Sunday, October 29, 2006

The White Doe of Nara

In many ways, my piece entitled DeerWoman was an artistic turning point for me. Although I have been creating images of deerwomen since early childhood, that particular work signaled something significant for me; reactions from both within and without indicated that I should follow that path beyond the tapestry of hunters deeper into the forest. In a sense the White Doe of Nara, created about three years after DeerWoman, is both a kind of commemoration and a futher exploration on the mythology and theme of my beloved DeerWoman. Yet the White Doe is not just a reinterpretation of the same figure in a different cultural context, in fact, the White Doe's character and tale is nearly a direct compliment to that of DeerWoman's.

Where DeerWoman is tragic, perhaps a victim or perhaps a reluctant but mythically necessary sacrifice, the White Doe is a figure with power. While destiny is something DeerWoman succumbs to, the White Doe has a direct hand in weaving it. DeerWoman avoids the viewer's gaze, the White Doe commands it. I feel that the compositional appearance of the landscapes in both images is significant also; DeerWoman is poised at a threshold between worlds, but the White Doe is the threshold, a manifestation of it as well as a gatekeeper of sorts. Unlike the melancholy DeerWoman, the White Doe sprouts antler spikes - she has a means of defense (or offense!). And, of course, there is the rather obvious distinction in cultural context. A Western European influence is prevalent in DeerWoman, but there is a pan-Asian inspiration for this piece.

My main cultural influence for this painting, revealed in its very title, is from Japan. I have long been captivated by Ukiyo-e, Japanese woodblock prints, particularly by the Bijin-ga genre prints of Kitagawa Utamaro. In fact, the background texture and partially revealed hand of the figure in my piece were very much inspired by similar techniques used by him in a circa 1793 print entitled "Infrequent Love." In addition to my usual methods utilizing colored pencil and watercolor, I also experimented with other techniques literally involving processes of printing and stamping. I really wanted to combine my love of the gorgeous graphic quality of Ukiyo-e with my propensity for illustrating portraits in subtle gradations of color and shadow. The aforementioned processes, which I have never used in combination with my colored pencil technique, also allowed me to incorporate a stronger element of chance and randomness into the overall composition. When I work with colored pencil and watercolor, my method is very deliberate, direct, and controlled, however, these other processes were more indirect and much less predictable.

In addition to the aesthetic Japanese connection, there is also a mythological one. Within Japan's indigenous religion of Shinto, Sika deer (Cervus nippon) are regarded as sacred messengers of the Gods. In a particular region of Japan known as Nara in which the Kasuga Shrine is situated, it has been forbidden to hunt the deer for centuries. Deprived of the fear of immediate death at the hands of humans, the deer in Nara Park have become rather tame, freely approaching visitors seeking food and roaming the countryside without care. Legend tells that when the God Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto first arrived to inhabit the shrine, he traveled on the back of a white deer. Deer also have a strong ties to Buddhism, another major religion in Japan. Siddharta Gautama's first sermon occured in Deer Park in Sarnath, and as this sermon set the Buddhist Wheel of Law into motion, deer are often depicted next to the symbolic representation of the Wheel.

While the Japanese influence is certainly the most prominent, I was also inspired by the art of other regions of Asia. For instance, the landscape depicted within the White Doe's kimono was inspired by Chinese screens and ink-wash paintings. White deer are also associated with divine figures in China as well; there is a painting in the Field Museum in Chicago depicting the Chinese Goddess Ma-Ku with a white hart. The White Doe's central hair ornament is a homage to a piece of Balinese metalwork which was once an earring for a large sculpture. The motif is traditional, but I have modified it somewhat for this image.

Original size: 8.5" by 11"
Media: prismacolor colored pencils, acrylic, watercolor, sumi-e ink, etc.
(This entry is backdated to reflect the date I originally uploaded it to my deviantARt gallery, but I added this piece to this journal on 2/14/07)