My father told me that, as a child, I used to stomp fiercely down every stone step between the lions of the Art Institute of Chicago if we left before I saw all of my favorite artworks. When I was eighteen, and remembered this story, I wondered what quality in those artworks had inspired such a passionate devotion in my seven-year-old heart. The beloved pieces were of immense variety — Rembrandt’s woman standing in an open half-door, her hands resting on the wooden edge of the lower panel; archaic terra-cotta tomb guardian figures and horses from Japan; a painting by Georgia O’Keefe of a pelvic bone suspended against the bluest sky; a carved wooden mask from Africa; Bonticou’s spiraling stitched canvas construction encircling a mysterious opening; a particular embroidered Chinese screen; Monet’s water-lilies, Van Gogh’s red and golden room. As the image of each entered my eyes, my entire being was engaged. I felt my knees bend; my eyes filled with tears. It was more than viewing; it seemed that a vivid relationship formed between the artworks and me. I beheld them with all my senses, they responded by revealing ever more intricate layers of their Beauty. These artworks were, in a sense, alive and sentient, and I received immeasurable gifts from each of them. I imagined that they had emerged from the heart-fire of the artists — that the artworks had been formed from the flame of creative passion and contained some of that brightness burning within them. The flame within the artworks ignited an answering flame within me.
In 1969, I left school to begin a quest. Remembering the fire within the artworks I so loved, I longed to find the secret, the way in which I could transmit the creative spark from within my own heart into the artwork I created; to bring it to life, so it could touch the hearts of others. I was no longer satisfied with the elegant drawings for which I was receiving such high praise from my teachers–my quest for fire precluded any complacency.
There was no map for this journey. In my musings, a set of guidelines began to emerge.
I decided to work in the media referred to as “crafts” — clay, fibre, wood, metal. I chose them because I knew nothing about them, and imagined that my lack of technical facility would open me to unknown possibilities, to a fresh experience of the creative process. I thought about how these materials have been shaped by human hands for thousands of years into objects of Beauty and usefulness and deep meaning, and I imagined that perhaps therefore the materials themselves held a connection to the roots of human creative experience. I also mused that if my quest failed, at least I might end up with a useful pot or two.
Another guideline had to do with the selection of image and color. I always had a second, private sketchbook, filled with images of my visionary and dream-life. The images in this secret sketchbook were not meant for others to see. They were personal in a way that did not communicate with others. I decided to let my artworks flow from the same secret source as the images in my private sketchbook. As I wove, I selected color by symbolic and mythic meaning, rather than by the system of color theory with which I was so familiar.
My third guideline was the decision to limit my experience of altered, meditative, visionary states of consciousness to times when my hands were immersed in art materials.
I spun yarn, dyed it with plants, threaded my loom and wove tapestries of my dreams. I carved wood, making objects of power. The artworks emerging were lovely to me. They received praise from teachers and fellow students. Yet, I was aware that they emerged as a souvenir of sacred experience, rather than a direct evocation.
One day, I attended a workshop by Paulus Berenson. He spoke of things that had been mentioned by no other art teacher or text. He radiated creative integrity, which seemed to arise from his spiritual center.
I was too shy to fully participate in the workshop, but was profoundly encouraged by the integrity Paulus modeled. I was aware, for the first time, that I was not alone in my quest, and that the grail I was seeking existed.
After the workshop, I sat on a hillside, holding a ball of clay, cold, damp, and heavy in my hands. I thrust my thumb into the clay, and began to turn it in my palm. As my thumb entered the clay, my entire being was swept into the cool darkness within the ball of clay. I was immobilized as I felt the dense clay pressing against my body, its earthy scent filling my pores. Ever so slowly, I began to move my arms upward, struggling against the enclosing heaviness. Calling on all of my strength, I slowly opened a small space in which to turn slightly, raising my arms again, repeating my movement in a circle. As the earth opened around me, I felt an exhilaration, which grew into a dance of joy, as I spun in the ever-widening sphere.
I opened my eyes to behold a graceful pot, cradled in hands that until this moment had made only slumping forms in clay. I had fulfilled my yearlong quest. All of my artworks would emerge from the earthen vessel I held in my hands.
My pot lives within me now, warmed by the fire of my spirit, and it is always full.
Rose Wognum Frances