(I wrote this article as a guest post for Jo Crawford’s wonderful site Crafting the Sacred, back in January 2012. I realized that I wanted to share it here, as it expresses so clearly why making art is an act of magic and transformation. I’m indebted to Jo for giving me the assignment to write this piece, and I thank her for allowing me to republish it here.)
I stumbled across the process of making magic through making artwork, or artwork as a transformative process, back in 1985 when I first started drawing pen and ink portraits of goddesses.
Goddess Spirituality was brand new to me. I was consuming everything I could find on the topic — books like Womanspirit: A Guide to Women’s Wisdom by Hallie Iglehart Austen, Patricia Monaghan’s Book of Goddesses & Heroines, and The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddess by Starhawk. I was circling with other women who were also coming out of oppressive religious traditions. We were all finding a lot joy and empowerment in embracing the Divine Feminine for the first time.
I was very interested (and still am) on how Spirit shines through the countenance of everyday people, when we shift into our deepest, wisest selves. So I started drawing portraits of Goddesses, and asked different women to pose for me.
Then I did a self-portrait of myself as Artemis, the Greek Goddess who epitomizes “Woman Whole Unto Herself.” At the time I was twelve years into a marriage that was emotionally abusive. I had given away all my personal power to that man and that marriage, and to the church we attended.
I painted a portrait of myself as Artemis, not thinking about my marriage, but thinking about all the qualities I would like to have — her courage, her athleticism, the fact that she didn’t need a partner to be whole.
I painted Her as the protector of the wild things, with a deer in the background. Later someone said they saw my children in that deer; I was their protector. A few months after creating that self-portrait, I found the courage to walk out on my marriage. That painting set me free.
There is something about creating archetypal art that takes us down to a place where we can access our own wisdom, and where others resonate with our experience and emotions.
When I say that I make magic when making art, I mean that I connect with the Divine consciously, and surrender to Her guidance. There is an element of transformation in making this kind of art for both the artist and the one viewing the art, just like there is in any well-crafted ceremony or ritual.
When I first started working on the Gaian Tarot in 2001, I had no idea that it would take me nine years to finish it. I didn’t even know if there would be an audience for it. I just knew I had been called to create it, and that I really did not have a choice.
One of the first cards I painted was the Priestess. I am an ordained priestess. I know what it means to walk the path of sacred service, to teach, and to stand in that liminal place between this world and the next, opening and closing gateways. I know how to act as an underworld guide for others, which of course is what a good tarot reader does.
I poured my own experience as a priestess into this image. Even though the High Priestess in many tarot decks is depicted as a young woman, in my own experience the most powerful priestesses are elder women. So I split her face in two, making her half-Maiden, half-Crone. I can’t tell you how many over-50 women have said to me: “That’s me!”
I chose a lot of the imagery for this card consciously — the split face; the wolf, salmon and owl; the willow veil, and the Dreaming Goddess of Malta. Other elements of the design were intuitive choices, or even “happenstance,” which in retrospect is really divine guidance. For example, one day a friend asked me if I had put the “white cross with the red center” into the Priestess image on purpose, because that was a significant symbol to her. I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked again and saw that the white gown formed a cross or labyrs, with the red pomegranate at its center.
Now that is a great mystery, and I have seen it come up time and again, as I discuss the Gaian cards with people who love them. I am constantly learning about symbolism in the cards that others see and that I did not consciously put there.
Two summers ago I went through a difficult time. By the end of October my healing was well underway, and yet I was keenly aware of the scars on my psyche. I submerged myself into the colors, scents and sounds of November, meditating on the ancestors and the Old Ones, especially the Goddess in her guise as the Crone. I created a piece of art I call “Elder of the Scar Clan.” I poured all my grief, heartache and healing into this piece.
The response to it was astounding; many women identified with it, naming themselves as members of the Scar Clan. When I showed it to my therapist, he said: “I see her courage and her wisdom. And the last thing I see is her scar.” When I look at it now, I see my heart’s blood, and I see the courage to heal and to forgive.
Art. Magic. Transformation.
(Artwork by Joanna Powell Colbert: “Artemis,” 1985; “Gaian Tarot Priestess,” 2002; “Elder of the Scar Clan,” 2011.)