Shell Metamorphosis: Works of Rowan Mersh

Being connected to modern culture requires a certain amount of screen time. You and I, in order to share these musings, which are surely worthwhile, have to spend time on a device. The paradox of our reality is that, the more time we spend in this two dimensional, textureless yet very real place, the less time we spend interacting with our neighbors and our local, three dimensional environment. What do we do when we need to remember to get out of the box?

My cats remind me by snuggling up to me at the keyboard, rumbling, enticing me with a friendly purr. My husband and friends remind me when it’s time to go to the store, or hang out, or take a walk. Then there are those quiet moments that we long for: at the beach, in our backyard gardens, climbing a mountain. There are also moments brought to us by art. At a museum, in our own homes, in community spaces, physical art, especially sculpture, reminds us of our desperate need for texture, touch and connection. It helps us get out of our shell.

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Placuna Anima Maris (Oyster Soul of the Sea), Rowan Mersh and Bob Lorimer. Photo Credit Frankie Pike

I’d like to share the immensely beautiful and exquisitely textured art of Rowan Mersh with you. The irony of sharing pictures of physical art online does not escape me, but the beauty of the internet is that it can show us things that would not enter our normal day to day lives.

Rowan Mersh is a multi-media sculptor living in London. A graduate of the Royal College of Art, he has created a variety of work, from kinetic and interactive installations to textile sculptures. Today I will concentrate on his work with shells.

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Asabikeshiinh V

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Asabikeshiinh V detail

Mersh slices the shells, which are sustainably harvested, grinds and polishes them and reassembles them by hand into structures and patterns which he then coats with a fluorocarbon resin that preserves and fuses the piece. It’s a painstaking process; the larger pieces take months to create. These Doxander vittatus shells, common name Vitate Conch, look as delicate as lace. I love the way Asabikeshiinh V seems to flow and move. Do you see a school of fish, or maybe tropical foliage?

 

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Asabikeshiinh II. Photo Credit Frankie Pike.

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Asabikeshiinh II detail. Photo Credit Frankie Pike.

As the shells fit together, they determine the design of the piece. The turritella shells in the piece above were laid with the largest in the center and the smallest at the outer edge. Asabikeshiinh II recalls the graphic designs of M.C. Escher, but with the magical addition of texture. Seen up close, it looks remarkably like a lace textile.

 

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Asabikeshiinh IV

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Asabikeshiinh IV

Here’s another variation on the theme, this one resembling a light and airy chrysanthemum in full bloom. Does it surprise you that asabikeshiinh is an Ojibwe word for “spider? The legend of the Spider Woman who protects the Ojibwe people tells that, as the Ojibwe became scattered across North America, the Spider Woman instructed women to construct dream catchers to filter out bad dreams and hold them until the sun could destroy them. I knew this legend only vaguely through commercial efforts to sell tourist goods and trendy healing products. Mersh’s works seem to reclaim some of the dignity and significance of the original story. Can you see the webs?

 

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Asabikeshiinh Praegressus. Photo credit Frankie Pike.

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Asabikeshiinh Praegressus. Photo Credit Frankie Pike

Asabikeshiinh Praegressus shows the evolution, or progression of the dreamcatcher idea. This time, Mersh has allowed the form to curve in on itself, creating a sort of nest or basket. The turritella shells here look more plantlike, almost like reeds, but still retain their weblike pattern.

 

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Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II

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Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II detail

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Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II detail

Placuna Pro Dilectione Mea II looks as if it is made of soft feathers, but it is actually made of the shells of the windowpane oyster, the same shells that we often see in windcatchers. The hard, brittle, transparent discs, also known as Capiz Shell, are abundant in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The title translates Oyster(shell)s for My Love.

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Turitella Duplicata II

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Turitella Duplicata II detail

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Turitella Duplicata II detail

Returning to the turritella shells, Duplicated Turitella II leaves them mostly whole, sticking out like some strange sea plant or perhaps a nappy animal pelt. The closer you get, the sharper and more amazing the spines look. An illusion of motion is created by gradually varying the angle of the shells. Mersh’s talent for shaping, which involves thinking of each shell as a painter would think of a brushstroke, is astounding.

 

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Pithváva Praegressus I detail


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Pithváva Praegressus I

Pithváva is a deity of the Yurok people of the California coast. He created the dentalium, or “tooth” shell, considered by the Yurok to be sacred. Dentalium shells were frequently traded among First Nations People. This piece is an exploration of both the dentalium and the god, a physical representation that is almost kachina-like in its significance. It is Rowan Mersh’s connection between his material, the natural world and the metaphysical legends of the past that give his work not only beauty, but a reverant resonance. You long to reach out and touch it, and through it to connect to nature and the past.

All images used in accordance with Fair Use Policy for educational purposes. Please spend some time on Rowan Mersh’s amazing website, where he has many more pictures and works to share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving the Beast a Voice: Man and Beast, a Film by Daniel Ariola

What can animals teach us about ourselves and the world around us? Perhaps humans are not as superior as we would like to be.

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Beasts do not speak our language, nor do they build civilizations we recognize, so we usually consider them lesser beings. Most people are ignorant of the richness of animal life and experience, oblivious to the fact that an animal can teach us much about survival, satisfaction, and sustainability. When catastrophe strikes, the modern human being lacks skills which are intuitive for many beasts, even “domesticated” ones. On that note, I think we could argue that, in some cases, man is actually the one who has been domesticated. Did you know that science now believes that cats meow and purr chiefly to influence human behavior?

Many people recognize the unique personhood of their pets and service animals–their moods, quirks and tastes–and bond deeply with companion animals. In many cases these animals become part of our families and gain a worth slightly below or equal to our own. Precious few humans have the opportunity to enter into an understanding with a wild animal, a contact that verges on the totemic and the spiritual even as it is visceral. This short film, Man and Beast, directed by Daniel Ariola tells the story of Dr. Alan Rabinowitz. In these days of Marvel super hero films, it has a mythological ring to it.

Video via Peter Simonite on Vimeo

Growing up in Queens, the largest borough of New York City, in the 1950s and 60s, Rabinowitz was plagued by an intractable stutter. Placed into classes with troubled students as well as those with physical and mental impairments, he was lonely and frustrated. It was only with animals that he was able to relax and speak normally. The beautiful jaguar he met at the Bronx Zoo became a symbol of the voiceless and helpless. He saw himself in her captivity and frustration. It is she who lends an air of mystery and mythology to Dr. Rabinowitz’s story. His interest in animals led him to study science, which took him out of human civilization to truths that lie in the jungle, beyond human awareness. The second jaguar encounter confirmed his youthful promise and set him on a journey to protect animals all over the globe. Dr. Rabinowitz’s journey ended last year, as he succumbed to leukemia at the age of 64. What a privilege that he was able to dedicate his life the protection and study of animals that inspired him!

Dr. Rabinowitz worked for the Wildlife Conversation Society for almost thirty years. He discovered new species of mammal, including the Leaf Deer, in Myanmar, where he also helped found five national parks. He created the Jaguar Corridor, a series of protected pathways and environments, from Mexico to Argentina and established the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize, the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. As the head of Panthera, the company he co-founded to continue his mission of helping big cats, he initiated work on a Tiger Corridor in Asia. He also worked in Taiwan and Thailand, founding and championing national parks and animal sanctuaries and studying beasts. His vision and drive are legendary, all stemming from childhood pain he was able to transmute into action. You can read a tribute to him on Panthera’s website.

 

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Alice Munro

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You are saying, are you not, I said to Manuelito, that stories have more room in them than ideas?

He laughed.

That is correct, Señor. It is as if ideas are made of blocks. Rigid and hard. And stories are made of a gauze that is elastic. You can almost see through it, so what is beyond is tantalizing. You can’t quite make it out; and because the imagination is always moving forward, you yourself are constantly stretching. Stories are the way spirit is exercised.

Alice Munro, By the Light of My Father’s Smile

Public Domain Image: Sami drum of undefined origin, Jens Andreas Friis, Lappisk mythologi, eventyr og folkesagn (1871)

 

Quote for Today: Mark X.

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That black, maddening firmament; that vast cosmic ocean, endlessly deep in every direction, both Heaven and Pandemonium at once; mystical Zodiac, speckled flesh of Tiamat; all that is chaos, infinite and eternal. And yet, it’s somehow the bringing to order of this chaos which perhaps has always disturbed me most. The constellations, in their way, almost bring into sharper focus the immensity and insanity of it all – monsters and giants brought to life in all their gigantic monstrosity; Orion and Hercules striding across the sky, limbs reaching for lightyears, only to be dwarfed by the likes of Draco, Pegasus, or Ursa Major. Then bigger still – Cetus, Eridanus, Ophiuchus, and Hydra, spanning nearly the whole of a hemisphere, sunk below the equator in that weird underworld of obscure southern formations. You try to take them in – the neck cranes, the eyes roll, and the mind boggles until this debilitating sense of inverted vertigo overcomes you…”
―Mark X., Citations: A Brief Anthologyedited by Jasper Siegel Seneschal

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Possessed by Violence: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising is a complex and violent film, full of beautiful, savage images and scant dialogue. What actually happens onscreen?

Nicolas Winding Refn‘s brutal tour-de-force Valhalla Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen as a mute killing machine owned by a Norse Chieftain. The Chieftain keeps him caged, barely seeing to his physical needs and trotting him out to fight to the death for money. He’s an impressive warrior, driven by a massive interior rage. Nameless, voiceless, and one-eyed, he sees visions, which help him to rebel and murder the Chieftain and his band, claiming his own freedom. A young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him while he was a prisoner follows him, seeing that this strong man is the only hope he has for survival in a wild world in which he no longer has a home. This unlikely duo quickly meets up with a band of Christian converts who are embarking for the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. Thanks to a twist of fate and a mysterious mist, they end up in the New World instead, where the morale and the newfound faith of the Christians shatter in the face of indigenous hostility and internal doubt and betrayal, while the fighter, dubbed One-Eye, undergoes a profound transformation.

This film has a great deal to say about the ambiguity of belief and the difficulty of conversion and change. It’s a bleak piece, but honest and not without a measure of hope. The main difficulty is in cracking the code and finding a way into Refn’s nonverbal language. This post is designed to delve into that language and is filled with spoilers, so I recommend watching the film first. It takes some time to digest. I’ll also admit that the ambiguity in the script leaves room for different interpretations. I would love to hear what you see.

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In Norse legend, the head god Odin, also known as Wotan, forfeited one of his eyes to gain the ability to see the future. He also possessed wanderers, pouring his essence into their bodies and guiding them with his ability to see visions. We learn that One-Eye is a drifter who never remains in one place for more than five years. Odin was also a god of warlike frenzy, the kind of madness that grips One-Eye when he is faced with an opponent. As the Chieftain says, “He is driven by hate. It’s how he survives and it’s why he never loses.” For now.

The irony is that having foresight does not convey the ability to change fate, only the opportunity to take advantage of it and prepare for it. As the film progresses, we are privy to One-Eye’s visions. The screen becomes suffused in red and he seems to look out at another image of himself, curiously not a mirror image, as the absent eye stares directly at its reflection rather than being faced by a good eye. We are then treated to short clips of the next pivotal moment in One-Eye’s future, such as the finding of a lost spearhead in a pool of water– a spearhead which he will later use to escape– or his own death at the hands of native people armed with clubs.

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If One-Eye is a vehicle for Odin, how do we interpret the interactions he has with other characters and the roles they represent in this grim allegory?

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We have the Norsemen: violent people, afraid of the rumors of Christians coming to kill them and take their land. But it isn’t the Christians that destroy these warlords, it is the violence that they have capitalized on for many long years, symbolized by One-Eye, the surrogate of Odin. Odin has not chosen to favor the money-grubbing, cruel Norse elite, but a middle-aged slave who kills to survive, an underdog.

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The next group One-Eye falls in with are the Christians. Their leader invites One-Eye to travel with them, as they could really use a killer like him to destroy infidels so that they may proclaim Christianity victorious. In return, they offer the killer salvation and forgiveness, not realizing he is an embodiment of a god they seek to destroy. These men are on their way to the Holy Land, searching for fortune and glory, which they don’t recognize as profoundly unholy things. At their core they are no different from the Norse, clinging to violence as a means of asserting control. While they may have been converted in name, they remain loveless and bloodthirsty. When the boat becomes mired in a windless mist, they revert to superstition and believe the boy traveling with One-Eye must be bringing a curse on them. As they fall on the boy in an attempt to kill him, One-Eye unleashes his lethal force to assert his dominance and save his young friend’s life.

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As the mist clears, the travelers find they have sailed up the mouth of a river and are nowhere near the Holy Land. Some of the group believe they are in Hell, and that they have been taken there by One-Eye. Perhaps Odin was looking for new territory? The group’s tenuous grip on reality begins to disintegrate, perhaps infected by Odin’s madness, fear at their isolation, or by something in the mud of the riverbed. The Christians turn on one another in terrible ways, and, after constructing a cairn, One-Eye sets off with the boy on his heels. Cairns are a way of marking where you have been, for yourself and for other travelers. Who is it that Odin/One-Eye expects to follow him? Two of the Christians try to come along, but one has been mortally wounded by his best friend and the other has lost his father and cannot go on without him. Although they do not survive, these men seem to find peace, perhaps because they are hanging on to their human relationships and their compassion. All the same, death is neither easy nor beautiful.

As One-Eye and the boy reach the seashore, hoping somehow to go back home, they encounter a group of natives. These fellows have already been featured in One-Eye’s final vision, the vision of his own death. Are they enemies, or are they followers, new converts to an undetermined religion? It seems that Odin is about to use One-Eye to transform himself into the archetype of the dying god, or, perhaps, One-Eye’s hatred has finally run out. In a most Christlike and uncharacteristic fashion, One-Eye looks lovingly at the boy, reaches out to touch him, then turns and walks meekly to the native people, who raise their clubs and beat him to death. We have one last vision of One-Eye/Odin, free of his body, his spirit overseeing the scene of his own sacrifice, his journey to the New World complete. The boy looks out at the sea, knowing he can never go home, his fate uncertain.

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The relationship between One-Eye and the boy drives the film. They have some sort of understanding, perhaps even a telepathic connection, as the boy is able to speak for One-Eye, who is completely mute. They are fellow travelers and sufferers and they care about each other. It is this caring that transforms gods and mortals alike into something more worthy and admirable.

Valhalla Rising makes the case that these Pagans and Christians alike are cruel men, born in a cruel time, trying to exert their cultural dominance over one another. The Christians are stand-ins for the Crusaders, who, when they could no longer sustain a “Holy War” in Palestine, turned to the Americas and brought their honed taste for torture and death with them, still doing horrors in the name of God. No creed will save humanity. The only hope is that we may be transformed and redeemed by love and compassion.

I am reminded of a verse from the Bible, I John 4:8,  which states that “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” The people that know God are not always the people you would expect. They are the people that, in the end, choose love, not violence, even if that means their own death.Valhalla-Rising.jpg

Quote for Today: Austin Grossman

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Some days I spent up to three hours in the arcade after school, dimly aware that we were the first people, ever, to be doing these things. We were feeling something they never had – a physical link into the world of the fictional – through the skeletal muscles of the arm to the joystick to the tiny person on the screen, a person in an imagined world. It was crude but real. We’d fashioned an outpost in the hostile, inaccessible world of the imagination, like dangling a bathysphere into the crushing dark of the deep ocean, a realm hitherto inaccessible to humankind. This is what games had become. Computers had their origin in military cryptography – in a sense, every computer game represents the commandeering of a military code-breaking apparatus for purposes of human expression. We’d done that, taken that idea and turned it into a thing its creators never imagined, our own incandescent mythology.
Public Domain Image via Pexels.com

Quote for Today: H. R. Ellis Davidson

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The mythology of a people is far more than a collection of pretty or terrifying fables to be retold in carefully bowdlerized form to our schoolchildren. It is the comment of the men of one particular age or civilization on the mysteries of human existence and the human mind, their model for social behaviour, and their attempt to define in stories of gods and demons their perception of the inner realities. We can learn much from the mythologies of earlier peoples if we have the humility to respect ways of thought widely differing from our own. In certain respects we may be far cleverer than they, but not necessarily wiser.
Sunrise at Creation, Ancient Egypt

Protecting Nature’s Heart: The Dream of the Green Lady by Katherine McDaniel

Our planet is a complex and beautiful incubator for life. How can we experience our connection to her more fully?

 

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The Dream of the Green Lady © Katherine McDaniel, 2014

 

I bought a set of acrylic paints by Liquitex recently, and I’ve been enjoying the effects I get with these paints. Craft paint doesn’t really hold brushstrokes very well and impasto, the technique of building layers upon layers, isn’t as effective either. The first of my Liquitex paintings is this one, The Dream of the Green Lady. The camera doesn’t capture everything, but it does give a pretty decent image of the work.

I began painting in the center, with the red and blue interlaced object. As I worked on it, it took the form of a heart. Embedded in the heart, or at least resting upon it, is a colorful butterfly, while seedpods and what might be large versions of micro organisms are arranged near it. Zones of color surrounding the heart symbolize air and/or water, night, day, and sunset, earth and green growing things. There is a bright yellow field that emerges from the heart near the butterfly, and standing in that brilliance is a green, nude female figure with greenery for hair. This figure gave me a great deal of grief. I painted her over and over again, to get her proportions and her facial expression correct. This created a delightful bit of impasto which pleases me very much. The first pieces of visual art I produced were pencil drawings with a great deal of texture, and these paints give me the opportunity to play with texture again in a new way. The green-black body of the butterfly also features the impasto technique.

detail of Green Lady and butterfly

detail of Green Lady and butterfly

Green Men are extremely popular in mythology, often representing nature spirits or deities that protect the earth. They grace the door of many a pub. Green Ladies are much rarer and also darker in character, appearing chiefly in Scotland, where they were ghostly figures that haunted and protected wild areas, often drawing men to their deaths. Sometimes they had the lower body of a goat and were called glaistig. We can’t see her lower half, so we’ll never know if this lady is a glaistig or not, but her face is decidedly impish.

Modern humanity is more familiar with the Green Lady in the form of a much stronger archetype, that of Mother Earth. She is not devilish like the glaistig, but she retains a certain ambivalence to the needs of humankind, alternately helping and hurting human efforts at civilization. She births life, but she also takes it away.

For me this picture is about the ability of Mother Earth to  protect and nurture the heart of herself. She is constantly creative, bringing forth life, terrible and beautiful. Science has given us the ability to prove true what many ancient cultures took on faith: there is energy all around us that is much too small for human eyes to perceive and that energy, that life, is vital to the survival of this planet. We are intimately connected to nature, to the butterflies, bees, animals and plants around us, to invisible forms of life within our own bodies and moving through the air we breathe, the water we drink. If we interfere with the pulse of nature, we are curtailing, perhaps even aborting, that life. We have no idea how the planet will react to protect herself. My question is, does the Green Lady dream of life, or does life dream of the Green Lady?

detail of nature's heart

detail of nature’s heart

As always, I practice automatic painting, which means I do not plan before I begin applying color. That means my subconscious is very deeply involved in what appears on the canvas and that I frequently miss things that it is trying to manifest. So, if you see something that speaks to you or recognize a symbol I may have missed, please let me know about it.