Paul Gaugin often said that he shut his eyes in order to really see. For what we each see on the inside can sometimes prove to be even more powerful in our lives than what we see on the outside. That the things we imagine in our mind’s eye can grip us unlike anything else. Imagination then becomes like a lens through which we experience reality, and our perspectives become products of that lens.
When I was seven I saw fairies outside my bedroom window. They caught my eye early one Sunday morning, as my parents slumbered, because the fairies glowed. Like miniature little suns dancing in the air with delicate, transparent wings, long dainty limbs and soft hair that blew in the wind. And they flew around the calla lilies in my mother’s garden.
Though most will discount the existence of fairies as myth, the fairies are one of the most vivid memories I have of my early childhood. The details on their clothes, their mischievous glances as they flew, in quick, circular patterns, the severed rays of rising sunshine as the fairies crossed through them, the cool morning air on my skin as I opened the window, the sound of my little sister’s surprised whispers in my ear. I even see the orange pollen on the petals indicating where the fairies had landed. And I can revisit that experience as often as I like. All I need to do is close my eyes.
Every artist’s mind is clothed in a fertile imagination. A place so powerful it charges myths with might and translates them into actual experience.
I suppose art can function in that way: as a bridge between what we imagine and what we experience. Art takes realms that are only visible in the eye of an artist and expresses them for all else to interact with. Pablo Picasso believed that everything you can imagine is real, somewhere, on some level. Or, as Carl Jung believed, our relationship to myth will greatly color our views of reality.
My father had a passionate relationship with Greek mythology. His bedtime rituals would nearly always include animated narratives of Perseus and Medusa, Pandora and her box, or events that took place on Mount Olympus. And Daddy unwound these colorful stories with an enthusiasm that hinted that maybe, just maybe, he had witnessed the amazing events himself. To my childhood mind, this was a very real possibility. After all, my father often painted mysterious portraits of himself to his children, claiming he was a visitor from another planet sent here on an espionage mission. I believed him.
In his actual life, Daddy dined with diplomats and traveled the world with ex-presidents. He returned with exotic gifts of Russian nesting dolls, Japanese kimonos, carved wooden elephants from Africa and fine jewelry for my mother. But he especially returned with captivating stories of art, and music, and curious customs from the other side of the planet. My father delighted in teaching us, in expanding our horizons, in giving us a sense that we were “world citizens” and not just a product of one nation or another. And in the nation of my own imaginings, my father not only brushed shoulders with ordinary VIP’s, but with Zeus himself.
Childhood naturally blurs the lines between the mythical and the mundane. So does the spontaneously creative process of artists. We reach into places within us that transcend conditioning. We draw no demarcations between right and wrong, between the way things are supposed to be and the ways they’re not.
Pure art, like myth, surrenders to the psyche and expresses what it sees without reservation or restriction, outside of any predetermined perimeters of what define our realm of possibilities. Within the imaginings of the artist everything is possible, and the artist often becomes the virtual designer of myths.
When we step into a myth we simultaneously step into a world of potential self-discovery: a magical, limitless realm where we explore our own boundlessness. My childhood mind frolicked in this boundlessness with great ease, as I imagined myself interacting with mermaids and dragons, Bigfoot and Nessy, angels and fairies. I wanted to live the myth. I wanted to prove the existence of all those things adults refused to give credence to. Curiously enough, at the height of that list was my father’s mysterious mistress.
I first heard about my father’s mistress accidentally, when I was fairly young. And though my father vehemently denied her existence, I think I needed to believe in her, as much as humanity needed mythology for the collective evolution of consciousness. For my father’s mistress represented both my fears and my hopes all rolled into one. She was the dangerous siren that might enchant my Daddy into leaving us, and also the answers to everything that could lure him. She symbolized both my demons and my angels. Consequently, father’s mistress became a powerful tool for my own self-development. And her secret identity a code I needed to crack to complete my own.
Countless are the times I fantasized with my father’s mistress! Who was she? What did she look like? She must have been quite grand to risk leaving us. Maybe she was one of the Greek goddesses my father had told me about. Was she the beautiful Aphrodite or Athena? Or maybe Poseidon’s daughter, as my father loved the sea. Or she may have even been Penelope from Homer’s Odysseus? Or an exotic princess with mystical powers! Whoever she was I knew my father’s mistress had to be extraordinary. Like a marvelous myth: simultaneously enchanting and frightening, totally inaccessible and yet closer to me than my own heartbeat.
Erich Fromm described myths as “important communications from ourselves to ourselves.” Within this definition, my father’s mythical mistress inevitably became an enormous part of my own inner dialogue. It was a dialogue that sought to understand love, and relationships, and the value of women as wives, and women as mistresses. Where would I fit into this picture of femininity? In my own personal history I had these two models: the insecure wife fearing abandonment, and the elusive mistress on the level with Greek goddesses. Which one would you rather grow up to be?
They say that myth has a power that is stronger than history; that myths are like apertures, through which humans try to gain greater understandings of themselves. Ansel Adams called myths heroic struggles of being. My self-portraiture artwork functions in this capacity for me. It explores the unanswered questions in my life and examines the effect they have had on me. It reaches for my constituents and attempts to capture them in a photograph. It urges me into a space that records a particular time in my life, or a thought in my mind, or a feeling in my heart, as I continually explore who I’ve been, who I am, and who I am becoming.
There is a little creek running through the woods behind my home. It’s flowing waters call me to create. As the sun rises I turn myself into a fairy or a goddess in my art, hoping to expunge secrets from my soul. Never showing my face, I slip into the myth one again as I ask myself: Do our myths shape who we are? Or does who we are shape our myths? Seeing my father’s mistress would surely answer this question for me. But seeing her is as rare as a unicorn sighting! So I see her in my imagination, along with myself. That imagination becomes my art.
“Myths is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep into the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description”