Monday, November 14, 2022

Bridging the Old Ways with contemporary art through Dream Time

One of my favorite memories growing up was when we would all sit down to breakfast and mom would tell us about her dreams the night before. Sometimes they were a bit crazy and my sisters and I would laugh at the silliness of them. Other times she would get this look in her eyes as she would relate a dream that had significance related to a situation going on right then. It was like there was an insight coming through the dream that helped us prepare for what was going on. Once in a while dad would relate one of his dreams and when one of my sisters or I shared a dream, everyone would listen with intent. It was like it didn't matter which one of us shared a dream, they were all treated with the same respect and attention.

Later, in adulthood, I learned that there was a distinction between how Native American culture and society incorporated dreams, visions, and spiritual insights into everyday life, and how other cultures, especially the colonial Europeans, viewed dreams. Growing up the way that I did, I thought everyone integrated dream time into everyday reality the way my family did. I found out that there was a very different understanding about dreams. Even in the arts, with Surrealism, dreams were treated as experiences to be treated as a separate reality or non-reality. The idea that dreams could be integrated into everyday reality as a way to generate a healthy social fabric would be dismissed as a quaint childlike primitivism. I learned that it wasn't appropriate to share my dreams with my classmates in school.

As a sixteen year old junior in high school I was enjoying my physics class. I would go to the library and get books on the topic for extracurricular reading. The book on the General Theory of Relativity by Einstein was one that I read with great interest. At night I would have dreams that ran parallel to the information that I was reading, giving me insights into some conflicts between the details in the theory and how the Universe actually functioned. I would write a paper disputing the Theory based upon these dreams. My high school teacher couldn't understand the material and had to take my paper to his physics professor to verify that I was on track and not spoofing him. I got a 100% on the paper. This was the first time that I used information from dream time in my academic studies.

When I got to college as an advanced physics student, I quickly became disillusioned with my studies. The classes were boring like it was all old information and I wasn't being challenged and between the Vietnam War and the Cold War, I was just another cog in the War Machine slated to become a researcher in the pursuit towards building a better bomb for the military. I switched to art. One of the first classes that I took was pottery. It was there that I was introduced to pit-fired pottery and the work of Mandy Big Meat. I did research, reading every book that I could find on the topic. I quickly discovered that the decorations on the pots came to the potter from dream time. Now I was back in that familiar space where dream time and waking time were integrated in everyday reality.

It was also in pottery that I discovered the Japanese Zen method of decorating pottery by doing the “controlled accident” of splashing slip under-glaze on pot. The visual effect generated a spatial impression that would bridge the gulf between “concrete reality” and the fluid realm of holistic, integrated reality of this natural world I existed in. Over the next few years my pottery would go through a transformation of utilitarian containers to sculptural forms I would refer to as “clouds”. Over the past few decades discoveries in astronomy have helped me to understand where I was going with my work as I was still continuing to explore ideas with pottery and colors that had been limited to the very dry elements of formulas in quantum physics. I could see how the geometric patterns of decoration on the pit-fired pottery of my Cherokee ancestors and other tribal artisans had also been creating visual imagery that referenced the natural world far beyond the Newtonian physics of daily reality the colonial culture was limited to.

As a multi-disciplinary artist, my new found visual tools would start to transfer over to my other work. The dreams would also impact my work, but not in the same direction as found in surrealism. I could create a wide range of visual languages using colors as units of energy similar to a weather map, or harmonic signals of soundings with the understanding that some people could experience crossovers between the senses. In dream time the experiences would include spaces of color and sound. A visual language would develop that would overlap with the use of fractals, computer generated mathematical art. At the core of the work would be a spirit of freedom that would inspire me to push the artwork into an individual expression that reflected my holistic and integrated reality. I felt like I was doing something that wasn't abstract. I came to call it hyper-dynamic realism. I wasn't trying to create the illusion of an apple on a table. I was creating actual photonic experiences.

I started using the symbols and elements of tribal imagery. (There is no word for art in the Cherokee language. The closest parallel would be translated to “life”.) I loved the juxtaposition of abstract expressionism and tribal imagery. Over the years this would go through various transformations. At some point I became concerned that these images were the property of the individual that had dreamt them. I didn't want to be appropriating something that didn't belong to me. I prayed about this. One night I had a dream. During the dream I watched as one of these symbols approached me. It floated up with a three dimensional body that kind of resembled jello. It was in color. When it got up to me it related that all the symbols had heard me concerns and had a council. They all agreed that they liked what I was doing with my art and had sent it to tell me that they were their own entities and they chose who used them in their work. They wanted me to know that I had their permission to use any of them in my work. Then I started seeing one symbol after another in front of me like a series of slides, but they were full bodied people of the spirit world. I woke up from that dream a bit awe struck. Since my art work has always been deeply influenced by my experiences during dream time, it is all traditional. There is no time limitations in the spirit world.

Over the past year or so I started a series of paintings using several different media. About fifteen of these were done using acrylic paint on canvas. Two of these are “Eagle Vision” and “Raven Song”. They have been included in a curated show, “Still Here Still Native”, at The Arts Center in Fayetteville NC from October 27 through November 27, 2022. These paintings go perfectly with the theme of the show, demonstrating the continued presence of the indigenous peoples of North America in spite of the attempted genocide and acculturation of us.

Eagle Vision”
Acrylic on canvas
18 x 24 inches
November 3, 2021

The symbol found in “Eagle Vision” is based upon an image found in “Authentic Native Designs”, published by Dover Press, (1975) on page 35. The footnote states that it is from a vase of the Gulf Coast Group found at Jolly Bay, Florida. In creating this work I wanted to show it a little differently than what it might have appeared like in that dream many years ago. I approached it like I was doing a portrait using techniques and ideas that have developed over the years. My method of painting with acrylic over the past ten years has follow a process where I prime the canvas, then put down a white background. From there I put down three different pigments each session, doing glaze painting where the pigments are thinned down with clear polymer so they are somewhat transparent. Then I will put down a layer of clear polymer. I do this for seven sessions, three different pigments, then a clear layer of polymer. This process gives a three dimensional effect. For this painting I marked in the symbol before I started with the three pigments, then did the symbol in white pigment. After each session of colors I would refresh the symbol so that it developed within the layers so that it showed through from back to front with varying edges to give a visual impression of motion. During the last session I used a mixture of titanium white pigment and iridescent white to make it reflective so that it appeared to glow. This is as close to the visual of what I experienced during the dream as I can get. The “abstract” background around and behind the symbol represents the energy field that I see during many dreams of the spirit world.

Raven Song”

Acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches
November 29, 2021

The “Raven Song” I had to approach the painting a little differently. I can't seem to find where this symbol came from so there is no reference footnote on this one. I suspect that the symbol is actually a Thunderbird but if it is from the Northwest, the tribes there reference the Raven as their connection to the Thunder Beings and the sacred clown. Given that this is going to be a symbol in black, the background had to be adjusted a bit. I used blue pigment with iridescent white mixed in to outline parts of the symbol to give it an impression of having electricity associated with it. That's my poetic license in doing this portrait.

One of the things that I've realized in my own spiritual journey of claiming my indigenous heritage is how the efforts of racial genocide, acculturation, and assimilation have functioned over the past 500+ years here on Turtle Island. During tribal times prior to the acculturation process a story teller would be relating a story to the children, especially during the winter months. As the story was being told, the story could point to a pottery vase, basket, or related everyday household object where the image of the topic would be on display. This multi-sensory experience would become the introduction to this spirit being such that the child could began their own dream time journey into that spiritual realm and glean the knowledge and information that would provided. By taking way these objects for scientific study in museums and universities, as well as private collections, and denying the children access to the traditional storytellers, their whole tribal culture of spiritual practice is taken away from them. Over the past few decades sacred objects have been returned to the tribes but there's still a lot more in collections where the tribal people are denied access to them. The storytellers are starting to come back as well. In the digital age there are podcasts where one can here the stories, but this isn't the same as laying on the floor of a traditional lodge with a fire burning, listening to a story. The movie industry is doing what they do best, present altered renditions of our stories for a profit, for themselves. As we reclaim our heritage and tribal spirituality, our own storytellers will become more effective in offering us these resources we need that assist us in our own dream time journeys that are part of tribal life. It is vital that we support the artisans who do their part to provide the visual objects that reference these stories.

Oliver Loveday

November 14, 2022 3 pm EST