Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Mystical relationship between human beings and the animal kingdom by Donna Dodson

I graduated cum laude from Wellesley College in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts. My pre-med studies and my passion for Egyptian art led me to study wood sculpture with Joseph Wheelwright at his studio in Boston in 1995 and then stone sculpture at the Carving Studio in Vermont. I continued my studies in sculpture with Peter Haines at his studio in Cambridge where I learned how to abstract and resolve bronze forms. Since 2000, I have been honored with solo shows in New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In May 2007 I started the Art Salon Boston at my studio to meet artists of all disciplines and host monthly conversations on topics of interest to artists in Boston and beyond.

I met Karen Frostig at the National Women’s studies Association conference in Oakland, CA in 2006, “Locating Women’s Studies: Formations of Power and Resistance.” We were both participating in ‘Intersections: Locating Acts of Courage’ an art exhibit at the Joyce Gordon Gallery exploring the intersections between art and women’s studies that was sponsored by the National Women’s Studies Association and the Pacific Region of the Women’s Caucus for Art. Karen Frostig is the co-author of Blaze: Discourse on Art, Women, and Feminism with Kathy Halamka, both of whom were co-presidents of the Women’s Caucus for art in Boston when I was a member. At the salon, I got to know Karen Frostig better and she suggested I participate in an art exhibit whose theme was ecofeminism which I had never thought of until she made the connection for me by saying that ecofeminists were interested in and draw inspiration from the pagan [earth] gods/goddesses and wiccan spirituality, that promote harmony, balance with the environment [nature and animals]. So that inspired me to participate in the ARM conference.

My artwork celebrates the mystical relationship between human beings and the animal kingdom. My vision is to create standing animal-headed figures of the female form that are sculpted in wood. The challenge is to fuse feminine sensuality, sexuality and soul with a well-proportioned figurative vocabulary. The natural grain of the wood interacts with the form and shape of my sculptures in a fluid way. I often stylize each piece to enhance the girl, daughter, woman, mother, queen or goddess within. The mouths, or in some cases beaks, are closed symbolizing the mysteries they embody. These figures are sculpted in sizes ranging from one to four feet tall. I use color in both subtle and bold ways to activate each piece. They are created as archetypes, and each one invites a personal experience from the viewer. The creative process that brings me to the completion of each work of art presents tremendous challenges, making my art a lifelong study with lessons for my eyes, hands, mind and spirit.

My Introduction to Egyptian art came from my grandfather who had a connection at the University of Illinois Art Museum that took us on a tour of their vault when they were preparing for a traveling show of mummies. I remember thinking the mummies were the painted boxes, and did not make a connection to the wrapped up and preserved bodies inside the boxes. My introduction to Egyptian goddess figures was from an image I saw of Genevieve Vaughn’s commission for a temple dedicated to the Goddess Sekhmet in the journal Woman of Power.

The presence of the goddess in art was reinforced by reading Robert Graves, the White Goddess that untangles and fleshes out the puzzles, riddles, rhymes of poetry that reinforce/ disguise this fierce goddess presence, whose mystery underlies/explains a vital life force and system of belief. I became very inspired by and interested in the visual language of animal/human hybrid goddesses like Sekhmet (lion headed goddess figure) and Tauret (hybrid hippo/lion/crocodile midwife goddess figure) who are strong yet sensual, primal yet refined, fierce yet beautiful.

My art work also takes its inspiration from the Falcon headed (Horus) Baboon headed (Hapi) and Crocodile headed (Sobek) Egyptian male gods and from them I create female counterparts/goddess figures. This is a vision of my work that my art teacher suggested.

On a very basic level, these animal headed gods and goddesses resonate with the feelings I had as a kid of feeling connected to the stray cat we adopted as a pet. On a more philosophical level, my female interpretation of male figures is very Asian (yin/yang) in that everything has a male/female counterpart. Not unlike Ann Lee, or Mother Ann, leader of the spiritual community of the Shakers, who believed that Jesus was the male incarnation of God and she believed she was the female incarnation of the Holy Spirit which was radical at that time.

There were no feminine icons in Christianity or in protestant religion that I grew up with. I am not catholic and I don’t feel a connection to the Virgin Mary. I don’t have a personal relationship with her story or her image. I have a very Feminist aunt who rejected God the Father and challenged me to find and define god for myself. She was reading a lot of Mary Daly’s books at the time and shared her thoughts. Authors often say I write the books I want to read, and I make the kind of art I want to see. But, if I was so inspired by Egyptian art, why do I work in wood and not stone?

As a kid, I spent a lot of time climbing trees and in the tops of the branches, swaying in the wind, I felt connected to the tree, the earth, and the universe. I use logs of Osage orange from my grandfather’s farm in Illinois, and ash, pine, and maple from New England. Each piece of wood speaks to me in a different voice. I sculpt with a chainsaw and a belt sander as well as chisels, rasps, and files. The wood’s surfaces are smoothed out with sandpaper, colored with paint or pigment and finished in varnish and wax. My pieces range from one to four feet tall, and one to two feet in diameter. These iconic goddesses are crafted in the manner of fine woodworking. They are unique objects and each piece has a magical presence.

My career as an artist began with poetry that evolved into drawing and then sculpture. I draw with my left hand which is also my non-dominant hand. That was suggested to me as a method of self- expression and with it came the emergence of an image, a dancing pig, an unflattering image of myself, although it was a happy image and from there, I began to hope that the trajectory of my life as an artist could be a process of re-envisioning the parts of myself that I didn’t like.

I believe creating art is a form of magic in that it taps into the miracle of creation, communicating with the unseen/spirit world. When I began making sculpture, I found the passion I had been looking for in the other career paths I had explored up to that point in my life, such as doctor, social worker, and political activist.

Georgia O’Keefe, Judy Chicago, and Harriet Hosmer were some of my key inspirations, guides and mentors. I began making found object assemblages of faces, totem poles and crude figures that morphed into wood sculpture when I met Joe Wheelwright and was introduced to woodcarving. Through Joe, I was introduced to artists/sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi and Martin Puryear. From Joe, I learned the tradition of direct carving- where the artist is envisioning /pulling the figure from the log, as Michelangelo did.

I was inspired by the refined, stylized Inuit art forms & Native American concepts- totem animal, spirit guide, family/clan, harmony with spirit of life, use of color, wood craftsmanship.

Wood is strong on the vertical axis/weak across the grain, which is why I choose to make standing or striding figures that are upright, intact, dignified & heroic within and without.

After Pegasus, my figures became much more autobiographical i.e. imbued with a personal meaning/significance but they also represented something larger- the elusive feminine qualities of womanhood- such as sexuality, sensuality, gender.

My visual inspirations were from Indian art- Ganesh and his human parents- the male figures look so feminine- there doesn't seem to be such a divide or polarity between men and women in Indian art. There seems to be more continuity of gender between the sexes.

Male features in the animal world are more colorful to attract females whereas for humans- females dress themselves up more elaborately and ornately to attract males. When the form emerges and begins to resolve itself, the piece will start to become alive.

My artwork explores subtle/elusive feminine qualities- and a hybrid/anthropomorphic language, which gets away from realism/race/ethnicity/ stereotypical depiction of female beauty or women as sex objects to something larger- each piece, has a benevolent presence like a stuffed animal.

There is something inherently ironic Creating goddess figures using macho power tools although, everywhere you look, you can find like-minded people who share your interests. Over the summer, we were fortunate to go see Timber Tina & the Lumberjills in Ellsworth Maine. Her show was a display of athleticism, feminism & sportsmanship of men & women; competing in the traditional arts of axe throwing, hot sawing, pole climbing and log rolling. Watching Tina perform was very encouraging to me as a woman and a sculptor in the art world.

In Egyptian art, there is a religion and pantheon of gods and goddesses that make up their mythology- that is not what I am doing. Mine are sculptural objects, spiritual icons, personal totems, w/a personal mythology, culture of me [individual], but also something larger=women. This reminds me of something my minister once said about the evolution of your spiritual path, whereby you come to terms with yourself, then your family, your community, and the world.

My collectors display and interpret my work in very personal ways- one man bought one and his daughter got pregnant so he bought one for each one of his daughters as fertility symbols.

In preparing this talk, I came to realize Mothers are sacred, holy, archetypal yet also individuals who are girls and daughters that become women and wives. My work contains these identities.

Motherhood is one aspect of sexuality & fertility as is sexual pleasure, sexual health, seduction, attraction, eroticism, maturity, identity, self-knowledge, spirituality, theology, divinity, worship, power, physiology, biology, sensuality, miracles, mythology, fate, a story that plays out in life. Not being a mother myself, I have explored the concept of pregnancy & birth in only a few of my pieces with the information I've gathered from my friends who made the journey themselves. For them, it changed their concept of their sexuality up to that point in their life and completed their identity.

A prime motivation to become a sculptor was to gratify my mother and make her proud of me in my life choices and my life's work. Prior to that I had been very involved with poetry and the religion of the mind- but with sculpture, I became very interested in the language of the body and religion of the body.

I've read some of the classic feminist tomes, Betty Friedan, The feminine mystique and more recently Manifesta by Jennifer Baumgartner and Amy Richards about 2nd wave feminism.

I've followed Jungians more than Freudians on psychoanalysis because the Jungians seemed more transcendent or spiritual, i.e. Nor Hall, The Moon and the Virgin and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women who run with the wolves. In their writing they talk about female archetypes.

I've read Elaine Pagels [Adam, eve and the serpent] for an intelligent interpretation of the bible, Marija Gimbutas [Language of the Goddess] for an insightful and articulate interpretation of archaeology and Elinor Gadon [The once and future goddess] for a thorough visual history of art.

I met Elinor Gadon at the WCA conference in Boston in 2005 when she was awarded a lifetime achievement award. I saw her again at the NWSA conference in 2006 and have followed her work and scholarship and art exhibits with great pleasure at the Women’s Study Research Center at Brandeis in Waltham. She recently curated, Tiger by the Tail! Women Artists of India Transforming Culture that was very well received by art, feminist and academic communities.

I am currently working on a solo show of my work that will be on exhibit at the Boston Sculptors Gallery Nov-Dec 2009. This show will present 16 different interpretations of an elephant headed female form. For me, the elephant represents power, sensitivity, strength, and wisdom.
These feminine archetypes or goddess figures represent my vision of womankind.

The Hindu elephant god Ganesh inspires my work but all of my figures are female. These are not literal studies of Ganesh- but original artworks from my imagination and each one is unique.

My studies of African sculptures and Native American totems inform my elephants. In the process of carving, the ears are developed realistically but in the form, I imply headdresses, helmets and hair-dos. My monolithic and serene sculptures are enhanced by the use of paint whereby color transforms wood sections into objects such as tusks, gloves, and hair.

Elephants form matriarchal* societies, and I have been inspired to create a series of elephants by the scholarship & field studies of Cynthia Moss at the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Africa. As she writes about in her book [Elephant memories: thirteen years in the life of an elephant family], I spend time studying the animal until I get its essence and find the soul of the animal. I work from a collage of elephant photographs that I paste up while working on a sculpture. I develop different compositions of elephant forms using Indian & African elephant features. Indian female elephants have smaller ears, rounded heads and they have no tusks, but female African elephants have large tusks, square heads and large, floppy ears.

*Matriarchy (or gynecocracy) refers to a gynecocentric form of society, in which the leading role is taken by the women and especially by the mothers of a community.[1] [From Wikipedia]

Matriarchy encompasses inheritance- class- status- dominance- rank- privilege. My mother came from a higher class than my father b/c her family were land owning farmers- although my dad had two unmarried aunts who were college educated and they sent he and his brother to college and they both completed master’s degrees- my mom also had an unmarried aunt in the military who achieved the rank of Major in the Air Force. She helped my mom earn a bachelor’s degree.

Elephants appear in popular culture, as Babar, the elephant headed character in children’s books created by the French author, Jean de Brunhoff; Dumbo, the cartoon elephant that could fly created by Walt Disney, and as the Republican Party symbol created by Thomas Nash.

My Madam Elephant figure is a sort of [female uncle Sam] I see Elephants as figureheads, and with Elephant Bride, Asian Elephant, Iron Lady, Elephant Queen, I am honoring the world leaders such as Madam Chiang Kai-Shek, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth. But once they go beyond abstractly honoring these figureheads, they come back to representing one of the relationships I hold most dear to my heart, the relationship I have with my mother.

[This paper was presented on October 25, 2009 in Toronto at York University during the Mothering & Environment conference sponsored by the Association of Research on Mothering]

Gallery Ehva

Donna Dodson, Andy Moerlein, Fawn Potash, Rob Westerberg

July 3-15, 2009
Opening Night Soup & Bread: Pumpkin Soup and Dill Chive Sourdough Bread
Friday July 3rd, 6p-8p

Gallery Ehva
74 Shank Painter Road
Provincetown, MA 02657

Empress Penguin, cherry wood & paint, 26" tall, 2005
Photo Credit: Bruno Giust

Pecha Kucha Night

Pecha Kucha Boston 10
Wednesday May 27th
Mantra, 52 Temple Pl, Boston (near Park St T)

What is Pecha Kucha Night?
(courtesy of the website)

'Pecha Kucha Night, devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (Klein Dytham architecture), was conceived in 2003 as a place for young designers to meet, network, and show their work in public.

Pecha Kucha (which is Japanese for the sound of conversation) has tapped into a demand for a forum in which creative work can be easily and informally shown, without having to rent a gallery or chat up a magazine editor. This is a demand that seems to be global – as Pecha Kucha Night, without any pushing, has spread virally to over 100 cities across the world. Find a location and join the conversation.'

I showed some images of my new series of elephant headed goddess figures: Prom Queen, poplar wood & paint, 31" tall, 2009; Elephant Queen, white cedar & paint, 19" tall, 2009; Elephant Matador, cherry wood & paint, 20" tall, 2008; Elephant princess, white cedar & pigment, 19" tall, 2008; Golden elephant, osage orange & paint, 36" tall, 2008; Iron Lady, polychrome wood & paint, 38" tall 2007; White elephant, polychrome wood & paint, 23" tall, 2007; Asian elephant, yellow pine & paint, 32" tall, 2007; Elephant bride, cherry wood & paint, 19" tall, 2005; Madam elephant, cherry wood, 38" tall, 2004 (Photo Credit: Bruno Giust)