The spider spirit animal awakens creative sensibilities and reminds us that the past is always interwoven with the future.
©Lisa Levart 2016
photo by:Lisa Levart
The spider spirit animal awakens creative sensibilities and reminds us that the past is always interwoven with the future.
©Lisa Levart 2016
In his 1991 pre-TED Talk “talk”, John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, delivers countless “light bulb” jokes, all while detailing ways to foster creativity. The main take-away for me is that creativity is not a talent or ability. Creativity flows, Cleese believes, when you are in an open, expansive and relaxed state. And the more playful you are, the longer you can maintain this state.
To get into this “Open Mode” Cleese recommends these conditions:
Space: a secluded oasis of quiet where you are sealed off from the pressures of daily life
Time: limit the time in your space to a pre determined beginning and end
Time: allow yourself enough time to ponder before accepting your creative choice
Confidence: while you are experimenting, nothing is wrong.
Humor: humor is an essential part of spontaneity and helps get you into the Open Mode
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Karen and I mused about making another Goddess portrait. The result of our play time together is “Lila.” In the Hindu tradition, Lila is a way of describing our human reality and the result of spontaneous, divine play.
“When I look at the wildly innovative creativity that is in nature, I see how much this divine universe loves to play in new and fresh ways! Being playful allows me to be an open conduit for this unbounded, novel, ingenious divine, and feels fun, effortless, exciting, and full of laughter and wisdom! Being playful makes everything easy. Being playful brings out the best in me and in everyone I encounter. I love embodying the essence of Lila! I love you! ”
During the process of creating Karen’s Lila portrait, were John Cleese’s conditions present? Indeed they were. Our creative space was nestled in the magical Hollywood Hills, perched high above the din of Sunset Boulevard. The end time was pre-determined; we were going to a dinner party together AND the sun was setting! We gave ourselves extra time the next day once we had a clearer concept of the Lila image. Karen’s unconditional love and support gave me the confidence to try anything. And humor? Adorned with a tutu around her neck and a Mad Hatter’s hat floating on her head, our sense of humor was in full throttle.
Which reminds me; how many Goddesses does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: None….. they are already enlightened!
As an artist with ancient mythology embedded in my DNA, I have examined this issue before. I have photographed prominent feminist leaders such as Gloria Feldt, (who portrayed the strong-willed Lilith, Adam’s first wife), and Starhawk (who portrayedMaeve, the Celtic Goddess of Sovereignty). Both women advocate re-envisioning women’s connection to power.
Other ancient myths reflect our contemporary relationships to power as well. Durga is a fearless Hindu Goddess who symbolizes power in all its forms. Durga — whose name means “invincible” — is a ferocious protectress against injustice and all human suffering. Traditionally she is depicted astride a tiger or lion: symbols of her unlimited power. Often illustrated with eight arms, her capacity for action speaks for itself. Durga also has three eyes: her left eye represents the desire to act, her central eye the capacity to follow through with one’s desires, and her right eye, action itself.
“It has been my privilege to be a key protagonist in the renaissance of the Marwari. The confidence to actualize ideals, to remain unimpeachable, to incorporate if you will, at the best of times, the qualities of Sherawali, is a battle and sacrifice all must experience.”
Francesca’s embodiment of Sherawali in the photographs we created portray the symbolic trinity of Durga’s spiritual stages of power.
Far from being archaic, ancient symbolism continues to influence the necessary re-envisioning of feminine power. Durga demonstrates how modern women can use power in its multiple, generous forms as the manifestation of reflection, intent, and capability. Sherawali and Francesca are role models for contemporary women warriors (my conflicted self included) who are looking to add layers of empowerment to their lives. With mythical and ancient symbolism to guide me, I will continue to nurture my passions, practice and embrace tools for empowerment, and take action to achieve my desires.
(Francesca Kelly is seen with Sushil Kumar, a horse trainer and tent-pegger from Dundlod, India.)
Darkness comes early as Solstice draws near. Lights are lit in windows, on trees, inside houses and along streets. We seek their comfort and warmth during these short days and long nights. The last month of the calendar is here and we eagerly anticipate the rebirth of a new annual cycle. We make merry during this time and yet, there is also an opportunity to acknowledge and honor the darkness: the darkness outside and the darkness within.
Love, bliss and joy. Fear, anger and rage. All of these are part of being human. Positive and negative make a whole. Without our darkness, we are incomplete.
“I must also have a dark side if I am to be whole,” Carl Jung wrote.
Susun Weed, shamanic herbalist, author and teacher, doesn’t run from her dark side — she embraces it, using it to help others make changes in their lives, to become more authentic and more powerful as women. For 35 years, Susun has been a ferocious advocate for women’s health. Her five books, the Wise Woman Herbal Series — including titles on childbearing, menopause, breast health and sexual/reproductive health — are treasured by millions of women worldwide. Susun shares her encyclopedic knowledge of herbs and health through her website and workshops at her Wise Woman Center in Woodstock, New York and throughout the world.
Little did I know that when I contacted Susun to participate in Goddess on Earth, I was to also learn a powerful lesson.
The Goddess does not only embody light, joy and nurturing love. In her other aspects — as Durga, Ereshkigal and Guabancex to name just a few — she is a Goddess of unbridled rage who follows no rules. She is a warrior who takes no prisoners and who demands that we confront the darkness within, the parts of ourselves that are not kind, pretty or nice.
For Goddess on Earth, Susun chose to portray Baba Yaga, a terrifying female shaman from Slavic mythology. Ancient, wise and fierce, Baba Yaga lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs and which twirls like an ecstatic dancer. Baba Yaga flies with the wind and frightens many, but she helps those who approach her with courage and truth. In the book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes, “Baba Yaga is fearsome, for she is the power of annihilation and the power of the life force at the same time.”
Susun and I met in upstate New York on what turned out to be a bitterly cold, wintery day. During the photo session, her uncompromising stance and piercing gaze brought shivers down my spine. Like Baba Yaga, Susun is a formidable life force.
“I have nothing to lose: age has taken it all from me and revealed my true treasures… I am surely the most fearsome thing ever seen, ever imagined. A powerful old woman at home with herself,”
Susun wrote to accompany her Baba Yaga portrait in Goddess on Earth.
In this season of dwindling light, let us turn inwards and connect with the most enduring parts of ourselves: the parts with the courage and tenacity to weather cold winters and all of life’s challenges. Age-old, unapologetic and fierce, Susun and Baba Yaga are inspiring figures who remind us that there is no time for petty distractions like Being Pretty or Being Good or Being Nice. It’s time to get on with the real work of becoming real, becoming women of power, becoming complete. We are not just light but dark, not just pretty but awesome, not just smiling but weeping, shouting, raging, fearsome. Baba Yaga reminds us to reclaim those dark places where our real treasures lie. In this way, we become whole.
During my recent trip to Morocco, there were times when it seemed like I had stepped into the movie Blade Runner. I was bombarded by a hectic energy — an ancient way of life adapting to and colliding with the 21st century. There were women covered head to toe in black burkas riding in donkey carts, young and old men in long, hooded robes checking their cell phones, bloody goat heads displayed haphazardly by meat vendors, and lost tourists photographing their surroundings to help remember their way through the Esher-like streets of the old medinas. I experienced all this while dodging a barrage of motorcycles plowing through the crowds. Was I reacting to sensory overload, the juxtaposition of the old and new, or the disorientation from encountering an unknown culture?
One woman who would applaud my “fish out of water” experience was Farah Cherif D’Ouezzan, the Founder and Director of the Center for Cross Cultural Learning in Rabat, Morocco. I met Farah on the first weekend of my adventure, and she gamely agreed to be photographed for Goddess on Earth. One of the many joys of photographing women for this series is its basic premise — the subjects themselves choose the sacred myth they connect with, and wish to embody for their portrait.
Farah’s choice of the Queen of Sheba is one of the few women immortalized in the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As the 3,000-year-old story goes, Sheba was a powerful and educated leader who traveled a great distance to question, test, and learn from the famed King Solomon. She converted to Solomon’s monotheistic religion and brought this new faith back to her people. Farah sees Sheba as a bridge builder, someone connecting different religions and asking fundamental questions such as “Who am I?” and “With whom do I belong?”
After we photographed, Farah shared why she chose to portray the Queen of Sheba:
“I have always envisioned Sheba as a strong human being who can bring the world together, a power able to overcome all challenges to accomplish impossible missions and make dreams become true. Queen of Sheba belongs to every culture and every community and draws all of them to come together peacefully.”
In Morocco, I travelled from the beautiful northern mountainside village of Chefchaouen to the sands of the Sahara. But out of all these well-formed wonders, it is the Moroccan culture that will leave the longest lasting impression upon me. My original feelings of being alien and lost in this colorful world slowly gave way to a more nuanced and personal understanding of the Moroccan way of life. It is due to women like Farah and the ever-present influence of the Queen of Sheba that these kind of cross-cultural revelations are possible.
Individuals gathering in circles, fostering unity and co-creation is a powerful concept. And yet there is another paradigm for inspiration just as important — the need for quiet introspection and time spent alone. Susan Cain wrote in The New York Times (The Rise of the New GroupThink) “people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”
This didn’t come as news to me. “Goddess on Earth” took over 10 years to realize. I’m pretty sure that I could not have sustained the focus needed if it’s creation had been dispersed among a large group. I was blessed with enthusiastic support in circles and wrote about it in a past blog entitled Women Sustaining Each Other. Many wonderful opportunities availed themselves along the way, and these deep connections kept me going for the long haul. The other side of this coin is that a lot of time was spent working alone; editing photographic images, educating myself about sacred myths and allowing the project’s creation to slowly reveal itself to me.
In a study reported by ScienceDaily, researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University and Union College examined levels of collective intelligence in groups and found that those containing more women demonstrated greater “social sensitivity “– the ability to perceive other members’ emotions — and thus performed better in complex undertakings.
Sounds like the feminist principle of co-creation to me. As Gloria Steinem wrote in “Revolution From Within”: “progress means interdependence.” Joining a women’s group and participating in goddess retreats can help connect creative collaborators and foster radical personal transformation. Ten years ago, I joined a women’s circle and attended my first goddess retreat. When I made space for my own personal and spiritual growth in these environments, I was showered with support and grew in ways I never could have imagined.
Why do so many young women and girls in today’s society feel disempowered? “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Jennifer Siebel tells us in her new documentary “Miss Representation,” which explores how mainstream media portrays women in limited ways. Namely, that womanhood means being young, beautiful and thin. Without realistic role models, is it really surprising that so many young women are confused, isolated and deeply depressed?
In the course of working on my book “Goddess on Earth,” I encountered women from a diverse range of backgrounds and vocations with a variety of appearances and life paths. They did, however, all have one thing in common: they cultivated their own empowerment by identifying with a goddess and invoking her symbolic qualities.
I don’t mean to say that believing in or identifying with the Goddess makes young girls immune to societal pressures of beauty, attractiveness or self-worth. But I do think that the world of goddess spirituality offers an alternative to our cultural climate, which is so focused on women’s limitations — how they look versus how they should look, how they act versus how they should act, and so forth.
I have always loved autumn. It feels like new beginnings; a new grade at school, a new semester at college, a fresh start, and not surprisingly, my only child was born in October. It is also the time of the Autumn Equinox, a day when the duration of light and dark are equal, before the tipping point of summer turning into fall. This year, I still feel that excitement, a tingling in the air, but I am also reflective; musing about my life as I inch ever closer to the crone.
The Goddess, worshiped for at least 5,000 years before Christianity, encompasses the concept of a trinity: the maiden, mother and crone. Barbara Walker wrote in her seminal book The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, “From the earliest ages, the concept of the Great Goddess was a trinity and the model for all subsequent trinities, female, male or mixed.” I’ve struggled as a maiden, loved being a mother, but at 55, am I ready to be a crone?
The maiden aspect of the Goddess is symbolic of new beginnings, youthful enthusiasm, independence, and a time when a girl is growing into the woman she is to become. When I photographed Maya for the Artemis portrait in Goddess on Earth, she was just 12 years old, and beginning to deal with all the newness that comes with growing into your own skin. In her statement to accompany her photograph, she wrote: “Artemis represents strength, independence, self-reliance, and courage — all qualities I wish I had.” Here Maya was, on the cusp of adulthood; I could feel her power but also her fear. I too remember a confidence at that time, but underneath it, what I really wanted was approval that I was doing things “right”.
The characteristics of the mother stage are creativity, balance, and fullness of life, being pregnant with possibilities, as well as loving and receiving love. Rha Goddess, the renowned hip-hop performance artist, social entrepreneur and activist had no trouble choosing which Goddess to embody: Lakshmi, the Indian Goddess of wealth and prosperity clearly spoke to her. “It is our Goddess-given birthright to be healthy, wealthy and wise. The divine mother Lakshmi belongs to all of us; she moves in the hood just as she moves on Wall Street, challenging us to bring new consciousness to all our resources.” With light streaming into a dark Brooklyn stairwell, Rha glowed with a magical life force.
In a few weeks, I will give birth to an eight year-old — or that is what self-publishing my first book feels like. When first conceived, I thought the path to publishing Goddess on Earth would be fairly complex but straightforward. Instead, it took me to unknown lands, introduced me to wondrous individuals and in general, carried me on a great adventure.
Eight years ago, suffering during a night of insomnia and depression, I picked up Jean Shinoda Bolen’s book Goddess in Everywomen and couldn’t put it down. Though thoroughly enthralled by the subject matter, one of the Goddesses seemed to leap off the page and speak to me. Her name was Demeter, the Greek Goddess of the Bountiful Harvest.
Demeter was a nurturer and a mother (as I was), and when Hades (the Greek God of the Underworld) abducted her daughter Persephone, she was devastated. Demeter’s grief caused the land to became barren. While reading this myth, I saw myself reflected in this universal archetype. With this knowledge, I felt strengthened and empowered: I knew that I would eventually crawl out of my cave and return to the world of light, creativity and passion, just as Demeter had done when Persephone returned to her for six months out of the year.
My journey had begun and I began photographing women as Goddesses to see if sacred myths spoke to other contemporary women. I wanted to explore how resilient, complex and multi faceted present-day women were — just like the goddesses of ancient myths. I chose women of all ages and from all walks of life, and for some, the idea of their lives resembling a universal archetype was a new and thrilling concept. The choice of sacred myth wasn’t necessarily easy, or straightforward, but it always revealed deep personal insight.
When I first approached Jodie Evans and Dana Balicki from the political organization Code Pink about a portrait, Jodie immediately identified with the fierce Hindu Goddess Kali. For Dana, it was a personal moment of truth — she believed in change and transformation, but had to dig deep to find the raw anger and rage necessary to embody the bold, giver and destroyer of life: Kali.