Thursday, July 27, 2006

Capturing the Elusive with the Stroke of a Brush

Artwork of fey-creatures and shape-shifters for your appreciation:

Bacchanalian Scene by Richard Dadd
My first glimpse of this painting was as thumbnail image of the cover of Loreena McKennitt's To Drive the Cold Winter Away, and I was immediately captivated. I'm seriously considering this image for my first tattoo. Thalia Took, an artist herself, has scribed some beautiful and entirely apropos words to describe his work:
Dadd was a Victorian fairy painter who in his early twenties developed schizophrenia/severe bi-polar disorder and then murdered his father. He spent the rest of his life in an institution, where he continued painting. Some, not all, of his paintings have a fey, alien quality to them. The best I can say is that his humans are not human, and have a genuine wildness to them, a deep unconsciousness, impartial and malevolent, like looking into the eyes of a leopard. Gorgeous yet disturbing. Very compelling.
I doubt that I could have described it better myself.

The Bacchante or Head of a Woman with the Horns of a Ram by Jean-Léon Gérome
This painting verges on being stark, but the delicate folds in the Bacchante's sleeve and the aching curves of the horns endow it with a surprising sensitivity.

Birthday by Dorothea Tanning
I had the pleasure of discovering this painting in person at the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it inhabits the Modern and Contemprary Galleries. This .jpeg reproduction does the painting little justice. While it is a surrealist self-portrait, it nevertheless seems to possess the taint of fey. The artist, in her tendril-adorned dress, reveals a series of open doors stretching to infinity. Her strange, winged familiar is poised by her feet.

Lavinia, Deer, and Rabbit by Sam Weber
I discovered the work of this artist in the 2006 Illustration annual of Communication Arts magazine. I am enamored with his technique of rendering trees, a method which gives the impression that he glues elegant pieces of driftwood directly to the paper. Upon visiting his website, I was delighted to find animal-people among his subjects. His sketch of "Rabbit" reveals something of a trickster character. (I couldn't resist including "Deer" in this list, because, well - it's an illustration of deer!)

Flidais by Forest Rogers
I was guided to the remarkable work of Forest Rogers some time ago through a link on the Endicott Studio webpage, but I had not visited her site recently (shame on me!). I was again guided back to her amazing figurative sculptures/art dolls through the Endicott Studio and discovered this piece which especially tugs at my heartstrings: Flidais a simply gorgeous rendition of a WhiteDeerWoman. She is the artist's vision of a Celtic Goddess of wild creatures and sexual potency. Be sure to view all of the photos in this gallery otherwise you may be apt to miss some lovely details. Her feet are particularly well conceived - at first glance it might appear as if she simply has her toes curled in an interesting fashion, but this is not the case. Her creations possess a Pre-Raphaelite beauty which I really appreciate, and her commentary is also intelligent. She has an all-around great website which I highly recommend.

Faun by Lou Rogers
This remarkable painting was created by sculptor Forest Roger's late mother. Evidently artistic talent runs in the family!

First Blessing by Dawn Wilson-Enoch
Fresh out of college Dawn emerged as a fantasy book cover illustrator. Although she gained renown for her work in that field, the type of art required of her in that career became spiritually draining. She now creates visionary paintings and jewelry based upon the landscape surrounding her New Mexico home. First Blessing is a piece partially inspired by the work of another artist enchanted with the desert southwest, Windling's novel The Wood Wife.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Faery Nature & the Nature of Faery {a work in progress}

Two paths mark the way to Faery 1. The first dazzles the eye with an assortment of glittering accessories and pretty trifles. It is easy to locate; the merchandise will lead the way. The second path is a bit more difficult to come by. Legend tells us that it can sometimes be found while trying to follow the ghostly blur of a white deer through the forest or by stumbling upon a ring of mushrooms and fertile grass.

Like so very many things, Faery is not what it seems. Even the fairy tales of our youth, in their true forms, contain sometimes gruesome elements, and there is not always such a happy ending awaiting the protagonist at the end of the story. Many so called "fairy tales" began as folktales catered to an adult audience. The sanitized versions that are read to children to sooth them into sleep and assure them that the hero/heroine always triumphs came later. For instance, in Hans Christian Andersen's original The Little Mermaid, the title character does not marry her handsome prince, nor does she acquire an everlasting human soul through his reciprocal romantic love, in fact, she commits suicide, throwing herself into the ocean while still in human form.

The same can be said of Faery. Modern culture has taught us to regard faeries in much the same way as we now regard fairy tales. We have been fed a pre-packaged, sugar-coated, and well-tamed version of the original:
At the end of the 17th century the sophisticated French fairy-stories of Perrault and Madame D'Aulnoy were translated into English. They began as real traditional tales, polished to meet the taste of the French court, and they were equally popular in England. Half the court seem to have tried their hands at them, and as time went on they moved farther away from their original. The fairy godmothers, already at one remove from folk fairies, became relentless moralists, driving their protégés along the path to virtue. The trend persisted into the 19th century, and it was not until a quarter of it had passed that the researches of the folklorists began to have some effect on children's literature. [...] At the beginning of the 20th century, an extreme tenderness and sensibility about children almost overwhelmed the folk fairies and turned them into airy, tenuous, pretty creatures without meat or muscles, made up of froth and whimsy.2
Faeries are an extremely diverse group, encompassing many, many emanations, yet at present many only acknowledge a very limited portion of their potentialities. The word faery (or "fairy") in our times conjures images of childlike sprites dressed in leaves and flower petals, beings who only exist to be of benefit to humanity. Another exceedingly popular image is that of an attractive female with butterfly wings. Some individuals seem to honestly believe that these archetypes define Faery – that it begins and ends with such shallow, hackneyed images. These people speak only of fresh morning dew, sparkling fairydust, toadstools, and delicate wildflowers. They cannot speak for the totality of Faery, and there is more to Faery than meets the eye: "Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder. Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels...Elves are terrific. They beget terror...No-one ever said elves are nice."3

If one is to discard the definition of a faery as simply a diminutive humanoid being with pointed ears and a penchant for mischievous behavior, then we are forced to ask: what is Faery? Admittedly, this is not an easy question to answer. In fact, it may not be a question that we are entirely capable of answering. Faery will not manifest itself in a lab setting to be measured, dissected, and classified by empirical science. This trait of Faery is likely why a belief in it has persisted even until the present day when science and segments of "rational" society have denied its existence: at the moment, science cannot prove its existence, yet it cannot disprove it either. While a belief in faeries by the uneducated peasantry can often be dismissed as the product of ignorance and an active imagination, "this is not enough. Even let it be granted that nine out of every ten cases of experiences with fairies can be analyzed and explained away - there remains the tenth. In this tenth case one is obliged to admit that there is something at work which we do not understand, some force in play which, as yet, we know not. In spite of ourselves we feel 'There's Powers that's in'"4.

But still the question intrigues us, and so many have sought a working "definition" of Faery. Probably the best and most encompassing definition, in my opinion, is that faeries are spirits of Nature. Of course, even this description begs us to question further what both the notion of spirit and Nature really imply. The term "nature spirit," and even the word "Nature" itself, is often construed as having a much narrower realm of influence and implication than perhaps it should. Some find the application of "nature spirits" to describe faeries as almost demeaning and hopelessly limited. For instance, author Rae Beth matter-of-factly dismisses that term: "Faeries are not nature spirits, they are not flower devas, and they are not tiny. [. . .] Their business, partly, is to weave fate." 5 While there are certainly ample examples in myth and folklore of faeries who are tied to specific plots of earth, landscape features, and even to particular trees or bodies of water, Nature can have much deeper, more profound connotations with regard to the nature of Faery. Nature is not simply the physical soil beneath our feet and that which grows from it. It is not simply pastoral scenes and verdant gardens. Nature can also refer to the nature of existence, the nature of the unseen world which is embodied by and intersects with our own. Nature is not exhausted by its familiar, tactile manifestations in flowers and rocks and winding streams – Nature should be considered a verb as well as a noun. The relationships and processes that bring those tactile elements into form and erode them back into oblivion are also Nature. Ultimately, Nature is the fiber from which Fate is woven, and it is also the complex, interlacing patterns that define the fabric of Fate itself. Therefore, "nature spirits" is only limiting insofar as an individual's concept of Nature is hopelessly limited.

Tracing the roots and routes of language can often reveal older patterns of thought, illuminating links that were previously sensed
between entities and acknowledging their true ancestral connections, thereby reinforcing intuition with history. Etymology has indeed linked "fairy" and "faery" with the mysterious powers of Fate. Though a more recently introduced term in the vocabulary of the intimate, yet generally invisible realm of the Otherworld and its inhabitants, Faery and its linguistic variants has been almost universally adopted in reference to that realm by European cultures. In numerous lands, however, even though that word is widely known, it may not be widely used by those who truly understand how close at hand the Otherworld is. Comprehending both the inherent potency in that term as well as the fact that faeries revile mortals who try to pry too deeply into their affairs, these folk will nearly always avoid its usage and will instead choose to either refer obliquely to "Them" or to exercise a bit of humble glamour by utilizing less dangerous, more pleasant-sounding euphemisms.

"[W]e are madly erring, through self-esteem, in believing man, in either his temporal or future destinies, to be of more moment in the universe than that vast 'clod of the valley' which he tills and condemns, and to which he denies a soul for no more profound reason than that he does not behold it in operation."6

"It is obviously the purest anthropomorphism to assume that the absence of a human quality in bird, cloud, or star is the presence of a total blank, or to assume that what is not conscious is merely unconscious. Nature is not necessarily arranged in accordance with the system of mutually exclusive alternatives which characterize our language and logic. Furthermore, may it not be that when we speak of nature as blind, and of matter-energy as unintelligent, we are simply projecting upon them the blankness which we feel when we try to know our own consciousness as an object, when we try to see our own eyes or taste our own tongues?"7

Footnotes and Bibliography

1) Technically, according to the traditional ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," it is the third path that is the road to Faery: "O see not ye yon narrow road, / So thick beset wi thorns and briers? / That is the path of righteousness, / tho after it but few enquires. / And see not ye that braid braid road, / That lies across yon lillie leven? / That is the path of wickedness, / Tho some call it the road to heaven. / And see not ye that bonny road, / Which winds about the fernie brae? / That is the road to fair Elfland, / Whe(re) you and I this night maun gae."
2) Briggs, Katharine. An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. 166-167.
3) Pratchett, Terry. Lords and Ladies. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. 169 - 70.
4) Evans-Wentz, W.Y. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries: The Classic Study of Leprechauns, Pixies, and Other Fairy Spirits. New York: Citadel Press, 1994. 119.
5) Beth, Rae. The Wiccan Way: Magical Spirituality for the Solitary Pagan. Blaine, WA: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 2001. 84.
6) Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Island of the Fay." Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2001. 228.
7) Watts, Alan W. Nature, Man and Woman. New York: Vintage Books, 1958. 6-7.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Loonatiques


Since my childhood, it has been an annual tradition for many of the men in our family, namely my father but also other members including my uncle and grandfather, to take a sojourn to Ontario, Canada for week of fishing (and likely a fair share of beer-drinking). On his way home my father generally picks up gifts for my sister, my mother, and me at a duty-free shop near the US/Canadian border. My mother and sister have asked him to bring them back typical souvenir fare: keychains, sweatshirts, etc. Although I have received such items in the past as tokens of his trips north, I never asked for them myself.

However, every year I present him with a request, and after all these years this request has yet to be fulfilled. Perhaps it will never be.

Each year I ask my father to bring me back a Loon (Gávia ímmer) feather. { In a strange way, my request mirrors a similar one made by the youngest daughter in the classic Beauty and the Beast tale. When Beauty's father sets out on his journey, his two eldest daughters requested fine jewels and gowns, reminders of their former affluence. Beauty requests a single rose, "Since you have the goodness to think of me, [...] be so kind to bring me a rose, for as none grows hereabouts, they are a kind of rarity." }

Despite the number of loons that dwell around the lakes where my father goes fishing, he has never been able to locate even a small feather to bring home with him. I suspect that someone must collect stray loon feathers in the wavering hours between twilight and dawn. These mysterious figures venture out after the last small lights have returned to the docks but before the earliest riser casts his first line - an in-between time.

The loose sketch above accompanies this text in my paper journal. After paging through a collection of Remedios Varo's work, which shelters all sorts of delightful OwlWomen and other feathered shape-shifters, in the school library, I was reminded of the loons. I hope that one day this will become a fully-fledged image, but for now it is simply germinating in my humble sketchbook/journal.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

The Art of Faery { book review }

Some people experience Faerie at the level of of art and story, at the level of wonder. Historically, there has been a 'Faery Faith,' and references to it appear in the folklore of rural people all over the world. These beliefs have very little to do with the frivolity and fashion that embodies some of today's interest. The early Faery Faith had a lot to do with safely traversing your local landscapes, and the folklore was filed with warnings, instructions and suggestions for living in harmony with the land on which your people lived.[. . .] Many people today who are interested in faeries enjoy the artistry, the mirth, the costumes, the sparkly-bits (if you will). No problem, faeries have never minded a bit of fun and game. But under all that glitter, something wild and ancient may yet be seen...if you care to look.
- Ari Berk in Faerie Magazine Spring 2007 issue, pages 75-76

Update 7/16/07: Although many of my opinions regarding much of popular fairy art (aptly represented by the volume in question) are still quite intact, my views and overall approach to the contemporary fairy craze and changed and softened somewhat. My earlier, more asinine reflections on the movement were not, as some might suggest 1, due to jealousy borne of the commercial success of some of the artists who are at the vanguard of the genre. Rather my initial fervor has entirely to do with the fact that something very near and dear to me is being cheapened and deprived of its integral mystery and ambiguity largely for the purposes of financial gain and popularity.

If contemporary fairy artists derive joy from their art, it is hardly my place to attempt to intervene. I also completely understand that artists have to eat, and if fairy art is the vehicle though which they obtain the funds to do so, then more power to them. I still feel that there is a great deal more to Faery than what is displayed in most of their work, and to the extent that what they do contributes to the growing superficiality and watering-down of a deep, profound tradition I cannot fully endorse it (sometimes this is born from the artist's genuine lack of knowledge of the subject, other times it is a blithe, arrogant disregard for viewpoints contrary to their own).

My new approach has been to seek to initiate change from the inside of the movement rather than by shunning and trying to disassociate from it entirely. An apt phrase comes to mind: "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Instead of focusing on what I believe to be detrimental, I am working to encourage that which reveals the depth and potency of Faery, hopefully by planting some seeds in the vast soil of the fairy movement with my own art and writing. I want to make peace with the contemporary fairy art scene so I can more readily focus on my own work, and it is much more valuable to me to work on establishing and strengthening an alternative path for those genuinely interested in Faery than to waste precious time with too much criticism. Thankfully, I am not the only one seeking towards this end.

In keeping with this more tolerant, progressive approach, I have voluntarily removed the following review on the Amazon website where it had the most exposure, and I have also deleted or disabled numerous other entries in my blogs. The review contains what I still believe to be valid points, which is why I am allowing it to be viewable here, but most of them were stated in a much harsher manner than I would now prefer, and so I have heavily edited even the currently viewable versions. I think my central ideas are still very present in this newer version, however the segments which I deem as too brash and truthfully distracting from those ideas have been deleted.

There's nothing wrong with a compendium of fantasy fairy art when it is presented as such. The problem occurs when people mistakenly equate the cutesy, whimsical, winged little creatures fabricated in the past few hundred years with the same sphere of Faery that is documented in genuine world mythology and folklore. Unfortunately, only one or two pieces in this book really seem to hint at the true Faery of legend and myth.

Brian Froud's keynote introduction and the opening statement on the back cover lead the reader to anticipate a deeper, more sensitive visual response to the challenge of representing Faery beings than is actually supplied by the book. One anticipates that the artwork will, in the words of Froud, "illuminate the dark inner recesses of nature and our relationship with it." Despite this book's ardent desire and claim to promote Faery as an "individual connection to nature," it really has a great deal more to do with an obsession with the insipid legacy left to us by the Victorians — faeries as spritely creatures of fantasy, drained of their original power, wildness, menace, and expressive potency. Froud makes another telling comment in his foreword which more accurately relates to the book's true contents. He writes of the perception of faeries over time as being "reduced to the tritest and gaudiest products of the human mind, washed up on the shorelines of nurseries." Taking into consideration the many saccarine, winged toddlers and preteens; elfin babies; and the horde of vapid supermodels-turned-fey vixens within these pages, I believe this collection of imagery is far closer to the "trite and gaudy" end of the spectrum. This would not be such a jarring issue if the book claimed to be a collection of fantasy fairy art.

I find it strange that many of the artists within this book list Alan Lee and Brian Froud's seminal book Faeries as a major influence, yet their own work doesn't seem to indicate that they actually read it and/or seriously investigated the illustrations therein. On the contrary, it seems like they may have skimmed the book, taking note only of the petite creatures that suited their pre-conditioned notions of Faery while ignoring the vast majority of information presented. The denizens of Faery are linked not only to the spiritual heart of the landscape, but also to the realm of the dead and the mysterious weavings of fate. Faeries of old were not merely acknowledged by humans, but greatly respected, and, in some cases, feared. Despite the attempts of certain artists to depict so-called "dark faeries" in this volume, the figures they paint are simply the same fairy characters as in their other pieces playing dress-up; there's nothing inherently menacing, disturbing, or powerful about them other than the fact that these particular fairies apparently shop at Hot Topic instead of at the typical Renaissance Faire or hippie clothing store at which they normally purchase their garments.

The website of one artist included in this work hailed The Art of Faery as a compendium of "the best faery artists in the world." While this book does contain the work of a handful of skilled individuals who have a decent handle on human proportions, shading, perspective, color, etc. (as well as containing the work of a number of those at the other end of the spectrum who definitely do not have a good understanding of the human form or a sensitivity to their chosen medium) nearly every example of the faery art in this book suffers from an extremely limited visual vocabulary. Virtually every single image in The Art of Faery, regardless of the talent and skill of the artist in question, is hidebound by convention and stereotype. With scarcely any exceptions, all of the supposed faeries these artists depict embody a cookie-cutter mentality: they are either cutsey children with wings and clothing of petals and foliage, or they are winged Victoria's Secret models with similar botanical decorations.

Some of the more technically proficient, stylistically refined artists include Marja Lee Kruÿt, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, John Arthur, Maxine Gadd, and James Browne. Sadly, a number of artists included in this volume, some of them at the forefront of the contemporary Fairy Art movement, do not simply create images of fairies, they manufacture them using their own established stock of poses, clothing design, faces, motifs, etc.

Undoubtedly, this book will be (and already has) become a cherished addition to the libraries of many fantasy fairy enthusiasts. It is a pleasant, pretty, and whimsical volume sure to provide inspiration for many mental flights of fancy. However, for those interested in genuine, mythic Faery art this collection may largely prove to be disappointing. To find artwork that earnestly seeks to "illuminate the dark inner recesses of nature and our relationship with it," one needs to look elsewhere. There is so much more to the fey than the pleasant, pretty, and whimsical modern veneer many assume is the totality of Faery. Don't be fooled into confusing fantastical fairies with the real thing; enjoy these fantasy fairies for what they are — creatures of fantasy.

1) Galbreth, Jessica. "Advice from Jessica." Enchanted Art.
I'm referring specifically to the following statements: "Of course with the huge amount of artists springing up, there is bound to be a bit of negativity as well. [...] We must remember that this is just like any other industry. And, some people react to other's successes by trying to tear them down, maybe with the hopes that if they do, there will be more room for them."