Here I unpack (at length! You have been warned) the symbolism in my Brigid painting.
Ok, I’m going to finally embark upon the daunting task that is creating a blog post about my thesis work. I didn’t make this easy for myself when attempting to explain the work in a concise fashion for my Thesis Defense presentation, so the idea of summarizing the work even further into a blog post has been giving me nightmares for weeks.
Let’s make a deal: for those of you who would rather not wade through a dissertation on the work (nor be inundated with my politics) I will set up a slide show of the final images so you can FINALLY see the images that I’ve been bitching about for months. However, if you are left with questions about my process, choices, or are just confounded by the imagery, I will include a lengthy (yet distilled, trust me) explanation of the work.
Without further ado, here is my thesis project The Allegories of Subjugation:
About the Work
I have always been moved by the use of allegory in art and literature, from classical literature like Lorris’s Roman de la Rose to contemporary graphic novels like the Sandman series. The word “allegory” feels outmoded. It evokes a feeling of antiquity, though it is easy to demonstrate that we still make use of allegories such as Lady Justice, national symbols such as the eagle, and even our super heroes (Superman is the most transparent allegory for the good ol’ USA.) Even old allegories are largely relevant in our modern society, not only conceptually, but our cultural vocabulary is steeped in these sorts of images.
Personally, I find that the allegories that really resonate with humanity on a deep level so much that they persist thematically in contemporary art and literature and even permeate our popular culture are those allegories that speak of human suffering. The very first example that comes to mind is the classic Seven Deadly Sins. Pictorial representations of these sins require no explanation, as when we look upon images of horny devils and slothful friars the bigger concepts behind these characters read loud and clear.
I think what separates these images from more contemporary visual narratives would be in the approach to the subject of human suffering. The seven deadly sins are essentially cautionary tales to the individual, i.e. “Greed is bad, don’t give in to personal greed because it destroys your character.” Where as in more modern allegories talk about human suffering in the context of society, i.e. Lex Luthor is very greedy, and it is very bad for the people outside of Lex Luthor. Probably one of the best examples of contemporary allegory would be HBO’s series Game of Thrones (based on A song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin, for you purists.) In these narratives, suffering is explored outside of the individual, and themes of ethics, morality, and social responsibility are recurring.
Considering these ideas, I was very interested in communicating the concept of social responsibility on an individual level as well as a societal level. Allegory allowed me to have a narrative to show a progression of societal issues and show the cause and effect relationship between them. Each piece in my series is a reaction to the previous one, creating a narrative to show how these issues can be connected. What I attempt to say with this series is that human suffering is not a string of isolated incidents: they are realted through cause and effect like people are connected through society, and there is a level of social responsibility inherent in response to human suffering whether it is acknowledged or not.
I was interested in taking on the challenges of creating poignant imagery to expound upon these timeless, human afflictions. My goal was for these pieces to speak with my personal artistic voice but, I want them to be as universally relatable as possible. While I talk about the work here, you will notice that I am mostly spending time unpacking the visual symbolism of these allegories in an attempt to demystify the the allegorical mechanism at work for the viewer. I have included a list of sources I used in my thesis paper when exploring these topics if any of you are interested in further reading on the themes presented in the work.
Before I dive into the work itself, I would like to illuminate the horned serpent in this series, as it is a vital component. The ram-horned serpent is an ancient motif found in bronze age European art. It is viewed in contemporary Paganism to be a symbol of vitality, and personal soveriegnty. This is a symbol that has always resonated with me as a personal symbol of strength in spirit and regenerative creativity. I have chosen it to represent myself in this work, but also as to represent where the viewer comes into the work, as well as the common, everyday person in relation to the issues expressed here.
The first piece in the series is called Brutality. I chose this title because the piece is not about violence, but specifically human violence. As people, we accept violence is a way of life. Our concept of history is essentially the story of war throughout the globe. Violence is no longer a byproduct of evolution but is now a chosen way of life and a means for domination on a small and large scales.
In this image, we can first see a Woodwose attacking a deer. The Woodwose is a fictional creature from medieval European folklore and heraldry. They were beastmen that lived in the forest, comparible to sasquatch. I chose the woodwose to be the symbolic embodiment of brutality. He is impulsive, reactionary, violent, primitive with total disregard of what damage he inflicting.
The deer is symbolic of a person in their natural, maybe perfected state, and as the series progresses you see the deer symbolizing a person in the state of suffering specific to the theme of the image. This is a scene of castration in the Fruedian sense of the word, the deer is mutilated and thus rendered powerless. Violence is always used as a means for dominion. Violence always conversely disempowers people.
The horned serpent is pictorially frozen in a state of limbo. Is it recoiling in horror and becoming party to this scene as a bystander, or is it about to strike and take a stand against the scene, furthering the cycle of violence. This is choice given to the individual.
The second piece is titled Repression. This is the effect that society has on an individual when they possess any form of otherness. We often repress our nature in fear of some form of brutality. Also the precedence for a need for dominion and power to be free of suffering is set in the brutality piece, making this state of submission to be unbarible. The animals are not only locked up, but are on display in these carnival wagons. By this I am conveying the urge to suppress our otherness as we feel in our culture that our actions are always being watched and judged, as we are raised to judge those around us. Examples of this would be instances where people feel they forced to hide their sexual orientation, or when people feel it is dangerous to revel their status as someone of a minority culture or faith. By repressing the vital and inevitable components of who we are, we are put in an unnatural state of restriction which leads suffering.
In this piece is introduced the character of the Wolf. In this series the wolf is symbol of a predator within society and/or our own predatory nature. The wolf is essentially is a victim in this piece. His potential for danger in his nature was not addressed, no attempt to domesticate him was made. He was simply locked away in the hopes to contain him as a threat rather than attempt to fix or change him. With no other recourse, his nature over comes him: he mutilates himself to get out of that situation. He enacts his own brutality upon himself to escape a situation where he is powerless.
The next piece is called Desecration – I chose this title because it is usually used to describe the violation or damage of something sacred. This piece is about sexual assault and abuse, the acts of violence that leave unhealing wounds in the psyche more than the physical body. As a reaction piece to the events in the Repression piece, the wolf unleashes he predatory nature. The wolf has become this Lycanthropic figure, and this is a nod to the history of the werewolf in folklore, as it has always been a symbol of our undesirable or criminal impulses, and the fear that they will take us over and be unleashed on those around us.
Unlike the Woodwose, the wolf is not wrecklessly violent. He is calculating in his nature, he choses a victim, specifically someone who can in no way fight against him. So he maliciously attacks this female figure. She is representative of victims to these kind of violations. She is an allegory for the survivors of violation, it be in the form of literal sexual or domestic violence. It is largely women and children that are the most vulnerable to these sorts of attacks, it is they are left with lingering psychological ramifications.
Her pet rabbit is the part of her which is sacred and innocent which she is trying desperately to protect, that psychological aspect that she is trying to maintain despite this attack. Last I want to talk about the tapestry. This is an acknowledgement of many current events and the idea of rape culture: the notion that societal attitudes toward women is conducive for these attacks to happen.
This is a piece that speaks about mental illness, from more common disorders such as clinical depression and anxiety, to more severe conditions such as agoraphobia or schizophrenia. As a reaction to the events of the Desecration piece, the girl is engulfed by the emotional trauma she is left with. We can see that time has passed since the wolf’s attack, as her body has matured and the wounds the wolf inflicted on her have become scars.
Like a fish out of water, but the reverse scenario, she is in an unnatural habitat and this presents imminent danger to her. She is in an idealized female form, as our culture glamorizes damaged women much like it vilifies strong women. Women are taught the virtues of self-sacrifice and that behavior that is demonstrative of inner or outer struggle is not acceptable, so she is in a martyr’s pose. This is the portrait of a person who is giving up. She gives in to the dysfunctional impulse to drown.
What awaits her are her phobias, anxieties, psychoses which are encroaching upon her in the form of the ink. It is a threatening, nebulous material that is creeping up on her, near impossible to grab and therefore difficult to combat. The ink also takes form as the wolf: torturous memories that haunt her and threaten to consume her. The form of the horned serpent is also present, acknowledging the cultural stigma of mental illness and the critical response of society and the self to emotional struggle.
The word Avarice means extreme greed. This piece is about the effect of avarice on the common place individual, how personal greed becomes societal greed.
Here the girl has managed to escape the water she was drowning in, though she is still wet so we know not much time has passed. Her rabbit has died, and she implores the Emperor for assistance to fix this tragedy. Gigantic and surrounded by opulence, the Emperor stands in judgement over the girl. He questions why he should aid this girl who he doesn’t know. The desperity between the Emporer and the girl is obvious.
Upon examination, it is clear that the Emperor himself is just a straw man or a host for a greater system of greed, represented by the monstrous mouth at his core. The mouth is the mindless parasite of consumption, the fervent obsession with growth and acquisition. Preventing the girl from approaching the emperor, the woodwose intervenes as an armed guard. Greed often breeds brutality, a connection we don’t readily make when it isn’t in front of us. And last we can see that the deer and the serpent are being help in captivity, they are pets for the Emperor, dependent upon him for their basic needs for survival. The deer is swift and could run away, the serpent could bite the hand that feeds, but considering the enormity of the emperor and the woodwose at his disposal, the fear of reprisal out ways their dissatisfaction and they stay where they are.
This piece not only speaks about how society often lacks the empathy to help people in honest need, but how common place individuals are stuck within this system that encourages personal greed. In a capitalist society, greed is a biproduct of perceived scarcity, experienced through our basic choices of where we purchase our goods and necessities to our ideas about social welfare and how wealth is distributed. We learn that the more you acquire the more free you are. This all creates an endless cycle of greed.
The last piece in this series is called addiction. It is a reaction to the last piece in that avarice can often lead people to this position. The girl is here, incoherent and amacieted. Her rabbit is nowhere to be seen, as she has either discarded it or forgotten about it completely. She is stained with ink, which is now the substance of her obsession. It is the same ink from the Neurosis piece, and she willfully consumes her own nightmares, hates, and shadows, an immersion that she thinks makes her free of them. She is reveling in her dysfunction. When people feel that society gives no solutions to their problems, they will often form addictions as a form of escape.
The Octopus is the last character to be introduced, and like his many arms imply, he is a complex character. Clearly, he is the pusher in this scenario, but he also the enabling friend. He is also innovater – unlike the deer and the serpent in the avarice piece, he is not willing to be at the mercy of the Emperor for survival. He takes his cleverness underground to support himself, and perhaps even loved ones, outside of these restrictions. Ironicly, he still gives in to his personal greed as he takes advantage of the situations for his own benefit. He denies the responcibility that he has toward the girl in her vulnerable state, as a fellow creature in this societal struggle.
The deer is dead (deer skull), we indulge in addictions to numb and escape our emotions and we kill our inner nature in the process. The serpent is pickled, and this is a reflection of how addiction kills our vitality and out relationship with the rest of the world.
Stepping back, this appears to be a very bleak series. I think it is very important to point out that the potential for redemption is in every one of this pieces. The key to the redemption in these pieces is choice. The characters in this series have the choice to act differently. Even in areas where no choice for individual characters is present, the choice for societal intervention is always present. I don’t want this series to appear as a portrayal of a dire reality or an inescapable cycle of victimization, but more of a mirror for examination, why these things needs to change, and where the potential for change lies.
Before the onslaught of hate mail arrives, I would like to point out that I acknowledge that am neither a sociologist nor a political scientist. I certainly do not claim to have any answers to these monumental problems. These pieces reflect my experiences as a working class US citizen, a female, and one who falls into many categories of being “other.” I claim no real authority or expertise in the massive social issues that I bring up in this series. My goal for this artwork is to contribute a different perspective to the dialogue already in place around these subjects.
My process for this series was fairly experimental for me. My work has been moving in the direction of a synthesis of digital and traditional work, and I decided to continue that evolution with this series.
What I didn’t expect initially was how much work was going to be put into the conceptual phase of this work. I felt like I initially had these ideas mapped out pretty thoroughly, but what I discovered was that I made the concept way too expansive. Because I am covering a number of pretty diverse and loaded topics, I really had to work to figure out what precise things I wanted to say about each subject, and how to be concise and remain on topic for the overarching goal of these allegories. The range of topics still remains all over the freakin’ yard.
Initially, these images were going to be involved portraits of elementals or spirits which were going to be the representation of each theme. But then I realized that it was more important for me to show an interaction between characters in these allegories to convey the social ramifications of these issues. Also, when I approached these subjects personified by elementals, it was too easy for this project to go into religious and dualistic territory. I wanted to approach this conceptually from more of a sociological point of view, as well as a complex one showing culpability on all accounts instead of vilifying one side or one character. So coming up with these characters and this loose narrative allowed me to accomplish of this conceptually.
The physical process of the work was something I’ve developing since the beginning of this school year. I developed thumbnail compositions of each piece by sketching the basic composition first, deciding upon the palettes for each piece, and then creating photocomps by collaging images together in photoshop. I used to primarily be a collage artist, and this is still the way of making a composition that comes the most natural to me.
After the photocomp, I would then draw all of the componants for the piece separately. For example, in the Brutality piece, I drew the background, the deer and the woodwose, and the horned-serpent separately with graphite on paper. Then I would scan all of the images and collaged then together in photoshop to create the linework for the image.
At this point, I would print out the linework, and from the basic shapes in the linework, I would create a textural painting with ink on a piece of arches paper. These were very basic ink paintings, that conveyed the value differences in the images and with the use of various media like salt and soap, I created different textures that I wanted to incorporate into the texture of the final image.
I would then return to the digital image file, and paint underneath the linework in photoshop. This was the part of the process that took the longest, each piece on average took a few weeks of digital painting, and I worked on several at a time. Once the digital painting was finished, I would change the linework from black lines to colored lines at various levels of transparencey to create a more painterly feel to the image. And last I would scan the textural paintings, and work them into the image.
Once all of the images were finished, I printed them out a million. I did small and full scale test prints to figure out what paper I wanted them on, I looked for any light and color correction I wanted to make to the images files once they were printed because images always look different on screen. And also, once I printed them out this big, I looked for all the tiny flaws and mistakes in the images that I may have missed when they were on screen. And then, when I thought I was done with printing everything, my cat ate my prints, and so I had to print them all out again at the last minute.
My personal style of work fluctuates a little bit between painterly, photo realistic and illustrative. I chose this illustrative visual style to make this series in because I wanted to continue the visual dialogue in allegories that has been set by graphic novels. It was graphic novels that first introduced the idea of allegory to me at a very young age, and it was this illustrative style that I first attempted emulate as a kid teaching myself how to draw. Being that this is the style that I have been developing all of my life as an artist, it is the one that is the most personal.
I see this work first living in a gallery setting. After thesis, I will be having a solo show for this work at Violet Star Gallery in North Portland for the month of September. One thing that my panel pointed out after my defense is that these images definitely yearn to live with text. I plan to write a little something (maybe some prose) to accompany the images for the Violet Star show.
I have toyed with the idea of creating more allegories for this series and releasing them all in book form. I do a lot of creative writing, and I’ve definitely considered the idea of deepening the narrative present in this series. These images will definitely end up in my portfolio, I think they are applicable to a lot of illustration work that I would like to pursue, such as character design, conceptual design, and graphic novel work.
So, that (plus a 50 page thesis paper) was my thesis. If you have read this far, you are a saint. Thank you so much for taking an interest in my work, and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about my project.
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I woke up today with a immense sense of self-worth for the first time in awhile. I had an epiphany, and I realized that I finally bested my current Guardian at the Threshold.
Throughout my life, I have had endless guilt about my chosen path. I have had so many moments of shame when I think about the amount of suffering in the world, and despite my level of empathy and my level of education and overall privilege, I chose art over philanthropy. This guilt was part of what sent me running from art school when I was 18 and deciding to pursue a career in psychology. I worked in Social Services for most of my adult life providing direct care for adults and children with developmental disabilities. While doing this fulltime, I went back to school and took classes when I could with the hopes of becoming a Behavioral Therapist. I was teeming with love and worry and determination to help the people I supported.
Despite being beaten and injured by clients, receiving no support from the various underfunded nonprofit companies I worked for, nor the scandalous and vampiric for-profit companies I worked for, and the complete inability to instigate any sort of change for the people I supported due to a system that consists of no funding, healthcare professionals that often show no interest whatsoever in DD patients and their caregivers other than getting them and their Medicaid out of their office as quickly as possible, psychiatrists that immediately prescribe meds designed to curb behavioral issues by sedation as opposed to look into any sort of long term strategy geared toward actual healing, case managers that oversee 100+ other cases and could care less about scheduling a meeting or case review with you, let alone changing an ISP plan to fix something dire, no educational resources whatsoever for the community or for the family members of these folks, I could on forever and ever and ever.
After years of working this in this field, I found that even my small victories were meaningless, and every success was one step forward before the inevitable two steps back. I hated it, and for years I was so, so unhappy. All of this time I was making art. I would go home and collage all of my bitterness. I would go home with bruises and a bloody nose and paint my resentment. I would go home after comforting a manic client who was in tears for hours from a drug induced panic-attack and I would write poetry about their strength. That’s what came natural. I justified dragging myself to another evening of work knowing I was going to be thrust into another unsafe situation, knowing that I was going to do nothing but babysit suffering, knowing that my coworkers could care less and would be catty and abusive, because I knew I would come home and pour it all out into an image. Art became my reason for getting up in the morning. I sure as hell wasn’t fixing anything for the people I provided care for at work, I was just another person enabling this flawed institution. But if I could go home and create, at least I contributed something good and beautiful to the world. When I realized that that is what I was doing, I quit my job and started working towards getting back in school and finishing my Bachelor’s in Fine Art.
And so here I am today, still struggling with this selfish decision. I felt like I ran away from something truly meaningful where I could have done some actual work that benefitted the world, even minutely. All for happiness, and I’ve never believed that happiness is a byproduct of achieving one’s purpose in life. But then I realized that this is just what I do. I could crucify myself emotionally for humanity for the rest of my life and the only good and real thing that would come out of it is my art. It is what I do. It is what I live and breathe. It is what I actually do right. It is what I love, and what I find sacred, and I no longer feel like that is a childish rationalization.
Art was the very first step. Art transformed the ape into the shaman. Our emotions that we hold so sacred are an involuntary evolved mechanism for survival. Art was the first intentional reaction to those impulses that inherently rule us, our very first reaction to desire, fear, and wonder. It was the realization that life is temporary and it is the urge to make our mark. Through art we are immortal. All of the lives we try to enrich and save will end, and all of the institutions that we try to fix and preserve will crumble with time. Humanity is temporary, and when it disappears it will be as if it never existed with no consciousness left to contemplate it. But art will remain, and with it and its inherent worth for nothing but that it exists, humanity will survive. Even if another sentient being never again gazes into a painting or is lost in a song or transported by literature, we will remain through art. We exist until the last temple crumbles. And if some form of intelligence comes along long after our disappearance and discovers a piece of technology, a time capsule, an audio file, they will know us and preserve us.
Art in all forms has inflamed the souls of man for eons. We can look to carvings in the Tower of London and the Christian catacombs of Rome to know that art is salvation. Art is hope, cryptology, escape. Art is the only true way we can know each other’s hearts. Art is our only solace when everything else has been taken away, some would say that we even created the most successful form of art – Religion – for this very purpose (momentarily disregarding the ways it has been perverted, of course.) Art is communion, and it is there to reinforce our reasons for being better people.
Never again will I make excuses or doubt my worth for being a “self serving artist.” For years and up until this revelation I felt like I was repeatedly becoming a Guardian at the Threshold for many of the people in my life, due to my dedication to uphold something so selfish: to bring art into the world. To follow what inspires me and to honor the paths that keep my flow of creativity strong and healthy and all things that are conducive to me manifesting my dreams and nightmares into a visual reality. I am proud to say that art is my raison d’etre, my Great Work. I am part of that continuation from the beginning of time: I am a writer of that ever evolving, universal, true language. Orator Sapientia. Speaker of Wisdom, Speaker of Truth.
I will forever respect and admire the souls that exhaust themselves by trying to save the world. I will always be in awe of everyone who dedicates their lives to saving and enriching life for the rest of us. Thank you for lessoning the pain of existence. Thank you for finding reward in your victories. Thank you for fixing the things that matter right now, for the most part, now is all that matters to humanity. Altruism is ironically what will preserve our species, and we all know it.
But now I know my place. Existence is pain, art is salvation.
First sketchbook entry of the new year. It’s a portrait/doodle/composition of the Witch of Forest Grove, who I am a big fan of. I would like to eventually turn this into a finished piece. We’ll see if I find the time.
While spending Xmas with my Mom I churned this little digital painting out. It’s a portrait of my buddy Sushila. She’s an amazing dancer and the creatrix of the bellydancing troupe Raqs Obliettes.
Valerie Herron, 2011
I’ve decided that I want to start working ink back into my art. My first experiment with this was my rendition of a photo from Dark Fusion Boutique, taken by Proprietress Lucretia Renee Rathmann. The model is my buddy Korina.
ink and mixed media
illustrated by Valerie Herron 2011
original photo by Lucretia Renee Rathmann
I love reading about the processes of other artists. Most of the time I don’t have the foresight to document my process as I work on a piece, but I actually took the time to do it this time. Here are some photos of the process behind my newest painting, Circe:
watercolor on arches
Valerie Herron 2011
For my Final in Narrative Image, I decided to create a triptych on the themes of Life, Death, and Rebirth. For each panel, I wrote a piece of prose. This is all LOADED with symbolism, and I don’t even want to begin to deliver a dissertation on it here. I’ll just say that these pieces are based on my own journey with coming to terms with the inevitable human life-cycle. The soundtrack of this journey has many references in the prose, as are various bits of spiritual and philosophical wisdom that has informed me throughout the years.
watercolor paintings mounted on foamcore
Valerie Herron 2011
watercolor on Arches
Valerie Herron 2011
The magic of the incomprehensible microbe
Blood and teeth and fur and scales
Feathers venom bones and filth
We all come into this world swinging
Swaddled in the sling of physics
we dance in that all-night party of the pulse
and traverse the sinewy synoptic pathways
by cognitive torchlight
the spark that ignites the shaman in the ape
we create things bigger than ourselves
we are the ephemeral creating permanence.
watercolor on Arches
Valerie Herron 2011
the severing Shears of Atropos,
Shears of Skuld.
What will become of me?
Will I glide into the fold of oblivion
Or will I rocket
From zero to infinity?
Is there gestalt if my parts dissolve?
And can there be purpose
For those so soluble?
You, Great Annihilator:
The Hands Behind the cogs of the Universe
Above me and below me
Inside me and Around me,
From the terrestrial womb we emerge
And into the Earth we all return.
watercolor on Arches
Valerie Herron 2011
We scatter and collide!
We are the earth
We are the sky.
You hear this, entropy?
We can only break
Into so many pieces
to be absorbed
expressed in chlorophyll and granite!
to nourish the larval souls
that only our imaginations will know.
but we are not unknown to them,
we create things bigger than ourselves
we are the ephemeral creating permanence.
a biting frost which clings a inky slick melts away, falling slowly to what would be peril if not for mutation, but a rose never looks down, time slows not for her: she blooms, she grows, she wilts, and then she is dead, so she sighs a hoary steamy spice and shakes a frantic iridescence, vines twist and thorns sink in and she begins to climb, strangling the thistle, crushing weed, she climbs, undulating petals flow and stretch toward that fever, Sol, ardent growth will never stop ’til she is white light blinded one with everything.
My art, my heart, my everything.
Ego denique opportunus muse.
Meus pectus pectoris est de Sol.
Watercolor on Arches
Valerie Herron 2011
Watercolor on Arches
Valerie Herron 2011