Two years ago today, I wrote on Facebook:
"Black lives matter. That is what is on my mind. I do not trust what anyone in authority tells me anymore. I don't know what to do with any of this, except to bear witness, listen, and share what I am seeing and hearing."
Michael Brown's murder by the Ferguson police in early August 2014 and the protests that followed woke up many white people to the ever-present oppression and systematic racism that Black people face in America. At the time I was working on a series of paintings on the chakras and was just starting the initial sketch for the throat chakra. In our classes at Reflections Mystery School, our teacher Katrina Messenger read from Audre Lorde's work. "Your silence will not protect you." Young people marched in the streets, hands and voices raised. These had significant influence on the final form of my painting, now titled "Speaking Truth to Power."
Fast forward a few months and I had Oya knocking on my head. She is a powerful orisha spirit of change and the coming storm. She speaks with the voice of the hurricane and the watches over the cemetery. Oya wanted a portrait, and who am I to say "no." Then came Oshun for her sitting after I sat for a obi reading, and then Eleggua. And I soon realized that I was agreeing to a series of seven paintings -- a major commission from the orisha.
I should say up front and center that I am not initiated into any house or lineage of an African Traditional Religion. I am aleyo, and I am white. I have participated in a few Lucumi and Umbanda ceremonies, but my spiritual commitments lie elsewhere. The gods of my ancestors would be the Angle-Saxon/old Germanic gods, but they don't talk to me much. Or least they haven't as yet. As an artist, I will work with almost any deity or generative spirit who wants a painting. Once the work is done, we usually part ways except for the bit of their essence infused in canvas.
Throughout the last year, I've been doing a lot of listening to the people of color in my life, reading Black authors and social media, observing my own behavior and speech toward Black people, and educating myself about racism--both systematic and my internal prejudices. The presence of the orisha in my life over this past year and a half has strengthened my resolve to wake up and witness what is happening and to do my own internal anti-racist work. And I have no business honoring gods from Africa if I do not care about their children in the here and now. And I do care, but how can I make that manifest and real beyond a few keystrokes on a blog or brushstrokes on a canvas?
At this year's Lammas harvest ritual, my spiritual group Connect DC asked the question: what are you willing to sacrifice, to give up, to make sacred, in order to manifest a just world? And the answer became clear to me. What I can give up or give back in the course of my work is a portion of the money I make on my work. So, I am donating 35% of the income from any purchase of original artwork, prints, or derivative works of the seven (7) orisha paintings to the Black Lives Matter Network.
You don't even need to purchase one of my artworks to give. Just go directly to their website and donate. Or pick another program that is working to end oppression and racism in our country and give of your time and money to them.
The very best thing you can do is listen, learn, and then act from the heart. May the orisha guide you and bless you. Ashe!
Dionysus, god of wine, ecstasy, and madness. Spirit of the vine, pushing the boundaries, and life triumphant. Soul of freedom, sensuality, and fiercely embracing life. I honor you.
Dionysus is one of the gods that I have been in relationship with since my early days of working consciously with the gods. He's been in and out of my life several times, coming back this time with an agenda for my artwork.
Loosen up. Let go of your need to control the paint. Make love with the spirit moving through you and onto the canvas. Take a risk. Jump!
Throughout the process of painting his image above, he urged me to document the process through video, to create a performance of the creation of the work itself. He really pushed hard at some of my edges around exposure and expression. I listened to him, but I didn't act on the visions and images he sent my way.
What would people think of me?
Now, I have a video camera, I have a few people who would definitely be willing to help me with this, and I know where to buy cow's blood. Yes, I know that's weird, but it was seeing a tub of the stuff at the Asian market and opened the door to thinking about creating a performance piece in his honor.
I am both exhilarated and scared out of my mind.
I feel this deeply in my body and blood when I think about this work. It is heady stuff, and I feel a bit drunk. I don't think I get to turn back from this one.
The naga spirits (serpent spirits found in Hindu religious practice and folklore) have been intermittently talking to me over the past year or so. I have a bronze Nagakanya (female serpent spirit) to hang by the door, but I haven't put it up yet. I started reading a book on naga magick, but I never finished it. I painted a self-portrait with snake wrapped around my wrists. Some of my first and most powerful (and frightening) dreams when starting to work with Reflections Mystery School (about 12 years ago) starred jumping and flying snakes. I've have nudges in increasing urgency to get a Nagakanya tattoo on my back. But last night's experience outshines them all.
My mother and I were at Magical Muse, a witch shop in Mount Dora, Florida, for a birthday celebration and New Moon ritual. We met a bunch of lovely, welcoming Pagans and enjoyed a beautiful rite outdoors in the breezy night surrounded by live oaks and Spanish moss. After browsing through the shop, I stepped up to the register to pay for my selections when I noticed what looked like a bronze naga sculpture hiding in the shadows at an angle behind the register. I asked if I may see it closer.
The second it touched my hands a shudder went through me. My hands trembled, my breath fluttered out in a gasp of "oh!" and a wave of loving, protective energy flowed through my body. She was so beautiful, so exquisite! You can see that in the photo above. My rapture was evident to everyone around me. I tried to give her back, but then my mother said she would buy it for me for my birthday and Yule. My response was that this could be my birthday and Yule for many years to come! (Thank you so much, Mom!)
What is interesting is that, while I have been in Florida, I have participated in two rituals in which we have worked magick towards a person intent. Mine both times has been banishing fear and anxiety, and loving my life. Perhaps Nagakanya is here to help with that intent. The nagas are known for eating away negative and destructive energy, and transmuting that to neutral energy. They are protective spirits of springs and wells. And they are conduits of vital energy.
When I get home, she will go in a place of honor on my main altar. I need to build her a little shrine to support her and hold her upright.
Oh yeah, I also need to install the Nagakanya by the door, finish the book on naga magick, and spend some time journeying to learn more about this beautiful spirit that has stepped into my life.
"Yemaya, Orisha Mother of the Oceans," is the third of my series of orisha portraits. While she was based on a photograph, as were Oshun and Oya, she turned out looking nothing like the woman in that image.
Yemaya rose slowly out of the depths of the background. It took many layers and iterations for her to emerge in the visible range. Her gaze in unwavering and knowing. She is not looking into the future like Oya, or over her shoulder at some out-of-frame admirer. She is looking straight at us, straight into our eyes and our hearts. We sink into her and find ourselves in our deepest selves. From those depths, she calls to us - La Siren, she is named by some. We can dive down to explore those mysterious dark parts of our psyches, knowing that Yemaya holds us.
I am thinking about my visit with her this spring when I took white rose petals and white wine to the ocean as gifts to her. I am remembering a few years back when I gave her waves a heart-shaped piece of red wax one evening, only to find it a quarter-mile down on the beach the next morning. I am feeling her lift me up and drag me down as I swam in her waters this weekend.
Indra is not a god I've ever worked with. I am not familiar with his stories or his worship. But when I get a vision in ritual accompanied by the impetus to translate it to paint on canvas, none of that matters.
In March I attended the Naga Ritual presented by Light Haven at the Between the Worlds conference. I have participated in ritual with the Light Haven folks before, so I knew this would be a doozy (and in the best possible way). These ritualists are masters at their craft and the naga (spirit serpents) energy pours in and flows over everyone for healing and necessary changes.
In the middle of the ritual, after getting a bit of a push from the ritual leader to loosen up, I was prompted by my spirits to lift up my hands and paint in the air in front of me. As I did so, I saw that my hands were tracing out beautiful visions and painting them on the astral. One of those visions was a beautiful blue man with lightning emanating from his eyes. He wore a high crown and his visage was peaceful, not vengeful. That is what I tried to capture in this painting.
How did I know it was Indra? At first I thought it might be a buddha or bodhisattva. I sat with that for a while in meditation, but it didn't feel quite right. The presence behind the image felt older, more guarded. And the image looked distinctly like the temple sculptures from India that I've seen in pictures and in museums. So, Internet research, here I come: lightning+Hindu+god gives me a list of links with the name Indra. As I read a bit, both online and from a couple books we have in our library, I got a definitely "hit" that Indra was right.
The second vision is still in the astral, waiting (patiently, I hope) to be translated to canvas. That is a much bigger naga mandala. I have a 48" x 48" canvas that could work nicely. And now, just writing those sentences, I can feel the nagas waking up and starting to move within me again. Oh!
Well, back to the studio it seems...
From a strong and open heart,
Earlier this spring, I received a prompting to paint a series of portraits for seven of the orishas: Oya, Oshun, Yemaya, Chango, Ogun, Ellegua, and Obatala. Oya was particularly strong in my head and received the first portrait. This was fortuitous because a friend of mine, who is a Santero with Oya as his head, purchased the portrait and I was again prompted to ask for a reading.
In my reading Oshun came through very clearly with her love and joy. I was directed to take sacred baths, anoint myself with sweet fragrance, make offerings to her at the river, and to call on her when I needed an infusion of joy in my life. I struggle with a low-grade depression, so it seems I am always calling out "Maferefun, Oshun!"
In the month following, I worked on this painting of her. Hidden by much of the paint is a layer of gold leaf that still shimmers in the right light. The background is the flow of the river on a sunny day and the ripples on the water in the rain. Five yellow roses in various states of blossoming, along with a honey bee collecting pollen to make one of Oshun's favorite offerings.
I read in some of my books that Oshun is often pictured as a lighter-skinned black woman. Around this same time, I was reading a lot of black women on Tumblr who were discussing standards of beauty and the crap that dark-skinned women hear about how they are not as beautiful as their light-skinned sisters. I was also looking at a lot of images of the Internet for photo references. Lupita Nyong'o's smile kept calling me and I asked Oshun if it would be OK with her to depict her as dark-skinned.
Every time I look upon her, I want to smile and dance and share the joy that flows from her through me with the world.
All praises to Oshun!
Blessings from a strong and open heart,
I just finished a self-portrait as part of the Hamilton Art Collective's Art Resolve month. This painting has been sitting in the corner "in-progress" for about a year now. I started it in a class with Sheri Ponzi of Painting Herself Into Being, but other projects (ahem...chakra series...ahem) got in the way. This last year has been all about really stepping into my power and vocation as an artist consciously standing between the worlds and listening to the gods. So, finishing up a portrait of myself in that place just made sense now.
I've gotten a few questions from friends about the symbology of this image, so I thought I'd break it down here.
As a visionary artist, I stand at the crossroads and ask Eleggua to open the gates between the worlds so that the way may be open for the spirits to visit the studio. His is the first candle I light before painting in the studio. You can see him here at the base of my throat.
I also call upon the Miria, beloved of the Star Goddess and the dark expanse of space, to bless my work. Hers is the second candle I light at the beginning of each studio session. You can see her here just above my head.
The sky behind me is purple and I am surrounded by life and death. The visionary artist travels the 32nd path between this physical realm (Malkuth) and the astral realm (Yesod) -- also known as the path we travel at birth, death, and in our dreams. It is a place where magic happens. In my dominant hand, I hold my tool--the paintbrush--that I use to draw down energy from Yesod and channel it into Malkuth.
My non-dominant hand is raised in a traditional sign of blessing. My palms are energy centers that are very active during my work. I also have two nagas (serpent spirits) circling my wrists. I am beginning a relationship with the nagas as part of my work as a way to supercharge the spiritual energy that goes into the painting itself.
The meaning of the greenery is twofold. One is a reminder that my work is meant to be generative in this world. And Dionysos has reintroduced himself into my life. He gives me that extra push to go beyond my personal comfort zone to try new things and paint what I am being shown. His energy is that of life triumphant, so these two dovetail quite nicely.
If you are interested to see how this piece progressed from start to finish go to nineravens.tumblr.com.
Blessings from a strong and open heart.
I've spent a lot of time this week getting this web site ready for public consumption--adding images and captions, adding in old prayer and poems, and pointing my domain name to the new site. I hope you enjoy the new site. Let me know if you have any trouble finding anything or if there are any missing links, typos, or other problems.
Blessings for the new year!
Last summer, I worked with a few folks from the DC Pagan community to create a painted mandala that would carry their hopes for the growth of the local community. Over the course of two days, we designed, painted, and blessed the mandala in sacred space.
This was my first collaborative piece. Throughout I had to deal with issues of letting go of control -- a valuable lesson for me. But doing so provided the space for everyone to contribute at a very real level and allowed the mandala to be an authentic reflection of the people who participated.
Artist, writer, ritualist, dreamer, wanderer, seeker, observer -- of the seen and unseen worlds.