Regular readers as well as Facebook followers and friends will know that since returning to full-time painting, I’ve been trying to establish two main priorities where art is concerned: to develop new collections that build on the ideas that have always fascinated me, and to find new and effective ways of combining my artistic practice with my academic, as well as my teaching work. (For readers who are not aware: I have taught English as a foreign language for the past 14 years).
I see myself as having lived a double, sometimes triple life for so many years now (the artist, the researcher-writer, the teacher).
I’ve constantly sought ways of merging these three paths into one – not only because it would make my life a lot simpler, but also because these three activities enrich each other, and I am more and more excited to find that happening serendipitously in my own life.
I’m not a fan of residing permanently in the ivory tower, as past posts have made clear, but I do have a deep love of learning and am committed to fostering critical thinking and cultural awareness in my students, in such a way as can have direct relevance to real life, rather than purely theoretical propositions.
I am also deeply fortunate to work in an environment that welcomes creative approaches to learning, where I have been actively encouraged to develop novel ways of using the arts as a teaching tool – teaching through them, rather than only teaching about them.
This past year has been very fruitful where these endeavours have been concerned, leading to a number of new pathways. I will try to post separately about the teaching side in due course, although it does intertwine with the artistic side, and some of the inspiration for my new series actually came out of my teaching as well.
But I digress. As 2017 gets going, here’s a window into what’s happening in the studio:
The Stained by the Light collection 2017
It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.
There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.
~ Mary Oliver ~
The working title for my new collection is borrowed from a line by poet Mary Oliver, whom I discovered through an inspiring Brainpickings article that resonated deeply, since it sums up what happens when I go off to pick a fight with another angel, as I do without fail almost every night.
There are several strands of inspiration forming my new collection: the power of letters, words, and ancient scripts; the central notion of metamorphosis and initiation expressed through a literal interpretation of the collection title; the use of antique and emblematic symbolism inspired by Renaissance art, all heavily influenced by the subversive power of street art.
These ideas build on my earlier neosymbolist work, but are perhaps the most original thus far, in that my previous collection was visually original, but illustrated Peladan’s thoughts and teachings. This time around, it is as if I have now graduated from the training process of using symbolic expression to express “archetypal” ideas, and am focusing more on my own symbolist compositions. I am not unconscious of what is happening in the world either, and have always believed in art’s significance as a place of questioning, or even challenging, the status quo, as well as its significance in bearing witness.
So, in a time of uncertainty, confusion, and change with invisible ends, these compositions reflect precisely the ambivalence of that process during the times we are all experiencing, and the possibility of both success and failure embedded within it. Though some of these images may appear dark, that darkness is the subterranean place of gestation; the alchemical nigredo; the chaos before order of one kind or another ensues. The darkness is irrevocably stained by the light, and these images are the result.
The process of writing and the idea of sacred words and letters has always enchanted me. Whole worlds of meaning contained in the curve of a letter or a single point; talismans to invoke gods or banish demons; mantras to hold onto in times of need. My approach to art has nearly always been to “translate” such meanings into images, and as I have written before, most of my research endeavours have been geared towards developing a fuller understanding of how the respective (visual, written, mythic, symbolic, theurgic) languages work, in order to work with them myself more effectively.
So in this series of paintings, a nebulous human figure, or figures, form the base for each composition. Its position, posture, or action reflects the essence of the transformation that is at hand or under way. The images – or lettering -that is layered on top, is often a clear key to the meanings locked within. I often don’t know myself how the painting will end: I begin with the figure caught unawares. The shapes and contrasts that emerge will often guide me to the next stage – which is also based on a lot of research – no word or symbol is arbitrary, and each is used with full knowledge of its significance (as I like to joke, my paintings come with footnotes, and you can take the artist out of the academy, but not the academic out of this artist…)
Guerilla Angel (Oil on canvas, 50 x 100 cm).
This painting is the only one that is hors-serie, and may or may not make it into the final exhibition, as it is actually the springboard for a separate series. I’m including it because it sums up my view of what art is all about, and what art is for – it is for staining the darkness with the light in the most subversive way possible. My little guerilla angel has to hide her face and wings, and go scrambling into the dirtiest places to do her job, but here she is, gazing into the sewer behind the picture postcard (of my beloved Corfu), spraying her light into the cracks. And so the rats sprout dragonfly wings, and the cockroaches metamorphose into pearls…..
The Feathers of Penemue (Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm).
Penemue is the Watcher Angel who taught the skill of writing to mankind, for better or for worse. The oldest extant version of this particular verse from the Book of Enoch (Apocrypha) is written in the Ge’ez (ancient Ethiopic) script, and the name “Penemue” is reproduced on the red strip falling out of the inkpot to the right. Is writing the presence, or absence of memory? Is it all powerful, or is it a ruse? Is it futile, or vital? All this and more are explored here, while the graffiti and text, in a variety of other ancient scripts, reproduce an old prayer: that human endeavour might (must) heal the world.
Adam Kadmon (Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm).
In ancient versions of Scripture on the origins of mankind, there were two metaphysical versions of primordial man: the prelapsarian, collective Adam Kadmon, and the postlapsarian, individual Adam Ha-Rishon. Whether the apple of knowledge was a boon or a curse is a question left to the viewer – this is more of a meditation on how Adam too, is stained by the light, and what that may mean for the human condition.
Ecstasy – Shekinah (Oil on canvas, 50 x 50 cm).
The Shekinah (also spelled Shechinah) is a Hebrew word meaning “dwelling” and is understood to also mean the presence of God (often associated with the Divine Feminine). A similar concept in Orthodox Christianity is known as Parousia. In this painting, the initiate has been absorbed with his studies and prayer, until a moment of ecstasy arrives and the divine presence descends to possess him. This is reflected in the orange symbol which takes the form of a bird descending into matter – also reflecting the dove symbol of the Holy Spirit. The writing on the walls behind him, and on his body, includes the words “Paradise” and “Unity” in various scripts.
Learning the Language of the Birds 1, 2, and 3. (Oil on canvas, 3 paintings measuring 20 x 60 cm each).
The Language of the Birds refers to two things: an ancient Sufi poem entitled “Conference of the Birds” by Attar, and more generally in mythology and mysticism, a pure, symbolic language of the divine, based on wordplay and double entendres, that is used to communicate divine teachings to the initiated.
The ghostly figure from the first set of paintings is present in various stances, but the actual message of the painting is hidden within the actual choice of birds on each one – make no mistake, these birds are not simply decorative. I have drawn on ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and other symbolism for each selection, and each depicts a stage in the process of transformation.
This post is already getting too long – so for now I will simply list the titles – which hold clues – and the birds in each painting, and invite readers to do the rest. When the whole series is finished, I hope to be able to produce another catalogue that will include detailed guides to the symbolism in each painting.
LLB 1: “Becoming creators” (Blue jay, oriole, magpie)
LLB 2: “Fisher – King – fisher” (Kingfisher)
LLB 3: “Which way now?” (Cranes, Hoopoe)
At the time of writing, the remainder of this collection is under way, with 5 paintings at various stages of completion (since I work in oil, I use the drying time of each painting to begin the next, and then rotate through them to speed up production – I’m always working on at least 2-3 pieces at any one time, so the next batch will appear as a group as well).
The plan is to exhibit these in Greece and abroad in 2017 – and while it is too early to reveal details, I am glad to say that exciting arrangements are already under way!
Update on Icon Gallery
For the friends who are wondering what is happening with ICON Gallery – I am fortunate to have the time to develop these solo collections because the gallery is currently going from strength to strength. We currently represent over 30 local artists, and so while I am still producing work for ICON, we have an abundance of talent to display, and this allows me more time for personal projects. Also in 2017 we will be launching special collections devoted to myths and legends, so there will be far more diversity than before – to be announced in due course – and so some of these pieces may make an appearance there too once the exhibitions have been completed. Keep a close eye on the gallery website www.iconcraft.gr for updates!
In closing, I also want to thank several people for encouraging (or urging me) to develop these thoughts and actually set them down in a shareable form. They include my father Leon Chaitow, whose constant requests for more background to the symbolism led to my creation of the “Saving the Lives of Angels” catalogue complete with annotations for each painting in my 2016 collection; my amazingly creative friend Evdokia Thomopoulou, whose visceral and heartfelt writeup of her own creative process made me realize this post was overdue; and my inspirational friend and employer Patritsia Andrioti, who has given me the creative space to grow as a teacher (and love what was once just a job); and everyone who has supported and encouraged my creative endeavours thus far. More soon!