The Artist as Shaman, The Shaman as Artist & the Inspiration for Both

ear Miracles,

A few weeks ago a Moveable Feast started at Terri Windling’s blog on Artistic Inspiration and the fine line that the artist walks between inspiration and madness, It is a subject that is near and dear to my heart not least because my husband is a very talented musician and visual artist and I am a vocalist, but also because whenever these conversations come up one of the more interesting insights is the role of artist as a shaman, someone who walks between the worlds.

Terri says it quite well:

“In the mythic tradition, both artists and shamans walk perilously close to the realm of madness; indeed, in some cases, their gifts specifically come from journeying into madness, or Faerie, or the Realm of the Gods and then back again.”

I have been playing with the converse of this idea myself since my husband informed me that I was an artist. I think I looked at him like he had sprouted a second head but he simply shrugged and gestured to one of my many altars –“you are an artist and your medium is ritual.” I had always been comfortable labeling myself a hereditary seer and ritualist—but an artist? Hardly.

And yet…when I read descriptions of art making from artists that I admire it does sound very similar to creating a ritual or the experience of seeing for/with someone. From Howard Gayton’s blog interview with Brian and Wendy Froud; Brian:

“The problem for me is that I have no idea what I’m doing. I am not very good at just crafting something, at just shaping it. What I’m really doing is ‘searching’ for an image when I paint, for what it needs to be.”

One of the common themes in both Brian and Terri’s quotes is the process of searching for the right gift in the otherworld and then bringing it back into what another favorite writer Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls the “topside world.” This resonates strongly with me in my fields of both seership and ritual work. In my seership work, I often perceive myself as accompanying the querent as we search for the right question and innately known answer, while in ritual work I am searching for the perfect arrangement or composition of altar space, prayer, and ingredients to honor and manifest a specific desire.

Alice and the Red Queen by Brian FroudIn both cases, there is a sense of journeying, wandering into other realms — encountering other ways of seeing, various beings that cannot be easily categorized in our world, and open engagement with a process that quite often can feel risky and yes, a little bit mad. Like others, I often look at a finished ritual or the results from reading and find myself wondering how it ended up happening like that. At the same time there is also a faculty of sharp discernment that frames the entire process — I do not allow myself to utilize every tool and trick I know for every ritual creation — there are herbs, roots, and curios that are appropriate to fostering and encouraging success and there are prayers meant to deal with grief for instance — the two are in different categories and I would rarely call on both at the same time. So there is a kind of wrestling and organizing of the would-be finished product that stands in tension with the impulse to roam and wonder in those faerie lands. There is also the recognition that in my case this devotional and sacred work is also paid work — this is the work from which I derive my livelihood, so while the other realms may not appreciate things like deadlines and consistent client contacts — my business success demands them. In short, I can often feel like a juggler holding many distinct realities in some kind of creative tension-and in so doing creating a whole greater than its parts. Christina Cairns over at her fantastic blog says it this way:


“I once told a uni lecturer that I considered myself a ‘post-modern humanist’, and was told that was impossible because they are utterly contradictory schools of thought.  But it makes sense to me.  I can believe in faeries on one hand, and not believe in them at the same time.  And both are the truth.  I can look at an artwork I have created and see every painstaking line, every problem I had to resolve, remember seeing my hand create this and remember all the thought processes that have gone into it, and see it as nothing more than a thing I have made.  And at the same time I can be amazed and awed by what seems to be so much more than the fruits of my labour, a thing magical with a power of its own that is nothing to do with me.”  

If you publicly claim to be a ritualist or seer then for many you have already danced over the line between inspiration and madness and are fixed squarely in other realms which the grown-up world put away long ago with the rest of their childish things. And, just as many artists have suffered perhaps not for, but certainly along with, their art, I think many innately magical people and those interested in natural, ceremonial, alchemical, or hermetic magic give into the otherworld too fully — ignoring things like deadlines and client relationships, maintaining a sense of escapism and in so doing never really give their work and creations the proper space to fully flourish. This creates its own kind of suffering and has contributed to a world with a paucity of magic — especially in industrialized, developed, societies.

The Alchemist by Rima Staines

Understanding the artist as shaman allows artists and those who appreciate their art to give a designated space and time — to create a ceremony really, wherein the artist/shaman may go a bit mad — as anyone walking the primrose path to faerieland must be willing to do. For those who practice magic or divination perhaps it is time to also consider ourselves artists working in the mediums of intuition and ritual, the medium of the sacred, touched deeply by those other worlds and the daemon, but nevertheless responsible to root our art, ritual, and insights back into the physical realm, the topside world, so that it may grow and flourish like a tree — with roots sunk deep into myth and faerieland, but with branches that provide shade and sanctuary to those right here and now. Wendy Froud conveys this sense of responsibility beautifully in speaking of her work as well as Brian’s:

“We’re both very interested in natural magic, which involves healing and energy. We both believe very strongly that whatever work we do, we put healing energy into it — especially if it goes out into the world for other people to experience.”

For me, her quote highlights a final commonality between artist and shaman — one that is not discussed overmuch but that is essential to both roles-the communities that they serve. Walking the third road can feel very isolating and lonely at times — another reason why it can appear mad, and both the artist and shaman have liminal positions within society, often situated on the outskirts of the city or village proper because of their dance with the daemon — but in both cases their work culminates not only in the creative act itself but in the sharing and thereby enriching of their greater community and the responsibilities and freedoms that come with such a task.

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