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Hidden Meanings, Sacred Objects, & Making Magic

I took a class my freshman year of college, called Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics, and for a variety of reasons, it has remained one of the classes I remember most fondly. We talked about what art was (and wasn't), and the many ways people have argued about it over the years. We talked about the qualities that made art objects different from other kinds of objects. The difference between handmade and machine-made. The difference between my paintings, and a million-dollar Picasso painting.

All interesting stuff.

And of the many ideas we explored, what continues to occupy my thoughts ten years later is the tendency of human beings to assign deep meaning to certain things, and not others.

As artists, we are often using our mediums to create meaning. To reflect on, express, and share experiences of the world in a meaningful way. We create narratives. We imbue our paints and words and thread and Elmer's glue with our feelings and thoughts.

And this isn't new. Humans all around the world, for thousands of years have used art to create meaning- from cave paintings to the Sistine Chapel. I'm fascinated by our ability to use art to create sacred objects. What makes these objects more important than any others? What makes a temple holy? A sculpture sacred? A manuscript divine?

All excellent questions.

There are lots of reasons we create art. We do it to relax. We enjoy practicing and improving our skill. We take pleasure in experimenting with techniques. We celebrate through our art. We take inspiration from within and from without.

Our art need not mean more than the simple pleasure we experience when we create it or look at it.

Our art can also mean much, much more than what the viewer can observe.

For me, Art is not the object.

It is not the painting

It is not the poem.

It is not the finished piece.

For me, Art is the MAGIC that happens, when we transform mundane materials (paint, paper, clay, words, sounds) into works of deep meaning and value.

It's not just oil and pigment and canvas. It's a gosh-darn Picasso for goodness sakes-and that means something to us!

I dunno if I'm getting a little too metaphysical, but all I want to say, is that tremendous personal satisfaction can be gleaned from imbuing our artworks with meaning an intention.

That might come across as some kind of mystical, esoteric practice, but I assure you, we do this all the time. We bake birthday cakes with love. We pour our hearts into love letters. We write wedding vows and craft birthday cards hoping that just a small piece of ourselves ends up in the finished product.

And if we take the time to pour our souls into our everyday art practice, we can make this kind of magic happen in our studio as well.

So how do we do it? How do we elevate our doodles and paintings and crochet projects to sacred items? Well, we do it the same way we humans make any other kind of sacred object: We just decide to.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a work that honors a person or place. The very act of doing so imbues your work with appreciation and reverence.

  • Create layers of meaning: write messages, hopes, & dreams, into the underpaintings of your artworks. Let them peek through- or cover them up entirely. (Art historians have actually x-rayed famous paintings and have discovered entirely different paintings underneath. I mean, how neat!)

I painted lyrics to a song underneath this painting. And nobody knows, except me- and now you.

  • Hide secrets in your artwork. Use symbolism that only you know. Hide objects in the margins that have meaning to you. Use a special stitch your grandmother taught you. Create a secret code. It's thrilling.

  • Write poems, affirmations, mantras, or prayers on the backs of your canvases, on the insides/undersides of your pottery, or on the backsides of fabric layers.

This heart-in-hand I made is already a symbol associated with service to others.- but then I filled it with dried herbs I associate with comfort and healing, representing my hopes of providing those things to others. And unless to squish it and sniff, you probably would never guess.

  • Use your art practice as a mediation time. Some mediums lend themselves to this easily: say your mantra with every stitch in your quilt, your cross-stitch, your crochet piece. Some people pray with rosaries, some people chant with drums, and some of us say our mantras as we throw clay.

I made this cuff with fabric scraps I saved from team-building games and exercises I did in the Peace Corps. I used old, braided friendship bracelets on the borders. I took beads from a broken piece of jewelry someone made for me when I was going through a tough time. Each of my materials had meaning to me, and so made the finished piece even more meaningful to me.

  • Honor your inspiration by incorporating elements from it into your work: Victorians used to make braided jewelry from locks of a lover's hair. Perhaps that weirds you out, but there are other ways to work with this idea. If you're inspired by the landscape, incorporate seawater, sand, rainwater, soil, or other natural elements into your work. Use leaves, flowers, shells or feathers. If you're inspired by childhood memories, incorporate mementos and ephemera from your family outings.

Maybe no one will see them in the finished work. Maybe no one will know. But you will. And that's special.

I hope these ideas inspire you to go forth and make-super-cool stuff that means a lot to you. Maybe you'll think about the things you make in a new way. Or maybe you'll just have something new to wonder about when you look at other's artwork.

Perhaps you already use a few tricks for steeping meaning into your artwork. A specially-curated playlist you listen to while you work? A luck sweater you always wear? Share your tricks in the comments! I'd love to hear all about them!

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