In this Stay at Home Ostara episode of the Missing Witches podacst, Risa sits down with Artist and Witch Jennifer Hamilton to talk about visual art, chanting, altar spaces, Hilma Af Klint and more, plus Risa gives some tips on altar creation! Stick around to the end to hear two of our listeners, Ed and Celeste, read their Witch Poetry!! The featured image for this episode is a panel from Jennifer’s work “Altar To The Directions.”
tw: violence, reference to sexual assault
8 spells for the first month of living thru it by Ed Hirtzel
After “Unholy Missions” by Bob Kaufman. Produced in response to a prompt by Victoria Sepulveda and Anna Morrison. This prompt was created in response to an assignment given by Tongo Eisen-Martin. I humbly thank all 4 of these poets for their part in co-creating this work, which would not exist without them.
I want to define a monogrammed windbreaker as justification for an asskicking
I want 80 angels – the wheels & eyes kind – to guide my sisters home from the club
I want to redact the White House
I want to eat the sun whole
I want to spit an ear out on concrete
I want the bar it happened in razed to ash
I want an abortion clinic – just abortion, only abortion, weaponized with abortion – built on the ashes of that bar
I want to punch him again
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT by Jennifer Hamilton
RD: Happy Ostara Missing Witches! It feel so strange to be recording this episode….I was really excited to talk all of our listeners and our beautiful guest today, Jennifer Hamilton, the painter about art and altars and celebrations and spring and it’s warm and we had to reschedule a couple times and now we’re in the middle of a global pandemic talking about art and altars and looking at each other from kind of as far as we could possibly be across this room and a little wild eyed…
JH: safe distance!
RD: Yeah! How are you feeling, Jennifer.
JH: I’m ok. I mean, I’m really lucky. I’m a lucky person and I have a whole infrastructure for the apocalypse already prepared and I was planning to be up at my house on the top of a mountain anyway, I just wasn’t expecting the entire rest of the world to be living this reclusive lifestyle at the same time. So, yeah, I’m worried ofr other people. I’m worried for people in refugee camps, I’m worried for people who are underserved already but for myself, I’m prepared for this and I feel lucky for that.
RD: Yeah, same. I had a strange feeling about it yesterday. Our kid is…she refuses to use the stroller now. She’s hit this age where she just wants to walk everywhere by herself which means you have to slow down. You have to go way, way, way slower.
JH: it’s ok, there’s nothing to do!
RD: There’s nothing to do! There’s nowhere to go! We’re lucky we’re in the woods. Yeah.
JH: there’s no FOMO right now. No one is missing out. There’s nothing to do.
RD: Yeah it’s kind of a good feeling. Do you feel like it’s affecting how you think about your painting?
JH: Well, I’m working on a painting right now because I think I’m still having a show coming up. There’s probably not going to be a vernissage but I’ve been getting ready to have a show where there’s just going to be one painting so I’m still making that painting. Most of my paintings involve drawing a lot of little tiny lines so I’m still drawing my tiny lines and listening to the radio and just putting my energy into creating still but I’m also mobilizing myself. you know, like, I’m into gardening. I’m not a very good gardener but part of getting prepared, I think, is planting seeds and watering them, so I’m doing that. But in terms of making big art or wanting to do a huge new project, I don’t feel that. And for a while I’ve kind of getting ready for a long project that is very quiet and small, which, it’s an illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelation.
JH: So that’s what I’ve been gearing up to do, that’s what I’ve been writing grant proposals to do next, and just in my own way, that’s what I’ve been getting prepared for. So I guess I’ll keep getting ready for that, I’ll keep doing that. But I’m not going to make big paintings right now. I’m not going to try to do anything enormous. I’m just going to hold still with everything I’ve already got. You know, I’ve got a studio at the Belgo downtown and I was going to move it up to Chabanel and I decided not to do that and that was before this whole outbreak, it was a decision just based on logistics but I feel like I need to stay small, stay as small as possible right now.
RD: Yeah, that makes sense too. What’s the… it feels like there’s a coming inward right now. Normally I would expect this like exploding or opening outward of this season, that we would be feeling out flourishing, feeling our flower, but it’s really more of a protective little seed. We’re doing some seed gathering, seed protecting.
JH: Well up in the woods here it’s not like flourishing springtime yet. I mean, at my house, there’s still more that six feet of snow. So like the place where I’m planting my seeds, I snowshoe over there from my house. It doesn’t have running water yet, it has electricity so the building is warm. It has a nice south facing window so I have my pots all set up so they can receive sunlight but I’m literally watering them with icicles that I collect in a bucket, so there’s no springtime as you would imagine it yet, it’s really wintery still. So I think it makes sense to be doing our quiet organizational, cleaning, seed planting work in a dark place rather than in an expanding bright place just yet.
RD: Right. Can you talk about, before we talk about the Book of Revelation cause I’m so interested in that project and you’ve mentioned it to me before when you sent me an audioclip of your Drone Coven, you were reading from the Book of Revelation I think in that piece…
JH: Yes exactly and in fact I’m using the process that I’m going to be using for my drawings when I recorded that. So that was with a group, we were meeting every Thursday and it was in kind of a ritual setting at a friend’s place and we were making long, sustained music together, which was really an interesting process for us personally, I don’t know if it sounds good but we had fun doing it and that’s all off for different reasons now but when I was doing that I was doing the process of Lexio Divina, that’s a mystical practice from the 11th Century where you go through, you take a little piece of text from the Bible, that’s what they were using. I’ve done it with other texts as well but it was meant to be done with the Bible when they did it back then. So, you read over one little section of the text and then your mind gets caught on a word usually when you’re reading and then you just start looping that word like it’s a mantra and then you use that repetitive trance-like state to enter into a dialogue with the divine, and then you go into silence. So those are the four steps. So that process is what I did in the audio version, when we did that piece and it ended up on the word ‘which’ which in the text was w-h-i-c-h but it sounded to me like witch, like what we are and that’s the process that I want to use for the drawings so I’ve basically laid out a map the same way you would do a bible study of every single chapter of the Book of Revelation and how many lines are in it and I’ll do one line per day, and that will take 22 months I think because there’s 22 chapters. I’m not going to do one every single day, I’ll just make sure that if there’s 10 in a chapter then I’ll spread that out over the month but I’ll do the practice of Lexio Divina and I’ll be doing my responses as drawings instead of as part of a song.
JH: Yeah, and that’ll give me enough meat, I think, like by doing that as my own personal research, that’ll give me enough of what I need to kind of separate those drawings into groups and then I’ll be creating something that is kind of like the carpet pages of the Book of Kells, like intricate geometric (probably) drawings although I’m not a hundred percent on what these things are going to end up looking like. and then I’d like to do a calligraphy version of the text so I have to figure out which text I feel like using because there are many versions of the Bible and I’d like to do an academic style research that’s kind of separate from my own spiritual research and that’s going to be looking into the mystics because there are a lot of mystics, like Hildegaard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart and others who have used the Book of Revelation as source material in their own visions. You know, like, it’s just like us, when we watch cartoons or movies we get images in our minds. At that time, one of the main sources of imagery would have been this book, so in sort of like a backwards way of what Carl G Jung did when he wrote his Red Book, he has like a calligraphy manuscript with lots of beautiful images in it and other scholars have gone and they’ve done footnotes and they’ve written in what he’s referring to in his own writings…I’m going to do kind of a backwards version of that, or I hope to, which is to go through the mystical writings, once I have more of a familiarity myself through my own practice of Lexio Divina, I was to go back through the mystical texts and look through and try to find where they’re sourcing the Book of Revelation, and when I do my own calligraphy version, I can do my footnotes and say “this is where Hildegaard was saying….this” or whatever. And that will be a whole big polished book. But I think that’s going to take more than 10 years to do.
JH: So even just the part where I’m doing my own drawings and finding the source images, that’s like two years approximately and the academic research part of it, I think that’s another roughly year or two and then doing the actual drawings and the finished drawings and the calligraphy part of the text and all that, is many years of drawings.
RD: So you’re at a place in your mind where you’re setting out on a ten year project.
JH: Yeah! Well, I just finished a three year project and that was kind of an intense experience, and I did that mostly by myself. I did that at my house. I purchased the land that is next to my house and I built a 600 sq ft yurt on it, it’s a round building and I was painting these four paintings in the round, I was painting them by the wheel of the year. So that project was called “the Altars to the Directions”; there were four altarpieces. Each one was six feet by twelve feet. They’re triptychs so the middle panel was 6×6 and there’s two 3×6 side panels and I started that project on the Winter Solstice. I worked for three months on the Northern piece, which was in the North in the yurt at that time. And on the Spring Equinox I moved to the East, in the Summer I moved to the South and in the fall I was in the West. I did that tour around the paintings three times, so each of the paintings go three months of attention and then they sat there for nine months while I worked on the other three. So that project took three years and I just finished it on the Winter Solstice of 2019. So I’m in a place where I’m kind of recalibrating anyway, just coming out of this big project. That was a private commission, it was fully paid for. That was a project that belongs to somebody else and it never has been shown yet. It was going to be shown on Nuit Blanche but there were a whole bunch of things that fell through at the Belgo and with the Nuit Blanche people and everything and I honestly wasn’t feeling ready. I felt like I didn’t want to push it. There were a lot of barriers coming up that were preventing that event from happening so it just seemed right to not do it. And now, it looks like there’s not going to be any events happening anywhere for some time so I don’t know that the paintings are going to be shown for sure and I’m not even sure if they’re going to get transported yet. So they’re still at the Belgo. They’re still in my studio. I moved everything to the Belgo two years in to the project because I was going bananas working on it by myself up on a mountaintop. So one of my main takeaway lessons from doing that project is that human beings need other people, that you can’t really go it alone. But now we’re living in this strange time where you have to go it alone so I think we’re just going to have to find other ways to stay connected. I think the biggest one is going to be physical touch. I’m really lucky because I have a dog who is very snuggly and I have two big furry cats that I can cuddle, and my friends would visit every once in a while and I would still go into the city every once in a while when I was up in the woods. But human beings really really really do need each other and there are things that happen to your mind when you are apart from other people so I think that coming into this time where people are going to be forced to isolate, we have to take care of our own mental health in a way that we’re not used to. You know, like self-care is our 24-hour job right now, like for everybody and there are so many sneaky ways that our mind can work and try to trick us into things and just like focus on the wrong things and go wild. So I think we have to be really careful and take care of ourselves and each other and make sure that we stay connected.
RD: Yeah, self-care right now, self care has always been a political act. What’s that Audry Lorde said? I’ll check that quote before the final of the episode but it’s also been like a commercialized act. It’s been something that’s been sold to us that we can do to continue our wage labour, you know? And we can buy it from the closest provider of the New Age that will allow us to keep working. So now, I think we have to reclaim, in the time where there’s sort of this strange opening where you can see the difference between what’s really necessary and the surface, there’s an opening there to say that caring for each other is really necessary, touch is necessary, food and medicine are necessary and you can’t just sell those to the highest bidder. You know? We have to resist that even if you and I are privileged and out in the mountains and we have our stores laid up, we have our gardens growing, you know, I find that an important reminder for myself at all times and right now even more.
JH: Well there’s a lot of self-care that you can do for free, that you don’t need to buy in a store and that you don’t need any special equipment for. I would say that meditation is the main form of self-care that I’m using right now. I have a lot of different practices that I’ve done over the years. You know, I studied theology. That’s what I did before I moved up to the woods. I got a theology degree so I was kind of swimming around in the Christian traditions but before that I was doing a lot of yoga and other forms of meditation. And one of the surprise things that happened actually when I moved up here was I found a Tibetan Buddhist meditation group in Morin-Heights so I’ve been practicing mantras and just different kinds of meditation that they do in that tradition and I have found that to be very helpful. I went to a meeting. They have a Tuesday night meditation group and I haven’t been going that much because I’ve been mostly in the city but I actually started moving up here a couple of weeks ago just for personal reasons, like that the people who were renting out my house left and somebody has to be at my house so I thought I guess I’ll go there because I was having trouble finding work in the city and I juts felt like being at my house and I thought I’ll figure out what I’m going to do with my apartment in the city, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just start heading up there. So I’ve been preparing for many months of just being in the woods by myself anyway. But I went to the meditation group because I was up here and they were talking about the coronavirus. They were talking about how to cope and what the social distancing needs to be and really the nuts and bolts of it, like how are we going to take care of each other as a group because there are older people in the group. I’m the youngest one in the group for sure and I’m not that young! So, you know, people are going to need help maybe. So because they’re already a unit, they’re already a Sangha, it’s a very small group of people but they’re already prepared to take care of each other. They’re talking about it. So that was really inspiring for me and it just made me want to make those practices like my anchor during this time. I also suggested it to other people on the internet, I made a big post of facebook about what you can do to get through this period of quarantine and meditation is one of the things. So yeah, my meditation practice ends up being mantras a lot of the time now, also just sitting in silence, and I think that sending love or sending healing to other people and holding other people in your mind, that gets us into being other-centred instead of being self-centred. I think that sometimes with self-care we get really focused on how do I deal with me but really one of the things to make your mind healthy is actually to think about other people and think about other situations and other places and be other-oriented. I think that mantra meditation and healing, prayers even, that all helps with that.
RD: I think that for myself and maybe some of our listeners, making a simple altar is a stepping point towards a kind of meditation that is detatched from the religions that we grew up in, to find independence, to find that spirituality or that quiet or that space. Do you… I guess your relationship to altars changed after spending three years doing the Altars to the directions? How do you feel?
JH: Yeah! Those are not my only altars. Those are paintings that are intended to be in a space and honestly I don’t understand that project completely. I can’t believe that I got funded to do that and that I ended up being able to do that exercise.
RD: Can you tell us what the space is?
JH: No. I don’t even know. That’s the thing. The person who purchased it, he has multiple places so they’re going to go stay in one of the places but they’re building another place and then with everything that’s going on, I don’t know where they’re going to end up. I’m not really too sure about that. Those are paintings that are intended to be used as altarpieces. They’re of the scale that like you would see Renaissance paintings or Byzantine altarpieces….but yeah, my own practice of making altars…we’re not at my house right now. I wish we were at my house because you would have seen what is going on….pretty much any space that I’m occupying I guess I do my own version of Feng Shui. I kind of place things intentionally and so I have crystals and I have things I find in nature, pictures, just little objects that represent something to me and sometimes they’re gifts. Sometimes someone will give me something and I’ll place it in a special place. I usually try to consider the directions, like which direction the surface is on. So, above my fireplace for example I have a hearth so right now I’ve placed my crystals are there and like quite big ones, like I’m re-homing right now. In the middle of all of this pandemic and everything I was just moving anyway so I’m just doing the same process that I was going to but with the realization that everybody is going through this incubation period right now. So that altar is in roughly South-East, so I have certain connotations in my own mind about what the directions are, even what the seasons are, so I kind of just put that in to the altars in some way or start by going around the directions. But I have altars everywhere. Even where my computer is, it’s kind of like an altar. Or if I’m setting up a dresser like in my bedroom, things are placed! And I’m also kind of disorganized and messy so sometimes, especially while I’m moving now, I’ll find things and I’ll be like Oh! This can’t be here anymore! This platter that I laid out months ago with like salt and a letter to the lover I’m hoping to meet and a giant crystal and maybe the image of the flower of life or something like that, that can’t be on the dresser anymore. No! We’re not in that phase so that has to go out near the door because I am ready to call this person in. You know what I mean?
RD: Completely know what you mean! Yes! That is a conversation I have with my space at all times! Yeah! And it’s also like it’s a way for me, I’m not a tidy person and my partner is but he’s an artist and he makes altars everywhere out of art and out of space and out cleanliness and out of minimalism. And my altars tend to be quite chaotic and they have been over my life so it’s a way for me of learning and to go around the circle of my house and around my spaces and like dust them or tend to them, and kind of have the communication going of oh no so this person, my daughter is sort of safe now and this whole space was set up in a moment of desperation hoping for her safety so now it’s a gratitude altar and it has to come into my bedroom and it’s this whole other feeling that has to go and yet another accumulation of pieces and I think I feel more comfortable doing that because there were artists around when I was growing up and you were allowed to have that communication with materials. Do you have advice for people who feel like they don’t have that in their space yet at all? Like that feeling that they can make a creative choice about the space or that they can make an altar?
JH: Honestly, I think that the expression in the environment in just an extension of the listening that I’m used to doing. Maybe I’m thinking these thoughts up myself but maybe I’m being directed in some way also so I guess if somebody isn’t used to taking directions about what you should be doing at any given time, you know following intuition and just kind of knowing like waiting until you know that is the thing to do? I’m not a person who has the problem of ‘won’t make the first step’ you know, but I can imaging what that’s like… and I would suggest like just tune in! Tune in until you feel a feeling that, like a nudge or a little suggestion that hey those dried roses that are in a bag under the counter that you’ve been saving for tea, maybe they need to be in a pretty bowl and put somewhere beside a bowl of water and beside a piece of moss that you found outside and then maybe light a candle near those things and if there’s a piece of pretty material lying around like handkerchief or a scarf that you’re not wearing or whatever maybe just float that around the back of all of those things. I don’t know, maybe there’s like a picture that somebody gave you that you stuck into a book a long time ago so you could grab that and like hide in underneath some part of this place and think a special thought of something that you want to accomplish. You know? Maybe there’s an entire list that’s completely different than that but that comes when you start listening.
RD: Listeners, I wish you could see Jennifer’s face while she’s describing this. She’s like lit up like she’s getting away with something!! She’s got a scheme for you and she’s so excited for you. It’s really great. You look like you’re four years old. You’re like “and maybe….” And I think you’re fucking so right also. Also it makes me want to talk to you now about Hilma af Klint. Talk about someone who’s listening and who also put her pieces away for ten years. You know? Or twenty years?
JH: More! More! She said they couldn’t be exhibited until twenty years after her death. They were exhibited somewhat in her lifetime but not much. She is a Swedish artist. I love her so much. I really fell in love with her paintings many years ago, maybe five years ago or more, before I did the Altars to the Directions, I actually did a series of 25 paintings that is called ‘Black and White and Rainbows’ that are based on the works of Hilma af Klint. I was so inspired when I saw her paintings. I had never seen them in person. I saw them on the internet and I ordered a catalogue. I was already living in the woods so I walked to the mailbox which is a kilometer away with my dog and I picked up my package and I ran home and I just poured over her images. And, you know, they blew my mind. I thought that black and white and rainbows was the palette that she was using, her colours I found really inspiring and I later learned that she learned some of her colour theory from Rudolph Steiner, who I haven’t really looked into much but she is a very accomplished artist in her own right and she was very lucky to be at a level of privilege where she had studios in her lifetime even though she was a woman and this is more than a hundred years ago now, she was at the academy and she learned to paint. She was also involved in a spiritual group called “the five” and they would meet once a week. They probably used a sort of Lutheran Christian base for their meetings. So what they were doing was they would start with a Bible study almost and they would go into channeling and so some of the images that came out of those séances are these scratchy maps almost. And she had this incredible group of paintings that she did. So she did huge paintings before any contemporary painters did that.
RD: Yeah, she was doing automatic writing and automatic drawing, decades before. Yeah, she’s incredible. And the images, like 120 paintings to be exhibited in a spiral tower that weren’t exhibited until this year at the Guggenheim in a spiral tower.
JH: Yes, exactly. I went to go see that show because I love her and I just couldn’t believe that the whole world was onto Hilma now. Like, amazing! So I went down and I went to the show a couple times and I spent a lot of time at the reading room and looked at the books and talked to the people that were there and yeah, Hilma, she had her own way of doing things and it was sort of scientific. Like she kind of was doing intuitive readings of plants even. She has this whole series of little tiny squares where she was getting in to the feeling tone of the plant and she was channeling information about it.
RD: She had this scientific art background too. She was super well-trained and she had painted for a veterinary school, she had studied botany in painting and she brought all of it into this space of painting. Like, I think she had her nephew described it as doing an abstract painting of plants at the cellular level.
JH: Yeah, it’s really hard to know when you’re looking at her pieces whether you’re zooming in really close on something that’s micro or if you’re way out in space somewhere looking at something enormous. You know, like, even whether scale is relevant when you’re talking about the energetic worlds that she is representing. If you’re talking about channeling, or if you’re talking about spirit, I don’t think you know what size the spirit is. You know? But her paintings were really big. Like ‘the Ten Largest’ they’re the ones that were shown in the little room kind of off the spiral of the Guggenheim, those paintings look like you are inside, you feel like you’re inside of a microscope when you’re standing in front of them. I had to go see that show in person. I couldn’t live without seeing them. And she really, really did inspire me. Honestly, I had a very beautiful full circle moment when I was at the show at the Guggenheim because not only did her paintings make sense to me, but also my own work that I had been doing for these years by myself, also made sense and it felt like I was inside of a tradition because I’ve always felt like I was kind of outside what’s going on in contemporary art. Like I didn’t go to Concordia, I went to Queen’s University and they were way more about the materials than about the content of the work. SO the way that I would try to explain my art to people or whatever and the kinds of connections I would make with my spiritual practices or my spiritual life, that didn’t always fly in the contemporary art realms. I’m now a popular contemporary artist. I’m not in magazines or anything so when people were talking about Hilma’s work, when I read through the catalogue from that Guggenheim show and I saw that people were actually accepting that she was channeling information, accepting that her work was coming out of a group spiritual practice instead of it being like and act of individual genius and also just a little ha-ha that the founder of abstraction is a woman! I was like, YES! So there were a lot of things about Hilma that made me feel like what I’m doing is ok and also the fact that she wasn’t necessarily really recognized in her lifetime, I was like, ok great. I’ll just keep doing it. I’ll just keep making stuff. I’m pretty lucky and maybe I’ll continue to have the resources to be able to paint for a long time, so I’m going to keep doing it.
RD: We talked about arriving in your studio on another episode and the feeling of like stepping into an artist’s beautiful mathematical mind and it did feel like in the paintings you could have been zooming in and out of space and really I was pretty emotional feeling like we should have met! I missed you because I got there late and we proceeded to miss each other like twelve more times before this podcast but yeah like there’s something in there too for all of us right now. Something else we’ve kind of been sold, this fame culture, your know? Maybe that’s something else to put aside right now as we go kind of quietly in to listening to our own voices and doing our own work.
JH: Well it is being put aside whether we like it or not. There’s not going to be any fairs. There’s no vernissage to go to. There are no public events. Like if Nuit Blanche was schedule two weeks later, it wouldn’t have even happened at all. So we won’t have those same opportunities for some time so I think that we’re going to be asked to make work that is more accessible or that is accessible in a way without purchasing it. Because I think that sometimes we think about accessibility like can we afford it but I think now accessibility is going to be can people access it. So maybe the accessibility factor is that even though these are paintings, they are going to come in the form of a documentary or even though the paintings are very big that most people will see them in a digital form. Or even this book that I want to make, like that’s going to be accessible. It won’t be here for a while! But anybody who is already working in illustration or already writing or has the intention to publish whether that’s electronically or through a book, that’s accessible because people can actually have it in a space by themselves. It’s at a scale of contemplation already. I think we’re being asked to enter into a place of contemplation as opposed to big public presentation. The art fairs have not appealed to me much. Maybe it’s because I was not invited! You know, they’re not going to happen right now!
RD: I like that, the scale of contemplation. And I think that accessibility in all of the different ways that we are challenged, we can rise to that right now. It’s important work for us as witches and activists. I think we’re sharing a poem that was sent to us in this episode, it’s very beautiful, created by an artist who is hard of hearing and who asked us to offer the transcription. It’s something that we want to get better at providing, at least more of a description of the episode of the podcast itself. Thanks to some incredible support from a small group of people, we no longer lose money making the podcast.
RD: But we definitely aren’t paying transcription yet. Something to think about. And also to thing about in terms of visual art. Can we describe what your paintings look like? Do you think we could share that with people? Can you describe how you think about them and what they look like? Can you walk us through the Altars to the Directions?
JH: Ok! Ok, well we’ll start in the Altar of the North. This is the most spacey strange piece because I started it on December 21st which is very cold and I was doing it in an off-grid studio so I was having to build a fire every day to work and because the light is minimal at that time of year I wasn’t able to work that many hours so it’s definitely the least detailed of all of them and in the centre of it there’s like this bulb that kind of emerges and it has two floating things beside it that I call the sidekicks which are these kind of wiggly light beings, I would say and the middle part is this pre-birth incubus where something is maybe being formed but you don’t really know what it is. It’s made out of rainbows, obviously, and it’s floating around in this pretty dark kind of bottom of the ocean type space that has things flying through it in groups, groups of 108. There’s like swimming pieces of a couple of bits of things and a couple of comets floating through the air or water, as you see fit. And it’s kind of like it’s very dimly illuminated from the inside. I hope that’s how it looks anyway. So that’s kind of the mystery of before things happen. That’s in the winter.
And then we move over to the Altar of the East, which is, I like to think of it as a skeleton of the sun that is rising up behind a mound. So there’s this shape that is like a very symmetrical mountain and then emanating from that is more obvious rainbow lights, like lines of, little teeny tiny colours, so many of them. And then the mound itself is black and then behind it is almost like seeing through like you would see through an x-ray machine, is a pretty complicated know piece. Like my heritage tradition of my family is Scottish, I probably come from people who are in the Celtic & Gaelic traditions, I know I come from people who spoke Gaelic, but that kind of tradition, so some of the parts of the Altars to the Directions have these pretty complicated knots so this is one of them. So it’s like a big circle, well more of a hexagon, kind of shape that is made up of little tiny knots that are all interconnected and it’s kind of glowing gold. So I like to think of that as a sun rising or a sun being born.
And then in the summertime, the Altar of the South, everything kind of dissolves. It’s like the base of it is white. The colours, there’s little teeny tiny like a waterfall of lines that are going through. There’s like a middle waterfall because this is kind of echoing the Altar to the North that has this bulb so there’s a middle waterfall shape and in this case the sidekicks are just straight-up celtic knot pieces based on the flower of life, so they look like two little baskets. And then coming out from both the sidekicks and this big waterfall shape, in the background I did oil glazing. So it’s like yellows and blues and mostly white and these little teeny tiny what I call ‘angelic turbines’ that are kind of like little whirlpools of very small pinwheels of subtle very pale yellows and blues that are almost white. And inside of the waterfall, there are some lines that are rainbow colours and some lines that are just black. So the first year that I was working on in for three months, I did just the rainbow lines and the second year I did just inky black lines. It has very teeny tiny lines inside of it but that one is definitely the most abstract, although there are these congregations of more knotlike and geometric shapes in the middle of the waterfall.
And then! When you go to the Altar of the West, things change completely because, well, everything dies, you know? And so, I made something that was based on a piece by Leonardo da Vinci, he did a very complicated know piece called the Concatenation which is one continuous line. So I did my own version of that, it’s a crazy wiggly version, it’s not as symmetrical as his. His was copied by Albrecht Durer also so I looked at both of those but it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever tried to draw so because the centre panel itself is 6 feet by 6 feet, the knot takes up maybe close to five feet of but it’s very very tiny lines, it’s very intricate. I started building it in the centre and then I gradually made it bigger and every time I made it bigger I had to solve the line so, you know, it ended up being about six months of work just on that and then there’s no colour almost in that piece. I left the wood paneling somewhat visible so I actually copied the lines of the wood grain and used that as the base of my little tiny lines in all the space that goes around this infinity know piece. And the way that it’s coloured in, I did the negative space behind the knot in black and then the positive line ended up being in white and the background of it is kind of like a very very very pale version of many of the colours that are in the whole piece. The inspiration for that kind of happened simultaneously to the method that I used to figure out what I was going to use to do that step. Like every step of this project came in little bits….I was sitting in the living room at my house. I already kind of knew that I wanted to do pastel versions of all the colours, and I would still love to do another painting that is a very true version of this idea because I ran out of time and it ended up being a more subtle version of this. But I was sitting in my house and they had called for a lightning storm, so I had never seen that in the weather forecast before, so I was inside, I had my dog and my cats with me and I heard the thunder at the same time as I saw something. It was very loud and extremely bright and it was like the outside completely disappeared. Like instead of being able to see trees and snow from out my window all I saw for a second was like the brightest light that you’ve ever seen and like there were rainbows inside of the light. So I know that either my house got hit by lightning or I was very close to the lightning. Obviously it scared the crap out of the animals, my dog started barking, my cats ran away. I was electrified quite literally and was afraid to move because I though what if there’s sparks? I was waiting a few minutes to see if the house was on fire and then I slowly got up and started walking around like ok, everything seems to be ok here. I didn’t go outside because I was scared that there was still lightning going on but later in the day I went out and saw that there was a branch down so I think that the lightning kind of came over my house and just hit the tree very close to it. But it was like in the movie Beetlejuice when they open the door out into the sandworm world. It felt like that for a second. Like the whole world disappeared and it was like lightning. And it was like OK! So I guess that’s what that light rainbow thing is all about. So I kind of feel like the Altar of the West has this little flash of lightning, you know, behind it, that’s like the death moment.
RD: Well, that’s your auditory altar, my friends. I don’t know how to follow that. I feel like my mind if full of all these incredible images now so maybe here’s my suggestion, I think, you know….what else you got to do, people? You’re home, you’re taking some quiet. Why don’t you find some drawing implements and see if you can be inspired by some of those descriptions and build them into your altars and maybe Jen, would you feel like sharing with us, you said you were working with mantra, which we could talk about for another hour. I’ve just been writing about a 14th Century Kashmir mystic, Lalla Ded, and the use of mantra but we’ll leave that for another time…Yeah, can you share a mantra with us? Maybe a mantra that is giving you strength and solace that people can carry with them out of the end of this podcast and these strange days.
JH: I can give you my recipe that I’m using for mantras right now.
RD: That sounds amazing! What’s your recipe? What’s a mantra recipe?
JH: Well I just mean like when I sit down to do my meditations now, what I’m doing is, like I use a mala so it has 108 beads on it and it has a broken bead, it has one that I had to glue back together which is at 23 away from the main bead that has a tassle hanging from it. So what I do is, I’m doing like a warm-up I do 108 Om Mane Padme Hum, that’s the mantra of Avaloketesvara or Chenrezig, and that mantra is available to everyone, it is like free wifi so you don’t have to have a special ritual or anything to be doing that mantra so Om Mane Padme Hum is a great great mantra for everyone to use all of the time, because it is the mantra of compassion. So I kind of warm up by doing 108 of those and then I go to the bead that’s broken that’s at the 23rd mark and I do 23 of the 100 syllable mantra of Vajrasattva. And then I do as many full malas as I feel like, I need to get into a more regular rhythm of this so I can be working towards a million, but the one that I’m taking to heart right now is the mantra for White Tara. So like this morning I did the mala three times of that and yesterday I did like the process of 108 Om Mane Padme Hum, 23 of the Vajrasattva and 2 malas before I went to bed and in the morning I did that same recipe and did 3. So it will probably become more and more every day as I’m doing this but the mantra that I’m doing now, I don’t even know if I’m really allowed to say it.
RD: Could you share….like 23 for me is one of those numbers that just sort of echoes endlessly all across your whole life and it’s so bizarre and the fact that you hit, that 23 is the broken one is so perfect you know, we’re at the broken part of the bead I think and it’s also the seed. Would you feel comfortable doing 23 of the mantra that’s available to everyone? The free wifi mantra?
JH: Sure! I can do that….
Om Mane Padme Hum
Om Mane Padme Hum
Om Mane Padme Hum
Om Mane Padme Hum
Om Mane Padme Hum
Om Mane Padme Hum
Om Mane Padme Hum