February 2017 welcomed two new feathers to my easel, Snowy Owl and Raven. I love the white on white of the owl feather, it almost looks like an abstract. The raven is so stark by contrast and the two complement each other beautifully. I just had these photographed and prints are now available!
Wolf is my anxiety spirit guide.
I only learned that wolf is my anxiety spirit guide this past year, but the story of this painting—and why it was so important for me to create it—goes back about 6 years to my first full-fledged-I-think-I'm-dying panic attack. Okay, so this post is going to get a little more personal than I've gone in the past and a lot more vulnerable. Brene Brown would be so proud! But in order to really tell the story of Dyani, I need to take you on a little journey called Childhood Trauma and How it Keeps Fucking with You Your Whole Life. By Julia Eva Bacon. Foreword by Pema Chodron.
Picture it... 2009, Lassen Volcanic National Park, the wilds of northern California. I had volunteered through my non-profit employer to serve on a 2-week environmental conservation crew. We would camp under the stars by night, tackle invasive species by day, and never feel completely clean again. It was hard work and it was amazing. Driving to our work site at over 8,000 feet with the most breathtaking landscape stretching out to the horizon, listening to Beck's Guero over and over again because it was the only CD in the work van, taking turns cooking meals, and in general being completely enshrouded by nature. It was just a little outside everyone's comfort zone, and that was part of the experience. About 10 days in, we had a work site that required us to hike 3 miles into backcountry (no water/pit toilets/roads/civilization) for 3 nights. Our crew leader gave us a primer on how to poop in the woods. This would prove to be invaluable information about 12 hours later. We arrived at our site and set up camp in pristine wilderness. I'm talking 'moon reflecting off mountain lake with Sandhill cranes calling in the night' wilderness. And yet I could feel something unsettled in me, something on edge, like sensing an earthquake coming, unsettling. [Sidenote: as someone who has suffered from IBS since age 3, this is NOT the feeling you want in a place where the closest toilet is a 3 mile hike through untouched forest]. Back to our story!
It didn't fully hit me until I was completely zipped into my sleeping bag, next to 2 other crew mates. I describe this feeling as a white, hot lazer of pure energy that starts at the top of your head and zips down to your toes. "Oh, shit," I said out loud, "I think I'm sick." At this time I had no idea what anxiety even felt like. I'd never even thought of myself as someone who could be susceptible to it. I'm, like, one of the chillest people you'll ever meet, man. Honestly, I thought I had contracted giardia. My insides were exploding, my entire body was shaking, and it was starting to rain in the near freezing temps of the mountains. I won't regale you with all the gory details except to say that a very, very strong neural pathway was formed in my brain that night, one that shouted "being way out in nature with no toilets in a 20 mile radius means you're probably going to die!" It's amazing how loud and how often that message repeats itself once anxiety has firmly rooted itself in your body.
It took about another year to discover that what I had experienced that night—and many subsequent nights while traveling, camping, and even just being in situations I felt I couldn't easily escape from—was actually a panic attack. For the next 5+ years, I avoided being out in nature for any length of time, avoided traveling, and eventually avoided social situations that brought up similar thoughts that might possibly lead to anxiety. I became terrified of it.
Last year, after suffering yet another panic attack during my honeymoon (the first major traveling I'd done in years) I decided I needed to get to the heart of this. I started reading books like Lisa Wimberger's Neurosculpting. Which led me to a local therapist who specializes in EMDR and hypnotherapy. I wasn't entirely new to therapy—I'd done some extensive work to unpack the childhood traumas that caused my IBS, left me with PTSD, and a lifelong pursuit of all things spiritually healing. Much to my surprise, I found out that being hypnotized is exactly like going on a Shamanic journey. Except that instead of a drum, you have a therapist saying lots of nice things to you in a quiet voice. Honestly, at the beginning I started to have anxiety. "Shit. I'm stuck here on this old couch getting hypnotized and I can't leave because that would be weird and rude, and what if..." I tried to focus on my therapist's voice... "You're standing at the top of a spiral staircase. Each step you take you go deeper and deeper.... "Oh god, don't laugh, she just quoted the Office Space hypnotist! What if she has a heart attack and I'm stuck in a hypnotic state forever!!" But then it started to feel familiar... you always start a Shamanic journey by visualizing an opening or some vehicle that will take you up or down. I almost always go down—that's where you find animal spirit guides. Immediately the scene in my mind changed and I was back in my old happy place: the forest. Which I had abandoned about 6 years ago. I looked down the staircase, and saw Wolf at the bottom.
I spent the next 15 minutes in a dreamlike state, totally awake, just voluntarily...altered. I barely heard the therapists voice. I was in deep conversation with my guide. She didn't so much talk to me, but showed me symbolic things from my own past, times I was deeply connected to spirit, times before my anxiety when I felt whole. She reminded me that I was in a safe place. I emerged from that experience not completely magically healed but with this enormous sense of protection and insight. A door had been opened.
From that time on, I've had a much different perspective on my experiences with anxiety and when it does come, Wolf comes with it. I still don't leave the house without my fail-safes in pill form, I'm not going to lie. But Shamans understood the power of our connection with nature and the wild beings around us, and their ability to heal. I paint my guides because they are a part of my human nature, and because their stories are my stories.
Soon after that powerful Wolf encounter, I knew I needed to create the painting you see above. I researched wolf conservation centers and by the craziest luck or serendipity or Universal alignment, I found The Wolf Mountain Nature Center in Smyrna, NY, just a 4 hour drive from home, and they were offering a photography session for artists that weekend. I'm not kidding. I booked my spot, booked a hotel, and my gracious husband and I set out on a weekend adventure to meet the wolves. We spent a chilly morning and afternoon on the expansive grounds, photographing about 6 wolves from a viewing platform. The amazing caretakers at the center hide raw chicken in the woods, and the wolves have a lot of fun finding it and chowing down while the humans snap photos in total awe of their presence. The photo that became the reference for the painting was of a black-phase Alaskan Tundra wolf named Dyani. It was no coincidence that she was the spitting image of my anxiety guide.
Just wanted to share a quick update that I'm SUPER PSYCHED ABOUT!
ArtistsNetwork.com selected me as their January 2017 Artist of the Month and published this very sweet article I wrote. I am beyond honored. Thanks to Associate Editor Michael Woodson and all the folks over at Artists Network for supporting and sharing my work!
A while back, the idea struck me to create a series of paintings entirely focused on feathers. Of course, as with any bolt of inspiration, I quickly realized it might be a huge challenge to find reference to paint from! I use my own photography whenever possible in my work, but how to capture images when obtaining your subject matter is completely illegal? While I did find some good resources online, I knew that wouldn't really carry my idea through. And then I remembered my favorite local wildlife sanctuary... the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (VINS).
I've written about my visits to VINS in the past, including my inspiration and reference for the painting "Soul Mates." Last year, I got engaged right in front of those very same ravens! So I called VINS and said, "Remember that couple that you helped set up a secret engagement party for last year? I'm the girl that said 'yes.'" I told them about the project I had in mind and wondered if they kept any of the molted feathers from their birds that I could come photograph. I had no idea the treasure trove that awaited me.
I met with a few interns later that week and spent hours photographing the most exquisite array of feathers from every species I could have hoped for. Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Red Tail Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, Barn Owl, Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl... it went on and on.
I poured through hundred of feathers from these animals which I consider extraordinarily magical, selecting the best of the bunch and photographing them on the table with my Canon PowerShot.
It really just goes to show you what can happen if you just kind of... ask for what you need! I am, by all definitions, an introvert, so reaching out randomly to strangers has never been in my wheelhouse. But as I grow older and wiser, I've learned that stepping just slightly outside of my comfort zone is when the most amazing things happen.
Red Tail Hawk Spirit is the first of a larger series of feather paintings that I can't wait to continue. And now, for your message from Spirit Guide, Red Tail Hawk:
Red Tail Hawk is the visionary, bringing the ability to soar towards our true Soul Purpose. It is a messenger signaling that now is the time to move towards that purpose, bringing new inspiration and opening new doorways. An inhabitant of the sky realm, Red Tail Hawk is seen as having a direct link to Spirit, able to usher in profound creative energies to one's life. If Red Tail Hawk is your totem, or has shown up in a significant way, it may be time to spread your wings, connect with the higher self, and soar.
No, I don't think of these guys as "trash pandas." (Although I did once have a tug-of-war with a raccoon on a beach in Costa Rica who was trying to steal my lunch. We both kind of freaked out and let go at the same time, so it was a tie). Raccoons get a bad rep for what amounts to being incredibly smart and adaptable to a changing habitat—one that replaces their once abundant fields and forests with shopping malls and sub-divisions.
If you feel connected to raccoon or have an unusual close encounter, spirit may be sending you a particular message. You may need to use the resources you have available to you in a new or creative way in order to get through a challenge you may be facing. Raccoon is extremely curious and will always use his skills of dexterity to find new ways to face his challenges.
With animal spirit guides, there are always two sides to the coin—a physical trait metaphor, and a spiritual metaphor. The spiritual piece of magic that raccoon embodies is his disguise. This can be applied in a positive or negative way. You may be hiding your true self from your co-workers, loved ones... maybe even from yourself. Alternatively, you may need to put a mask on in order to transform into a new version of yourself that you're not quite ready to share with the world. Maybe the most powerful use of raccoon medicine, then, is to use your powers of adaptability, curiosity and resourcefulness to bring about the transformation you most wish for in your life.
"One look in my eyes and you can see the truth of who I am." That is the first line in Steven D. Farmer's book, Power Animals, How to Connect with Your Animal Spirit Guide, under Wolf.
Farmer goes on to explain the role of Wolf as our guide: one of teacher and guardian, especially in matters of family and community. The wolf lives within a complex social structure and uses highly developed methods of communicating with its kin. Through this communication, wolf creates a space of harmony and balance within her pack. Wolf medicine therefore teaches us to direct our lives with this same discipline of harmony. Only then, through the spirit of cooperation, can we accomplish our common goals.
Wolf also embodies heightened senses of eyesight, smell and hearing. If you connect strongly to Wolf, use this guidance when you are having a hard time discerning the truth from others. Look with the inner eye, and listen with the heart. Wolf is a fearsome protector and will help you navigate when you turn down a false path, including helping us detect those who would lead us astray. Meditate on finding your true path, by listening to your true inner voice, and you will find Wolf loyally walking that path at your side.
I sometimes have the opportunity to create commissioned works, so when a coworker asked if there was any chance I might have time to paint a memorial for her beloved departed “Amazing Grace,” I accepted the honor.
When animals first come into our lives, we want to care for them, offer them a safe and happy life, and enjoy the sweet and crazy sides of their fuzzy companionship. We get out of bed early for walks, (or in my case, get smacked with furry knife hands at 6am for softies) we spend money on the good food so they can stay healthy and come home to find they’ve had a nice meal of the garbage, endure never-ending deposits of hair on the couch and our black jeans, make special arrangements anytime we travel, and scoop the poop on a regular basis... And when they leave us, their absence is almost unbearable.
I don’t need to list the reasons why we love them so much. I couldn’t find adequate words if I tried. This week my cat Jasper woke me up early with afore-mentioned knife-hands every day, and also stole my wrapped croissant from the kitchen counter (which is SO off limits) drug it to the living room carpet, nommed through the bag and ate a quarter of it. He is currently blocking my computer screen with his body because he can. However, my phone gallery is full of this:
I hope this commissioned memorial helps ease the pain of such an incomparable loss. At the very least, I hope it helps my friend remember the happiness her little Amazing Grace brought to her. To all the naughty, adorable, stinky, snuggling, food stealing, dream running, poop rolling, Edward Scissorhands furbabies out there: I hope you live forever.
When I first saw the ravens together, holding on to each other’s beaks as the thunderstorm rolled in, I thought, they love each other. This comforting, protecting, my happiness in relation to yours—my soul being mirrored by yours—this is love, plain and simple. There is no effort. This isn’t one asking the other, it is just given, just accepted. When I choose a subject and start a painting, it’s often unclear what is drawing me to that image. I have to trust that I’m being guided toward it for a reason, and be okay with not knowing the answer until it’s finished. Ravens have so much myth and legend surrounding them that I had enough to go on initially to be excited about painting them, but it was that first thought that crossed my mind as I watched them that ended up being the heart and soul of this piece: They really love each other.
Everything I’ve read about the mysticism of Raven talks about its association with three main things:
- Magic (having access to the spiritual realm)
- Shape-shifting (using that access to bring profound positive changes to ones life), and
- The creative force (allowing the death of one aspect or era of life to manifest the birth of another).
All three of these have played a major role in my life during this paintings’ creation. The journey from the first brush stroke to the last was much longer than I had anticipated, and carried a storm of change along with it. I use the word storm not as a destructive force, but more the way I feel about actual thunderstorms. You can see and feel it coming. It’s exciting and frightening at the same time. Everything becomes eerily calm… and then shit gets real. All you can do is stand there in amazement watching the chaos unfold in the safest place you can find. And then afterwards, the world is magical and brand new again. It smells different, feels different, looks different, and even though there is debris and broken branches on the ground, there is also a profound sense of renewal and beauty.
I had no idea when I first started working on the Ravens in the beginning of last fall how much that thunderstorm would become a metaphor for my life. I had no idea that immense love would be waiting for me at the end of it—love that does not need to ask, but is simply given and accepted by a mirrored soul. I recognized this person as my soul mate for much longer than I realized that was what I had been painting. The fact that this piece was started a few months before aforementioned love entered my life is the magical, shape-shifting, creative force of the Universe at its ultimate best. In the ongoing spirit of describing things in numerical lists, this could be explained from a few different points of view:
- I can totally forsee the future and my paintings are magic oracles.
- There are Universal forces at work, which we can call spirit guides if we are so inclined, around us at all times that orchestrate events in our lives at specific times if we are open to the lessons of chaos and the hope of beauty lying on the other side.
The Ravens are partners in this life and the next. They are guardians of each other’s souls and have been for lifetimes. They’ll weather every storm together, navigating the magical, shape-shifting, creative forces that make a life well lived, and loved.
Just a quick update on the state of my art studio. Canvas: blank. Brushes: dry. Personal goals of finishing a painting a month: *hangs head in shame*….
I would say the word “indecisive” sums up the past few months of my creative life. It’s like I opened the flood gates to the animal spirit world and they all want in, all at once! This leads me to the importance of focus. No, I’m not talking camera lenses (although I am increasingly aware of my need to purchase a camera that has fancy parts like f-stops.). Clearly, cameras are not part of my professional background, but part of growing as an artist involves non-stop learning. The real focus I need requires ME to put a priority on my studio time above all else. Sometimes I need to go within to find that focus, and sometimes I have to go out into the world to get it.
Yesterday I visited the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (VINS) in Quechee, VT. http://www.vinsweb.org. VINS is an educational wildlife center that caters to raptors and other birds that have been injured and can no longer return to the wild. It is awe-inspiring to be in such close proximity to these animals. I have heard other animal painters say that to really understand an animal and be able to capture their essence, it’s vital to go spend some time with them. I can now attest to this truth. Despite my average point-and-shoot camera, I did manage a few stellar shots I’m excited to share…
Which leads me to today’s focus… another mysterious winged creature will make its way onto my canvas this weekend: RAVEN! I spent the most time with a pair of Ravens, a male and female. As I was watching them, a thunderstorm was rolling in, and they were both visibly nervous. They were “quorking” and literally holding beaks. They stayed in this posture for minutes at a time. It was so clearly a comforting gesture. Much different than the foreboding qualities that are usually associated with these birds. If there is anything I want to accomplish in my paintings, it is creating a connection that breaks through our cultural labels of animals, and lets us see them as they really are. Beautiful and magical and ordinary, like us.
The seer is the observer–-one who sees, who prophesizes or possesses intuitive powers. Owl has long been associated with wisdom due to its clear sightedness–-the ability to see even in the dark. This amazing power of perception makes Owl an extremely powerful guide, and its messages can be equally powerful metaphors. To be able to see the truth behind all of our misconceptions–-about ourselves, others, and reality itself–-is to become truly awake. Owl medicine is said to bring the ability to see what is really going on around you. This can be some hard medicine to swallow! To completely follow Owl’s guidance, you may need to lay aside some deeply held ideas that you believe form the foundation of your identity. You may need to let go of things that once protected, and now hinder. And, you may need to strip away your concepts of the limits of what you think you can achieve in this lifetime. Speaking as someone who is very deep into the task of all of these things, it is hard, and sometimes uncomfortable work. Our guides are our support system, always there to be called upon for encouragement, for answers, to help us discover our true (higher) selves–-eyes wide open.
This weekend I took a needed break from my exhaustive search for Owl reference photos for my next painting to join a local naturalist as she led an expedition on animal tracking. My main mission at the start was: Stay warm. However much I love the animals, I am not covered in fur, so I layered four shirts under my down puffer coat, long underwear (locally known as double-bagging) under my jeans, and pulled my snow pants over the whole shebang. It reminded me yet again of how brilliantly prepared animals are to be able to withstand what we consider brutal conditions without even the aid of a Smartwool sock. My feet were freezing.
There’s about a foot of snow covering the rural woods of Vermont right now, and the morning had brought a nice dusting of fresh snow that would make our tracking efforts more challenging. Within the first few minutes along the main trail, we encountered a set of tracks worthy of following off-trail. Maybe fox, maybe coyote! We started through the trees, careful not to obliterate the animal tracks with our clumsy snow shoes, and soon found more tracks criss-crossing the original. This time a deer and a snowshoe hare. The snowshoe hare had the most distinctive track I’ve seen. Two smaller ovals in line, as the front paws come down, then two huge back feet spring past the front feet and push off for the next giant leap.
As we continued to follow our original tracks, our leader, Patti, called out to us that she was almost certain our coyote or fox was actually a bobcat! I have never seen a bobcat in the wild, so finding tracks this close to home was shocking. Our bobcat led us through amazing terrain, up steep inclines that challenges some of our snowshoeing skills, and a few of the group even decided to go back. For the rest of us, Patti called, “Hang in there a little longer — this bobcat is taking us somewhere amazing.”
We arrived at the edge of a rocky cliff rising above us with beautiful cascading icicles and small caves at the base of the rocks. Our bobcat prints faded here, but we were rewarded with a gorgeous winter landscape and our next animal track encounter — porcupines! Patti also located its burrow, and invited us all to stick our noses into the opening and breath in the distinctive aroma of porcupine. It smelled like a musty barn.
Our 2-hour trek had come to an end and we headed back down the mountainside to the main trail, following more snowshoe hare tracks as we went. Back on the main trail we encountered the bobcat tracks again, as it continued in the opposite direction we’d tracked it. Patti mentioned she’d likely come back tomorrow and follow it in that direction. I had a pang of jealousy, thinking about going back to my day job in front of my computer tomorrow. But I knew I’d spend my evening following Owl on my own path to find out what surprising places our animal guides can lead us.
Over the past few weeks, as the holiday preparations, travel, and festivities have devoured my free non-working time, I’ve been trying to decide on my next animal spirit guide painting. Earlier in the season, when the Canada Geese were making their southward journey, I felt really connected to their message of family. That image is still very strong, but the timing for me seemed off, especially now, watching the snow fall steadily in the final days of 2012.
Owl had been on my mind. I have owls gracing my work computer desktop, acknowledging me at the start of the day, reminding. This is how I know which animal is trying to come through—it’s subtle, but once you notice, it’s everywhere. I needed no further confirmation than the experience I had on Christmas Day. Sitting in my car in the driveway, waiting for loved ones to grab forgotten wrapped presents on the way to the family gathering, I saw a huge swooping shape from the edge of my periphery. An enormous (I suppose they are all enormous) gray barred owl landed on a low branch just 10 feet from the car. It was nearing dusk, just late enough for owl to be on the prowl, but a sighting this close is a gift.
I quietly stepped out of the car and just watched it for at least 5 minutes. Now and then turning its great feathered head to look at me, unconcerned. After a while, it took off for another branch farther away, displaying an amazing wingspan. This was my Christmas gift from the animals. Owl, you are next on the easel!
We begin our journey with Fox, my closest animal guide for the past few years. I’ve named him Shapeshifter in keeping with Native American spiritual traditions and also, personal significance! Instead of cleaning and organizing my new digs in Putney, I focused very intently on this little creature, setting a deadline for myself of Sept. 15 in order to submit it to a Nature Conservancy contest. (Art contest deadlines are great motivators.)
According to Animal Speak by Ted Andrews, (my go-to guide following interesting dreams or encounters with animals) Fox speaks to the feminine power of shapeshifting—notably what is growing or shapeshifting in your world. In the case of the red fox, its powers are mostly associated with sexual energy, signifying the freeing of the creative life force. I find this particularly interesting, since for the first time in my life, I’m considering motherhood. Also worth mentioning, anytime in my life I’ve had a dream that I was pregnant signaled a new painting about to be born, or at least some new creative endeavor. Fox seems to come to me at a time in my life when I need all the help and support I can get in that area. From the book, “…the fox tail is a symbol of directly guiding the feminine creative forces. It is especially beneficial to the fox when making abrupt or sharp turns. If the focus stays on the creative energies, any sharp turns in the individual’s life will be accomplished with ease.” Thank you, Fox.
As I try to reconnect with my soul purpose (painting) and translating that into meaningful, inspiring, and heart-centered images, I have discovered a new focus. One that uses another of my great loves in this lifetime—animals—as a language to translate the spirit into the physical world. My more well-know subject matter has typically been in the human realm—languid female beauties reading quietly or gazing at some distant fixating object. They allowed me to hone my skills in realism and create atmospheric settings that one longed to exist within. The disconnect I started to feel about these subjects in the last year or so had to do with the meaning… specifically what they meant to me. And I realized they often meant a great deal more to others than to myself.
I was becoming more and more drawn to the magic of shamanism and Native American spirituality in my life—something that had always been a part of my personal life narrative—through friends, books, music, and dreams, and one day it just clicked. I was sitting in a conference hall, attending a renowned conference on graphic design (my day job) when the speaker asked us to write down on a piece of paper what we were passionate about. Something told me that I should have been writing “typography” or “mastering the newest features of Adobe InDesign,” but the word I wrote was “painting.” Then the speaker asked us to write down something we loved. I wrote “animals.” The reason behind the speaker’s instructions were a fuzzy echo as I stared at those two words on my paper. So simple. There it was.
I had already been batting around the idea of painting an animal, but now it was out in the real world for good. Suddenly everything I had been so drawn to for so long made immediate sense. I started sketching it out, right there in the conference hall, my first creation—Fox. Fox had been visiting me, in the spirit world that is, for almost three years. First in dreams, then everywhere I looked—on clothing, bookmarks, jewelry—sometimes in person as I drove my rural commute to work in the morning. Other animals had made their presence known along the way, but fox was unrelenting. He needed my attention.
The excitement I felt at this realization is hard to put to words. However, the practical side of me that worries that I won’t have the energy to actually make these ideas a reality spoke up loud and clear. I knew I had to set a strong intention. So the idea of a 12-month calendar of spirit animal guides came to light. I am nothing if not goal-oriented! Something that keeps my graphic design career on the upswing, but also lights that ever-loving fire under my ass to get in front of the easel and stop dreaming of when I’ll have time to paint.
So, here we go. This blog is foremost to help me to continue to reclaim my soul purpose, to stop listening to the inner critic who says I don’t have time or creative energy after a full work day, and to reconnect to those beautiful spirits who show up in the form of animals, who remind us of who we really are.