The following brief essay of mine originally appeared as Alchemy Series in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 34(1-2), 2015, pp. 94-97 as part of a section devoted to the arts and consciousness. There are a number of interesting contributions by artists there (see Special Topic: Arts and Consciousness).
Strong feeling tone suffuses my artwork, whether landscape or symbolic abstraction. Although my landscapes focus ostensibly on the outer world, they serve as the departure point from which to explore mood and quality of place through the medium of pastel (see Selected Pastels). The subject matter of my Alchemy Series (see Mixed Media) derives from the inner landscape. While a number of the images in the series may seem familiar or archetypal, most have in fact appeared to me over the years spontaneously and intuitively, originating in dreams or meditation. Only after a number of such experiences did I discover alchemy and Jung’s (1967/1983, 1967/1983, 1963/1989) extensive studies on the subject. I was deeply affected by Jung’s work: many of the alchemical images explored in his writing corresponded with the strange, and at times disturbing, images that I had encountered in my own psyche; and his approach to alchemy as metaphor for psychic transformation provided me with a conceptual framework in which to contain these experiences.
My interest in alchemy continued to grow over many years, and recently I decided to explore the subject in my artwork. Upon beginning the series, I knew only that I wanted to create visual images linked to broad archetypal themes running through the work of the medieval alchemists and later examined by Jung. My own process of exploration and experimentation was, as the alchemical tradition itself, nonlinear. I knew only that I felt immersed in some of the great alchemical themes: spirit in nature; microcosms; stages of differentiation and transformation in nature; and cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.
As I began to work, I imagined jewel-like and precious objects in the spirit of medieval icons and miniatures. For this I needed to teach myself new technical skills such as how to apply gold leaf to paper and then how to create a surface on the gold leaf that could receive other media such as pastel and gouache.
This exploration of materials and processes was lengthy and made me feel as though I were in my own alchemical laboratory. The resulting surfaces demanded that I work in an entirely new way and determined the outcomes in unexpected ways. I felt as if the materials themselves participated in equal partnership with my conscious intention, imparting to each image a mysterious quality suitable to the obscure and enigmatic nature of the alchemical texts.
There are twelve images in the Alchemy Series, rendered in various degrees of abstraction. Some of the images have been with me for years; others appeared as I contemplated certain alchemical ideas. The crow came first (Figure 1). I have had a longtime interest in and affinity for crows and they have appeared to me more than once in dreams. Additionally, in medieval alchemy the crow (or raven) and the crow’s head (caput corvi) are synonymous with the nigredo, the beginning of the alchemical opus that is characterized by confusion, darkness, and chaos. (Medieval alchemists did not distinguish psyche and matter; the nigredo described both the chemicals in the retort and state of mind of the adept.) Jung (1963/1989) saw the nigredo as a profound metaphorical description of the first stage of the individuation process, equivalent of the dark night of the soul (see p. 508).
The image of the feather (Figure 2) appeared as I pondered transcendence and airiness, suggesting to me the alchemical operation of separatio, where spirit and matter are temporarily separated. As with the other images, the particular feather that emerged developed its unique shape as I worked. I found I was pleased that it came out tattered, as if having been through a difficult journey.
Figure 2. “Alchemy 8”, Gold leaf, gouache, and pastel, 8 1⁄4 x 7 in.
This was, however, a later reflection, as were associations to the evolution of birds from earthbound creatures, and associations to the crow itself. Even now, as I continue to reflect upon each image in the series, unexpected connections, feelings, and poetic associations continue to emerge; I hope these images provide a similar resonance for the viewer as well.
Jung, C. G. (1983). Psychology and Alchemy. H. Read et al. (Series Eds.), e collected works of C.G. Jung (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) (Vol.12). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1953)
Jung, C. G. (1983). Alchemical Studies. H. Read et al. (Series Eds.), e collected works of C.G. Jung (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) (Vol.13). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1967)
Jung, C. G. (1989). Mysterium Coniunctionis. H. Read et al. (Series Eds.), e collected works of C.G. Jung (R.F.C. Hull, Trans.) (Vol. 14, 2nd ed., p. 508). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1963)