My exploration of this work began after I spent time observing prehistoric figurines at the Birmingham Museum of Art. As an art history major in college I remembered learning that the intentions of prehistoric artists is unknown for certain, but it is assumed that one purpose of ancient art was to act as a sacred object of spiritual power, possibly used in ritual. I tried to imagine how an artist today, given the vast cultural differences between then and now, would approach a similar intention. This curiosity gave rise to my Without a Net series.
In short, if I were to imbue an object with a sort of non-material power, I supposed that I’d start with the only thing I knew I could possibly have power over: my own mind and actions. From there it seemed obvious, since I am human, that my mental and behavioral ground could use a little sweeping, and the idea grew into a thrilling prospect: that through my art I could become more conscious of myself, more effective at making change, and more accepting of how things are.
I’ve no way to exactly emulate ancient humans in their art-making rituals. I know that because the ancients were more connected with nature we sometimes romanticize their spirituality and see it as more intuitive, pure, and evolved.
Maybe it was. But I’m not ancient, (exactly) so with a wide-open acceptance of the very interesting culture I presently live in, I decided to investigate a current and individual take on the ancient pursuit of making art as a power object.
I chose oil paints as the medium of expression for the project because I’m a painter and have been at it for a long time. Contemporary trends in art encompass literally any medium and method of communication, and often lean toward the digital and technological. While all art forms are valid, I found that oil painting particularly lends itself to my task. It is ancient, and involves a concentrated focus on a developed manual skill. The act of rendering an object by hand moves the mind from the analytical to the contemplative, and into a place where intuition and mystery reign. I was grateful to be a long-trained craftsman with enough experience to trust that painting would be an adequate vehicle for my journey.
The art I’d made over the previous three decades had served many purposes, all perfectly viable for the time of life in which they were created. I’d gotten my university art degree, made a living from my paintings, pleased critics and won awards, expressed my creative urges and enjoyed myself. What I hadn’t done was to intentionally combine my creative, art-making process with what I considered to be the most important work of my life: the search for self-knowledge, with the hopeful purpose of finding more contentment for myself and bringing change to our needy world, no matter how small.
Previously, I’d used reading, writing, yoga, prayer, meditation, attending group gatherings (like church, for instance) and sharing with trusted friends to explore my inner landscape. I’d considered the process to be successful, and an ever-expanding endeavor. This time I would take my search through the vehicle of painting. I would have eagerly jumped on the concept if it weren’t for the cynical ghosts of my training in art academia who I imagined would mercilessly criticize my intentions for being an unhip, unintelligent hippy endeavor—like something done at workshop for “finding yourself.” But I stalwartly tabled this distraction, leaving the professors in my head behind, and vowed to include it in my investigations. From that moment I knew I had a vast reservoir of subject matter to draw from, always available. Even the darkest stuff in my mind was up for grabs.
Beginning this series felt a lot like going into a confessional and revealing my deepest secrets. Only instead of baring my soul to a priest, I was exposing myself to the general public! The only thing that tempted me to go forward into this domain of vulnerability was something I’ve always found irresistible—curiosity. I wanted to see for myself the fantastic menagerie that might emerge from making my innards into paintings, and I wanted to see others’ reactions to them, horrified or not. The intensity of communication might lead to a monumental connection, especially if viewers personally identified with my mind-states.
I’ve no doubt that other people will relate to some of my states of mind. Because of our individual uniqueness, it’s not likely that any one person would relate to all of them. But in my connections with many people through selling and teaching art for the past 30 years, I’ve found that not one of my foibles, shortcomings, or desirable traits is exclusively a Dori thing. When I’ve disclosed these things, time and time again bonds are forged with others who relate to my humanness. I’m convinced that our disconnectedness from others begins with our secrets. We stay hidden because we are broken, and we don’t get fixed by staying hid.
My Own Private Myth
To personify my states of mind, I needed a template. In many cultures and religions around the world, animals have been used to represent ideas, deities and demons, human traits—a wide range of inanimate phenomenon. Animals have represented characters in elaborate myths, their qualities brought to life in order to illustrate, inform, and relate to us in ways impossible by other means. Mythology is less understood now than it was by our predecessors. The contemporary theologian and Catholic Priest, Richard Rohr, explains myth beautifully:
“…myths proceed from the deep and collective unconscious of humanity. Our myths are stories or images that are not always true in particular, but entirely true in general. They are usually not historical fact, but invariably they are spiritual genius. They hold life and death, the explainable and the unexplainable together as one; they hold together the paradoxes that the rational mind cannot process by itself. As good poetry does, myths make unclear and confused emotions brilliantly clear and life changing.
Myths are true basically because they work! A sacred myth keeps a people healthy, happy, and whole—even inside their pain. They give deep meaning, and pull us into “deep time” (which encompasses all time, past and future, geological and cosmological, and not just our little time or culture).
…Somehow deep time orients the psyche, gives ultimate perspective, realigns us, grounds us, and thus heals us. We belong to a far grander Mystery than our little selves and our little time.”
I didn’t much understand the idea of myth when I started this series. I tried to recall the readings of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung from college days, but I felt like I was starting with almost no grasp on my task. I decided this might be the very best place to start, as I had no previous structures to limit my imagination. Taking cues from the traditions of cultures such as Native Americans and Hinduism, I began imagining how a mind-state might be represented by an animal. With a playful, watchful sense of openness, I watched for real animals in my daily life, read fairy tales and nursery rhymes, watched in amazement as serendipitous encounters unfolded, and didn’t take any idea for granted.
I tried to think as primitive man might have—by cultivating an enormous respect for the intuitive mind. Long ago mythological creatures weren’t just tales. Ancient people really believed they existed. They knew they existed! Existence didn’t only refer to the physical plane then, and the invisible world and the solid one were intertwined in a way we can’t wrap our tidy Western brains around. Since dabbling in the world of the unseen doesn’t come naturally for me either, I found myself rolling my eyes and second-guessing my ideas quite easily. But on I trudged, doggedly refusing to let the fun and magic be taken out of my investigations. After a few paintings, I knew that I could trust my intuitive instincts.
I even allowed my newly created characters to jump off the canvas and participate in my life. They had been with me all along, stuck in my unconscious, poking their heads out to make trouble or fun. Now I had a face for them, and I could imagine them tormenting me, inspiring me, or whatever I knew very well they were masters of. I could dislike them or be grateful for them. It all helped to deepen my acceptance that they were indeed mine. Friend or foe, they were mine. And for the ones I was really sick of, I recalled Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” I allowed the idea of myth to take shape in my life, to work for me.
Ancient cultures sometimes portrayed their mythological figures as animals with human traits and clothed them in symbolic garb, with various props and environments to narrate the character’s story. I have enjoyed the wide array of options for “dressing up” my critters to convey the essence of the mind-state it represents. I sometimes refer to stories, clothes, or scenes from my past, and other pieces indicate dreams or wishes I’ve had recently or long ago. Although they can be very specific to my personal vision, I find they still do what myth is supposed to. They translate universally.
I place my subject in the center of the painting, like an icon. Iconic figures played a significant role in my childhood, one that directly relates to the concepts brought forth in my present work.
My dad raised me Catholic, and my devout Granny frequently gave us kids little white cards with images of Mary, Jesus, or the Saints. I was convinced these were delicate, special cards with subtle (or not so subtle) powers. Each person on the card represented an idea, and if I treated the card well and believed even nominally that the card should be taken seriously, maybe some the ideas would rub off on me. I thought praying to St. Christopher for protection couldn’t hurt, and Mary seemed so nice and calm I might be more like her if I put her card on my dresser. The saints that got shot full of arrows or hobbled around with ugly sores reminded me to be thankful for my lot, and to be brave when things went wrong. The cards held just one focus for your attention: the person in the middle. A few attributes described their message for the viewer, and that was all that mattered.
Another iconic image from my youth came from my mom’s spiritual instruction, quite distant in practice from Dad’s, but visually and conceptually similar. As an enthusiast of all things New Age (this was, after all, Colorado in the 60s and 70s) she experimented with many spiritual practices, but Tarot cards remained a favorite for decades. She was paid to do readings occasionally, and although I didn’t embrace her ideas with any more gusto than I did Catholicism, I had a healthy respect for both. Tarot cards usually have a figure or object in the center, and each represents a theme, if you will, that is interpreted by the reader. There were kings and queens and numbered cards, just like in a normal deck, many relating to different parts of life, such as money, relationships, and health. I won’t get into the specifics of Tarot reading. The important thing impressed upon me was that, much like the saint cards of Catholicism, the Tarot was not to be taken lightly. We were to handle the cards with care, and be respectful of what they meant and referred to. It took a while for me to loose my fear of the Death card or the Hangman, but Mom made it clear that the “negative” cards held just as much rebirth and light as the so-called happy ones.
Whatever their impact on me, the little cards I grew up with had images with strong associations. Their resemblance to my current work is recognizable, and I’m pleased that I had very different camps from which to draw influence.
I paint realistically, but with a smoothed-over cartoonish style that could be compared to imagery from children books. I paint my subjects in a way that comes naturally for me, and the end product, in its children’s book way, gets across a signature of my personal voice that I can’t avoid. Even if I’d like to paint with realistic precision or a hazy impression of the idea, I can’t help but fiddle with it until it evolves into the visual mark I always make. I’ve learned to live with it. I suppose this pseuso-realism conveys the idea that I like to be straightforward and unapologetic about clarity with my subject, but absolute detail and accuracy are not necessary. “Close enough” I sometimes say to my students. “We get the picture.” I don’t mind at all if certain parts of the piece are a little off-kilter or have a slightly wonky perspective. A little more interesting, human, and goofy, I say.
A children’s picture book is an apropos comparison to my style because I have drawn a good deal of influence from Mother Goose, Brother’s Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson. My mother often read these classics to us, and I’m not sure I knew of many other children’s tales until I was forced to read more modern books in school. Imagery from the famous tales appeared much as my paintings do now—realistic without being photographic, slightly stylized, and colorful. My painting subjects probably come from a similar place in the imagination that brought to life Little Bo Peep, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Little Match Girl.
I like to exaggerate color; I just can’t help it. When I try to make a neutral-colored piece I get bored and blah feeling and find a way to spice it up with color. The nature of my subject doesn’t read in black and white. My mind-states don’t feel anything like neutral states. Color is, to me, the most powerful tool of visual expression, and I’ve always delighted in the amazing fact that I get to fool around with the Real Deal. The building blocks of the world. The vibrant, expressive, heart-grabbing, wow-producing tools of beauty. Beauty! What a job I have! I understand that subtle colors have their place, too, and some of my favorite artists use them like poetry. But I can’t resist the enchantment of straight-out-of-the-tube color. When I occasionally tone it down for the sake of making a point, my next piece pops out with a vengeance of color.