Friday, October 3, 2014

Anasazi Jet: Making a Prehistoric Style Pendant Using Stone Tools

 A year ago I spent an unforgettable week at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center learning how the Anasazi made their elegant jewelry.  I've been fascinated with it for many years, from the time I was a professional illustrator to my present work as a full time jewelry designer.  Located in the heart of the Anasazi "homeland" near Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, Crow Canyon invites the public to experience hands-on archaeology and lab work.  I'd long wanted to do something there, and when I saw that their 2013 Fall Lab would focus on ancient ornament study and replication I jumped at the chance.

The week was full of excellent lectures, visits to the Dillard Site (CC's latest Basketmaker III excavation) and the superb Edge of the Cedars Museum, studying and cataloguing ancient ornaments, and learning replication techniques.  I took plenty of notes and photos and in the past year have used that knowledge to create my own contemporary pieces using ancient-style materials and tools.  Working with jet has been especially challenging but it's produced beautiful results and has become my favorite ancient material.  The pendant above is the latest piece that I've sold in my Etsy shop, Desert Talismans, and while it was in progress I and my friend Flo Bargar photographed how it was done.   
The first step involved breaking or roughing out a piece of raw jet.  Jet is a very hard type of coal, lightweight like amber but extremely tough; I purchased this raw Colorado jet at Zuni Pueblo.  I started by dribbling some water on my roughest sandstone slab and grinding the jet to shape it.  The water helps the grinding process and eliminates dust.  When grinding, I try to retain as much of the material as possible while creating a pleasing shape.   This is pretty vigorous work as it takes a fair amount of pressure to grind down the material.
After 1-2 hours of continuous grinding, I arrived at the rough shape of the pendant.  As you can see, it's dirty work!  My next step was to create a facet on the upper right-hand edge to grind out that rough spot.
Once I was satisfied with the overall shape, all of the surfaces were refined on a finer-grit sandstone.  These two sandstone slabs actually came from Crow Canyon and were used in the class.
 

Here's the final shape.  I liked the raw surfaces on the bottom and back of the piece, so these were left primarily in their natural state.
Drilling the jet, using a piece of knapped flint.  Making a hole with a hand drill like this involves twisting the drill back and forth over and over...and over... while at the same time applying pressure.  This creates a conical hole, and it's very tedious work and requires a lot of patience.  Drill ends easily break or become dull.  I went through this piece from both the back and front, flipping it over repeatedly to create a fairly symmetrical biconical hole.  Besides hand drills like this, the Anasazi commonly used pump drills with much narrower stone bits to drill their ornaments, especially smaller beads.  They were even rumored to have used cactus spines to drill the tiniest heishe beads, but I've yet to see this done.  Hand drills give you a hole that is very wide at the top and they take longer to use, while a pump drill will give you a much straighter perforation.  I hope to find a good flintknapper who can supply me with some pump drill bits because making my own is definitely beyond my skill set.  My idea of flintknapping is to bang the rocks together and hope I'll end up with a usable corner or edge somewhere.
Finally, the finished hole.  This took about 1 1/2 hours of continuous work, plus frequent breaks for stretches: it's tough on the muscles if you're not used to it.  You can see where a few chips spalled out of the right-hand edge, and these were smoothed down later. 
Next the channel had to be carved out for the shell inlay.  I used a series of flint flakes for this.  First a set of parallel lines was incised to establish the dimensions of the channel and then the center was dug out.  It takes a lot of control to incise precise lines, and I find that the trickiest part of this is neatly squaring off the upper end.  Completing this channel took about 2-3 hours.
Now the fun part: making the tiny abalone shell tesserae for the inlay.  For these I needed thin pieces that had minimal curvature and good iridescence.  I'm using a flint blade to saw a strip of shell from a larger piece, which is being cushioned on a piece of elkhide.  Shell is easier to work than jet, fortunately.  At right, you can see a couple of mosaic tesserae already completed and laid into the pendant. 
Here I'm reducing the tiny mosaic pieces to just the right width.  I finished by beveling the sides for the best fit into the channel.  The smallest size tessera I've been able to handle so far is 1.5mm wide.
I researched and created my own pinon pitch adhesive for the inlay.  Pinon sap was gathered from trees in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains near our home.  This was melted together with powdered juniper wood charcoal, producing a glossy black substance that smelled heavenly.  I transferred some of it to a stick and then a smaller amount to a toothpick.  Pitch is only workable when it is heated, and it only adheres to a surface that is also hot.  I did this by holding the pieces over a candle flame, the jet in one hand and the pitch stick in the other, and quickly applying the molten pitch to the channel.  Then the pitch-filled channel had to be reheated along with the tesserae which, one at a time, were pressed into place.  This was the only time in the entire process where I used metal tools: tweezers were required to hold the tiny abalone tesserae while they were being heated.  I don't know how the ancients got around this and I'll be researching that in the near future.    
 
Once the tesserae were seated into the channel to my satisfaction, it was time to clean up the excess pitch.  I try to heat and wipe away as much as I can but some residue always remains that has to be scraped and ground away.  I use both small flint blades and the larger grinding stones for this step which, again, takes a couple of hours to do.
For the final polish, I vigorously buff all sides of the piece on elkhide, as well as my cotton canvas dropcloth.  The Anasazi had cotton and I expect they also used it for polishing. 
There you have it!  Pictured below is a gallery of my other creations from the past year, made with the same stone tools and techniques, and sold from my Etsy shop.  If any of you out there want to try this and have questions or additional information, don't hesitate to let me know!  Thanks for reading! 
 
 My first argillite (pipestone) pendant.  Argillite is easy to work, but very fragile. 
An abalone shell pendant incised with flint blades.
My own inlaid jet pendant.
A two-toned argillite bird.
Abalone shell earrings.
The first and smallest of the inlaid jet pendants.
Jet and abalone beads on the handwoven cord.
Mexican turquoise.
A beautifully marked argillite pendant with argillite and abalone tab counterweights.
Argillite earrings with abalone inlay.
 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blessing Talismans

For quite a while now I've been clearing and blessing each piece of jewelry that I send out to my customers, and when I send them out to everybody I include a note saying that I've done so.  But just in case you've been wondering what that means, I thought it might be a good idea to explain what I actually do. 

While I take great care in selecting components for each talisman, and in constructing it well, I also take plenty of care in what goes into it on the energetic level.  By "energetic" I mean subtle energy, which is an aspect of everything we see and experience around us.  You might find it helpful to think of it as "spiritual" energy, although it is much more complex than that. 

I have been doing shamanic and energy work in some capacity for decades now.  My path is a co-creative one with Spirit, but I have studied and trained in a number of cross-cultural traditions.  Most recently I've trained with teachers in the Andean-Incan tradition and have received rites and initiations on that path.  But as far as my personal work on the shamanic path goes, it's not a matter of following any traditional path.  It's more focused on working with energy and on creative work than with healing per se.  So I very much consider anything I make and send out into the world to be a part of that path, which is why I feel it's important to have my pieces carry the best quality of energy possible. 

That begins when I bring supplies and components home to work with: they are usually cleaned and cleared if needed, and more or less dedicated for the talismans of which they'll be a part.  Then, when I work in the studio I try to maintain a peaceful and positive atmosphere, both within myself and in the space.  Sometimes I do a better job at this than at others!  I'm only human but I always try to be clear that it's my intention to do so.

After working this way for several years, I spontaneously started adding a little extra blessing to the pieces as I was wrapping them to go out to their buyers.  Over time this has developed into a simple ceremony in its own right.  Just before I take a talisman into the office to be wrapped, I get my mesa and a bottle of agua florida and bring them into the studio along with the talisman.  I sit in front of my studio altar with everything and call upon my spiritual helpers and shamanic lineage, and often upon the spirit of the Sandias, the sacred mountains visible from the window.  Sometimes I'll also call upon the spirit of a place or a quality of energy, such as the tranquility of the desert wilderness. 

First I spray the talisman with a drop or two of agua florida (organic scented flower water), which is a traditional practice of clearing and blessing in the Andean tradition.  I then place the talisman on the floor in front of me and thank Pachamama, who is Mother Earth, for the privilege of working with these beautiful materials that she has made, and hope that I have honored them with my work.  Then I offer any "hucha" or "heavy" energy that is in the talisman to Pachamama.  One of my favorite things about the Andean system is their view of energy.  Rather than referring to it as "positive" and "negative" as we do in the West, they say it's "heavy" and "light", or "refined", instead.  They see energy as energy, but for us humans some energy is beneficial and some isn't.  The wonderful thing is, what is heavy to us is food to the Earth, and so we offer her the heavy energy and invite her to "mulch it back into light".  This is an oversimplification of a rather complex subject, but what I do is send that heavy energy down into her as an offering and I keep the piece on the ground until I feel that that energy has drained out of it into the Earth.  That's the clearing part.

For the blessing, I hold the talisman in one hand and press my shaman's mesa to it with the others, asking for the beneficial energies within the mesa to infuse the talisman.  My mesa, which is pictured above sitting on my studio altar, is simply a cloth bundle that holds sacred stones, in the Andean tradition.  The cloth and ties are handmade and come from Bolivia and Peru, while most of my stones come from the desert Southwest, of course!  Each stone carries certain experiences and energies and the mesa is used for in ceremonies for clearing, healing and blessing.  (Mine include different colored jaspers, sandstone, granite, and concretions I've found in various places and mountains, as well as a fulgurite, which was created when lightning struck a sand dune.  Some were given in ceremony.  I even have a piece of the Canyon Diablo meteorite, which created Meteor Crater in Arizona.)

Finally I hold the talisman in both hands at the level of my heart and I call the highest and most refined spiritual energies into the piece.  I connect both with the energy of Mother Earth and of the Cosmos and direct them through me into the talisman.  I ask that it hold only the highest and most refined spiritual and blessing energies for the one who will receive it, from this point forward.  I also ask that the piece remain clear of heavy energy, and only radiate blessings towards its owner.  In addition I ask that these energies flow regardless of whether the piece is worn or simply looked at, by the owner or others. 

I can usually feel a strong flow of energy move into the piece as I do this.  It takes a couple of minutes, but after a bit I feel the flow subside and I know the blessing is complete.  It's different every time!  Sometimes it's extremely powerful and others very gentle and subtle.  Each blessing has a different energy "flavor", but I simply intend for it to carry whatever is most appropriate.  Occasionally I'll also feel inspired to bless the talisman with a sacred feather or with other stones from sacred places, or I'll hold it in the sunlight for a while.  And that's the blessing.

Please do bear in mind that I am not sending anything out to you that is specific, such as healing energy.  To do so would be unethical: sending out anything that isn't specifically asked for would be interfering with your journey as a human being and as a soul.  What I am sending with these pieces is more like a kind of uplifting energy for you to use as you--or your Higher Self--see fit. 

I would be happy to put energy into a talisman that is for a more specific purpose, but I will do so only on request.  By the same token, if you do not want your talisman to be cleared and blessed, please feel free to ask...I certainly won't be offended! 

The main thing is that I want the piece to feel good to you.  If at any point you feel it doesn't, or may be picking up heavy energies, let me know and I'll give you some suggestions for keeping it clear.

So I hope that clarifies things for you a bit.  It really is a very simple process and not mysterious at all, but I did want you to understand what you are getting when you receive a talisman from me. 

Blessings...and walk in balance.








Monday, June 2, 2014

Leaving Etsy?

For several years now, my Etsy shop Desert Talismans has been doing so well that it's become the sole outlet for my work.  Rather than spreading my work out between galleries, museum shops, craft fairs and studio tours, I've found a venue that allows me to list and often sell new pieces as soon as they're made.  This has been delightful, because as a middle-aged adult with mild ADD I need to keep my business as simple, contained and straightforward as possible. 

But problems have been brewing at Etsy.  As many of you already know, certain policy changes have angered and driven away formerly happy sellers in increasing numbers.  And I'm sad to say that I may soon be among them.  I'll explain more in a moment, but first, a bit of backstory to fill you in:

On March 24, 2008 I opened my shop on Etsy.  Since then it's generated a modest living for me, enabled my work to reach countless others, and connected me with some truly wonderful people.  Today, I have a large group of followers and the majority of my customers are repeat collectors who are fast becoming genuine friends. 

There were a lot of things about Etsy that I found attractive.  It was an open and egalitarian business environment with a level playing field, where a casual, part-time crafter had the same opportunities as a high-end artisan.  The emphasis was on handmade items and running your own show, your way.  The atmosphere was friendly and unpretentious.  Both buyers and sellers were encouraged to support each other's work and create community, rather than competition.  For someone who was very put off by the mainstream art scene and who wasn't interested in making a "name" for myself (I had already done that in another field and found it overrated), Etsy appeared to be deliberately fostering a new-paradigm business model.   

So, I jumped in.  I was thrilled to be able to design my shop and do business my way, rather than being told what to do by others.  I could talk about my work the way I wanted to--just as I had been doing at craft fairs and studio tours--and engage with customers personally, one at a time.  My business philosophy basically boiled down to "Keep it small and simple" and "Treat customers the way you would like to be treated".  It worked beautifully.

Sounds great!  It has been great, and for the most part it still is.  So why would I ever think of leaving?

It's because I believe the people who are running Etsy have shifted their priorities away from supporting artisans to generating profits for Etsy itself.  And I believe that the people who are currently running Etsy have lost sight of the heart and soul of what made Etsy special in the beginning: respect for individual creativity, and fostering community in a soulful, rather than profit-driven, way.

Whereas the policies in '08 were very accommodating and friendly, they have become much less so in recent years.  I hear that Etsy did change hands a while back and things have been going downhill since then but I haven't looked into it.  To tell the truth, I've ignored most of the Etsy "culture" because I've just had my hands full making jewelry and working in my own shop.  I also have found the vast landscape of blogs, promotions, events, forums, town halls, teams, labs, etc., to be absolutely bewildering. 

For the first few years I was very happy with Etsy; it seemed tailor-made for my needs.  Trouble was a distant rumor and I chalked the rumors up to people who thrived on drama and crisis.  The first serious trouble that I was aware of concerned a policy change which drove away a large number of sellers from Etsy, when Admin decided to allow non-handmade items to be listed as handmade.  I heard about it several weeks after the fact, and I didn't pay much attention to it since it didn't affect me.

The first time I realized things were indeed changing for the worse was late last summer, when out of the blue I received a message from Etsy.  In it, they said they were "reaching out" to me to let me know that they had deactivated one of my listings for a pair of earrings, which were made with fossil walrus ivory.  Fossil ivory, they explained, was prohibited on Etsy.  I was stunned.  Surely there must be some mistake?  I had sold dozens of pieces featuring fossil ivory.  No, apparently they had abruptly, and without notifying sellers of the policy changes, decided to ban it simply because it was ivory.  That it was ancient ivory coming from animals that had been killed for subsistence centuries or millennia ago, and was legally sold in the US, was immaterial to them. 

My inquiry yielded no helpful insights into their reasoning. In fact, the reply I received bordered on arrogance.  I was left with the impression that they felt I was misguided, perhaps na├»ve, and they were very graciously taking the time to set me straight.  As I contemplated this in the weeks that followed, the only rational reason I could see for the policy change (apart from the political correctness bandwagon) was that Admin simply didn't want to have to bother with checking to see if a piece was made from fossil ivory as opposed to contemporary ivory taken from endangered species.  If you know what fossil ivory looks like, there's no question as to which is which, even at a casual glance.  It was pure laziness--they didn't want to have to take the time or spend the money to distinguish between the two. 

In the short term, I lost money and peace of mind because I had invested quite a bit of money in fossil ivory for my pieces.  Other Etsy sellers who featured fossil ivory pieces lost their shops entirely.  We were not notified of this change beforehand, and were not given any chance to contribute to the decision making process.  Etsy just did what it wanted no matter how it harmed its users.  It was growing so large that it could easily afford to alienate and lose a few customers in order to further its interests. 

So this adversely impacted my work, as many of you know.  I did solicit e-mail addresses and formed the Fossil Ivory Tribe, but to date have only listed three pieces for the group.  The reason is that--and I certainly mean no offense to you dear people!--it feels like the pieces are invisible to the world at large.  So ever since then I've felt a bit cramped creatively, and one of the reasons I wish to open a second shop is to have a place to sell my fossil ivory pieces again, without Big Brother looking over my shoulder.

It's time for a break.  Here's a nice picture of our blooming cholla cactus that I took today:

That's better. 

The second change that has really driven the point home for me has to do with the so-called "testing" Admin has been doing on the storefronts as they appear to buyers and sellers.  You've all probably heard about this already, or experienced it firsthand, but here's what happened: 

One afternoon this past winter I turned on the computer to check on my shop, and found that something had apparently gone wrong.  My shop's banner was gone, as was the shop announcement.  The few items I had for sale were floating adrift in a white void.  After a few moments of complete disorientation, I wondered if it was a bug.  Surely it had to be a bug, what else could it be?  So I started looking for answers.  Etsy has no real "front page" for users, with pertinent, time-sensitive announcements in one easy-to-find location.  Instead, it has information scattered, and buried (some would even say carefully concealed) across the site.  I decided to start with the Forums. 

What I discovered was that Admin was running a "test".  In this test, they were changing the appearance of certain shops to see if people liked the changes better than the original look.  As far as I could tell, they were not telling people about the test beforehand, nor had they asked anyone prior to the test if they:
 
a) wanted to contribute ideas for possible changes,

b) wanted the changes Etsy had chosen for them in the first place, or

c) even wanted to take part in the test at all.

No.  Apparently Etsy wanted an "authentic" response to the proposed changes and therefore all of this had to be a surprise.  It was a surprise all right.  As I read through the Forums , it was clear that people were absolutely furious. 

I can go into tons of detail here about why a shop banner is an integral part of a storefront's appearance, and why being able to post an announcement is very helpful, even necessary, to the relationship between an artisan and customers, but it would take up a lot of space.  The irony is that Admin had just a few weeks prior launched an extensive campaign to encourage seller "branding" and shop identity.  Then they proceeded to remove the single most distinctive aspect of the shop's brand, the banner.

The bottom line here is that Etsy Admin has changed its behavior to such an extent that it seems to only be interested in perpetuating itself, rather than maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for the people who keep it in business.  It is next to impossible to communicate with them in any meaningful way; if you do figure out how to circumvent the heinous "Contact" menu pages and actually write to them, it is very unlikely that you will receive a helpful response.  What Admin usually sends you amounts to a form letter laying out company policy.  That's it.  And if you have a problem with that, too bad.

Etsy has become the company with two faces.  On one hand, there is a ton, a TON of promotional material being generated by Admin, through e-mails ("Etsy Success") and various other means.  The emphasis of these is invariably on the sellers promoting themselves and their shops, and on how to increase business and revenue.  These things are good and necessary up to a point, but there are artists and artisans out there who place what they are actually creating, and why they are creating it, ahead of the business, and I believe Etsy has forgotten this.  Sometimes I have come away with the feeling that Admin feels the creations themselves are beside the point.  Now, it's all about shop stats, about trending, about the hustle.  This has left me feeling cheapened and increasingly marginalized. 

The other face, which Etsy presents to the sellers, is distinctly unhelpful.  Behind a veneer of forced friendliness--all those bright young faces!--it has become very clear that Etsy exists only to serve itself.  In other words, it's become just another soulless corporation.

Anyway, after a few weeks, the "test" and its fallout gradually died down to a dull roar.  My shop and others were restored to their original appearance and all was well again, at least for the moment.  I wanted to think that Admin had gotten the message, but I knew better.  And sure enough, a couple of weeks ago, I received a message from a long-time customer: What had happened to my shop?  She couldn't see my banner.  And where was my shop announcement? 

Here we go again.  Apparently another "test" was in progress, this time on the customers.  While my shop appeared normal to me, a number of my customers were seeing it sans banner and announcement...and I had about five items listed, so to them it must have looked sorry indeed.  I checked in on the Forums, and they had lit up again. 

I'm sure many people out there are wondering what my problem is.  This isn't such a big deal.  Why should I be so out of sorts when Etsy clearly is trying hard to ensure it is a competitive platform that has a clean, easy to use look...which is so important to most buyers (who apparently do all their shopping on their mobile devices and average 30 seconds per transaction)?

Here is the clearest way I can describe the "testing" situation:

Let's say you have hired a company for its services which support your business, which is your livelihood.  Both you as a seller and your customers use, and pay for, these services.  One day, the company decides to run a test on you--its sellers and customers--ostensibly to improve business.  Only they do not tell you they are running a test, or why.  The test comes as an unpleasant surprise, upsets and confuses you and your customers, and disrupts your business.  The resulting confusion costs you time and money, in some cases a substantial amount.  You only discover the reason for the test after the fact, and only because you went looking for answers.  The company did not choose to inform you itself.  After expressing your concerns to the company, you are essentially told that they will do whatever they please, and you can take it or leave it.

Would you continue doing business with this company? 

Well, that is exactly what Etsy is doing right now. 

Time for another flower.
That one's a prickly pear. 

One more note about that "test":  there are a number of shops on Etsy that specialize in creating banners for others.  I can only imagine how this must have made them feel. 

The bottom line is that Etsy has become the kind of service provider that acts as if we are working for them, and not the other way around.  Ultimately, this is an issue of respect.  Etsy is no longer treating its customers with the respect they deserve, and the climate has been gradually growing less hospitable for serious artists...people who may not be making money hand over fist or be great businesspeople, but who are nevertheless wholly invested heart and soul in what they do. 

My concern is in being able to find another venue that will accommodate my needs as an artist first and business owner second.  I know there are many alternatives out there, some which look very slick and professional, but I need a place that also has a soul, not just a pretty face.  I'm in the slow process of looking, and don't expect to make any quick decisions soon, but ideally I would like to have a professional webpage, shop and blog all in the same place.  So we'll see.

Meanwhile, Desert Talismans will remain open on Etsy for the time being.  There are, for all of my ranting, a lot of very, very good things about Etsy.  The ease of use, the unlimited space for product descriptions, the emphasis on sharing and networking, and the shop's
"About" page are some, and there are many more features I appreciate.  It's been a great home, which is why I'm so disappointed in the recent changes, I suppose.  No, it's not all bad, it's just that the general focus and climate are moving away from my own priorities. 


And what are those?  Well, first and foremost, my work has to come from the heart and soul.  It has to be more than just a piece of jewelry.  I need my business, creative life and spiritual path to be a part of one another: spirit-driven, rather than market-driven.  It's not exactly the capitalist model, but I think it can be done.  I want to be able to set up a place to sell my work that directly shows who I am, where I and the work come from, and what it's about.  I want to be able to give my customers an authentic, consistent and trustworthy atmosphere, and connect with them person to person. 

In the beginning Etsy was a great support for those priorities...now, it seems to be changing.  That's sad, really.  They had a great thing going and they're blowing it.  There's still time for them to turn things around, but we will see.  In the meantime I, like many others before me, will be looking elsewhere for a new home. 













Saturday, May 10, 2014

Shamanic Regalia Pulled From the Other Side: The Lightning Shaman in Progress

 
It all started with just a few lines on a page in my sketchbook, although the general idea has been gestating for many years.  This is the headdress-in-progress of what I'm calling the Lightning Shaman, although the energy it embodies goes far beyond electricity and has an outer space/stellar aspect as well.  Steve Roach's electronic-ambient music has provided much of the inspirational fuel, as well as holding the space in the studio, especially Tales From the Ultra Tribe, which he did with Byron Metcalf.
 
From this right-rear view in low light you can see that the basic shape is there and all the major elements are in place, but much embellishment and textural enhancement will be added from here.  This will be the headpiece for what will eventually be a complete outfit.
 
PLEASE NOTE: THIS WORK AND ALL IMAGES ARE UNDER COPYRIGHT BY DAWN WILSON-ENOCH.  REPRODUCTION IN ANY FORM IS PROHIBITED.  PERIOD.  I hate having to say that, but there it is...
So, what is this all about?  Basically, it's being made for shamanic performance with regalia that I see as an evolution of shamanic costume from our beginnings to the present time.  Shamanism goes back at least 40,000 years and I'm sure it's far older; it's a kind of blanket term for a living, reciprocal relationship with the nonphysical dimensions.  My own path is best described as shamanic, and I have actually been initiated in the Andean Incan tradition, but this body of work is about moving into new territory and isn't part of any tradition.  This regalia (costume isn't quite the right word) is about creating a container for energy, and then using movement, ceremony, and dance as a way of engaging with that energy.  How, why, where that will play out...I have no idea.  
The bottom line is that I'm focusing on creating the container right now.  I'm purely going on trust and doing this in the moment without a plan, and allowing the process to unfold in its own way.  I know the rest will become more clear as I go forward.


When I began, this is all I had to go on: just a sketch that was barely there.  When I tried to fill in some details, they just wouldn't come; instead, I had to get to work finding and ordering supplies and building the piece itself.  Since then, it's had a powerful gravitational pull on my psyche.  It really has a life of its own.  12-hour days have been the norm when working on it.
I laid awake nights trying to figure out how to build the foundation before I started.  It was going to have to be lightweight, comfortable, stable, sturdy, and not too difficult to attach things to.  Black deerhide seemed a good choice, which I hand-stitched into a close-fitting cap with a buckled chinstrap to keep the headdress in place while in movement.  All by trial and error.  Sturdier elements of heavy cowhide were attached in front to provide additional framework.
The first sculptural elements I created were spikes cast in resin, molded from shed joshua tree leaves.  I seated hammered nickel wires down the center and added blue tint and glass glitter for flash.  Here they are curing in their silicone molds.  I love working in resin but what a sticky mess!
Here you see the finished spikes next to the original joshua tree leaves.  For those of you familiar with my work, you'll already see a radical departure from the norm.  Because this regalia is about electricity, technology and the stars, I'm bringing in a lot of things I don't usually work with.  To create a feeling of intense energy and flash, I'm using vivid blue-violet and shards of glitter, as well as other elements you'll see in a moment.  The spikes came out of the molds looking a little matte for the effect I wanted, so I brushed on a thin coat of clear resin.  After it cured, they looked just like glass. 
The spikes were the first elements I attached to the leather base.  I stitched them into the heavy leather and used a hot glue gun to reinforce and stabilize.  I had originally hoped to do something that was made entirely from lasting materials and avoid things like hot glue, but it was the only reasonable solution for strengthening.  And even though I've been using it liberally so far, I still begin by hand-stitching or wiring everything onto the base.  Once the spikes were on I began individually stitching synthetic dreads, cyberlox, plastic lacing and various fabric pieces onto the base.  So far there are dozens of separate elements.
A page from my sketchbook.  For the first time I have been keeping a careful log of my progress, mainly because I knew I would forget how I put the whole thing together!  It's also where I make notes of things to try, and various thoughts, insights and ideas. 
Another rear view in low light.  From the outset I knew that luminosity needed to be an important part of this piece.  A quick search online led me to fiber optic fabric and accessories.  I was blown away by how gorgeous it was, but it was also very expensive.  A section was worked into the back of the headdress as well as a spray of fiber optics, both in blue.  They're just breathtaking and hypnotic.  It's really fascinating to try to integrate high-tech materials with a primal, organic look. 
These elliptical panels were the most distinctive and critical part of the design, and the most challenging to execute.  I've been doing costume most of my life, but have always just flown by the seat of my pants and made it up as I've gone along.  Doing something like this is an endless sequence of problem-solving, within certain self-imposed constraints.  Staying true to the spirit and energy was the overarching criteria.  But a headdress also has to stay put, be comfortable, stable and not too heavy.  It has to be balanced, look good from every angle, and the moving parts have to look good in motion while not entangling with other elements.  I also want it to "read" well regardless of whether you're 30 feet or 6 inches away.  Many costumes tend to go for impact at a distance while not looking good up close.  I want the detail in this to pull you in and still be fascinating no matter how close you are. 
 
So I ended up created these layered panels by stretching fabric over a frame of nickel wire.  All of the wire was hammered on my desert rock anvil for texture and variation of line.  Each one was painted with acrylic paints using plenty of interference colors and glass bead gel to get a shimmering, luminous effect.  The surface is very painterly and abstract.  The three sculptural elements were made from polymer clay which was then coated with gel media and pure interference blue over a white ground.  I may do more with all of this...
Here's a closer look at the side.  The powerful orbital movement is being carried through with elliptical hoops of hammered and wrapped nickel wire.  I think there will be a few more of these before I'm done.  One of my favorite details so far is the addition of these electrical components, seen here wrapped onto the wires and around one of the cyberlox.  These are old Cold War-era salvage pieces from Los Alamos National Laboratory.  I found them in this terrific tech salvage place up there called The Black Hole, which, sadly, is now closed.  They are a nod to our rather ambivalent technological past, but are also a way of saying that this is a part of who we are and a part of how we have used this energy, for better or for worse.  It's a way of acknowledging that and owning it. 
 
So far when I've told people where they came from, it has tended to elicit a powerful reaction.  One woman literally jumped back two full feet and would not go any closer to it, even though I assured her they weren't radioactive. 
The side and rear views look best to me at the moment.  Here you can see the gorgeous blue-violet feathers, including a couple that have been almost completely stripped coming off the back--more for line and movement than anything else.  I love the feathers but need to be careful not to overuse them or it will look like I'm heading for Burning Man instead of a shamanic ceremony!  There's still a lot here that is raw and will be changed or covered in the finished version.  More feathers will conceal the exposed lines and stitching, for example.  I don't know if the beaded lightning bolt will stay since it tends to tangle very easily with the other parts.  Trial and error!
Here's another view of the full piece.  As I've worked on it I've tried to have each stage look coherent and integrated.  This has ensured that there's been a good, solid foundation to add to, and made it much easier to see where to take the next step. 
 
From this point I will be adding much more to the front, in particular a veil and/or beaded eye curtain, both ancient traditions in shamanic regalia.  Veiling the ordinary sight encourages the nonordinary sight to come more into play, while at the same time taking care that I can see where I am going and what is around me.  I also want to conceal my identity and let the pure energy flow through while I'm wearing the regalia.
So there you have it...that's all I have to show at this point.  I will be getting back to work on this soon and will do another post when there's something substantial to show.  This has been the most comprehensive project I've worked on and it's a bit overwhelming at times because it's a convergence of all of my skills.  Drafting and painting, costume design, jewelry making and metalworking, are being brought together with my experience as a stage performer and with tribal improv belly dance, and most importantly as a shaman who works with other dimensions, beings and energies. 
 
We'll see where this leads! 
 
And thanks for stopping in and reading my blog! 
 



Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Shooting Selfies in a Sandstorm, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wind

Yes, that's me, swathed in fashionable black and Tuareg silver, braving the 60mph gusts and near-whiteout conditions at White Sands in a pair of cheap swim goggles from Walmart.
It was another epic trip to White Sands National Monument.  Almost every spring for over 12 years my son, Max, and I have headed down to the breathtaking Tularosa Basin to spend a few days wandering the white dunes, by far the largest gypsum dune field on Earth. 
 
Usually I watch the weather like a hawk and time our trip for tranquil windless days...admittedly, a bit of a stretch for spring in New Mexico.  But not this year.  Instead, because we wanted to catch the last tour of the season to Lake Lucero, and because Max needed to schedule time off work well in advance, we were locked into the last weekend of April.  And as it turned out, they were predicting wind...lots of wind.  For several days in a row. 

We had arrived on Saturday, just as the wind was kicking up.  We got our room in Alamogordo and drove out to the sands to see how conditions were.  Gypsum sand and alkali dust were obscuring the horizon, and it quickly became obvious that if we wanted to preserve our eyesight we were going to have to find something with more coverage than sunglasses.  So we beat a hasty retreat, drove back to Alamogordo, took in a matinee of Captain America, and then went to Walmart (alas) to buy swim goggles, the only thing I could think of that might be readily available with good protection.  Then we headed back out to the dunes for the REAL wind.  This view is looking west towards the alkali flats and the San Andres mountains, which are completely obscured by flying sand and dust.   

Oh, and we also found that black rayon headscarf Max is wearing.  I prefer headscarves to hats, and Max decided he'd try it too, and since pretty much everything he'd brought to wear was black he looked like a pirate.  With a sock on his camera lens.  Let me tell you about the sock.  On the way down he was panicking a bit because he had brought his expensive camera and was worried about sand getting in the lens.  After thinking it over he decided to cut one of his socks in half and put it on his camera lens.  It worked, but it totally spoiled the fashion statement. 

On top of that, almost all my clothes were black too and we ended up looking very dramatic against the white gypsum sand.  I was wearing some of my old Tuareg silver to complete the effect...I figured it was lonely for the Sahara and would enjoy a good sandstorm. 
 
By the way, this was the very same day that the gamers and film crews were digging up the old ET video games at the Alamogordo landfill, if you heard about that.  Max, an avid gamer, tried in vain to explain to me exactly why that was important, but it was an ongoing source of amusement for us that weekend.  For example, the next morning I was reading the BBC World News on my phone over coffee and discovered that the ET story had made the headlines...that's right, the world news headlines.  A little later when we walked out of the hotel lobby to meet the Lake Lucero tour group, there was an actual DeLorean parked directly in front, with a lifesize ET riding shotgun and a flux capacitor sitting in the back seat.  I am not making this up. 
 
Onward to Lake Lucero...
And what a difference a day makes!  This is from the trail to the lake at an old ranch site, looking northwest towards the San Andres mountains.  The lake is only accessible by guided tour, since this part of the monument is shared by White Sands Missile Range.
The honey mesquite was in bloom.
Lake Lucero is the mother of the white sands.  Most of the time it is dry, but in very wet years it will fill with water.  You're looking at millions of shards of selenite crystals glinting in the sun.  Over millennia, the selenite (gypsum) washed down from the mountains and reformed as crystals in the alkaline mud of the lake bed.  As the lake dried, the soft crystals weathered out of the earth and gradually broke down into the grains of sand that form the white dunes to the northeast.  They're still doing it today.

Selenite crystals protruding from the lakebed.  These were only a few inches tall.
 
Heading back up the trail to the car.  You can see more selenite shards emerging from the ground at left.  What a beautiful day...but the winds were cranking up again.  Max wanted to revisit the Space Museum in Alamogordo after many years, so we spent the afternoon there and then went back to White Sands for...
...more wind.
It was actually an amazing experience to be out there for such a raw, elemental experience.  I found it to be surprisingly beautiful.  The wind obscured the horizon and enveloped us completely, absolutely wild and fierce...and yet, there is a gentleness and tranquility to White Sands that came through even in the midst of the sandstorm.
I love this image of Max under that huge sky.

Great.  Max, you look like a terrorist.  Except for the sock. 
The next morning, a perfect day!  Getting ready to set out on an all-day dune wander.  That's a great view of my Black Madonna tat, my portable shrine.  

This is what I dream of in the winter...a pure crystalline, blue-and-white world.  Glittering sand, blue sky, and silence.  Except for the jets from nearby Holloman AFB that fly overhead once in a while...which I actually love watching.  They're so fascinating, and Max always knows exactly what they are. 
A mysterious object near the edge of the dune field.  It turned out to be a huge chunk of Styrofoam, at least three feet to a side, transformed by wind and weathering into a work of art.  It must have blown in from the missile range to the west.  Max was fascinated. 
The afternoon light on the dunes.
At the end of the day we went to the eastern side of the dunes, where dunes are lower and full of beautiful plants.  This section is softer and gentler in feeling, and without wind there are countless wonderful little tracks in the sand from all sorts of creatures.  The shrub is a hoary rosemary mint.
The flowers of the hoary rosemary mint look like tiny lavender orchids.  It always amazes me how such exquisite and delicate plants can just shrug off the fierce sun and sandstorms.  Rosemary mint is so named because if you rub the leaves in the spring they smell like mint, and if you rub them in the fall they smell like rosemary.  It think it's my favorite plant of the dunes.
A last view of the afternoon.  Farewell to the dunes for another year...enough beef jerky and dried fruit.  Time for a margarita and some real food!
The sands gave us a surprising and sweet last farewell: an evening star, with a very happy solitary desert bee inside.  I've seen evening stars around Tucson but never knew they grew here.  They only open in the late afternoon and close at dusk. 
 
...That's it for White Sands! 
 
I'll be posting a blog on my shamanic project soon...