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  • C. Jensen

What is a Gaia Illumination?

Updated: Apr 14

A number of my drawings and paintings fall under my self-styled category, Gaia Illuminations. I recognize that this term isn't in a casual lexicon, and therefore doesn't make any clearer what my jumbled, wild calligraphic drawings are, or what they stand for. Here is a less-than-brief essay on the jist of how I go about making these drawings, and what they mean to me:

I consider Gaia Illuminations to be contemporary calligraphic illumination work, in the tradition of illuminated texts such as the very famous Book of Kells, or Lindisfarne Gospels, but aware of the era and context in which they are made— meaning that in the 2019 art world of 'expanded fields,' illumination and other historic approaches to making images and objects can grow outside of the limitations of those historic crafts.

I am a calligrapher, visual artist and writer, and these different approaches to the creativity and expression are all rooted in their conjuring of of images, stories, and myths. Intentionally, but also by accident, I came to a strange amalgamation processes that give agency to all three disciplines, even if the resulting artwork leans powerfully in one direction. My proposal through this griffin approach, is that the Earth (Gaia, or Terra if you like), and all that in combination make Her up, the profane and sacred, mundane and sublime, are worthy of the golden halo, the jeweled crown, the decorated Capital.

My Gaia Illuminations have a very diverse artistic lineage, relating directly to the aesthetic and context of sources such as the aforementioned Book of Kells, but also to Hilma af Klint's paintings for the Temple, as well as her mystic aesthetic in other works. They also relate to Tantric Yantra painting in the Himalayas, and much of the thematic inspiration and work included in the excellent Chaos & Awe exhibition last year. Simultaneously, they directly quote a less mystical and much more pragmatic scholarship around ecology, psycho-spiritual relationships within contemporary Western culture, and our global crises of climate, biodiversity, food production and reverence (or lack-thereof) to Gaia. In this way, they are more akin to the work of Diane Burko and the efforts around the world to effectively collaborate the visual arts within scientific research and study— the Arctic Circle Residency is also a good example of this.

I experience calligraphy and illumination as a method of conveying immense reverence and respect for an ineffable body of knowledge, so complex and sublime that our attempts at codifying and communicating about it will always fall spectacularly short. I do not bemoan this— I seek to highlight it, an effort to emphasize our species' smallness, which is our great insignificance and also great strength in coming to grips with the hugeness of our relationships to each other, and other living beings. If this reads like a truism, and one half-baked, I invite you to sleep on it.

I break from the historical tradition of keeping these calligraphic forms and gold leaf solely for Gospels and other forms of Abrahamic Divine teaching, instead honoring language around existential concerns such as humanism, ecology, lost histories and Terrestrial spirituality. Gaia Illuminations do not seek to upend or challenge religious doctrines or histories, it is a 'Yes, And' approach— expanding the field, again, of what we can view and recognize as Holy, or important. The language I work with in my images is both quoted from established writers and activists, and personally developed as poetic essays, also called braided essays or lyrical essays. I have included a short bibliography below of influential texts related to the making of these works and words.

Gaia Illuminations begin as complex, somewhat random geometric drawings and textures, or marbling, on a heavyweight printmaking or watercolor paper, through which I construct a cosmos of sorts that has multiple 'centers' and therefore multiple trajectories of spiral, revolution, gravity, etc. Upon this structural drawing I immediately began illuminating with gold and silver leaf, and various pieces of the poetic aforementioned texts through traditional pointed pen and broad-nib pen, as well as many layers of color and transparent dye— some of these are organic material and found, some are conventional 'art supplies'.

The early drawing process gets very chaotic, with assorted water-based inks, stains, dyes and media forming the textures and layers of the drawing while simultaneously buckling and disturbing, sculpting the paper surface. The language that is applied to the surface sometimes becomes additional visual 'structure' for creating new regions of text or texture. I often use the shorthand "alchemical inks and earth pigments" as a material list, as the process of drawing, designing and working with the elemental media feels very related to alchemy as a method and metaphor— mixing lowly materials with recipe, intent, and indeed, a little magic, to produce something akin to gold. 

Through this work, I am articulating a question about the assumptions we make as a culture about the structures and hierarchies of the Universe. I seek to elevate the teachings and queries of thinkers such as James Lovelock, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Derrick Jensen (no relation), Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour, whose works all call into question the way in which we as human beings relate and coexist with beings of all other kinds. I consider my visual response to these philosophers, academics and activists to be a call for reverence and reconsideration of our surroundings— long believed to be inert backdrops to our theatre, but which in fact have agency and consciousness, even if they manifest very differently from human agency and sentience. This is, I believe, very necessary work to be making in our current moment, as we face many crisis-level challenges in relationship to our Earth and how Life continues on it, and within it.

This series of work continues fervently. I am in residence at the Vermont Studio Center this month, creating prints and drawings in the Gaia Illumination vein. Some of the works I complete here will feature into my upcoming solo exhibition at Fleisher Art Memorial, in Philadelphia, PA, as part of the 2019-2020 Wind Challenge exhibition series. The show is set to open on December 5, 2019.

Here is a work in progress at the Vermont Studio Center, I hope you can see its relationship to the above piece, as well as others listed in my Paintings & Drawings portfolio.

Gaia Illumination Bibliography

For your reference, if your interest in the provenance of this work continues:

-Abrams, David. “The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.” New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

-de Waal, Frans. “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” WW Norton & Co, 2017.

-Demos, TJ. "Against the Anthropocene." Sternberg Press, Berlin. 2017.

-Elkins, James."What Painting Is: How to think about oil painting using the language of alchemy.” Routledge, NYC & London. 1999. 

-Haraway, Donna. "Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene." Duke University Press, 2016.

-Kimmerer, Robin Wall. "Braiding Sweetgrass" Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis. 2014.

-Latour, Bruno. "Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime." polity press, Cambridge, UK. 2017-18.

-Lovelock, James. “Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.” Oxford University Press, UK. 2016.

-Mowat, Farley. “A Whale for the Killing.” Douglas & McIntyre, 1991.

-Shlain, Leonard. "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess". Penguin Compass, NY. 1998.

*There are many other books, articles, and references, but I think this is an excellent and diverse primer list.

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