This year I started and finished a large 6 x 12 ft. painting (which has been in two shows already). This post is about the creation of this painting called “Making Whole.”
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Last summer I began a new series of work that was centered around collages using my hands. I found it interesting the level of realism achieved by using the photos of hands, it allowed the painting to be both real and then imagined thus creating a bridge between the two.
I had a vision of a large horizontal work that had hands holding something – like many figures holding a snake like Universe. I measured the studio walls and figured I could pull off a 6 x 12 ft. piece (72 x 144 in.) using 3 panels – which all needed to fit into the back of my pickup truck. I bought the wood and put together the panels at a carpentry shop where I work.
I’ve been involved with shamanism and Native American Indian ceremony for over 30 years. One of the things I love to do is burn sage and push the smoke into the wet paint as it’s drying to embed the sacred into the fabric of the work.
At this time in my life I am fortunate to be involved with a beautiful creative woman. Before I gessoed the boards I invited her to draw on the panels which she did happily. Those lines are still there buried deep in the work. She was part of the creative process throughout the work and the featured female figure in the painting to the right. This was one of the first times that I was able to incorporate a real live muse into a painting, which made the entire process a collaboration and made the work more real and meaningful to me.
There is a saying in the art world, “you paint for 30 years until you start to paint.” This is about maturity and perserverance. Other art forms peek early, a ballerina could retire in her late twenties. This was my 30th year painting, the work just flowed from me, like butter, and took about 4 months plus of 2-3 days/week of work.
I learned a great deal with this work, both technically and intuitively. I worked with allowing the painting to meet me ½ way so it could be a collaboration. I’d ask what wants to happen here, what wants to happen next? And when I wouldn’t know what to do I’d put the brush in my other hand and just paint. My non-dominate hand can paint in a way my dominate hand cannot – it does something magical to my brain and spirit.
The work is acrylic and collage with conte crayon and matt medium. I started out with the conte and a very loose idea of where I was going. I smudged and sealed in the conte with matte medium (best is Liquitex). I next added black and white collage text (from a Wired magazine) randomly, just tearing and pasting, not caring really where things went. I wanted to get a field of texture going. I actually tried to “not” have the painting solidify into a narrative story too early. I wanted to keep it open and unknown as long as I could. This is the pure creative spirit before the minds kicks in.
I often use mirrors to view a piece differently seeing things I can’t see when looking straight on at the painting. I love this process, it must shift the brain, it adds more space, and opens up something else of the greater mysteries. I also set up cameras and used my gopro to make a series of time lapse films.
Christina Pratt has an internet radio show – Why Shamanism Now? art-and-living-shamanism-with-mark-wagner. I was interviewed about my work as an artist, dad, and community art person, along with my 501c3 nonprofit Drawing on Earth, www.drawingonearth.org. Marlo McKenzie is a documentary film maker. www.marlomckenzie.com. She heard the interview I got in touch with me regarding a documentary film she is working on about imaginary worlds called “My Secret Country.” Marlo interviewed and filmed me working over the months. It was a wonderful experience for both of us and I loved knowing the process and piece was being documented so well. Stay tuned for the film release.
Somewhere early on in the process I glimpsed a reclining figure. I pulled a quick sketch off and this became the main part of the painting. Everything in the painting became related what was happening to this figure.
I wanted him to be pushed and pulled into the hoop circle that the woman was holding. This all reminded me of an old Hindu myth that I had heard of – Samudra Manthan – The Churning of the Ocean of Milk, where gods and demons worked together pushing and pulling a cosmic serpent around a mountain to help strengthen things after the recreation of the Universe and to obtain immortal life. My sense is that being able to enter in and out of the other worlds (the imaginary world – different from what we call reality), is a healing and transformative experience open to all of us that then makes us more whole. And this is what I named the painting – Making Whole.
At one point I realized that there was too much girl energy in the painting and what wanted to be present was some older male energy. I got on the computer and typed in old man’s face, scrolled thought the imagery and found the one I wanted. I printed it out in a size or two and cut and pasted parts of it. The old man came in sideways which really helped the composition. He also helped with the balance of energy and he became one of the main characters in this story. His hands were near the feet of the person in the hoop, his stare is off in the distance, it feels to me like he is doing most of the work. By his gaze being out of the frame it points to a bigger picture, the unseen worlds being seen.
I also love the younger woman near the center. This is a young artist I know, it feels like on some level this is her dream, the way she stares at the viewer without emotion, steady, present, holding the space and eye contact for the entire piece. I love all the story spirits and ravens in her robe, and I like using people I know in the painting, makes it more connected for me, more real and alive.
Early on there was a figure holding the reclining figure. I lost it, lost what I liked early on. There is something to be said about not touching something you like because most of the time you’ll mess it up – true that! In the beginning it was a really interesting figure but I lost it by working on it and for the longest time couldn’t get it back. I just kept painting over and over on it. I was playing around with a deer eye and saw that it fit with this figure. I collaged it in and continued to work on it adding horns and wa-lah, a deer man emerged.
I was talking to Marlo one day about the deer’s lower body, there was light line work there with a male erection but… it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the painting. I did have a nude woman in the piece, but a nude male with his erotic sex exposed has a different energy. I asked her as a woman what she thought about it, and as we talked I saw a loin cloth over him, and then I saw him wearing buck skin leggings and drew them in – perfect! Marlo said, “oh he’s wearing his ancestors” – a young buck wearing buck shin – that’s cool and interesting.
The painting continued to evolve over time, I should say every time I worked on it. A figure would change and change and change until it wasn’t working and then get painted over leaving enough show through to give me ideas for something next. Painting over something is so liberating, it’s keeps the flow of intuition going, it’s a big adventure without the destination known. You just fasten your seatbelt and let go and get out of the way knowing that it will always be better than you imagined! That’s mastery.
One of the central figures just never really worked. At first it was an owl, then monkey god. It was too much the same size as the figure to the left. Who was it and why was it here? As I was playing around with a wolf eye I saw that a combo animal came into existence – a wolf monkey. I was thrilled, the energy of it was grand, noble, wise, and it wanted to be big, big enough to be the largest figure in the painting and out of the frame. This beast grounded the painting and gave the piece a sense of depth, perfect.
They say a painting is never finished it just stops in interesting places. I think I’ll do the same with this writing. The painting has already been in 2 shows, one called “MUSE, the Art of Healing and Transformation.” And in the spring of 2015 it will be shown at the Living Shaman Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco. I hope you enjoyed the story, thanks for coming along on the journey!