Self Portrait with Totem to Protect Life and Ward off Cancer
Terra Cotta
20” H x 7” W x 5" D
About the Piece
Since December of 2009 I have been trying to recover from the ongoing trauma of cancer. I have experienced a lot of strain and shock to my body and life. In response, I am trying to carve out a space of safety for myself.

Although this sculpture draws from different cultural and religious sources, its foundation is the totem pole found in the North West region. My family is from Washington, so I grew up with this Native American iconography during the sacred time of childhood, when the experiences from that period carried more power for me than those of my adult years. If I had not been exposed to this art in my youth I don’t think it would be as meaningful to me now. Visiting the South West or the ocean as a child is very different than viewing them through mature eyes.

The boat at the top evokes the crescent moon traditionally found on goddesses’ headdresses, and Viking ships from my Scandinavian heritage. The three equal armed crosses speak to balance between heaven and earth and are figural stand-ins for my husband, son and myself. The boat and three figurative crosses allude to Max Beckman’s Departure. Like Beckman’s family who is transported by boat on a beautiful blue sea away from atrocities, may our family sail away from the atrocity of cancer.

The front of the totem speaks to fierce forces that ward off malevolence. Safely tucked in, I peek out from the belly of totem spirits that dispel death. The tradition of using grotesque beings to evict evil is found in countless traditions. The woman references India’s Kali and her powerful arms carry our boat to safety. The Tiki gods I saw growing up on the West Coast speaks to the secular that is imbued with the divine by a child’s mind. Snake-like arms offer protection as do her breasts in the shape of sharp beaked birds.

The back of the totem pictures regenerative spirits. The woman’s vine and leaf arms hold the promise of growth. Although my abdomen is swollen with ascities, hers is bursting with a swirling sun that heals with light. Her breasts herald songs of life. Flowing from her yoni is life giving water, or blood and riding this wave is a figure in the wheel of life, or swastika position.

The similarities between the sculpture’s front and back highlight the relationship between nurturing and aggression and how these two seemingly opposite states can grow out of, meld into, and support each other. In most cultures people are discouraged from expressing anger. Here, fury is claimed as a positive force that unites with life to offer protection. As I continue my battle with cancer, I claim the gifts of these two services.

This piece has been easier to sculpt compared to my realistic pieces because I have not had to consider correct body proportions including muscle and skeletal structure. Instead, I have focused on symbolic meaning, interesting shapes and composition. When making a realistic sculpture I am bound to predefined forms; I consult dozens of pictures of the skeleton, my face, and horses. Although I strive to make good sculptures rather than accurate ones, on a previous piece I had to redo my ear because it was too flat, then move it down a bit. Also, I muck around for hours on the bane of every artist: hands and feet. However, this piece has different birth parents: the elements and principles of art including form, rhythm, proportion, line. When I was in theatre I was aware of how my creativity was filtered through the text of the play, the director’s interpretation, and the give and take between other actors and myself. The process offered a great deal of creativity, but sculpting from only my mind, I am afforded more room to make my own decisions.

I use a blend of straight edged and curved lines to reinforce the balance between the masculine and feminine. Does the left side of the brain process straight lines while curved lines are understood by the right hemisphere? I am not attracted to works of art that are strictly linear; they are conformist, lacking imagination. Likewise, overly swirly lines feel sugary and lack backbone. Therefore, I have used linear lines on the front to reveal aggressive maternal protection; softer curves on the back evoke maternal nurturing.

My previous six pieces of art address my battle with cancer and image thirty four skeletons that represent death. Hopefully, I have finished that chapter and am ready to guide the ship of my soul to a new place that will not involve sculpting skeletons.

I feel a desperate passion for sculpting as if I am sculpting my reality, my future, my life. Perhaps it is wishful thinking, positive thinking, or prayer to think that what I sculpt will manifest, like the three fates who wove the future.

At times my art takes me away from others; I am fiercely driven and must immerse myself in my art. This need to make art runs in cycles that are powerful. When I want to sculpt the drive is overwhelming and I feel great satisfaction after and during sculpting. Gratefully, the pendulum swings back and forth and I want to be with people again.

I think about the golden mean when starting a new sculpture and I own golden mean calipers. I am not always adept at using them; still I try to be aware of different size relationships between the main forms of the piece.

In regard to copying, appropriation, or fair use, I am in humble gratitude to the different artistic traditions and styles that I draw upon. In many cultures art is passed from generation to generation without individual creativity or variation so that the stories and culture of the people can be handed down. Some examples of this are Egyptian art, Indian art, Catholic icons in which individual originality is discouraged in favor of passing on a codified set of symbols and a pantheon of divine beings. To justify my using this iconography I have no excuse except that I feel drawn to it. I am not copying, but I have tried to make sure that I have internalized the artistic forms and that they have been integrated with my own set of images, symbols, and content so the result is original.

I strive to make syncopated and complex rhythms as opposed to evenly spaced elements. When sculpting something like hair I find that I place the elements in a predictable and evenly spaced manner. Later I realize how boring it is and I go back to space the elements in varied rhythms. I wonder why I am drawn to such dull patterns as a default, and what comes to mind is the soothing predictability of these forms. Variation can be emotionally and intellectually challenging. I think I have so much unpredictability in my life, I gravitate towards the predictable.

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