For every change in my life, I have stood on a threshold, momentarily paused in my forward action. Birth is the first threshold, and death is the last. In between are a thousand moments of transition where I stepped from into a new stage, times when I left an old habit behind, or moved beyond old ways of understanding, experienced new gowth, or achievement.
I wanted to do a series of photos inspired by these threshold emotions. I knew I wanted some dreamlike effects, so I chose a lens that would be variably sharp and blurry (Lensbaby Sweet 80 on Olympus OMDEM 5 mio 4/3rds).
I also wasn’t up for any self-portraiture, so as I often do, I turned to my doll collection to see who wanted to stand in for me: a very old Apache woman with a dark, dried apple face stepped forward, as did my small carving of Dzonoqua, the Wild Woman of the Woods, my muse and mythic persona.
On a day when I was very tired, after a long drive home after Spring Break, I took dolls and camera out into the back yard. I had some ideas, but both the camera effects and the dolls themselves took over the shoot. Here’s what happened.
Many artists notice that their best work emerges long after a visit or an experience. Two paintings above are a synthesis of my memories. I did not use a photo reference, preferring instead to see what colors, what shapes emerged just from remembering. I did not use just one scene, Junipers is a composite. The landscape shows a repeating pattern of dotted sagebrush, always a good element for a composition. I have many Juniper stories. I remember the Pariah Canyon country; a juniper loaded with opalescent pale blue berries fluoresced in the starlight. I see junipers as sacred trees and possibly sentient in some way.
Cliff Swallows continue to be a persistent image for many years. We call these long term pictures in our minds Source Imagery. I seem to have a thing for repeating dot patterns. I have seen these nests in Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. I am not sure why they hold such appeal for me. Cliff Swallows are free and beautiful birds. Their flight pattern is fascinating and they build nests from permanent materials, and high on the cliffs, far from predators. I resonate with that.
When I was a little girl, I was doll crazy. I dressed my dolls obsessively, and I was lucky enough to have an Aunt Mel who loved to make doll clothes for my girls.
I sat them around the picnic table and taught them; and I became a teacher.
I invited them to tea parties and cooked for them in my doll kitchen; and I became an avid home cook and dinner party hostess.
I read to them and became a reader.
I drew with them and became an artist.
What I am now, I learned by acting on The Doll Stage.
“Am I not right to feel as if I
must stay seated, as if I must wait
before The Doll Stage, or, rather,
gaze at it so intensely that at
last an Angel
has to come and make the stuffed skins startle into life?
Angel and Doll: A real play, finally.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke
My most beloved doll was a Betsy McCall doll. I took her on our family vacation to Glacier National Park. One morning, I got her all dressed for the day’s adventure over the Going to the Sun Highway and arranged her in a little tableau under a huge old oak tree.
In the kerfluffle of departure, I forgot her until we were high on the pass, and then the parents said it was too late to go back for her. I was heartbroken. My mother, now age 89, has so many times told me one of the few regrets of her well-lived life was that they didn’t go back for Betsy.
In my memory, Betsy is still there, waiting for me. I have returned to Montana three times over the span of the ensuing five decades, and each time I have gone to that tree to look for her. At age 65, there is some inner compulsion to return again and again to the scene of the crime; the crime of abandoning a loved one to the wilderness.
Why does a doll, an inanimate object, hold such a place of psychic charge, of emotional power on The Doll Stage of my soul? She was my first loss; she went ahead of me and created the Room of Inconsolable Grief that is now always there just off stage. Betsy lives there in the good company of my father and a black dog named Fianna.
Dolls occupy a liminal space between the rational and the irrational, between form and its shadow, between daylight and dream. The psychodramas of childhood doll play became the dark well of Mystery that I draw on daily in my art, in all the details of a passionate life lived for and in art.
I return to the theme of dolls again and again in my Mysterious Night Vision Field Journal (soon to be an online class. Stay tuned by subscribing to toucancreate.com, the website for our online art classes.). I find them deeply satisfying. The dolls speak to me of my many interior worlds; they act out on The Doll Stage that is the theatrical doorway to the old growth forest of my mind.
It turns out that I am the “Angel who startles the stuffed skins into life. Angel and Doll: A real play, finally.”
Are you a doll lover, too? Some people hate dolls and find them creepy–I will write about that next time. Is there something in your life that acts as dolls do for me, as intermediary objects between daylight and the place where you do art, that waking dream?
Please share your thoughts in the comment field below, or the one at the very top of the page–between the two “The Lost Doll” titles where it says “Leave a Comment.”–I’d love to hear from you!
Glass Butte, Eastern Oregon, September 2014. This painting is pretty good size, 15 x 23 painted on 300# Arches watercolor paper. I painted it plein air this last September 2014. I set up my supplies in the shade of a large juniper tree and just gave in to the sheer joy of being in high desert. If it is true that we each have a core landscape that brings us alive, then for me the high desert is it. I love junipers, pinion pines, sage brush; I have an affinity for skeletal rocks devoid of growth. I look for shapes, darks, lights, color and texture.
Glass Butte is essentially a mountain of black obsidian. Obsidian is glassy, sharp enough to puncture a car tire, and exquisitely beautiful with colors ranging from the darkest shiny black to reds and grays. This painting is for me because
it takes me back to a September afternoon of sunshine, serenity, no time.
–Cheryl Renee Long
For fine arts watercolors of nature and birds at affordable prices, go to cherylrlong.com
What is YOUR Core Landscape?
In this blog post, Cheryl talks about the concept of a “core landscape.” What do you think about the idea of a core landscape–do you have an interior space or exterior place that always calls you to your most essential self? What is it? Leave your insights and ideas in the comment box, and don’t forget to leave your e-mail in the box at the right if you want to keep track of the upcoming conversation on this fascinating topic. If it says “No Comments” below, just click there and add your and then the next person clicks on 1 Comment and so on!
March 3, 2008 Last night, I asked each student to write down a time of day (like twilight, dawn, high noon, etc.) on a scrap of paper and put them in a hat. We all drew one and the prompt was to express the mood of that hour in art while letting memories, dreams, and reflections related to that time of day come to us for writing about afterward.
I have a lovely student with emerald green hair. Last night, her ripped tee-shirt revealed the words “Lost Girl” tattooed across the top of her chest. Libby has multiple piercings including a bar across the top of her spine that looks painful, but in spite of her ritualistic accessories, her dominant facial expression is best described as gamine. She is big-hearted, sweet-natured, and artistic. She gave me the word “revolutionary,” which began the spirals.
However, as the “leader of the pack,” I am always aware of many souls focusing and creating at the same time. In a previous scribble drawing called “Holding It Close,” which I also did while drawing with my students, the object being held close and growing was the spiral of an unfurling frond. I see that same cosmic spiral symbol of the psyche repeated here is a source image of many hearts working together in one space, “rocked in the spiral arms of the Milky Way,” as Lisa Aschman’s song says.