Saturday, May 10, 2014

Shamanic Regalia Pulled From the Other Side: The Lightning Shaman in Progress

It all started with just a few lines on a page in my sketchbook, although the general idea has been gestating for many years.  This is the headdress-in-progress of what I'm calling the Lightning Shaman, although the energy it embodies goes far beyond electricity and has an outer space/stellar aspect as well.  Steve Roach's electronic-ambient music has provided much of the inspirational fuel, as well as holding the space in the studio, especially Tales From the Ultra Tribe, which he did with Byron Metcalf.
From this right-rear view in low light you can see that the basic shape is there and all the major elements are in place, but much embellishment and textural enhancement will be added from here.  This will be the headpiece for what will eventually be a complete outfit.
So, what is this all about?  Basically, it's being made for shamanic performance with regalia that I see as an evolution of shamanic costume from our beginnings to the present time.  Shamanism goes back at least 40,000 years and I'm sure it's far older; it's a kind of blanket term for a living, reciprocal relationship with the nonphysical dimensions.  My own path is best described as shamanic, and I have actually been initiated in the Andean Incan tradition, but this body of work is about moving into new territory and isn't part of any tradition.  This regalia (costume isn't quite the right word) is about creating a container for energy, and then using movement, ceremony, and dance as a way of engaging with that energy.  How, why, where that will play out...I have no idea.  
The bottom line is that I'm focusing on creating the container right now.  I'm purely going on trust and doing this in the moment without a plan, and allowing the process to unfold in its own way.  I know the rest will become more clear as I go forward.

When I began, this is all I had to go on: just a sketch that was barely there.  When I tried to fill in some details, they just wouldn't come; instead, I had to get to work finding and ordering supplies and building the piece itself.  Since then, it's had a powerful gravitational pull on my psyche.  It really has a life of its own.  12-hour days have been the norm when working on it.
I laid awake nights trying to figure out how to build the foundation before I started.  It was going to have to be lightweight, comfortable, stable, sturdy, and not too difficult to attach things to.  Black deerhide seemed a good choice, which I hand-stitched into a close-fitting cap with a buckled chinstrap to keep the headdress in place while in movement.  All by trial and error.  Sturdier elements of heavy cowhide were attached in front to provide additional framework.
The first sculptural elements I created were spikes cast in resin, molded from shed joshua tree leaves.  I seated hammered nickel wires down the center and added blue tint and glass glitter for flash.  Here they are curing in their silicone molds.  I love working in resin but what a sticky mess!
Here you see the finished spikes next to the original joshua tree leaves.  For those of you familiar with my work, you'll already see a radical departure from the norm.  Because this regalia is about electricity, technology and the stars, I'm bringing in a lot of things I don't usually work with.  To create a feeling of intense energy and flash, I'm using vivid blue-violet and shards of glitter, as well as other elements you'll see in a moment.  The spikes came out of the molds looking a little matte for the effect I wanted, so I brushed on a thin coat of clear resin.  After it cured, they looked just like glass. 
The spikes were the first elements I attached to the leather base.  I stitched them into the heavy leather and used a hot glue gun to reinforce and stabilize.  I had originally hoped to do something that was made entirely from lasting materials and avoid things like hot glue, but it was the only reasonable solution for strengthening.  And even though I've been using it liberally so far, I still begin by hand-stitching or wiring everything onto the base.  Once the spikes were on I began individually stitching synthetic dreads, cyberlox, plastic lacing and various fabric pieces onto the base.  So far there are dozens of separate elements.
A page from my sketchbook.  For the first time I have been keeping a careful log of my progress, mainly because I knew I would forget how I put the whole thing together!  It's also where I make notes of things to try, and various thoughts, insights and ideas. 
Another rear view in low light.  From the outset I knew that luminosity needed to be an important part of this piece.  A quick search online led me to fiber optic fabric and accessories.  I was blown away by how gorgeous it was, but it was also very expensive.  A section was worked into the back of the headdress as well as a spray of fiber optics, both in blue.  They're just breathtaking and hypnotic.  It's really fascinating to try to integrate high-tech materials with a primal, organic look. 
These elliptical panels were the most distinctive and critical part of the design, and the most challenging to execute.  I've been doing costume most of my life, but have always just flown by the seat of my pants and made it up as I've gone along.  Doing something like this is an endless sequence of problem-solving, within certain self-imposed constraints.  Staying true to the spirit and energy was the overarching criteria.  But a headdress also has to stay put, be comfortable, stable and not too heavy.  It has to be balanced, look good from every angle, and the moving parts have to look good in motion while not entangling with other elements.  I also want it to "read" well regardless of whether you're 30 feet or 6 inches away.  Many costumes tend to go for impact at a distance while not looking good up close.  I want the detail in this to pull you in and still be fascinating no matter how close you are. 
So I ended up created these layered panels by stretching fabric over a frame of nickel wire.  All of the wire was hammered on my desert rock anvil for texture and variation of line.  Each one was painted with acrylic paints using plenty of interference colors and glass bead gel to get a shimmering, luminous effect.  The surface is very painterly and abstract.  The three sculptural elements were made from polymer clay which was then coated with gel media and pure interference blue over a white ground.  I may do more with all of this...
Here's a closer look at the side.  The powerful orbital movement is being carried through with elliptical hoops of hammered and wrapped nickel wire.  I think there will be a few more of these before I'm done.  One of my favorite details so far is the addition of these electrical components, seen here wrapped onto the wires and around one of the cyberlox.  These are old Cold War-era salvage pieces from Los Alamos National Laboratory.  I found them in this terrific tech salvage place up there called The Black Hole, which, sadly, is now closed.  They are a nod to our rather ambivalent technological past, but are also a way of saying that this is a part of who we are and a part of how we have used this energy, for better or for worse.  It's a way of acknowledging that and owning it. 
So far when I've told people where they came from, it has tended to elicit a powerful reaction.  One woman literally jumped back two full feet and would not go any closer to it, even though I assured her they weren't radioactive. 
The side and rear views look best to me at the moment.  Here you can see the gorgeous blue-violet feathers, including a couple that have been almost completely stripped coming off the back--more for line and movement than anything else.  I love the feathers but need to be careful not to overuse them or it will look like I'm heading for Burning Man instead of a shamanic ceremony!  There's still a lot here that is raw and will be changed or covered in the finished version.  More feathers will conceal the exposed lines and stitching, for example.  I don't know if the beaded lightning bolt will stay since it tends to tangle very easily with the other parts.  Trial and error!
Here's another view of the full piece.  As I've worked on it I've tried to have each stage look coherent and integrated.  This has ensured that there's been a good, solid foundation to add to, and made it much easier to see where to take the next step. 
From this point I will be adding much more to the front, in particular a veil and/or beaded eye curtain, both ancient traditions in shamanic regalia.  Veiling the ordinary sight encourages the nonordinary sight to come more into play, while at the same time taking care that I can see where I am going and what is around me.  I also want to conceal my identity and let the pure energy flow through while I'm wearing the regalia.
So there you have it...that's all I have to show at this point.  I will be getting back to work on this soon and will do another post when there's something substantial to show.  This has been the most comprehensive project I've worked on and it's a bit overwhelming at times because it's a convergence of all of my skills.  Drafting and painting, costume design, jewelry making and metalworking, are being brought together with my experience as a stage performer and with tribal improv belly dance, and most importantly as a shaman who works with other dimensions, beings and energies. 
We'll see where this leads! 
And thanks for stopping in and reading my blog! 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Shooting Selfies in a Sandstorm, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wind

Yes, that's me, swathed in fashionable black and Tuareg silver, braving the 60mph gusts and near-whiteout conditions at White Sands in a pair of cheap swim goggles from Walmart.
It was another epic trip to White Sands National Monument.  Almost every spring for over 12 years my son, Max, and I have headed down to the breathtaking Tularosa Basin to spend a few days wandering the white dunes, by far the largest gypsum dune field on Earth. 
Usually I watch the weather like a hawk and time our trip for tranquil windless days...admittedly, a bit of a stretch for spring in New Mexico.  But not this year.  Instead, because we wanted to catch the last tour of the season to Lake Lucero, and because Max needed to schedule time off work well in advance, we were locked into the last weekend of April.  And as it turned out, they were predicting wind...lots of wind.  For several days in a row. 

We had arrived on Saturday, just as the wind was kicking up.  We got our room in Alamogordo and drove out to the sands to see how conditions were.  Gypsum sand and alkali dust were obscuring the horizon, and it quickly became obvious that if we wanted to preserve our eyesight we were going to have to find something with more coverage than sunglasses.  So we beat a hasty retreat, drove back to Alamogordo, took in a matinee of Captain America, and then went to Walmart (alas) to buy swim goggles, the only thing I could think of that might be readily available with good protection.  Then we headed back out to the dunes for the REAL wind.  This view is looking west towards the alkali flats and the San Andres mountains, which are completely obscured by flying sand and dust.   

Oh, and we also found that black rayon headscarf Max is wearing.  I prefer headscarves to hats, and Max decided he'd try it too, and since pretty much everything he'd brought to wear was black he looked like a pirate.  With a sock on his camera lens.  Let me tell you about the sock.  On the way down he was panicking a bit because he had brought his expensive camera and was worried about sand getting in the lens.  After thinking it over he decided to cut one of his socks in half and put it on his camera lens.  It worked, but it totally spoiled the fashion statement. 

On top of that, almost all my clothes were black too and we ended up looking very dramatic against the white gypsum sand.  I was wearing some of my old Tuareg silver to complete the effect...I figured it was lonely for the Sahara and would enjoy a good sandstorm. 
By the way, this was the very same day that the gamers and film crews were digging up the old ET video games at the Alamogordo landfill, if you heard about that.  Max, an avid gamer, tried in vain to explain to me exactly why that was important, but it was an ongoing source of amusement for us that weekend.  For example, the next morning I was reading the BBC World News on my phone over coffee and discovered that the ET story had made the headlines...that's right, the world news headlines.  A little later when we walked out of the hotel lobby to meet the Lake Lucero tour group, there was an actual DeLorean parked directly in front, with a lifesize ET riding shotgun and a flux capacitor sitting in the back seat.  I am not making this up. 
Onward to Lake Lucero...
And what a difference a day makes!  This is from the trail to the lake at an old ranch site, looking northwest towards the San Andres mountains.  The lake is only accessible by guided tour, since this part of the monument is shared by White Sands Missile Range.
The honey mesquite was in bloom.
Lake Lucero is the mother of the white sands.  Most of the time it is dry, but in very wet years it will fill with water.  You're looking at millions of shards of selenite crystals glinting in the sun.  Over millennia, the selenite (gypsum) washed down from the mountains and reformed as crystals in the alkaline mud of the lake bed.  As the lake dried, the soft crystals weathered out of the earth and gradually broke down into the grains of sand that form the white dunes to the northeast.  They're still doing it today.

Selenite crystals protruding from the lakebed.  These were only a few inches tall.
Heading back up the trail to the car.  You can see more selenite shards emerging from the ground at left.  What a beautiful day...but the winds were cranking up again.  Max wanted to revisit the Space Museum in Alamogordo after many years, so we spent the afternoon there and then went back to White Sands for...
...more wind.
It was actually an amazing experience to be out there for such a raw, elemental experience.  I found it to be surprisingly beautiful.  The wind obscured the horizon and enveloped us completely, absolutely wild and fierce...and yet, there is a gentleness and tranquility to White Sands that came through even in the midst of the sandstorm.
I love this image of Max under that huge sky.

Great.  Max, you look like a terrorist.  Except for the sock. 
The next morning, a perfect day!  Getting ready to set out on an all-day dune wander.  That's a great view of my Black Madonna tat, my portable shrine.  

This is what I dream of in the winter...a pure crystalline, blue-and-white world.  Glittering sand, blue sky, and silence.  Except for the jets from nearby Holloman AFB that fly overhead once in a while...which I actually love watching.  They're so fascinating, and Max always knows exactly what they are. 
A mysterious object near the edge of the dune field.  It turned out to be a huge chunk of Styrofoam, at least three feet to a side, transformed by wind and weathering into a work of art.  It must have blown in from the missile range to the west.  Max was fascinated. 
The afternoon light on the dunes.
At the end of the day we went to the eastern side of the dunes, where dunes are lower and full of beautiful plants.  This section is softer and gentler in feeling, and without wind there are countless wonderful little tracks in the sand from all sorts of creatures.  The shrub is a hoary rosemary mint.
The flowers of the hoary rosemary mint look like tiny lavender orchids.  It always amazes me how such exquisite and delicate plants can just shrug off the fierce sun and sandstorms.  Rosemary mint is so named because if you rub the leaves in the spring they smell like mint, and if you rub them in the fall they smell like rosemary.  It think it's my favorite plant of the dunes.
A last view of the afternoon.  Farewell to the dunes for another year...enough beef jerky and dried fruit.  Time for a margarita and some real food!
The sands gave us a surprising and sweet last farewell: an evening star, with a very happy solitary desert bee inside.  I've seen evening stars around Tucson but never knew they grew here.  They only open in the late afternoon and close at dusk. 
...That's it for White Sands! 
I'll be posting a blog on my shamanic project soon...