By Tara Potterveld
THE SPIRITUAL IN ART
Every culture has found ways to express its sense of the sacred or transcendent in myth/story and representationally in graphic form. This series of sculptures emerged from my interest in the role of women as centers through which the sacred is expressed or through which the sacred interacts with human communities.
The Sun Carrier is based on the notion of a primordial figure who emerges each day from the earth bearing the solar disk which is then carried across the sky by an egret. This is the idea of repetitive recreation through which the elements of nature are regenerated and renewed, a way to explain the mysterious cycles of the natural world. In many mythologies the earth is considered female and woman’s ability to give birth is symbolic of a deeper process through which new life is formed and generated. In some versions of the story, the bird is an Ibis.
The Baule Queen shows the Queen standing in the shallow depths of a rain swollen river. The torrents are too strong to cross and her tribe is being pressed upon by enemies. She calls the crocodiles and brokers with them safe passage across the river for her tribe in exchange for the tribe’s most precious possession – the infant child of the Queen. The sculpture marks the moment of leave-taking, with the infant laying on the
head of the crocodile, and etches into consciousness that leadership often requires sacrifice and that humans are interdependent with animal species. There are many stories in religion of the sacrifice of leaders. Abraham sets out to sacrifice his son Isaac, only to be warned off by an angel. Moses leads Israel through the wilderness for forty years but does not himself enter into the promised land, dying in the waning stage of the pilgrimage.
Mother and Daughter is a sculpture more about human life and its transitions and marks the inevitable reversal of roles when daughter becomes caregiver to mother in light of the onset of aging. The mother is arthritic and boney; the daughter is tender and comforting but also looks off into the distance registering that there is a burden and cost associated with taking on these familial responsibilities. We often say that viewers of art see “different” things because of their own lens and perspective. At one exhibition of this sculpture in Chicago, a woman with breast cancer saw the whole sculpture as herself – her strength and her mortality wedded into one complex reality. At times I resist saying anything about particular creations lest I influence too much what people see and take away from the interaction.
I have often thought that the creativity of artists has been employed by religions that need to connect mystical, ethereal realities with the material world. We know a woman who has spent her life collecting Christian crosses from all periods of history, in all media, from an incredible number of cultures. The whole display of over 700 is stunning in diversity and approach, a reminder of the incredible individuality that obtains even as people are working to express the same idea or symbolic meaning.
Religion is a highly symbolic enterprise – using architecture, objects, ritual to create sacred space. Clearly there is something in the human spirit that wants to differentiate the mundane world from the sacred world, and often it is the creative work of the artist that enables that differentiation. Currently at the Doug Adams Gallery at Pacific School of Religion, the Center for Arts, Religion, and Education has a display of 15 Russian icons from the 18th and 19th centuries that belong to the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute. In one bas relief, the Virgin Mary holds an upright scroll in much the same way as she is usually depicted cradling the infant Jesus. We assume it is a reference to Christ as “the Word incarnated in human form.” The artist creates associations and conveys meaning through juxtaposition and use of symbols.
Occasionally someone has challenged me for drawing from stories or myths that were not original to my own culture. Most of these ideas have come from individuals who have shared these stories in personal conversations and then posed as the model for my sculptural work. Living in a multicultural world and with a family that has had an avid interest in world religions has impelled me to explore ideas and rituals outside of my own limited experience. There are arguments as to whether certain ideas are universal or common to all religions. I prefer to focus on the particularity of a story or ritual and to let the viewer derive meaning from their own reading of the work of art.
Many of my sculptures involve animals and human animal interactions. This is probably more common in indigenous religions where humans can morph into animal states or where the world is less hierarchical in relation to species and humans and animals share the earth equally. In the sculpture Covenant, I have a human mother and a seal mother together. Given the propensity for humans to hunt and kill seals, they might be viewed as traditional enemies – yet, here the seal’s pup is safe in the protection of the human mother. There is a bond that birth-giving animals share and that if harnessed could be powerful. It has been powerful in circumstances such as the witness of mothers for peace or in the face of the “disappeared.”
I work first in wax which is capable of showing incredible detail and is important for a figurative artist. Then I resort to the lost wax casting process in order to end up with the work in bronze and use a professional foundry to cast the sculptures. I have limited editions of no more than nine, as was the long-time European standard.
Being an artist, I am naturally drawn to the work of other artists and spend time in galleries and museums. Artists often force us to see realities that are otherwise hidden or out of mind. They awaken us to realities or feelings that lead us to consider and take account of elements of our lives or social realities that occasionally bring recognition, pain, and reconsideration. In that sense, art can be transformative and powerful.
I know that in my own religious experience, the utilization of music, dance, poetry, drama, visual, and material art add to the richness of my spiritual experience. All of the senses can convey meaning, and religions have typically utilized art forms to point to that which is beyond all knowing.