Do you run with wolves? To put it another way, are you in touch with your wild side, or have you locked it away in line with society's expectations of how a woman (or whatever gender, for that matter) should behave?
I was asked by Nicole Schmidt of Mythos Podcast to create some artwork on the theme of the Wolf Woman to feature as part of her 'Wild Women' event in August 2020. This is the story of my journey into the wilds.
The new film premiered on 18th August 2020 to coincide with Nicole's virtual international evening of live storytelling on the theme of women and wolves. You can watch my film here:
Part 1: Gathering Bones
As an artist, I always believe in acting things out. In this case, I decided to walk in the steps of the Wolf Woman, who, according to folklore, wanders the deserts and barren places gathering bones. I gathered the next best thing: wooden sticks. My search took me into the heart of our beautiful local woodland, which I have known and loved since childhood.
A tree skeleton lies in state, the sunlight filtering through a rent in the canopy caused by its fall.
The Wolf Woman of legend is so named because she hunts mostly for the bones of wolves. Patiently, she collects every tiniest bone, making sure that none is missing. The skeleton must be complete. When she has found them all, she takes them back to her lair, polishes them, arranges them into a perfect sculpture, and sings over them by the fire until flesh grows back over the bones and a living wolf springs up and runs off into the wilderness, turning into a laughing wild woman as it does so.
My journey took me through a variety of different wild spaces. The wild can take many different forms, even in the quiet East Anglian countryside. Through this simple, timeless activity, I reconnected with my own wild side, gathering bones to create a sculpture. Even a pinecone might be useful.
Connecting with your wild side doesn't have to be dangerous or savage. It might be as simple as doing something you've always wanted to do but felt inhibited. Go for it.
Back at my creative lair, I mused over how to connect the bones I'd gathered. I wanted the sticks still to be visible and recogniseable for what they are, but the structure to be strong and stable. So I chose aluminium armature wire (which I often use in my sculptures) to begin binding the sticks together, rather like connective tissue and sinews holding bones in place. Sticks and twigs can be quite brittle, so it's important to be careful when binding them, not to force them into a shape, but spend time, first, feeling with your fingers and hands how they will best fit together. The more sticks are bound, the stronger the overall structure becomes. Every now and then I had to pause to rescue tiny ant and spider hitchhikers who had accompanied me back from the wilds.
After establishing a backbone for my sculpture, I began to add appendages. Bones and sticks are not all that different in their role of supporting the softer, more delicate parts of the organism. To make a figure sculpture that is structurally sound as well as beautiful and in proportion, I generally start by creating the spine and then gradually work outwards to shape the limbs, head, tail and any other features.
When working in three dimensions, I also strongly recommend turning the evolving sculpture around while you're working on it, to see how well it works from different angles. Sculptures are rarely designed only to be seen from one aspect. Placing mirrors behind your work can help.
Health and safety are vital, too. If you're using wire, ideally keep most of it coiled up while you're twisting the end into shape, as it's less likely to hurt you. If in any doubt, wear goggles.
Gradually, my sculpture took form, evolving a bit further with each new twig that I added and secured in place, and I thought of the Wolf Woman assembling her sculpture of bones.
Although the story of 'La Loba' (the Wolf Woman) sounds purely macabre to most modern ears, it teaches us the power of preserving our wildness - as women, yes - but the same can be said of any gender. I would suggest that it is particularly relevant to anyone creative: artists, poets, dancers. However well-meaning, society fears what it does not understand and seeks to control it. Hence, our natural wildness, freedom and creativity have to be tamed and controlled. No wonder many of us lose our creative spark when growing up.
My sculpture now has four legs and you can see the overall shape emerging but, like a baby animal, it's still a bit shakey on its feet. It will need reinforcement.
Whenever we spend time reconnecting with our wild side - for example, when we stand in awe beside a thundering waterfall, or dye our hair a crazy colour, or dance like noone's watching - we return to our everyday lives immeasurably enriched. If our search has been long and diligent enough, we come back with bare bones, so to speak, or raw materials for something abundantly exciting and creative: maybe the inspiration for a new artwork or book, or a creative solution to a problem we couldn't otherwise solve, or simply a feeling of energy and abundance that gives us a new spring in our step.
Next time you feel stuck getting into the spirit of your creative theme, remember: it's always worth acting things out.
Part 2: Song of the Wolf Woman
It's interesting that art 'mediums' are so-called. They possess nothing inherently creative in themselves. They are just paint colours or brushes or inks. Until an artist picks them up and uses them to express meaning, beauty and emotion. They are like the lifeless bones that the Wolf Woman gathers.
In this case, I'm using acrylic paints and a palette knife on a sheet of black card. As Leonardo da Vinci said: “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”
Picking up the tiniest slivers of paint colours, I press the blade flat, allowing the paint to pick up the slight texture of the card. This atmospheric technique is called 'smooshing', a combination of smoothing and mashing.
Now I'm picking up colours along the edge of the blade and 'placing' the paint on the black card to begin to define edges and outlines. You can do many things with a palette knife that you cannot easily do with a brush, including the effortless techniques I'm showing you here. But don't take my word for it - why not have a go at knife painting?
Negative shapes begin to emerge, which become positive, because they read as silhouettes. I'm painting from imagination, imagining the song of the Wolf Woman channeling life into the bones she has gathered, and the flames dancing around her in the night. Let's paint her, too, swaying as she sings over the bones as they spring to life.
In this story, the Wolf Woman is a medium, a channel, for the life force that flows through her to animate the otherwise lifeless bones. She is not the life-giver. In the same way, an artist is not the source of the inspiration that flows through them - though they may inspire others. An artist is a medium, too. If you struggle to express yourself creatively, it may well be helpful to think in these terms. The chances are that you're trying too hard. Before you even start, you've set yourself an unreasonable goal of creating a masterpiece, and when it doesn't work out quite the way you imagined it, you feel frustrated.
We speak of the creative flow for a reason. If instead of trying to force our artwork to conform to our vision of perfection, we allow the creative flow to take over and let our ego step aside, we will witness the magic that happens. The flames will dance around us. The dusty bones that we've gathered will begin to come to life.
When did you last venture into the wilds of your art studio, assemble your dusty collection of paints and breathe fresh life into them? To be truly creative is to connect with your wild side and let that untamed spirit flow through you, whether in the form of a painting, a poem, or a dance. Go on. See where your journey into the wilds takes you.
Part 3: The Shadow Self
I've found two stunning photographs, one of a Native American woman, the other of a wolf. Let's combine them and see what happens, and let's try another art medium while we're at it: coloured pencil on black paper.
I begin sketching very lightly using a dark colour and minimal pressure, so the resulting lines are only just visible on the black paper. Whenever you first set out with a pencil or a brush, I would suggest easing off the pressure, keeping your arm and wrist loose, allowing freshness and movement to permeate your marks. If at all possible, keep that looseness going throughout every stage of your work. The finishing touches may need a bit more precision, but try not to labour them even then.
The composition of this piece is inspred by the ancient Roman two-headed deity Janus, who looks simultaneously to the past and the future. Janus gives his name to January, which stands on the threshold of a new year yet looks back to the old. In this case, the twin heads are human and animal, woman and wolf, indicating our dual nature. We are humans, yet we are wild animals.
Roald Dahl captures this perfectly in 'Fantastic Mr Fox'. My partner Jason and I have watched Wes Anderson's animated film of this book more times than I can remember. The animal characters are so fully human, and yet they are 'wild animals'. When Mr Fox and his companions go on a brave rescue mission into the wilds, they encounter the lone wild wolf, who does not speak, or even approach them, yet fox and wolf raise paws in recognition of the bond between them. The wolf is the shadow self. Wild. Untameable.
In the same way, when we head out into the wilds on a creative mission, we may glimpse and connect with our wild shadow self, the Wolf Woman.
Folklore and mythology are riddled with tales of creatures that are half-human half-animal: unicorn, mermaid, centaur, minotaur, werewolf. In every case, they demonstrate the human's shadow self*, their wildness, which cannot be divorced from their human self, because it is part of them. If we or others attempt to lock away our wild shadow self, it will become self-destructive, frustrated, depressed, anxious, sometimes violent. This has a huge bearing on mental health.
If instead of attempting to cage the wild animal side of our nature, we acknowledge it, connect with it, run wild with it, we will become fully balanced human beings, nourished and refreshed by the wilderness, realising our creative potential.
Back to acrylics and palette knife. I'm going to use the 'smooshing' technique that you saw me using earlier to paint an atmospheric background, to lift the two portraits into the foreground by evoking an indistinct backdrop, which could be swirling mists, or clouds, or stars. Iridescent paints are most effective used on a black background.
I use the placing technique, too, to define the boundaries between the hazy background and sharply focussed foreground.
The background represents the wilderness, the vast and unknown landscape of our soul, which often seems hazy and indistinct, even intangible. But it is an invitation to explore, discover and dream.
Part 4: Don't Let Them Tame You
As I said earlier, it's always worth acting things out. In part 1, we set out into the wilds to gather dusty bones. In part 2, we breathed life into them through the creative flow. In part 3, we reconnected with our shadow self. It's time we danced in celebration of our wild, untameable selves!
For this piece, I'm going to start with a loose, dancing coloured pencil sketch, which will form the basis of a precise and intricate design.
Most of my artwork is inspired by dance on one level or another. In this case, I'm trying to evoke the spirit of freedom and euphoria that I feel when I dance.
As American dancer Isadora Duncan said, "You were wild once. Don't let them tame you".
Dance is a huge part of my life. I don't do steps. I just dance, as the spirit or the music moves me. So for the last part of my journey in the steps of the Wolf Woman, I headed back out into the wilds and did something I've always to do: I wild danced.
Coloured pencil shows up surprisingly well on black paper. Gradually I shift to lighter colours, finetuning some of the detail of the design, ready for the next stage. Stepping back from my work is crucial to seeing how well it's working as a whole.
When I'm happy with the overall composition, I take my scalpel and fit a new blade. I've been doing paper-cutting for more than twenty years. This is a Swann-Morton surgical blade. I hasten to add that it's non-sterile. For the record, I do not do brain surgery in my spare time. I begin cutting out the most crucial, detailed and intricate parts of the design, including the eyelash, the facial features and the fingers. This may be counterintuitive if you're new to paper-cutting, because it is the opposite to painting, where you begin with a wash of background colour and end with the dot of highlight in the eye, for example.
Working with a surgical blade gives you enormous scope for detail, but it can also lead to designs that are detail-obsessed and rigidly pedantic. This is why I start with a loose sketch, sometimes almost a scribble, to balance the precision of the surgical blade with free-flowing lines.
At intervals, I hold the paper-cut up to a light source, which throws everything into sharp silhouette and obscures the pencil marks.
Some of the paper strands I cut are no thicker than the pencil lines that informed them.
When it comes to cutting out sweeping curves, I move my whole body with the rhythm of the lines.
Like dancing, paper-cutting is an immersive, meditative, timeless activity. The more you cut away, the more the design emerges from the paper, rather like when a sculptor chips away at a stone block.
Not all my paper-cuts take the form of pure silhouette, but it is a fundamental principle of paper-cutting: positive versus negative. Silhouettes are powerful, because they are universal. They do not show the colour of skin, hair or eyes, and therefore people can more easily relate to the figures and engage imaginatively with them and their activities.
The silhouetted figures in my paper-cuts are often elongated to suggest how they long to reach out beyond the confines of their physical body or form. They express that longing for ultimate freedom and wildness, of melting into spirit. In dance, more than any other artform, I have felt reconnected to my own wildness.
Remember: You were wild once. Don't let them tame you.
I hope you've enjoyed these insights on my journey into the wilds of creativity, art and dance. I'd love to hear of your own journeys. If you enjoyed this film, please do leave a comment and share the video with your friends and fellow creatives. If you haven't already done so, please click 'subscribe' for free updates about upcoming films on my channel.
'Wolf Woman: a Journey through Art'
Artwork and #GoProArt Film by
Lois Cordelia, August 2020
For Jason, with all my love. "Good luck out there!"
Inspired by 'Women Who Run with the Wolves:
Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype'
by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
Created for 'Wild Women' event hosted by Nicole Schmidt
Mythos Storytelling www.mythosstorytelling.com
Mythos Podcast www.mythospodcast.com
* Lois has recently completed a series of illustrations for a new book, 'Dance Wise' by Stefan Freedman, which goes into a lot more detail about the 'Shadow Self' and its implications for mental health and healing. Stefan's book is due to be published later this Summer. Watch this space! :-)