For those of you who have been following, you will know that I have been participating in an Altered Books Round Robin with my chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild since last fall. As this was a collaborative long-term project that spoke to the very essence of who I am as an artist, I have been blogging about the month’s theme and creative process to respond to it.
For those not familiar with a round robin of this nature, here are the rules: Each book artist in the group begins altering a hard cover book of at least 50 pages on a theme of their choice. The original artist creates one two-page spread of original artwork within the book. They then send their altered book with instructions to the next person on the list, who will create their own two-page spread in the book, and then send it on to the next person on the list, and so on until each altered book has travelled around the group and returned to its home. After seven months+ of circulation, my book should come home to me containing seven pieces of original art in addition to my own, and each of the artists in the group will own a similar book. You can read the previous rounds here:
And so at last, we have come to the final round of the CBBAG Altered Books Round Robin. Appropriately, this final round is one of pleasure and satisfaction, a final opportunity to speak with my natural voice. The book is an unusual one, a craft book about cushion making. Nothing remarkable in either subject or appearance. Yet the owning artist has made it extraordinary by her choice of subject matter: we are to respond on the subject of folklore. As I found with the last book, my greatest response to this volume has not been to the book or its original content. My entire response has been to the choice of theme, and to the artwork created by the preceding artists.
There was absolutely no thought or consideration required for my response to this theme. My immediate, fundamental, centuries-deep response was to illustrate the story of the Green Man. The iconic character from folklore that has spanned most of human history, into a resurgence in the emerging ecologically-aware world of today.
He is made one with Nature: there is heard
His voice in all her music, from the moan
Of thunder, to the song of night’s sweet bird;
He is a presence to be felt and known.
In darkness and in light, from herb and stone,
Spreading itself where’er that Power may move
Which has withdrawn his being to its own;
Which wields the world with never-wearied love,
Sustains it from beneath, and kindles it above.
~ Percy Shelley, Adonais
In today’s world I believe we need the Green Man more than ever before as a symbol of our interdependence with the natural world. William Anderson, in his book about the Green Man puts it very well:
“Our remote ancestors said to their mother earth: ‘We are yours.’ Modern humanity has said to Nature: ‘You are mine.’ The Green Man has returned as the living face of the whole earth so that through his mouth we may say to the universe: ‘We are one.'”
Mike Harding puts it this way:
“His face stares down at us from the roofs , pillars and doorways of our great cathedrals and churches, he appears on second century Roman columns in Turkey and in Jain temples in Rajasthan. He is found all over England, some parts of Wales and Scotland and a few rare places in Ireland.
On the continent he has been seen and noted in Germany, France, Italy, Holland and is said to be found in Spain, Hungary and Poland. India and Malaysia have their own Green Man and though he doesn’t seem to appear in Native American traditions he can be seen in his modern role as a bringer of fortune on the walls of banks in New York and Chicago.
His roots may go back to the shadow hunters who painted the caves of Lascaux and Altimira and may climb through history, in one of his manifestations through Robin Hood and the Morris Dances of Old England to be chiselled in wood and stone even to this day by men and women who no longer know his story but sense that something old and strong and tremendously important lies behind his leafy mask. One of the earliest English epic poems Gawain and The Green Knight may refer to yet another manifestation of the Green Man as the God that dies and is reborn. He is the Green Man, Jack in the Green, the Old Man of the Woods, Green George and many other things to many other men but one common theme runs through all the disparate images and myths, death and rebirth and the Green that is all life. . . . There is a strong reason to believe that the Green Man, as an image, is extremely old. Paintings on cave walls showing shamanic dancers may be depicting an earlier form of the image. Second century CE temple columns from the Mediterranean show him as a leaf mask on the capitals and in Britain, from the eleventh century on he appears in the churches and cathedrals.
The only pattern I have found so far is that he seems to appear in his greatest concentrations in Europe wherever there are stretches of old relict woodlands. Thus the biggest collections I have discovered so far seem to be in Devon and Somerset and on the edge of the great forests of Yorkshire and the Midlands. Southwell Minster for example which has some wonderful Green Men in the Chapter House is on the edge of the old forest of Sherwood. It could be that the images represent the God of the Woods, the Life Spirit, the Spirit of Death and Resurrection and, as an image, the Green Man has his counterpart in one of the oldest English Folk images, the Corn or Barley God whose beginnings stretch back to the camps of the Neolithic farmers.”
And the Rosslyn Templars put it this way:
“In classical thought the Green Man has been the symbol of inspiration or of the fruits of learning, and could have a place in Christian iconography for such a reason.
His presentation as one who devours and disgorges vegetation suggests the mystery of creation – death and rebirth in the world of nature, a theme which illustrates Christian teaching on the death and resurrection of Christ.
He may represent the bringing of the tree spirit or spirit of nature under the guidance of Christ, in the way that many pagan ideas and rituals have been baptised into Christianity – a common practice in the attempt to lead people from other beliefs into the Christian Faith. . . .
The Green Man has a special meaning today. After centuries of man’s exploitation of nature for his own benefit, as if mankind is the only creature that counts, we are now beginning to realise how dependent we are upon the natural world, that we are part and parcel of the whole of God’s creation, and therefore must learn to work in co-operation with it. The Green Man, especially in his strange structure blending the human form and vegetation, can be taken to symbolise the unity of mankind with the natural world. Perhaps it is not surprising that he should have a place in Christian Churches of all types for when they were built mankind was much closer to nature than we are, at least in the industrialised western world.”
As I’ve worked on this piece, I have poured all of the sense of my deep connectedness to the earth into it. The Green Man is a symbol that has fascinated and resonated with me for decades. He seems to embody all I feel within myself about my relationship to the earth, a connection down through the ages to a time when mankind understood his place in the natural order, before the arrogance of technological advance gave him a belief in mastery. I lived in the United Kingdom for 25 years, and spent all of those 25 years digging into the rich ancient history of the land of my heritage. In its turn, that ancient history dug itself into me, into my spirit, into my cellular and spiritual memory. I became so deeply connected to the ancient power in the land that my reaction to it became visceral. If I were searching for an ancient monument in the wild and open landscape, I did not need to see it with my eyes. I could close my eyes and feel it in my body like a magnetic pull.
So perfectly attuned to this ancient world have I been that my hands and my spirit knew exactly the pieces to go into this work, reached for them readily almost without my eyes even looking for them. Rich leafy backgrounds, natural textures. I have held a piece of work in my box for thirty years that I drew just out of high school. A detailed pen and ink drawing of foliage and leaves accurately drawn from my forays into the hedgerows around my Norfolk home, it depicted peering through a gap in the hedgerow into a forest clearing . . . . The foliage became the framework for this piece, stained with inks and gilded and overwritten. The emerging image is one of richness, of growth so verdant you can almost smell the leaf mould. This is the only piece I have fallen into headlong, known from the depth of my soul and the soles of my feet exactly how to create it. The creation was an act of joy and of deep pleasure, an opportunity to reconnect to that wellspring of spiritual balance that filled me in those years in the homeland of my soul. In finishing, I sat back with a sigh of pleasure and satisfaction, to have conveyed to my own satisfaction the sense this icon instills in me. That, my dears, is a rare thing indeed in just about any artist.
I shall leave the last poignant words to Ronald Millar:
“Two millennia old or older, the Green Man is the vibrant spirit of the wild wood, of vegetation in leaf or bud, of spring, pool and river, earth and sky, indeed the totality of nature. His voice is the hiss of the high wind in ash and oak. And his profundity those sudden silences of a forest when all Nature seems to hold her breath. When we hear or feel him no more mankind will have run its course.”
My participation in this project for the last nine months has given me enjoyment, angst and deep insight into my own creative response and process. I have come to know and understand myself as an artist more as a result, and am grateful for the insights and growth. I have learned that I can respond to stimulus that is not of my generation. While it may not produce the most profound work I have ever created, it has been good to learn that I can respond in this way successfully. At other times, the process has pulled responses from deep within me in a most surprising way. At the very least, it has fully proven to be the learning and stretching exercise I sensed it would be. I would like to thank all the participants for their contributions to my growth and learning, and to my own book, The Dictionary of Sorrows, on its way home to me.