Susan Daniel-McElroy (SDM)
I have a real sense of the love of books from looking at your work and reading your website blog – who are the authors who have mostly inspired you in relation to your practice?
Kate Walters (KW)
There are so many of course but I will give you four examples of those authors I particularly love. Rainer Maria Rilke is a poet I have a deep resonance and engagement with because of the way he regards and describes nature. A complex and rich love of the natural world shows in the language he uses – I feel at home when I read Rilke. I particularly love Sonnets to Orpheus trans. M.D. Herter Norton.
David Hinton in his book Mountain Home – The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China writes about Chinese language, wilderness and poetry and it is only very recently that I have started to look at Chinese culture in general, their language and imagery. The relationship between my work and the authors I love is grounded and is very strong. Wisdom of the Ancient Seers (Mantras of the Rig Veda) by David Frawley has helped to extend and clarify my thinking around mystical awareness; whenever I turn to it I am inspired and humbled by the radical oneness I find in its hymns. Hélène Cixous is an author who leaves me speechless, the quality of the writing has that Proustian feel, a very intense and rich diet in terms of language and themes. For example here is a tiny sample of her thinking
“To be afraid is the condition of loving knowledge. Were I not dying of fear, I’d not know how to exist myself, I wouldn’t get the notices of existence, I wouldn’t record with delight the miniscule passage of a blue tit, its wing dipped in gold on the dusk. Were I not dying of sorrow I wouldn’t with nostalgia be present at the creation of the world, the squirrel nuptials this morning I wouldn’t care. Creatures are born to a backdrop of adieux.”
― Hélène Cixous
Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex I have found fascinating and provocative and has expanded my understanding, particularly the chapter on heavenly milk, which evoked a number of recent works which are included in this exhibition such as Animals become as Wings for Mary and I depend on the Tree to live both 2015.
I love your quote by Cixous – particularly the last sentence and I am reminded of something that Elaine Scary says in her book On Beauty:
“Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation. Beauty, according to its critics, causes us to gape and suspend all thought.”
Your examples seem particularly rich and fertile philosophical grounding for your works but I am also reminded of the importance of story telling too, can you speak a little about this element in your practice?
When I was doing my Shamanic training in Cornwall, the stories began to connect – as is the case with any archetypal stories – there are threads, creation myths. Shamanic teaching occurred almost spontaneously across the world and there are parallels and correlations between continents. And the stories work on the listener in subtle ways that we find hard to understand from our rational and modern perspective but the stories work in the subconscious, the dreaming mind if you like.
I know so little about this subject and I would like to hear more about your interest in shamanism and how it connects with your work and your life.
When I was a very young woman in my twenties, I had many intense dreams that were really profound and helped me a lot at difficult moments in my life. Also I experienced many dreams that anticipated certain events in my life. For example – the day before going to see an exhibition of the work of the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington – I dreamt of an enormous, white, delicate spherical form connected to a human and then suddenly, within the exhibition, I found myself standing in front of the painting I had dreamed about.
Around this time, I had a series of dreams that later I understood were initiation dreams. I didn’t realise at the time, but they provoked a change in my inner life – they shocked me and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Later when undergoing shamanic training, I realised that these were indeed initiation dreams. The Shaman is known as the wounded healer and the context of healing is always the self and the community. One of the central guiding principles of Shamanism is that everything (in the world) is alive and everything is connected. The best teaching comes through dreaming, because in that state there is no possibility of the ego distorting or interfering with the images and their meaning. It is the high-energy dreams which I take care to remember and reflect upon; this requires a level of discernment and patience in order to understand and learn from them.
Reading recently around the idea that everything in the world is alive and connected made me realise how ancient this thought is – particularly in Eastern religions. It is a riveting subject of mind-blowing proportions and the subject of current debate between scientists and philosophers. Wikipedia states that in philosophy, panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind or soul ( psyche) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived. A panpsychist sees themselves as a mind in a world of minds.
Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in eastern philosophies such as Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, Panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the middle years of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism. The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has once again made panpsychism a mainstream theory. (Wikipedia)
To show how current this subject is; in his book Panpsychism in the West, the first comprehensive study of the subject, the author David Skrbina argues for the importance of panpsychism – the theory that mind exists, in some form, in all living and non-living things – in consideration of the nature of consciousness and mind. Despite the recent advances in our knowledge of the brain and the increasing intricacy and sophistication of philosophical discussion, the nature of mind remains an enigma. Panpsychism, with its conception of mind as a general phenomenon of nature, uniquely links being and mind. Panpsychism can parallel almost every current theory of mind; it simply holds that, no matter how one conceives of mind, such mind applies to all things. In addition, panpsychism is one of the most ancient and enduring concepts of philosophy, beginning with its pre-historical forms, animism and polytheism. Its adherents in the West have included important thinkers from the very beginning of Greek philosophy through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the present. (MIT Press)
I am struck by what is such an unusual and interesting context for the gestation of your work and your approach is so very different from mainstream practice. In a way you are working against the grain of the mainstream but your subject is so ancient and seems always to have been there and your imagery has such a strong presence. I am prompted to ask are your images conscious or unconsciously generated – do they come from a dream state? I can also see that there is a great deal of ritual and repetition in the painting/drawings…
They don’t actually come from a dream state, but my dreams do provide a commentary about the images I am making. They confirm the work for me and help me to understand its authenticity. There is a conversation that occurs between myself and the medium I am using when making work. I have to be fully awake and highly attuned to even the tiniest mark. I keep a soft gaze and I allow tiny anticipatory traces to come into my eyes. If they come into my mind then I try to control them and I don’t want that to happen. If I try to pin them down too quickly then the imagery often doesn’t work. There is often an element of waiting with the work before I am ready to see them. I aim for a sense of communion with all creatures to come through my works.
I see a profound sense of joy, wonder and tenderness in many of your images – touching, circular, as if all characters are portrayed within an embrace….which very much connects with what you have been saying about where the images have their origins and the relationship with your purpose as a Shaman.
I agree with all of those comments, it is all true there is often a sense of roundness, flowing, and no breaks.. …
I am also curious to ask you if you have read a great deal about the history of fairy tales?
I have read a Jungian interpretation of fairy tales by Marie Louise von Franz. She was a great champion of Jung’s work and she looks at analysis and interpretation and I found it a revelation. Darkness and Evil in Fairy Tales is a particular book that I found fascinating. A paragraph about how the image of the horse represents the authentic voice of the cells of the human body. The horse is one of the purest symbolic forms of the carrying instinctual nature, that energy by which the conscious ego is supported without our noticing it. It is what makes the flow of life, directs our attention onto things, and influences our action through unconscious motivation. The image presents complete authenticity – a kind of purity and truth in relation to the land and the elements of nature.
I also think how one walks through the world; the endless small adjustments of balance, is affected by the shifting weights of beautiful things. It makes me understand that there is a constant state of becoming in the world, everything is always moving. I wonder can you also explain to us a little more about the sense of the uncanny which is often present in your images?
I think I do have a foot in two different worlds, to me its normal because I feel I have a dual purpose in life and I suppose a lot of the works are other worldly – I know that some people find my work frightening which I feel is more to do with their interpretation.
So many of your images are to do with the heroic female figure and I am interested to know how your works have evolved in relation to Feminism?
I am a feminist because I believe in equality but I am not interested in aggression or women being like men but I am interested in cooperation, honoring and respect. Before the present era, about 3-4000 years ago, archeological finds and indigenous people’s stories suggest a society which was motivated more by the need for cooperation and protection , rather than aggression and competition. As a mother and an artist I feel things deeply in my body and I think women may find it easier to locate a certain numinous spark within their flesh/bodies. There is a tendency in Western culture to become caught up in analysis which can lead to distortion, and a loss of far-seeing vision/synthesis and a higher perspective. It is my view and my experience that in order to see from a higher perspective you have to get in touch with your higher conscious awareness through a deep sense of body-mind, and heart-mind when walking in wilderness and mountains I feel a this connection so strongly, it helps me to reach my higher inner self described so well by Jung.
In the work Animals become as wings for Mary – which took me a long time to complete – animal forms appeared, and as I worked the drips and other marks suggested multiple breasts. The face of Mary appeared in stages. Just over a year ago I visited Spoleto and in a Domenican church there I found a chapel dedicated to Santa Maddelena, full of beautiful frescoes depicting her life. I found it very moving to see her celebrated and painted with such joy and beauty. These images came back to my awareness as I was making this work. The horse-serpent image evolved very slowly and I think represents the divine carrying force, and as the serpent, the rainbow serpent is suggested, which according to indigenous peoples, moves throughout the earth, vivifying and nourishing it. Part of my shamanic work involved dancing the serpent dance, which is a healing dance and very powerful. It connects you with profound earth energies. My friend Penny Florence saw the work when it was being made, and she immediately saw the animal forms as wings, which I had not seen before. Her comments helped me to see the full meaning of the work.
To speak a little of your process, I am struck by the many night images or other worldly states emerging out of a kind of dense and almost visceral blackness in your paintings, could you speak a little about your choice of what is essentially, monochrome?
For me there is no straight black because there are underlying layers of colour which is built up beneath the black. I am aiming for an evocative atmosphere, never a sense of violence or dread but instead a sense of becoming… It can be night or deep space but it is to do with the sense of where things come from – the womb or birthing place – it is to do with that place of positive and ritual generation that connects with the feminine. To do with having a place where you allow darkness, not evil, a kind of void that generates – David Hinton describes this state of being as generative absence – that is rich in potential and rich in things I don’t understand and that is what I love. I want to come to a place of understanding and make work that is about being and seeing in a holistic way.
I am keen to know if any of your images are self-portraits or are they all archaic or archetypal figures?
I think there is a variety; some are archaic figures, some archetypal, some religious, and I am more recently aware of a sense of self in some of the works. There are definitely very strong autobiographical elements to do with me being taught things by others. For example, I learned to be a mother from my horse Phaedra and learned to breast feed because my horse showed me how to be gentle and attentive by allowing me to experience her mothering of her four foals. Phaedra was very fair, very loyal, very strict in a way, but amazingly, was profoundly trusting and gentle with me and allowed me to go between her and her foals and this is highly unusual in such circumstances. She was very unique in her trust of me; it is entirely possible that she thought of me as part of her family.
That seems so tender and exceptional to learn about. Something I am also keen to know but have not yet asked – what are your artistic influences, I am sure there are many but could you tell me about a few of them?
(KW) Italian early Renaissance altarpieces are my most profound influence visually and emotionally – it’s something to do with the intensity of gaze you can find there.
I also love Joseph Beuys drawings particularly their delicacy and their allusions to things, Marlene Dumas is important to me too although I am not so keen on her subject matter and her use of photographs, there are big negatives for me but I do think she has something to teach me. Egon Schiele is a great favourite, Louise Bourgoise I have seen a lot of her work which I love, but have a sense of frustration that she was going around and around picking at the same wound.
I know what you mean. Often artists find a language – their unique symbol or allegorical form if you like and endlessly repeat it because they are so enmeshed in revealing their interiority (when their work is self-revelatory of course). If an artist finds a way of making an image rich in potency why not keep on using it?
Finally, to finish this interview, I would like to go on to talk about your process; I am very interested in the almost visceral depth created by your painting technique – the resulting surface suggesting so much – can you tell me about technical processes you use?
The technique is something I have invented – I get good quality paper or board, canvas or linen which I prepare with size and gesso that I make myself from the old-fashioned recipe. I prepare my chosen surface with several coats so that it has a soft velvety surface, almost like skin. It means that you can use the watercolour and lift it off at any time during its drying process (and when it is dry). It’s quite time consuming to lift off elements so that hidden things are revealed. I use gum Arabic to extend the watercolour it is one of the constituent parts of watercolour anyway and it gives it body and shine. I use very good quality watercolour with dense and true pigments and this can be exploited by being extended.
Susan Daniel-McElroy was Director of Tate St Ives 2000-2007
Currently lives and works in Cornwall as an independent arts professional