Welcome to Transformative Healing Dolls BLOG
More or less monthly posts about Transformative Healing Dolls
Symbols and symbolic language-developing your own personal language
Symbols and symbolic language has always intrigued me. When I was an art therapist, I tried to understand the symbols in the art of the troubled children I worked with. Struggling with painful realities and often unable to process what they were going through, these children found ways to express and release their troubles through their art. There were a lot of sports figures (the Chicago Bulls logo featured heavily) and many representations of Sadaam Hussein, standing in symbolically to respectively represent good and evil in their drawings, paintings and sculptures. Sometimes, their imagery veered into imaginary territory, with fantastical animals and dream-like landscapes.
My interest in symbolism goes way before my years as an art therapist. When I was little, I remember I once had what felt like an auspicious dream. In a beautiful mountainous landscape I saw a strange, huge set of runes (symbolic language) in the sky. It felt eerie and full of portent but I didn't understand it. This dream stayed with me for a long time, but I never could figure out what it meant. I still don't know what it meant and I wish I could remember it well enough now to look it up. The more I get familiar with my own art, I can see that most of the symbols are the same ones recurring again and again. No more symbols hanging in the sky but I'm always interested to see what new symbols show up.
Harkening back to a pre-verbal time, a time of symbolism and deep meaning
One of the things that intrigues me most about symbolic language is that it harkens back to a time when nature and the world around was felt to have deep meaning that affected the daily lives of those who felt themselves deeply connected to nature. Too long, our culture has denigrated societies that still have connection to this rich symbolic well of meaning, such as Native Americans, and the indigenous populations of places such as the Northwest of the Americas, ie: Canada and Alaska and Australia and New Zealand. And of course, cultures like the Celts. What would it be like to reconnect to a time when we as humans had a direct experience of the spiritual world, a world where we could hear plants and animals talking to us and guiding us through our days? A world when everything was truly alive.
Bears, snakes, turtles, the “Green Man,” elephants. These are a few of the symbols that have shown up frequently in my paintings and dolls. Some of these are very powerful and show up not just in my art but in my life in general. For instance-the turtle has been with me for a long time. I have long been drawn to the turtle and turtles have shown up in my dreams and in my art. My home altar is full of turtles. I'm most drawn to sea turtles for their ability to travel in land and water and to survive long distances and to dive deep into murky waters. According to the book, Animal Speak: the Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small, among many other things, "the turtle was an animal whose magic could help you unite heaven and earth within your own life." (see symbol above.)
I love being able to discover new facets of the same symbol over time. Some newer symbols in my work are the giraffes, a white goat/sheep and a green bird. In the images below are some examples of these newer symbols as they show up in my paintings. The giraffe, in the first two images, has a feeling of protectiveness to me. These first two images have a lot more going on in them, including the made up symbolic language in the first one, similar to what I describe below. According to Animal Speak, "the (giraffe's) long neck..makes it a powerful totem for farsightedness and for seeing what lies on the horizon for you." Hmmm? The white goat in the second two images suggests to me, the ability to navigate difficult terrain but there is also a playfulness to it. And the green bird, in the last two images has a feeling of magic and protection. In both images, the green is balanced with purple-colors have important meaning as well. To me, green has to do with life and life energy and purple is associated with magic.
From reading these brief descriptions of my response to some of the symbolism in my work, you can get a sense of how individualized their meanings can be. And, as I said, the meanings can change and morph over time, even within the same image. Sometimes I look back on an old image or doll and new meanings emerge that I didn't see at first.
Hand of Mysteries
Recently I have been working on a series of talisman dolls. The image at the top of this article is a detail of one of my dolls from this series. I intend to make eight over time. I'll be writing more about these in a future post. These are also inspiration for the Maiden, Mother, Crone, Death course that I am offering, starting in March. Each of the dolls starts from the same two sided soft sculpture flip doll pattern, but each time I am led in very different directions in the way I create them. For one of the dolls, I used as inspiration an image of a sculpture of a hand with little figures on each finger, that I saw in the Sackler Museum here in DC. This sculpture intrigued me but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.
Later, in researching this symbol of a hand with little saints on each finger, I found this Mexican painting called "Mano Poderosa," and was intrigued by the similarities. I then found a different image of a hand with mysterious alchemical symbols on each finger, called the "Hand of Mystery." I’m not sure if these two are related but for my doll, I combined the two. I wasn’t so much concerned with the “true” meaning of the symbol. I just liked the idea of these mysterious symbols. For this blog post, I tried to look up the meaning of the alchemical symbols and was only able to find three of them. Salt, nitrogen, sal ammoniac. What I was able to figure out was that these were various elements that would have been used in an alchemical process to create the transformation required. And I learned that the “hand of mysteries” with its additional symbols of a key, lantern, sun, star and crown had to do with a series of steps that helped to transform human into divine. It turned out that this fit with the theme of my doll. I enjoy the way in which the symbols that occur in my art can be woven into mysterious images from the past. Discovering new meanings in this way, I am able to deepen the meanings of my dolls and paintings.
Some examples of runes, sigils and other symbolic languages
There are many sources for symbolic language that can be used as inspiration in your art. Sometimes I just make them up too, in the way that I remember making up languages as a child. And my children did this too. Did you do this as a child? I want to be respectful of the origins of these words and at the same time honor them in my own creations. The image to the left is of Viking runes. Runes are an alphabet that can be adapted for magical purposes. Sigils are created specifically for their magical purposes. As I mentioned, you can use ones that you find in any brief review on the internet or you can make up your own. I am just skimming over the top of a very detailed and complicated subject but I encourage you to do your own research if you are interested.
Ancient goddess bodies as symbols and source
Take a look at these original sculptures of goddesses from ancient times. In the wonderful book, Way of the Rose: The Radical Path of the Divine Feminine Hidden in the Rosary, the authors describe how these ancient goddess sculptures were usually quite small. Instead of meant for display, the were intended to be held in the hand, carried as talisman of support and protection, just as now, many carry the rosary in their hands for comfort and protection.
This reminds me of the story that recently came out in the New York Times, that contrary to what had been previously been assumed, it was not men who created most of the cave paintings that have been discovered in places like France and Greece. It turns out that more than half of these paintings were created by women. I am not sure how they were able to figure this out, but what an amazing discovery. To me, it confirms the idea that early, preverbal societies were matriarchal and mostly peaceful. And that instead of focusing on war and struggle, the paintings they created were about mothers and babies (animal and human), representations of nature and of a mother goddess.
These sculptures with their earthy and simple shapes could also be an inspiration for you to create a symbol of nurturance and protection. They also serve as an antidote to the overly skinny models of feminine figures that are forced upon us in modern society.
Some links to artist friends whose use of symbolism in their art inspire me
I wanted to end with sharing some links to art by friends of mine. Sometimes I am so amazed at the people I know and am inspired by. When you look at their art and imagery, consider what symbolic language they are using. What can you notice about their symbolic language? What is revealed/concealed?
Julie Dziekiewitz, makes encaustic paintings that speak out for women's rights. Her large wax paintings are colorful and engaging and full of meaningful symbols, both political and personal. Look for the different ways sharks show up in her paintings.
Sybil Archibald I've written about Sybil before but if you haven't already taken a look at her work, please do go and look. Her paintings and sculptures and most recently monotypes, are rich with personal spiritual symbolism. She is working on a book about her monotypes that will expand on the meanings of their symbols.
Pauline Siple, another artist friend from my Torpedo Factory days, has recently added to her repertoire of evocative paintings to add soft sculptures. These playful figures and paintings speak to themes that interest her and reflect stories of her life.
Polly Sonic/Linda Wingerter, I've known since my New Haven days. Her puppetry, (one of many creative talents, including children's book illustration) continue to amaze me. She is infinitely inventive and creative-take a look.
I've been making dolls for about ten years now. I believe that dolls serve as representations and reminders of the best part of ourselves. I am excited to share with you here my learnings about new methods and techniques for doll making and healing. So glad you are here!