Happy Yule!

Barn Owl Linoprint


I am not normally an owl person, but I seem to have been aware of them quite a bit recently and they seemed to want me to create some artwork with them. They are after all a common witch’s familiar, along with cat, frog and hare which have been with me for approximately 40, 10 and 2 years respectively. (I’m being selective here, penguins, dragons, snakes and butterflies don’t fit the witch image so well!)

The background idea for this card came to me in the autumn, as the trees lost their leaves and trunks were the most noticeable part. Some of the cards I printed gave the trees a misty effect. Not intentional, it is due to my inefficient inking, but I rather liked it and it matched the weather we were having at the time.

The barn owl is a beauty and one I have occasionally heard calling across valleys, usually when camping, without always knowing what it was. Quite different from the twit twoo of tawny owls! They are not actually woodland creatures, yet the only places I have ever seen them in the wild have been along the edges of woodland, where it opens out to fields.

Owls hunt at night, when it is dark to most creatures, as they have excellent eyesight, much better than their prey. They bring the gifts of far-seeing, and seeing what was previously unseen, into our lives. They also have particularly long necks, so can turn their heads to see what is behind them, or sideways. Sometimes it is good to look at things from another angle. Or sometimes there are things we simply haven’t seen and owl will bring them into focus. Illusions and secrets will be seen through.

Another gift is silence. Thanks to the shape of their feathers with soft edges, owls can fly with far less noise than most birds. The barn owl is particularly well adapted for silence, as it has very large wings so can fly very slowly with no sound. Instead they will be listening; owl hearing is acute as their ears are not symmetrical, allowing them to pinpoint sounds accurately, while their heart-shaped face directs any sounds towards their ears. Listen beyond the background noise to what is really being said.

Unfortunately the payback for soft feathers in Barn owls is a lack of waterproofing. They cannot fly in wet weather, so will sometimes be seen during the day if there have been several wet nights. Take opportunities when they are available, even if it is not what is usually done.

There are many superstitions about owls, especially the barn owl, appearing silently as a ghostly-white apparition in the moonlight. The most common is that they foretell a death. Given the huge numbers of mice and other small animals they must catch each night to feed their family, that is certainly true! Spiritually however, death is often close to change as it usually means the end of something in our lives, ready for something new. Owl does often seem to bring this message, often also bringing an increase of intuition helping to smooth the change.

The Celts believed owls sometimes accompanied souls on their journey to the other side, and owls were often regarded as gatekeepers to other realms.
Conversely the Ancient Greeks liked their protection, particularly in battle, because they were patient and ever watchful. Like the Goddess Athena, they are seen as being full of wisdom and knOWLedge…

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Happy Solstice!

Winter Solstice Greetings

May light fill your hearts and your lives as the sun returns, bringing inspiration and happiness.

I have seen various images of winter trees in lino printing, all snowy white silhouetted against a dark sky. However I needed the sun in my sky, not the moon and stars, so after a lot of thought and several sketches, I came up with this design.

This is a tree I see to the East every morning, growing in a garden a short distance away and now tall enough to show over the rooftops. It always intrigues me to look at things in mirror image when creating lino prints, so I took that idea further by drawing the tree the right way and its mirror – knowing that once printed I would still have the right way and the mirror. For once I drew straight onto the lino, knowing that any copying and image reversing was superfluous.

Last summer I was able to acquire a small roller press, and this was its first use which was a joy. I can still improve my inking, but the ‘misty effect’ improved some of the images for me on this occasion. All a learning process which takes a long time when I seem to do only one a year!

Evergreen plants have long been a symbol of life and fertility for the middle of winter. Many ancient cultures used to bring sprigs of greenery into homes or temples for decoration at this time of year, and that has never stopped. A wreath, to me, symbolises the cyclical wheel of the year, always turning through each season, while trees are life themselves as well as representative of the World Tree from which all life grows. This particular tree is probably an overgrown Christmas tree planted out several years ago…

Solstice Greetings!

Linoprint Phoenix

Linoprint Phoenix

Here is my Winter Solstice picture for this year, the Phoenix or Firebird. It is a linoprint again, like the previous two years, but with a watercolour background.

I realise that the Phoenix is not a conventional choice for the Winter Solstice, but when the idea came to me a couple of months ago, it seemed to fit the idea of the sun being reborn and the light returning. However, before I went ahead with planning my design I thought it might be a good idea to try and make contact with one in meditation and make sure it was happy to be featured, and see if it had any additional messages for me. The experience I had and answers I got were somewhat unexpected in light of what I thought I ‘knew’ about Phoenixes from popular culture. Here are the notes I made at the time:

Met with Dragon [who else for a mythical animal?] to ask if I could talk to a Phoenix. Wanted to check it was okay to send an image on Yule card, and if it had any messages for me. Very reluctant at first – said I wasn’t a fire person and should not be trying to work with it. Did agree to talk to me, although I found it very proud and touchy!

“It is a comet, or a shooting star, or a fireball like when a planet burns up.”
“Like a salamander?”
“No, they are mere striplings on Earth. Phoenix sphere is the cosmos, they are much greater. They cause huge destruction in their fires, which are absolutely necessary for rebirth.”

It was happy to be better known, however, and better understood, as its role is a vitally important one. Exactly right for Yule and rebirth. Also acts as a warning of change coming, and that is a good thing this year, even if only a few people heed the warning. Advised not to call upon the Phoenix, however, unless want a completely fresh start and are prepared to have everything go up in flames.

“Fire colours for picture please – not rainbow as a few people have done. Preferably hissing and spitting sparks as well.”

More recently I have tried to research the Phoenix mythology that exists from around the world. Here is a brief summary:

In Greece the Phoenix is said to come from Arabia, larger than an eagle with brilliant scarlet and gold feathers and a beautiful voice. It was said that only one phoenix existed at any one time, with a life span of 500 years or more. As the end of its life approached, the phoenix would build a nest of aromatic branches and spices such as cinnamon and myrrh, set it on fire, and be consumed in the flames. After three days, a new Phoenix arises from the pile of ashes, young and powerful – or alternatively like a worm at first. It then embalms the ashes of its predecessor in an egg of myrrh, and flies with it to the city of the Sun, Heliopolis, where it deposits the egg on the altar of the Sun God.

In Persia the Huma bird looks similar to a golden griffin and it spends its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth. In some versions it is said to have no legs, for it never lands. It embodies both male and female natures, each having one wing and one leg where it has legs. It is also said to consume itself in fire every few hundred years. It cannot be caught alive, and a person killing a Huma will die in forty days – but to see its shadow or even a glimpse of one is sure to bring happiness for a lifetime.

In China the phoenix or Feng Huang was thought to be a gentle creature, alighting so gently that it crushed nothing, and it ate only dewdrops. It was originally a pair of birds, male and female, but later was considered female, while the dragon was its male partner. It is said to be made of celestial bodies: sky, sun, moon, earth, wind, planets, and to have the beak of a cock, the face of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish – although these animals changed over time – while its feathers were the five fundamental colours of black, white, red, green and yellow. It has been pictured attacking snakes with its talons and its wings spread, or with scrolls in its beak. It represented power sent from the heavens to the Empress, and symbolised loyalty and honesty; it would not stay where there was darkness or corruption.

In Japan phoenixes or Ho-Oo fly in pairs, the Ho being male and the Oo being female. They nest in paulownia trees but were thought to only appear at the birth of a virtuous ruler or to mark a new era – after which they would return to their celestial abode.

In ancient Egypt the Bennu was a sun bird, a living Osiris, like a heron with two long flame-coloured feathers or a sun disk on its crown. It was born from flames at the top of a Persea tree that stood on the top of an obelisk and renewed itself in the sun’s rays every day. Some say it helped the sun to rise and set, and the Nile to flood each year bringing fertility to the land, and its cry helped the world to form and bring order out of chaos.

In Russia and Eastern Europe the Zhar-ptitsa was a large firebird whose gold and silver feathers emit red, orange and yellow light the colour of flames, and do not cease glowing even if removed; one feather is enough to light a large room. Some say it flies at night, and eats golden apples, while valuable pearls may fall from its beak when it sings. It was able to heal the sick and cure the blind by its chanting.

The more I discovered these parallel myths, the more I felt that the information I received fitted in. Just like Noah and his boat surviving the floods appears in multiple sources around the world, with evidence now becoming more available to us to prove there were huge floods that drowned civilisations 12,000 years ago, or the way angels appear in almost every culture and religion, so I believe it is with the Phoenix. We catch glimpses, we have stories passed down to us, one day we may see the whole.

I will finish with a quote from the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’:

“I flew straight out of heaven, a mad bird full of secrets. I came into being as I came into being. I grew as I grew. I changed as I change. My mind is fire, my soul fire. The cobra wakes and spits fire in my eyes. I rise through ochre smoke into black air enclosed in a shower of stars. I am what I have made. I am the seed of every god, beautiful as evening, hard as light. I am the last four days of yesterday, four screams from the edges of earth – beauty, terror, truth, madness – the Phoenix on his pyre.
“In a willow I make my nest of flowers and snakes, sandalwood and myrrh. I am waiting for eternity. I’m waiting for four hundred years to pass before I dance on flame, turn this desert to ash, before I rise, waking from gold and purple dreams into the season of god. I will live forever in the fire spun from my own wings. I’ll suffer burns that burn to heal. I destroy and create myself like the sun that rises burning from the east and dies burning in the west. To know the fire, I become the fire. I am power. I am light. I am forever. On earth and in heaven I am. This is my body, my work. This is my deliverance.
“The heat of transformation is unbearable, yet change is necessary. It burns up the useless, the diseased. Time is a cool liquid; it flows away like a river. We shall see no end of it. Generation after generation, I create myself. It is never easy. Long nights I waited, lost in myself, considering the stars. I wage a battle against darkness, against my own ignorance, my resistance to change, my sentimental love for my own folly. Perfection is a difficult task. I lose and find my way over again. One task done gives rise to others. There is no end to the work left to do. That is harsh eternity. There is no end to becoming. I live forever striving for perfection. I praise the moment I die in fire for the veils of illusion burn with me. I see how hard we strive for Truth, and once attained how easily we forget it. I hold that fire as long as I can. My nose fills with the smell of seared flesh, the acrid smoke of death, so that years from now I might look on that scar and remember how it was to hold the light, how it was to die and come again radiant as light walking on sand.
“I change and change again, generation after generation. I find anguish then peace. I am satisfied with my birth and the faith to which it led me. I do not regret the discomforts and terrors of my mortality any more than I regret the company of angels. I have entered fire. I become invisible; yet I breathe in the flow of sun, in the eyes of children, in the light that animates the white cliffs at dawn. I am the God in the world in everything, even in darkness. If you have not seen me there, you have not looked. I am the fire that burns you, that burns in you. To live is to die a thousand deaths, but there is only one fire, one eternity.”

– The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day

Merry Yule!

Lino print Holly Man

Lino print Holly Man

Greetings to all my readers. May this holly man bring you good cheer in these dark winter days, as we greet the return of the sun!

Some consider the Holly King to be the ruler of winter, while the Oak King rules the summer – although the exact date when each is supposed to be killed and give way to the other seems to vary through almost every season of the year depending on the source used.

In Roman times holly was used to honour Saturn, the God of Agriculture, celebrated at Saturnalia on 25th December. This has led to suggestions that the name Holly is related to Holy, and has a connection with the crown of thorns used at Easter in the Christian calendar. Since the holly man is often depicted in red with white beard an hair, and a sprig of holly tucked away somewhere, it has been suggested that he is a model for Santa Claus, via a connection with Odin.

To me Holly is a plant of winter, the shiny leaves reflecting light, while red berries are the colour of a low sun in the sky. Both the leaves and the berries are eaten by animals and birds in winter, but not summer when other food sources are more plentiful.

This is of course a lino print – it is my first use of colour, and I have a bit of learning still to do! The green was done in one piece, then the red berries were done as a trio mounted on a short dowel and treated as a stamp. Next year I must start earlier to allow for drying time…

Yuletide Greetings

Solstice Greetings, Wren with Ivy

Solstice Greetings, Wren with Ivy

A very happy winter solstice to all my readers!

Here is my favourite wren story, Celtic in origin:
There was once a contest to see who should be the king of the birds. The wren suggested that whoever could fly the highest should be made king. The eagle thought this was great and immediately went to show how high he could fly. Up and up he flew, far above all the other birds that he could see circling below him as he soared through the sky. He went up as far as he could, hovered for a few minutes, and then started to descend. Just then a wren who had been hidden in his feathers popped out and flew up two more feet, before saying “Behold your king!”

Wrens are a delightful little bird that hop around the hedges and shrubs in my garden, mostly seen in winter. They build several nests each year, and will choose the best, or even huddle together in cold weather in a nest box. They also have a surprisingly loud voice.

Butterflies

I have always loved butterflies, and as a child had a chart on my wall to learn the most common ones. I can remember using Swallowtails as an art subject at least twice, being to me the most fascinating of all the native species, not least the fact that they were quite rare; I have still never seen one in the wild. (Being in the right part of the country at the right time of year would help!) When it came to a subject for a test lino cut it was an obvious choice, although followed closely by the Comma which I am glad to say I see quite often, and even once designed for stained glass.

Swallowtail Butterfly linoprint

Swallowtail Butterfly linoprint


So having said a few months ago that I wanted to learn how to do lino printing, what you have here is the beginnings of me learning a new craft.

Each stage presented its own challenges – marking out the design, cutting the lino, and then the actual printing which even with modern, environmental friendly inks that can be cleaned with soap and water, was still a messy business. Keeping M’s hands from touching was also challenging! If I was doing this same design again there are things I would change – such as making the ‘shaded’ areas a little less black, and giving more attention to the background, as well as learning about how much ink to put on and how hard to press or burnish each print. I’m sure a good teacher would help me get there quicker, but given I do not have the freedom to take lessons right now; to do it at all I regard as a success. And hopefully I will improve with practice and experience. It won’t be long before M is doing her own designs alongside mine…

I love the fact that linoleum (as it is properly called) is made from just wood dust, pine resin, limestone and linseed oil with a jute backing, so about as environmentally-friendly and sustainable a product as possible. Non-allergenic, non-toxic, non-smelly, biodegradable… Since I also want to make some prints of trees, it seems a very appropriate material to use, and better than either modern plasticy alternatives or imported Asian plywood which seem to be recommended for relief printing. However I have some more exploring to do regarding the paper I use – the trees not being in favour of me encouraging their destruction in any way!

Butterflies sometimes show up when I am journeying, flitting about the place reminding me to enjoy the here and now. They can often signify change coming – after all it is a creature of huge personal transformation – but the change is always graceful and gentle. Perfectly within my capabilities. Using their cycles can be helpful, seeing whether I am at the caterpillar stage of eating voraciously, devouring all the knowledge I can find; the cocoon stage where I take time to digest the new ideas; transformation when the whole DNA changes from a caterpillar to that of a butterfly, and the new ideas take on a life of their own; the emergence into beauty and light of a new form taking to the air, or in this case the ether of the internet; and finally laying the new eggs that will start the cycle again.

Spiritually the change butterfly brings is one of personal growth, transforming into our true selves in all our glory. It dances with joy, with lightness and colour. This butterfly pictured above is at the start of a process. It is black and white, half formed, but ready to lay the eggs for what will follow. I look forward to seeing where it will take me.

Crafting a blog…

You will see that my blog finally has its own picture. I said a month ago that I couldn’t really draw… Well it is amazing what you can do with a pile of photos of animals off the internet, some celtic knotwork to link them together, and a lot of help from my spirit allies!

This idea has been a little while in the making, ever since my original photograph plan was scuppered by the Rowan trees back in May. (See Best Laid Plans, May 23.) I said then that various animals asked to be included – I had moles jumping up and down in front of me making little piles of soil all over our grass verge until I added them in. After that they vanished again… Last year I watched a young badger rooting around the undergrowth for ten minutes or so in mid-afternoon, from a distance of 4 feet. It was my birthday and while I have always had a soft spot for badgers, it seems we go forwards together. Blackbirds are the only birds I have ever seen learning to fly; just like the crazy pair in the Peanuts cartoons! They nest in our hedge ever year without fail.

Not all of the animals wish to be discussed here, so I won’t, and my main power animal did not wish to be included at all. But I must explain that the drawing of Dragon is as I first saw him, curled up in a cave and peering at me out of half an eye. I sketched him out, and then seemed to be guided towards the necessary corrections over a period of a few days. He is a truly magnificent creature, who I do not feel I am able to do justice to, but he says it will do for now. (He is the most wonderful steely-blue colour, and is covered with metallic scales.)

This is not intended to be the final version – I would like to do it as a lino print, but so far am having a steep learning curve! However, I decided that as this blog is about crafting, then this rough sketch was one step along the way of my path. At some point it will be replaced, but until then it can remind me of the process I have been through.

Dreams

If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough!

I first read this quote, said by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, about a month ago and have been meditating on it ever since.

The original context was a speech to college students, made in 2011, encouraging them to really make something of their lives and aim as high as they could. She was someone who experienced a huge number of failures and setbacks, enduring exile, imprisonment and fear of execution, yet she managed to hold onto that dream and become Africa’s first female president.

I have never had such a dream as that, and leadership is not my destiny for this lifetime. But there have been times when I have struggled to have any dreams at all, failing to hold onto even my smallest dreams, the things I would like to do. Illness robbed me of energy, impulsiveness robbed me of judgement and trust in myself. I allow other people’s negativity and doubt to influence me and I retreat into my mundane, simple world. I carry on the job of suppressing my own dreams, talking them down, not seeing any practical purpose for them. Gradually I forget my dreams, they have no place, they are not reality, they are fairytales.

Finally I am trying to turn this around, reawaken my creativity, by following up any idea that has sufficient appeal to me to carry out, and which I think I can manage with M. But I am turning into a multi-stemmed tree, going off in all directions, without producing a solid trunk that will grow upwards. None of my stems are large enough to use for timber.

Feel the fear and do it anyway (Susan Jeffers)

Well possibly. But that assumes you have a dream that scares you. Mine don’t. Any that might, got trampled on. Eventually realising this I decided to stop having dreams for a while, and just do things I enjoyed with no thought for where they might lead. Do what feels right at the time.

But now I’m ready to look again. What if I grew a few of those stems large, and then wove them together, like a wattle fence? What if I wanted to do something crazy? What would I do if I could do anything?

The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. (Sirleaf)

I now have a mad project to create a picture for this blog, using lino printing. I am not an artist, craft is much more my thing. I can’t really draw, and I have no idea how to do lino printing. But I started with a dream of a picture, back when my photo idea got rained on repeatedly (Best Laid Plans, 23 May) and then grew the dream to the point where it most definitely scares me. But it is also exciting and I feel inspired. It will then weave into another strand, storytelling and tree pictures which also scares me. But why do half? What is my bigger dream? That the stories and pictures will help connect people with trees and spread a little love around the world. Could we one day have a different relationship with trees? One based on respect and sharing?

Yes my dream terrifies me. Why me? What makes me think I am remotely capable? But then, what have I got to loose by trying?

Just because something has not been done as yet, doesn’t mean it cannot be done. (Sirleaf)

You are never given a dream without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however. (Richard Bach)