Karen Close: The Art of Dionysos
Dionysos is the Greek god of wine. Although today his Roman descendant, Bacchus, has somewhat usurped his reputation, classical study reveals he is the source first renowned for giving man the merriment and freedom from care that accompanies intoxication; a mental alchemy with an important purpose.
More than a god with a taste for grape juice, Dionysus travels the world with his band of revellers to spread the vine and to inspire creativity. He is a casual deity, usually wrapped in a loose robe. His symbol is the leaf of the grapevine. He has been celebrated since the emergence of the cult of Dionysos in southern Greece in the fourth century BC.
For me it seems Dionysos is the origin of the Green Man, the symbol of Man's Oneness with Nature, found by different names and in different guises in the art of cultures around the world. Looking for his image is an intriguing pilgrimage through art history. Look for carvings or illuminations of a human head within a mass of leaves. Sometimes, the leaves appear to grow out of the head itself; at other times the human head seems to be a chance result of the configuration of the leaves. I believe he appeared to me on a visit to Cathedral Grove in October 1996.
The Green Man recurs in most of the important movements in Western culture up to the early 20th century when he largely disappeared, but he is of godly descent. He possesses the lively ability to slip from one movement of civilization to another. He always presents a new aspect of his nature in symbolizing whatever is the most dynamic and important need in a particular period. In his purest representation, the Green Man is a symbol of divine and human creativity. For the Gothic artist he was the image of the creative power on which they had to draw to create their masterpieces. He represented the creative energy that must be channelled from that higher power that made the universe above and all physical things the power that would lead them to create their destiny.
In the Renaissance, the Green Man appears as a symbol of learning and fertile imagination in the works of Michelangelo, Donatello and Mantegna. His reincarnation continues into the early scientific age where he is seen as a symbol of prosperity. He enjoys himself in the parades depicted in the friezes and sculptures on the official and commercial buildings of the late 19th century throughout Europe and North America. Twentieth-century architecture then banished decoration from buildings.
The past century's emphasis on scientific discovery has been dismissive of imagination. Seeing a need, the Green Man has found a new context in today's environmental movement; he symbolizes the relationship between humanity and nature. It seems he has come back to warn, and to help us in meeting the creative challenge presented by our new understanding of the planet and our need for a harmonious relationship with the cycles and interconnections of the natural world. In our country his voice is The Green Party.
In mythology the Green Man's power is a story of alchemy a story about the control and transformation of fierce, violent destructive emotions transfigured into protective benevolence. In most of the cultures in which the archetype Green Man appears, he is closely connected with the archetype of the Goddess. Throughout history whenever there has been a new statement of the feminine ideal, a new aspect of the Green Man appears. He is mentioned today in connection to the ancient Greek earth goddess Gaia. Her name has been brought back to symbolize the unified complexities of the biosphere, that part of the earth's crust, waters, and atmosphere that supports life.
In the stories from ancient Greek mythology, the young Dionysos was created from the mind of Zeus and thus possesses all the wisdom of the father of the gods. The myth relates the tale of how the Titans in a fit of jealousy tore Dionysos apart and burned him. Humanity was created from his ashes. Thus all human beings contain his divine knowledge. He is the universal mind in which we all share. He is a symbol of our true nature the creativity of our souls.
Shortly before his death in 1997, renowned British historian, William Anderson wrote The Face of Glory: Creativity, Consciousness, Civilization. In this book, Anderson suggests: The Green Man has come back now in the context of environmental threats to say to us: "I am life. Life is a challenge. How are you going to meet my challenge?" That challenge is to equal and surpass the creativity of our forebears in finding solutions and harmonious resolutions to problems on a scale humanity has never seen before ... The challenge is to discover more about the nature of creativity itselfif we learn more of the ways in which creativity works, we may be able to put our creativity to more efficient uses Creativity is the linking point between all fields of human endeavour and thought ... the study of creativity should enhance our knowledge and understanding of civilization.
I am a retired art and English teacher. Exploring and inspiring creativity, my own and others, has been my life's passion. When I read Anderson's words I felt everything within me rise to the challenge he describes. Significantly I recognize that my generation will not solve the global challenges facing humanity. Perhaps our bent on literal, scientific left-brain thinking has destined many of the problems. We allowed ourselves to be severed from our mythological roots. All that I am knows we now have a moral responsibility. We must educate our youth so that they can recognize, release and direct their innate wisdom to discover creative solutions. They need to become reacquainted with Dionysos, the Green Man, the voice of imagination. I became his advocate when I took the 1996 photo in Cathedral Grove and then more ardent after glimpsing what I perceived to be his image in a Haida culturally modified tree (CMT is what they call their totems). Although differently named, the archetype of the Green Man is fundamental to Native art.
In the past, Native Aboriginals of North America lived their lives in harmony with nature and their own nature. It was a way of thinking, a way of being. It was not a way of adversary, of being adversarial to nature and one's own nature. Their ways were to understand human nature and the environment and their part in it ... the life force involved in and articulated through the unique "creative process" used by Native people is one which could make a necessary contribution to the thinking of many peoples. - Douglas Cardinal, Canadian architect, in The Native Creative Process, 1991.
When I chose to paint an image from a decaying CMT in Ninstints, Haida Gwaii, BC, I became compelled to speak what I felt. Foremost, I am a believer in experiential education. When asked to participate in Cedar Creek Estate Winery's Barrel Art project in support of Kelowna's Life & Arts Festival, I saw my opportunity. I delighted that the Daily Courier chose to picture my Dionysos with the caption "Get the Party Started," that the Rotary Centre chose to keep him on display for the summer so that youth participants could meet him, and finally that director Tracie Ward should ask me to be a guest artist at the centre during the fall wine festival.
Perhaps contrary to the Courier's intent, the "Parties" I vision are really adventures in the arts. I have been working on my dream for almost a decade after first conceiving a program I call abc experiencing: Experiential Learning Adventures in Arts, Biology and Culture. The program is my way of sharing what I value with my community. My exhibition at the Rotary Centre presents my personal works inspired as I have evolved the philosophy and process of abc experiencing. In Kelowna I have presented my program with The Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers and Sisters, at Casorso Elementary School to a class who transferred what they learned into a sculpture for the Fire exhibition at the Kelowna Art Gallery, and with informal small groups. All participants have loved their involvement.
My goal is to share the ideas of the program so that the citizens of Kelowna, young and old, will be encouraged to come together in the unity of creative exchange. Recently I saw grandparents walking with their grandson on Knox Mountain. abc experiencing could have enriched their walk. There is a special tree on the path to Paul's tomb that beckons to be seen.
abc experiencing adventures are structured to encourage perceptive imaginative observations from nature and to foster interaction between young people and adult guides/leaders or parents. Participants are brought together to experience ecological walking tours which promote close observation of natural forms and imaginative translations of these into sketches/paintings. Note-taking and photography are encouraged to allow for further "mind wanderings" and translations after the adventure.
The program is designed to encourage participants to see nature with fresh eyes and to feel the joy of expressing with "heART." Curious youth, eager to explore nature and themselves, are powerful, imaginative creators. Teaching youth to have faith in the creative urgings of their hearts is the most important lesson adults can impart. It frees them to grow from within. Interaction in abc experiencing is modelled on the tradition of elders in aboriginal cultures, with the goal of bringing a student to the threshold of his or her own mind. The following is a description from a model for traditional aboriginal teaching:
Naturally, in each child's own time
For me their intent harkens back to the method of instruction begun when Plato walked with his students in ancient Greece.
Dionysos has been generous in his gifts to the Okanagan. As our new sign says, we are home to Canada's top wines and artists. Let's celebrate his spirit in developing our cultural ethos. Let's each consider how we can incorporate his wisdom, the creativity of our souls, to enrich our community. I suggest a first step is to look for his messages within our community's natural splendour. Youth who feel their oneness with the environment will discover ways to keep it, and themselves, alive. Let's show our youth how to Party with the creative spirit the universal mind in which we are one with nature. With this gift they will discover how to meet today's environmental challenges and how to create a 21st-century culture of celebration.
We live in a world of theophanies. Holiness comes wrapped in the ordinary. There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels. Hidden beauty is waiting in every crumb. Life wants to lead you from crumbs to angels, but this can happen only if you are willing to unwrap the ordinary by staying with it long enough to harvest its treasure. Macrina Wiederkehr