object of creation. The mundane is transformed into a sacred object.
Yet, at the same time, another alchemical action is underway. This one is much more subtle. The real magic to this process is not only the feeling that the artist experiences, or the final product that manifests, but a very subtle experience of being able to transcend the mundane existence of the daily grind and enter into an altered state of well being and inspiration from merely the viewing of the piece. Similarly, the feeling of well being is carried into the day to day existence and maintained for some time by both the artist and the viewer.
The artist has a deepened advantage in that from engaging in the process of the alchemical act, a deeper sense of self-awareness arises. The challenges, frustrations and conflicts of the process also contribute to self-awareness. They can be translated to reflect inner states of tension, stress, and struggle. As they are worked out externally during the creative process, they seem to replicate for the artist and unravel on an interior level, as well. These interactions offer continuous opportunities for problem-solving, decision-making, and attention to the thought process. They offer great glimpses for introspection. With guidance in this process, a person can attain clarity of motivation and determine values toward self-knowledge (Ver, 2003).
It is a process of self-observation that can allow for one to notice the slightest inconsistencies and flaws of character, which may, perhaps, stand in one’s way of developing beyond their current situations.
From a community-based project that included a Needs Assessment and a Youth Leadership project, it was evident that those who fall into the category of the at-risk population often lack the confidence, motivation, and stamina to get beyond their personal dramas. Engaging in the creative side provides a place to practice the skills necessary from a detailed perspective. When a person feels comfortable in reshaping a mass of clay from a blob of earth to a vessel or object of purpose, he/she can also conceive of reshaping the mess of their own life.
The simple utilitarian object holds a depth of meaning and purpose that is as basic as existence itself. This. Too, serves as a three-dimensional metaphor for the change that magically takes place when one connects with nature. The great reverence for Nature is reflected in the object as the object provides the initiation to nature. It becomes the boat that carries us through the white waters. It provides the opportunity to maneuver.
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