When I first saw this extraordinary clay round last spring (see above) I was immediately captured by the story being told. As I recall it was the second, and to me, the central image in a series of three that Debra created. To paraphrase Debra’s words these forms were hand built from Stoneware clay and underwent multiple firings with layers of oxides, under-glazes, and glazes during the spring of 2020. They expressed her daily thoughts and experiences. When I asked her about the order in which the pieces came into being she told me that it was hard to say because she built all three forms at the same time and then added the relief.
Debra is an incredibly gifted artist who lives in Abiquiu, New Mexico. She seems to have a pulse on Western Culture especially from a feminine standpoint that penetrates the hearts of many women and men. It is no wonder that she has become so well known and loved.
What follows is a personal exploratory analysis of this particular relief, a technique I learned many years ago from an art teacher I had in graduate school that helped me to articulate what I saw and felt when I gazed at a piece of work that I loved.
The focus of this exploration will be on this central piece. However, towards the end of this analysis I will briefly attempt to situate this relief in the storied frame of the series as a whole.
It is important to add that I am working from photographs and this severely limits my ability to portray what I am seeing accurately. Clay is a living breathing entity that erupts/materializes in three dimensions; any photograph removes this quality of depth or breadth. For this reason I have asked Debra to clarify details of a couple of images; others I have left to my imagination.
Art moves us from within. Sometimes a piece will call to us on a purely personal level because it taps into some aspect of our own experience. However, if a sculpture has an archetypal aspect to it, and by this I mean that the subject portrayed taps into a universal form or idea, one that carries both energy and information, then that artist becomes a vehicle for collective energy and information that transcends the personal. When this happens many people within a particular culture and/or across cultures are drawn into relationship with the art-work. Archetypes can be understood as universal patterns that are personal, cultural, and transcultural – these are empty forms that must be filled by human creativity/activity.
I believe that an archetypal aspect informs most if not all of Debra’s work. It’s not that her personal story isn’t being told or is lacking in importance, it’s that this gifted artist has access to both – her story and that belonging to the culture at large. Debra acts as a vehicle for the transpersonal to come through; there is a mystical aspect to her work that must be included in the whole. This ‘both and’ quality expresses a reality few artists are able to attain and embody through their art.
As I recall I first saw a photograph of this sculpture last spring not long after the Corona virus pandemic erupted. Immediately I was struck by the realization that this one image expressed both the problem and pointed to a way of dealing with the pandemic. When I looked at all three images together I saw the central story in relationship to women. The phrase “the mask and the mirror” came to me almost immediately.
Dark tones permeate most of the round but are most intense overhead. At the top left, almost obscured by dark browns with a hint of slate blue is an image of a “wish bone” – a very curious symbol. Immediately I think of children. As a child my brother and I would each take hold of the wishbone of either a turkey or chicken, and make a wish. Whoever broke off the largest piece had his/her wish come true…but this bone is upside down suggesting that something is very wrong. A reversal. To strip something to its bones is to express underlying truth. Bones, of course, are also symbolic of death. There is an unmistakable poignancy here, blurred, almost hidden in darkness. An absence or loss of children or a child aspect of self is imaged here?
Below, on the left, a gauzy mask barely obscures the upper half of the anonymous woman’s face. Literally, the mask speaks to the Powers of Air and the threat that the Corona virus poses as an airborne disease that spreads rapidly through the air we breathe; movement of the wind increases the chance of outdoor exposure; stagnant indoor air is worse. However, this mask covers neither nose or mouth so it has nothing to do with protection from the virus. However, to see through the mask is to penetrate illusion. In this way of thinking, the mask is a symbol of woman’s ability to access truth.
Debra uses the same face in all of her female sculptures. I think of her as ‘Everywoman’ and here the woman seems almost numb. The suggestion that she has no physical protection may also be highlighted by a ‘see through’ mask. The streaked aspect of the mask speaks to rapid movement. Covid is a dire threat and women are being separated from loved ones as a result of the need to isolate… Think too of the opposite problem – many women will become caregivers who are on the frontlines living unprotected lives in order to save the lives of others during this pandemic. Nurses, doctors, teachers, food service attendants, waitresses, housekeepers, child providers, mothers of all kinds, dedicated to serving humanity. Women represent those who are most at risk because so many are in caregiving positions. In addition to numbness I think courage, compassion, endurance, and grief are mirrored by the expression on this ‘Everywoman’s’ face …
The woman’s eyes are open but unfocused suggesting that she sees in a softer way. To soften our vision often allows us to see differently. The right eye (the left in reality) is encircled by a circle, a monocle? Glasses of any kind improve sight and the left eye speaks to the unconscious, intuitive side of ourselves, the part of us that is able to see through illusion/delusion and can gain insight from within. A woman with the gift of Second Sight can read the future.
When I asked Debra about this circle she said “ the circle around the eye is symbolic of the moon, a nightly ritual of seeing the moon.” Curiously, women as ‘seers’ have an intimate relationship with the moon. Both eyes seem to be able to stare directly through the mask. The woman’s lips are parted; she is breathing but there is no sense that she is about to speak.
The length of the woman’s neck is accentuated by its distinct slate blue tones. This neck seems especially vulnerable – stretched perhaps to endurance. Suddenly it occurs to me that it is also a neck, like a chicken’s neck, that is ready for the chopping block. Has this woman lost her voice? Her ability to breathe? Is there a threat of being separated from her body? The suggestion of a body ends at the woman’s shoulders so we are left wondering…
Since our feelings and emotions reside in our bodies the suggestion here is that this woman may be without access to her body on an instinctual level. If so she is unable to protect herself. Blue is a color that is sometimes associated with death. In some Native traditions, like that of the Zuni and the Lakota Sioux blue is the color of the Underworld. Particularly touching is the pale four petaled flower to the lower right of the left half of the relief, a flower without a stem or root, or is this a wheel of some kind, one that is in motion – whirling – chaos? To my mind a number of aspects of this portrayal speak to the presence of death.
And yet below the flower the somber tones lighten to cream and ivory and a pale yellow round emerges at the bottom center of the relief. With the blurring of boundaries the upper split vanishes as light begins to permeate both sides of the bottom of the piece. Also missing is the suggestion of separation between the two halves that ends at the bottom of the woman’s blue neck. In this lower half we see an opening into the right side of the relief. Light is penetrating the darkness.
One way to read this shift is to see this opening occurring unconsciously; in the realm of the unconscious there are no ego boundaries to separate parts of the self. Everything is interconnected. Just above the ivory light is a small white moon – like circle, still caught in the dark, symbolizing the presence of the moon/unconscious contents; and then almost instantly we are drawn into the image of a huge brown standing bear who contains not just the head but the torso of the anonymous woman, a woman without either arms or legs. The details of this magnificent animal are well defined; and the giant bear is holding the woman lovingly in his embrace. That he is a male bear seems to be suggested by the presence of genitalia.
This is a Brown bear; and these bears weigh up to about 1000 lbs. Brown bears or grizzlies are reputed to be fearsome and destructive animals, but anyone that has ever studied them from a naturalist’s, bear biologist’s, or ethological standpoint knows that these astonishingly intelligent animals are not vicious animals. They are however, fear driven and terrified of humans because they have been hunted almost to extinction by man. In their terror they may moan piteously or huff, snort, and slap the ground in what seems to be a threatening way when encountering a human. If approached, most will run. If bears are treated with respect and given adequate space the majority of these animals leave people alone (see Bradshaw’s compelling narrative about Charlie Russell’s life with grizzlies that reads like a novel – Talking with Bears).
From an Indigenous perspective bears were and remain the most powerful animal healers of body, mind, soul and spirit. They are repeatedly invoked through complex rituals like the Navajo Mountainway Chant. To have a grizzly bear as a protector is the most powerful medicine of all.
Bears are also associated with the unconscious instinctual, untamed side of being human according to most Jungian scholars, although Brown bears are considered to be dangerous instincts by these same psychologists (European in origin).
I would posit that Debra knows the truth about Brown bears.
Now let’s return to the woman in the left side of the relief; the woman with only a suggestion of a body. This woman has lost contact with her instincts, but only temporarily as it turns out.
When ‘Everywoman’ re-emerges from the unconscious on the right side of the round she is held in the arms of the bear, ‘Our Great Protector’, a part of ourselves that is the author of our feelings and emotions, our instincts and inner truth, all of which are stored in our bodies. Under the bear’s protection we can return to our whole selves and mediate our fears.
The woman’s face and torso are lacking both arms and legs, appendages that help us to take action to change the direction our lives are taking – reiterating the lack of power women have to deal with this virus – or to change or control other outcomes. We may not be able to shift the outcome of a virus that humans created and must begin to take responsibility for, but we can help ourselves and those we love by listening carefully to our bodies, and allowing our instincts to guide us.
One concrete way of accomplishing this change is to submerge ourselves in the rest of Nature and stay open to the appearance of animals, birds, plants etc., and by paying close attention to images and words, nudges, synchronicities, dreams and fantasies. Especially while caregiving, perhaps the most exhausting job of all. S/he provides us with a means to deal with the crisis of Covid 19 by staying in the present moment as much as we possibly can. Debra’s flowers/ four leaf clovers, owls, stars, all speak to the importance of the presence of nature in different ways.
It is hard to miss the change of expression in Everywoman’s face. Held by the bear, her eyes are focused and there is a sense of peace that permeates the woman’s countenance. Clearly, Everywoman is able to be present to what is. This woman has once again found home.
To the right and below the moon there is a small leaf- like image that seems to be drifting. When I asked Debra what the image was she responded that the leaf was a simplified four – leaf clover. It symbolized the role that luck plays in the spread of an impersonal virus, but memories of being with her grandfather on Sunday afternoons searching for four leaf clovers, and the way the two were connected with nature were also part of the reason she included this image. Once again we see the archetypal and the personal intersecting in Debra’s work. On an archetypal level the impersonal presence of luck/trickster/fool determines viral outcomes, on a personal level this symbol attaches Debra to nature and her love for family.
The clover-leaf, like the flower isn’t attached to anything, and it is not green which might suggest something about outcomes. In fact the color green is totally absent from the entire series, a sobering thought if one attaches the color green, as I do, to the greening of all life. However, Debra has made the desert her permanent home and the color green when present is muted in this environment so the lack of this color may have more to do with the artist’s context than anything else.
Notice how the first round of yellow ‘blossoms’ into a larger sun in the west as more light penetrates the relief. This sun is also a star and indeed these two yellow objects might be other stars. If the star is our sun it appears to be rising from below (possibly from the realm of the unconscious) and it is moving west not east. Here we see other reversals akin to the upside down wishbone. The area of golden light has reached the woman’s torso and seems to be moving upwards towards a still very somber multilayered charcoaled sky…
Night is still with us. But so is the power of the Great Bear.
Now, as promised, I will attempt to briefly situate this relief in the storied frame of the series as a whole. When I first saw the other two pieces I wasn’t sure that they were all crafted at the same time but I had the sense that all three were intimately connected. I saw parts of a story unfolding that were specifically related to all women, expressing an immediate problem as well as pointing to shifts that might help women as a whole.
In the first relief my eye is immediately drawn to the deep blue -black sky and the Great Horned Owl’s penetrating yellow eyes, its direct flight towards the viewer. The details of this owl are exquisite and stand out against a threatening sky. Below, in ivory and cream we see two women’s heads facing each other and these figures complete the round. The woman on the left has eyes that are open; the other woman’s expression is unfocused but both faces turn skyward gazing towards the owl, which is a Great Horned owl. One way of interpreting this image is to say that woman ‘s unconscious intuitive eye remains open, she sees/comprehends the message, while the ‘conscious’ woman’s eyes remain blurred. I think of the two anonymous women as depicting both conscious and unconscious sides of one female figure who is also ‘Everywoman’.
The owl – the Great Horned owl in particular – is a bird of Omens, and often associated with Second Sight. S/he is also a Messenger. Furthermore, the owl is also specifically related to woman’s power. For example, the Greek goddess Athena had a small owl that sat on her shoulder. All owls are associated with the Powers of Night but throughout the Southwest and Mexico the Great Horned owl is called Tecolote and is associated with death by Indigenous peoples. To hear the call of the Great Horned owl for many peoples is a premonition of death or some other kind of disaster. In this country, the Lakota Sioux are terrified of women and men who have “owl medicine” because these people are believed to harness the powers of death for their own means.
The moment I saw the first relief I felt the presence of death, the fear that accompanies it. The pandemic struck suddenly apparently out of thin air (at least for many – impeccable scientific research had predicted such an outcome that had been ignored by the public). That this fear was related to the pandemic’s sudden explosion seemed quite obvious. Here the two parts of the anonymous woman are dealing with the threat in opposite ways. The intuitive woman on the left can face the threat; the woman on the right cannot… Consequently we are dealing with an inner female split. There is another image of the flower or four-leafed clover in the center between the two women.
When I turned to the second relief I ‘saw’ how the specter of fear/death threatens to separate woman from her body and instincts, but happily she recovers them by uniting herself with the bear; she is given the power she needs to deal with the crisis that is building.
In the third relief we see the two women again only this time the woman on the right is breathing three flowers/four leaf clovers into the air that are attached by almost invisible threads to her mouth. This woman’s head is thrown back, while the woman on the left is the smaller of the two ivory/cream images, and she peers sideway at the other woman with a quizzical look. The sense I have is that she is not taking a position on what she observes. This woman’s mouth is closed, while the other woman is exhaling, filling the air with flowers. Is this wishful thinking or does the image refer to the regenerative powers of nature? Both? It may also be that the unconscious is receding but we don’t know why.
The woman on the right breathes flowers/four leaf clovers into the air suggesting to me that the use of breath is also critically important to healing during this time. We won’t be able to breathe deeply until we recover our instincts. These two critical components help woman to deal with the pandemic and any other threats that might come her way.
Recovering our instincts and breathing through our fears also allows us to stay emotionally present to ourselves, and to others in a meaningful way. To put ourselves in the arms of nature helps us do all of the above.In this series I do not see an answer to our present dilemma; the Corona virus continues to spread, but I am heartened because women are being offered priceless ‘gifts’ through Debra’s work.