Dark Beauty

Solitude by Andrea Kowch

Here's another post reprinted by request during a tense election week here in the UK, impeachment hearings in the US, strife and hardship around the world, and climate crisis roaring down the track at us all. I'll return to new posts tomorrow; but today, one last journey into the dark....

Having grown up amidst violence and ugliness, I have long dedicated my life to kindness, compassion and beauty: three old-fashioned ideals that I truly believe keep the globe spinning in its right orbit. William Morris, artist and socialist, considered beauty to be as essential as bread in everyone's life, rich and poor alike. It is one of the truths that I live by. Beauty in this context, of course, is not the shallow glamor peddled by the advertising industry; it's a quality of harmony, balance and interrelationship: physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once. The Diné (Navajo) called this quality hózhǫ́, embodied in this simple, powerful prayer: With beauty before me may I walk. With beauty behind me may I walk. With beauty below me may I walk. With beauty above me may I walk. With beauty all around me may I walk.

We are living through a time when dark, violent forces have been released, encouraged, and applified, on both sides of the Atlantic: by Trump in America, by the Johnson-Cummings team here, and too many others eager to extend its reach. I contend that in the face of such ugliness we need the beacon of light that is beauty more than ever -- and I hold this belief as someone who has not lead a sheltered life, nor is unaware of the true cost of violence on body and soul. It is because of the scars that I carry that I know that beauty, and art, and story, are not luxuries. They are bread. They are water. They sustain us.

Andrea Kowch

Soiree by Andrea Kowch

And yet, like many of the writers and artists I know, I too have been struggling with how to move forward: not because I question the value of the work that we're doing here in the Mythic Arts/Fantasy Literature field, but because public discussion, on Left and Right alike, has become so dogmatic, so scolding and contentious, and so mired in black-and-white thinking. In such an atmosphere, nuance and complexity sink like stones; and the idea that there are things that still matter in addition to our political and ecological crisis is damned in some quarters as trivial, escapist, or the realm of the privileged: labels which I do not accept.

47037752238356cced089bb59f5d9ae5Here on Myth & Moor, I advocate for the creation of lives rich in beauty, nature, art, and reflection -- but this is by no means a rejection of engagement, action, and fighting like hell against facism. Myth speaks in a language of paradox, and so all of us who work with myth are capable of holding seemingly opposite truths in balance: We'll fight and retreat. We'll cry loudly for justice (in our various ways) and we'll have times of soul-healing silence. We'll look ugliness directly in the face, unflinching, and we will walk in beauty.

"Beauty is not all brightness," wrote the late Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue. "In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty. The primeval conversation between darkness and beauty is not audible to the human ear and the threshold where they engage each other is not visible to the eye. Yet at the deepest core they seem to be at work with each other. The guiding intuition of our exploration suggests that beauty is never one-dimensional or one-sided. This is why even in awful circumstances we can still meet beauty. A simple instance of this is fire. Though it may be causing huge destruction, in itself, as dance and color of flame, fire can be beautiful. In human confusion and brokeness there is often a slow beauty present and at work.

Flame by Andrea Kowch

"The beauty that emerges from woundedness," O'Donohue noted, "is a beauty infused with feeling: a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form. This is a beauty that has suffered its way through the ache of desolation until the words or music emerged to equal the hunger and desperation at its heart....

Runaway by Andrea Kowch

"The luminous beauty of great art so often issues from the deepest, darkest wounding. We always seem to visualize a wound as a sore, a tear on the skin's surface.  The protective outer layer is broken and the sensitive interior is invaded and torn. Perhaps there is another way to imagine a wound. It is the place where the sealed surface that keeps the interior hidden is broken. A wound is also, therefore, a breakage that lets in light and a sore place where much of the hidden pain of a body surfaces."

Light Keepers by Andrea Kowch

"Where woundedness can be refined into beauty," he adds, "a wonderful transfiguration takes place. For instance, compassion is one of the most beautiful presences a person can bring to the world and most compassion is born from one's own woundedness. When you have felt deep emotional pain and hurt, you are able to imagine what the pain of another is like; their suffering touches you. This is the most decisive and vital threshold in human experience and behavior. The greatest evil and destruction arises when people are unable to feel compassion. The beauty of compassion continues to shelter and save our world. If that beauty were quenched, there would be nothing between us and the end-darkness which would pour in torrents over us."

So please, fellow artists and art lovers, keep seeking out, spreading, and making beauty. Don't stop. We all need you. I need you.

Rural Sisters II by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch

The art today is by Andrea Kowch, an award-winning American painter based in Michigan. Kowch finds inspiration in the emotions and experiences of daily life in the rural Midwest -- resulting, she says, in "narrative, allegorical imagery that illustrates the parallels between human experience and the mysteries of the natural world. The lonely, desolate American landscape encompassing the paintings’ subjects serves as an exploration of nature’s sacredness and a reflection of the human soul, symbolizing all things powerful, fragile, and eternal. Real yet dreamlike scenarios transform personal ideas into universal metaphors for the human condition, all retaining a sense of vagueness to encourage dialogue between art and viewer.”

Reunion by Andrea Kowch

Andrea Kowch

The passage above is from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004), all rights reserved by the author's estate. All rights to the art reserved by Andrea Kowch.


Trusting the gift, trusting the way

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

From East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

I have to trust what was given to me
if I am to trust anything
it led the stars over the shadowless mountain
what does it remember in its night and silence
what does it not hope knowing itself no child of time

what did it not begin what will it not end
I have to hold it up in my hands
as my ribs hold up my heart
again in the mountain I have to turn
to the morning

I must be led by what was given to me
as streams are lead by it
and braiding flight of birds
the gropings of veins the learning of plants
the thankful days
breath by breath

- W.S. Merwin (from "Gift")

"If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line -- starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay NielsenOr you could take the King's Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been
unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led -- make of that what you will."

- Wendell Berry (Jayber Crow)

"What does it mean to stand inside darkness? What does it mean to allow yourself to travel through Hell? You don't see anything for a good long while, but then your eyes adjust and different senses take over. It is a shot through the dark. Have the courage to stay with it, to stay in it. It has its own beauty. I was raised that the goal is to be happy. I don't believe that. I think the question is not 'how do we be happy?' but 'how to we embrace change?' To me, part of that transformation takes place in the dark."

 - Terry Tempest Williams (A Voice in the Wilderness)

Pop! Out flew the moon by Kay Nielsen

The paintings above are by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). To see more of his work, and to learn more about his remarkable life, go here.

Pop! Out flew the moon.

The excerpts above are from: Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 1973); Jayber Crow: A Novel by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2000); and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The excerpts in the picture captions are from: The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1990); Pieces of a Song by Diane di Prima (City Lights Books, 1990); Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana Press, 2015), Study for the World’s Body by David St. John (HarperCollins, 1994); and Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield (Harper, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.


Telling Our Stories: in honour of Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

Briar Rose (collage) by T Windling

“I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives."  

- Barry Lopez (About This Life)

"I come from a long line of tellers: mesemondok, old Hungarian women who tell while sitting on wooden chairs with their plastic pocketbooks on their laps, their knees apart, their skirts touching the ground...and cuentistas, old Latina women who stand, robust of breast, hips wide, and cry out the story ranchera style. Both clans storytell in the plain voice of women who have lived blood and babies, bread and bones. For them, story is a medicine which strengthens and arights the individual and the community."  

- Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves)

Donkeyskin (collage) by T Windling

"Make up a story.

"Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly -- once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."

- Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize lecture, 1993)

In the Meadow (collage) by T Windling


The stories we need

River 1

From Scatterlings by Martin Shaw:

"We hear it everywhere these days: time for a new story -- some enthusiastic sweep of narrative that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times. A container for all this ecological trouble, this peak-oil business, this malaise of numbness that seems to shroud even the most privileged. A new story. Just the one. That simple. Painless. Everything solved. Lovely and neat.

River 2

"So, here's my first moment of rashness: I suggest that the stories we need turned up, right on time, about five thousand years ago. But they're not simple, neat, or painless. I also think this urge for a new story is the tourniquet for a less articulated desire: to behold the earth actually speaking through words again, more than through some shiny, new, never-considered thought. We won't get a story worth hearing until we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence.

River 3

River 4

"No matter how unique we think our own era, I believe that these old tales -- faerie tales, folktales, and myths -- contain much of the paradox we face in these storm-jagged times. And what's more, they have no distinct author, are not wiggled from the penned agenda of one brain-rattled individual, but have passed through the breath of countless number of oral storytellers.

River 5

"Second thought: The reason for the purchase of these tales is that the deepest of them contain not just -- as is widely reported -- the most succulent portions of the human imagination, but a moment when our innate capacity to consume (lovers, forests, oceans, animals, ideas) was drawn into the immense thinking of the earth itself, what aboriginal teachers call 'Wild Land Dreaming.'

River 6

"We met something mighty. We didn't just dream our carefully individuated thoughts: We. Got. Dreamt. We let go of the reins.

River 7

River 8

River 9

"Any old Gaelic storyteller would roll his eyes, stomp his boot, and vigourously jab a tobacco-browned finger toward the soil if there was a moment's question of a story's origin.

River 10

"In a time when the land and sea suffer by our very directive, could it not be that the stories we need contain not just a reflection on, but the dreaming of a sensual, powerful, reflective earth?

River 11

"It is an insult to archaic cultures to suggest that myth is a construct of humans shivering fearfully under a lightning storm or gazing at a copse and reasoning a supernatural narrative. To make such a suggestion implies a baseline of anxiety, not relationship. Or that anxiety is the primary relationship.

River 12

"It places full creative impetus on the human, not on the sensate energies that surround and move through them. It shuts down the notion of a dialogue worth happening; it shuts down that big old word animism.

River 13

"Maybe the ancient storyteller knew something we've forgotten."

River 14

Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Words: The passage above is by Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw (White Cloud Press, 2016), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from Secrets from the Center of the World by Joy Harjo of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation, the new U.S. Poet Laureate, with photographer Stephen Strom (University of Arizona Press, 1989). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: The Chagford stretch of the River Teign, as it runs from the heights of Dartmoor to the sea.

Related posts: Trailing stories (with Martin Shaw), The love of poets, Working with words, and The storyteller's art.


Something to do with love

Conversation by Sophie Ryder

From an interview with David Foster Wallace in The Contemporary Literature Review:

"I've gotten convinced that there's something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn't have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent. Talent's just an instrument. It's like having a pen that works instead of one that doesn't. I'm not saying I'm able to work consistently out of the premise, but it seems like the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art's heart's purpose, the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It's got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved....

"One of the things really great fiction writers do -- from Carver to Chekhov to Flannery O'Connor, or like the Tolstoy of 'The Death of Ivan Ilych' or the Pynchon of Gravity's Rainbow -- is 'give' the reader something. The reader walks away from the real art heavier than she came into it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can't be for your benefit; it's got to be for hers. What's poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out."

Which is precisely why this kind of work is necessary. Especially here in the field of fantasy literature and mythic arts.

Sitting by Sophie Ryder

Kneeling Hare by Sophie Ryder

Three drawings by Sophie Ryder

Girl Hugging Dog by Sophie Ryder

Lovers with dogs and train  and La famiglia by Sophie Ryder

Scupture by Sophie Ryder

The marvelous sculptures and drawings today are by English artist Sophie Ryder. Born in London in 1963, she was raised in England and the south of France, studied at the Royal Academy of Arts, and now lives and works in an enchanted hand-crafted farmhouse in the Cotswolds. Ryder's world "is one of mystical creatures, animals and hybrid beings made from sawdust, wet plaster, old machine parts and toys, weld joins and angle grinders, wire 'pancakes,' torn scraps of paper, charcoal sticks and acid baths."

Kneeling Lovers by Sophie Ryder

Hugging by Sophie Ryder

Her hare figures, she says, "started off as upright versions of the hare in full animal form, and now they have developed into half human and half hare. I needed a figure to go with the minotaur -- a human female figure with an animal head. The hare head seemed to work perfectly, the ears simulating a mane of hair. She feels right to me, as if she had always existed in myth and legend, like the minotaur."

Two drawings by Sophie Ryder

Dog drawings by Sophie Ryder

Ryder's dogs (whippets crossed with Italian greyhounds) also appear frequently in her work. "I have been breeding these dogs since 1999," she explains, "and since then have achieved the most perfect companions and models -- Elsie, Pedro, Luigi and Storm. Now we are a pack and they are with me twenty-four hours a day. We run, work and sleep together -- although they do have their own beds now! Living cheek-by-jowl with these dogs means that their form is somehow sitting just under my own skin. I can draw or sculpt them entirely from memory. They are my full-time companions so I am never lonely. The relationship between the Lady Hare and the dog is very close, just as is my bond with my own family of dogs."

To see more of Ryder's art, please visit her website, Instragram page, or seek out Jonathan Bennington's book Sophie Ryder (Lund Humphries, 2001). There's an interview with the artist here, lovely pictures of her farmhouse here, and more information on the folklore of hares and rabbits here.

Sophie Ryder at an exhibition of her work 2018

The quote above is from "A Conversation with David Foster Wallace" by Larry McCaffery (The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993). All rights to the art, video, and text above reserved by the artist, filmmaker, and the author's estate.

Related posts: Doing it for love and Not silence but many voices.