A Sacred Messenger
This body of images represents a coalescence of ideas that have informed earlier chapters of my work, in an effort to bring together personal symbolic content with a global message for ecology and conservation.
The choice of subject matter for these images comes from two sources. The first is my lifelong fascination with the study of comparative world mythology and spiritual traditions, and the idea of the “collective unconscious” espoused by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell: the idea that myths and legends across cultures are archetypes that represent universal human experiences, emotions, journeys and rites of passage. Mythology and the iconography of myth help us both to understand our own personal life journey, and to see ourselves as part of the whole interconnected organism of our planet.
The second source is my “hobby”: my secondary creative pursuit of origami. I had long considered bringing some of the aesthetic of origami into my “serious” artwork. As I began experimenting with these new visual ideas, I began to see how the traditional forms and motifs of origami and origami papers could be used to inform my visual message, and to connect personal and global content.
The iconic origami figure is the Japanese crane, and the crane is also an icon of world mythology. The crane is one of the most ancient species of bird on earth, as demonstrated by fossil records, and species of crane exist on every continent except South America. This huge, majestic bird has been used as a symbol and subject of myth and legend by cultures around the world, perhaps most famously those of Japan and China, as well as Korea, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, aboriginal Australia, Siberia, Germany, ancient Greece, the Zulu of southern Africa, the Crow, Shawnee, and Aztec of North America, to name only a few. Renowned for its longevity as well as its size and beauty, the crane is a symbol in many cultures of long life or even of immortality, said to carry the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Known also for its lifelong pair-bonding, it is a symbol of fidelity and good fortune in marriage, as well as wisdom and prosperity. It has been called “bird of heaven,” “bird of happiness,” and “bird of paradise.” Since the mid-Twentieth century, through association with the atomic bombing of Japan and the story of the young radiation victim Sadako Sasaki, the Japanese origami crane has become a worldwide symbol of hope and peace between nations.
I am struck, in studying these myths and legends surrounding the crane, by how frequently the bird has played the role of a messenger, or an intermediary, between physical and spiritual worlds: between heaven and earth, humans and gods, between the ordinary and the magical, between past, present and future. In my own life, the practice of art and interaction with the beauty of nature has always been paths to a spiritual connection with the earth and its beings. The crane (the paper crane and the real crane) very naturally has taken on the role of intermediary for me as well.
I have been studying the crane between two worlds: as a spiritual symbol and messenger, and as a living, breathing, animal, coexisting with humans in a fragile world. Migrating thousands of miles internationally between nesting and wintering grounds in scarce wetland habitats, ever more encroached upon by human developments, wars, and use of natural resources, the crane is a messenger for our planet. As with all species of animal and plant, the life and the very existence of the crane are intertwined with our own. Thirteen of fifteen species of crane are listed as endangered or gravely threatened. Human action has brought several species of cranes to the brink of extinction, and human action has saved them as well. On every continent where cranes live and reproduce, there are humans eager to clear and drain habitat for farmland and to shoot cranes in grain fields, and others working tirelessly to educate the public about the cranes’ role in the larger ecosystem and to preserve their nesting grounds. Measures taken by humans in the past sixty years to save habitat of the Japanese red-crowned crane, and to successfully breed the American whooping crane (of which fewer than twenty individuals were known to be living between 1938 and 1950), have been nothing short of heroic. Yet at this very moment, in only one example of threats to crane species worldwide, vital habitats of sandhill cranes and severely endangered whooping cranes along the Platte River are under threat in the debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
The crane is a symbol of hope, and there is great reason for hope for the crane; it has ignited the passion of many conservationists due to its iconic status as a species: its size and beauty, and its mythological history. The crane is only one species among all with whom we share this planet, but a species of its stature calls attention to the needs of others as well. International crane expert Carl-Albrecht Von Treuenfels calls the crane a “flagship species for diverse ecological communities”, an “indicator” species whose ability to thrive can demonstrate to us the biological health of an entire region.
I have chosen to call the crane a “sacred messenger” because of its contemporary role as intermediary between humans and our fragile planet. It takes on a new mythology as the symbol of the collective unconscious, and the collective consciousness: that our lives as we know them are interdependent with all species that the existence of our planet as we know it depends upon our humility as a species and our identity as part of the larger organism.
These works may be most accurately described as mixed media, but fundamentally they are monotypes. The images are conceived of in the techniques and aesthetics of printmaking, beginning with the monotype process. They are printed from a large Plexiglas plate and Mylar stencils with oil-based relief inks. While many images incorporate some direct drawing with Aquarel or Prismacolor and/or direct brushwork with printing inks, 80-90% of the imagery is printed. Collage elements are Japanese Chiyogami papers. Process for me is always inseparable from content. The conception of the image is informed by the inherent transparency of printmaking inks, varieties of mark-making specific to printmaking, the folded patterns of origami, and the traditional block-printed motifs of the Chiyogami papers, which are echoed in the larger images, as wind, water, wetland grasses, and flight patterns of the birds. In depicting the cranes and their habitat, I have borrowed equally from nature and from these Chiyogami motifs, mixing stylized and naturalistic representations. Likewise the vocabulary of colors and marks refers to earlier works of my own, both consciously and unconsciously, as I continue my own personal “mythological journey”.
Britton, Dorothy and Tsuneo Hayashida. The Japanese Crane: Bird of Happiness, Kodansha International, Tokyo/Harper and Row, New York, 1981.
Hughes, Janice. Cranes: A Natural History of a Bird in Crisis, Firefly Books, Buffalo, NY, 2008.
Von Treuenfels, Carl-Albrecht. The Magic of Cranes, Abrams, New York, 2006.