member of:Observers of the Interdependence of Domestic Objects and Their Influence on Everyday Life

This group has been active for a long time and has already made some remarkable assertions which render life simpler from the practical point of view. For example, I move a pot of green color five centimeters to the right, I push in the thumbtack beside the comb and if Mr. A (another adherent like me) at this moment puts his volume about bee-keeping beside a pattern for cutting out vests, I am sure to meet on the sidewalk of the avenida Madero a woman who intrigues me and whose origin and address I never could have known...
--Remedios Varo

(Slideshow is of Artwork by Remedios Varo)
By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.
--Franz Kafka

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Experimentation and the Spirit

This month, I decided to experiment with some of the techniques utilized by the artists whose work I've been studying here, and I tried two different techniques that were pretty much a total departure from the drawings I usually do (I usually use some combination of inks and oil pastels). I tried a black-ink drawing, and I tried acrylic paints--which I've tried once or twice before, but always as a way of"coloring in," whereas this time I learned that you can thin the paint and put layer upon layer, which allows you to shade and creates a sense of depth.

A meeting with Legba and Simbi

In the tradition of Voodoo, there is one God, but he is so distant from his creation that the faithful don't pray to him. They pray instead to the loa, who are somewhat like the saints of Christianity in that they serve as intermediaries between God and humanity. When slaves were taken to the Americas from Africa, they brought with them their belief systems and rituals, songs and dances; they were forbidden, however, their religious practices. So they learned to disguise them. The loa took the faces of Christian saints who showed in their iconography or stories some correspondence to their own stories and symbols in a process called syncretization (which has happened at nearly every convergence of differing religious traditions as subjugated peoples attempt to protect their own traditions while outwardly seeming to accept those of the dominant social or political group). For example, St. Peter, the man at the pearly gates who decides if you can enter or not, was syncretized with Papa Legba, the loa of the crossroads and the Sun. Legba is the first loa you call to, the first one you welcome into your ceremony: "Open the road for not let any evil spirits bar my path." Legba is the loa not just of the roads pointing north, south, east, and west, but also the road from the heavens to the underworld, and that road's intersection with the horizontal plane of our daily existence. As the master of the crossroads, he speaks all languages: "In Haiti, he is the great elocution, the voice of God, as it were" (Wikipedia). You call to him first because there can be no communication between a mortal and any loa without Legba. You call to him first because he opens the gates.

Simbi is also a crossroads loa, his symbol being a snake in a field of crosses, and he "straddles the waters above and the waters below the earth, which are understood either as the heavenly and the abysmal waters, or as the sweet and salt waters" (117 Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren). He is the patron of rains (bringing food and life) and the patron of magicians (including medicinal "magic"). Rigaud (Secrets of Voodoo) refers to him as a sort of Mercury or Hermes, who bears the soul to all places and carries messages to and from Legba (the Sun).

Here, the tree represents the crossroads, the trunk reaching up and down, the roots spreading out and down, the branches spreading out and up. Out of the roots a snake forms, and from his breath of flames comes a train to transport you to whatever level you wish to explore and communicate with. Two spirits rise out of the train to meet you...

St. Murgen, La Sirene

St. Murgen, la Sirene

Guided by a siren song and propelled by the force of her spirit, with an eye fixed firmly on the future, the woman is already disappearing, becoming other, as she navigates towards new shores. Though I made the underlying sketch too light for the layering process of paints and therefore actually had to paint with no sketch at all, which left me totally out of control as to what the end picture was, I really liked the way the colors change with each layer. There's a kind of depth to paints that feels an awful lot like magic. I've read in a lot of the artists' descriptions that they use charcoal for their sketches on the canvas, and though I'm not sure I'll do anything that dark, I will try being a little more forceful with the drawing stage next time.
Note: "La Sirene" is the aquatic form of Erzulie, the Madonna and protector of women and children, (and also both a virgin and married to three men), in the Voodoo Pantheon. After painting this, I went looking around for stories about sirens. Borges details various descriptions and myths surrounding Sirens in his Libro de los Seres Imaginarios (Book of Imaginary Beings), for example:
"La Odisea refiere que las sirenas atraían y perdían a los navegantes y que Ulises, para oír su canto y no perecer, tapó con cera los oídos de los remeros y ordenó que lo sujetaran al mástil. Para tentarlo, las sirenas le ofrecieron el conocimiento de todas las cosas del mundo." ("The Odyssey tells that the Sirens attract and shipwreck seamen, and that Ulysses, in order to hear their song and yet remain alive, plugged the ears of his oarsmen with wax and had himself lashed to the mast. The Sirens, tempting him, promised him knowledge of all the things of this
world"). But then later, Borges says, "En el siglo vi, una sirena fue capturada y bautizada en el Norte de Gales, y figuró como una santa en ciertos almanaques antiguos, bajo el nombre de Murgen." ("In the sixth century, a Siren was caught and baptized in northern Wales and in certain old calendars took her place as a saint under the name Murgen.")

I couldn't just let that pass. So I went looking for other references, and FOUND SOME, for example, on the Catholic Answers Forum:

And then there's St. Murgen of Inver Ollarba, who garners a mention in the seventeenth-century Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland. Her legend is possibly the most bizarre in hagiography, surpassing even St. Christopher of the Dog's Head, St. James the Cut to Pieces or St. George of Cappadocia with his four separate martyrdoms. Murgen began life as a girl named Liban, whose background is lost in a muddle of folkloric confusion. She seems to have been either of mortal or of Daoine Sidhe parentage, and swept into the sea in the year 90 with her dog, who was transformed into an otter. At some point during her first year underwater, she was turned into a merrow or muirruhgach, the Gaelic word for siren or mermaid. She spent three hundred years with the tail of a salmon, swimming the Irish sea with her pet otter.

Around 390 (or possibly 558), a ship destined for Rome took her in from the seas, having heard her angelic singing. The cleric Beoc, a vicar of Bishop St. Comgall of Bangor, was on board, and she pleaded him to take her ashore at Inver Ollarba up the coast. On his return from Rome, after reporting to Pope Gregory of Comgall's deeds in office, he fulfilled his promise and Liban was taken ashore in a boat half-filled with water by another fellow, Beorn.

Instantly, a dispute started over who had authority over her with Beoc, Beorn and St. Comgall all pressing their case. It fell to Beoc after they placed her in a tank of water on a chariot and the chariot stopped in front of Beoc's parish church. There, she was given the choice of being baptized, after which she would die immediately and go to heaven, or living another three hundred years--the number she had spent as a mermaid--and then going on to paradise. She chose the first, was baptized by St. Comgall with the name of Murgen, or, "sea-born," and died in the odor of sanctity. Of course, this was all in the days before canonizations became the exclusive and infallible province of Rome. That being said, the Teo-da-Beoc, or, church of Beoc, was the site of many miracles wrought in her name, and paintings of this singular saint still remain there to this day.

Apparently, somewhere around the Middle Ages, the distinctions between sirens and mermaids got a little muddled.

I'm really wandering around here, because this doesn't relate to the painting at all, but I also found a poem by Margaret Atwood called "The Siren Song" that I found hysterical. I'll leave you with that:

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:

the song that forces men
to leap overboard in squadrons
even though they see beached skulls

the song nobody knows
because anyone who had heard it
is dead, and the others can’t remember.
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird
I don’t enjoy it here
squatting on this island
looking picturesque and mythical
with these two feathery maniacs,
I don’t enjoy singing
this trio, fatal and valuable.

I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.


  1. Awesome, your black ink drawing is phenomenal!
    I enjoyed reading the post and Margaret Atwood's poem is really hilarious:) Thank you Zoe, you really induce joy:)

  2. vesna, you're a saint! thank you for your kindness. i'm glad you enjoyed the poem. :D

  3. These new paintings are awesome. The ink drawing is so delicately finished - I love the shape you've given to the spirits' mouths and the flames out of the snake's (I almost saw a dragon there...) mouth in the form of birds. The acrylic paints are so beautiful, the waves of the sea with that depth that make us sense a rocking motion... And of course, Atwood, Borges and mythology make the perfect mix!! My admiration to you, dear Zoe.

  4. he really is more of a dragon, isn't he? a snake with aspirations :P i'm glad you liked them, thank you sylvia!