Shamanic Art: A Path to Healing

Humans have been creating art for over 30,000 years. Caves in Southern France have revealed art depicting a variety of animals and symbols. One shows a dancing shaman wearing a buffalo robe and headdress, another with a combination of buffalo and human features, and a third of a dancing shaman with a beard and human legs, but with the features of a number of animals, including reindeer, stag, owl wolf and horse. Other paintings show half-human, half-animal figures. Research into these prehistoric cave paintings suggests that the shaman played an important role in portraying the rituals that insured the survival of their people. They took the time to make paintings of their ritual underscoring how important the spiritual aspect of life must have been for them. The study of these ancient cave paintings has concluded that shamanism is the origin of known art. (Goodman, The Genesis Mystery. Time Books, 1983)

To understand shamanic art, we must begin with what is a shaman? The word “shaman” comes from the Siberian Tungus tribe and means “one who sees in the dark.” A shaman is someone who goes into an altered state of consciousness or trance state and travels into the invisible worlds beyond ordinary reality and interacts with this spirit world in order to gain information, guidance, inspiration and healing for individuals, their families, their communities, or the planet. In this way the shaman serves as an interpreter and intermediary between man and spirit and between man and nature.
Shamanic art also called “visionary art” or “imaginal art” is the result of these journeys into non-ordinary reality and bringing back onto the canvas what the shaman sees or finds there. The shaman sees two realities—ordinary physical material reality and non-ordinary reality of nonmaterial or the world of spirit. The shaman sees a unity between man and nature whether that be a stone, a tree, an animal, an organ of the body, or the earth herself.

In 2002 I dreamed that I am invited to the home of an oriental family for a meal. After the meal the host suggests that we paint. He gets some paints and canvases. We paint. I put globs of paint on what is a very large canvas and begin smearing them around, mixing them. As I smear the paint around I notice that shapes and images appear and a picture emerges. (Journal, 1-12-02)

At the time of this dream I was in a dream group. I shared this dream with the group and they were of the opinion that I must paint. I told them that I didn’t know how to paint. They suggested that I simply follow the process in the dream and see what happened. Following the dream’s suggestion, I painted colors into a background. I then stared into the background and painted what I saw. At first I brought little detail to the images. As I continued to paint, however, more detail emerged, defining the images more clearly. This “painting dream” became a critical voice from the unconscious. Over the next 16 years to the current time, the dream’s invitation to paint became a path for my continued healing and psycho-spiritual growth—the soul’s attempt to heal the mind-body, spirit-matter split.

I consider my paintings similar to a projective experience much like clinical psychology’s Rorschach Test. I paint a background of an undefined and ambiguous scene. I then paint the images that I see emerging from this undefined space. As I interact with the images, painting them, amplifying them, dialoging with them, listening to their personal and archetypal meanings, I reveal unconscious forces at work in my own soul. Since the mind has a tendency “to structure ambiguous scenes into personally meaningful images that symbolize underlying motives and emotions” (Walsh, Shamanism, p 202), my paintings are a kind of witness that speaks to my life condition, a kind of shamanic journey for healing and insight.

In 2009 I began training in shamanism and shamanic healing. As part of that training I learned to journey into the invisible world of non-ordinary reality and interact with the spirit guides, power animals and other spirit beings that live there. This state of controlled trance is a fundamental technique of shamanic travel.

Over time my paintings evolved to include images met in dreams, images met during meditations and image met in shamanic journeys. I now hold my paintings to be both projections of my own inner world as well as expressions of my contact with spirit beings in the greater areas of non-ordinary reality experienced by shamans. They appear in my paintings as a way for me to honor, interact with and integrate these unconscious parts of me into consciousness as well as an opportunity to build relationships with them in a greater sense as spirit beings in non-ordinary reality as met in my shamanic journeys.

Art can be a pathway to healing. Art connects us to the deep archetypal powers of the soul where healing occurs. As a ritual, shamanic art opens portals between the worlds of ordinary and non-ordinary realities and establishes a connection between the two. I first open sacred space and think of the canvas as a temenos, a space set aside for a sacred purpose. Working in this sacred space I journey into non-ordinary reality sometimes using a drum or rattle or just through focused breathing. In this way I work with the mediums of intuition, shamanic sight and ritual where I meet and work with the spirits living there. The spirit world contains and expresses the true causes of things that happen in the ordinary world. I bring them back into the physical realm through my art. The art and its images are connected to the spiritual and mythic realms of non-ordinary reality. As such the art connects us to the spiritual. As such, shamanic art can move us into transcendental and transpersonal spaces where healing can occur. The art brought back from shamanic journeys into these realms connects both the artist and the one viewing the art to these spirit forces. These spirits are often sources of healing.

For example, a client asked me to do a journey to meet a spirit guide or power animal that could help her find her power, her purpose and her path forward in her life and to make a painting of that journey. In my journey I met a strong masculine spirit. He was with three wolves. He told me that he was from the “wolf clan” and that my client could benefit greatly from the wolves and wolf medicine. Wolf medicine is a powerful medicine. At that point I saw three ravens fly in. This male spirit added “and if she chooses, the ravens can help with their healing magic.” With that everything dissolved. I took the images from the journey and painted the following painting as a way to capture the energy of this journey for client. I call the painting “The Ravens and the Wolves: Power Medicine”

The Ravens and the Wolves 2

For the shaman the dimension of the spirits is always present in our ordinary surroundings but it is hidden. It is hidden because it expresses not the surface appearance of things, but their inner nature. The spirit of an object may be thought of as the essential existing force of that object which gives it meaning and real existence. The shaman speaks of an object having a soul and thus a part of nature.

Shamans have always use art to express their rituals and sacred knowledge. “Images were painted on a drum-skin and served as symbols and repositories of secret knowledge.” They wove their healing stories into their fabrics.

Visit my work at http://www.artbyshalley.com. As you view my paintings, I invite you to let them speak to you from your own unconscious or soul. When viewed in this matter, art opens portals between the worlds, transcending ordinary time and space and can be an avenue for healing.

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