Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Visionary Artwork

I've said before how Adobe Photoshop, the software application for visual art and photo editing, when I first started using it, which was around version 1.5, was a tool that freed me up to make the kind of art that I could see in my mind's eye but had not the technical skills with brush or pencil to create by hand. I've said before how Photoshop became for me, as a visual artist, what literacy is for the illiterate: a tool to help me express things that I never could before. I've also made the analogy, perhaps unwisely but sincerely, that before Photoshop I felt handicapped as a visual artist, one who couldn't draw or paint worth a damn, but now was suddenly freed. At last I could make the art in my head, the things I've seen, the visions I've had, and put them out so that other people could see them, too. Photoshop completed a void in my toolbox, and gave me wings.

Fractal Trees

I've always had visions: numinous and liminal experiences; moments of transcendence, filled with Light; moments at times and places where you could see through the veil into another world. Early in my career, I attempted to paint some visions; but the results were mostly symbolic, iconic, not literal illustrations. I've written poems about the visions; I've been open about saying that some of the vision-poems are really just transcriptions, journal-entries of events outside the ordinary. I've frequently been misunderstood, or disbelieved, as often as I've talked about it.

music taking flight

I've always had an inner soundscape that was in my awareness. Jazz composer/trumpeter Lester Bowie once said (paraphrased) that he had a continuous 24-hour inner soundtrack; all he had to do, to make music, was dip in and bring it out into the audible world for awhile, for others to hear. But it was always playing in his head. In Balinese folklore about their gamelan music, there is the belief that music always is going on, as the music of the spheres, on some other plane of existence; all playing gamelan music does is bring that continuous sound into human audible range for awhile. My own experience of music is exactly like that. I always have music playing in my head somewhere, which can be dipped into at any time. It can be annoying, when the song playing is an irritating viral distraction; in which case, I play some other music to replace it with. When I'm improvising, just as Lester Bowie, says, I listen to the inner soundtrack, and pull something out of that to play around with. Few people realize, in parallel to how much of my vision-poetry is recorded experience, how many musical recordings I've released are deep-improvised first takes. There is a small group of improvising musicians who I admire and emulate, who do this sort of thing very, very well: Lester Bowie, of course; David Darling; John Coltrane; Charlie Haden; among others.

Music of the Spheres, from Spiral Dance
(Second Place Award (tie), Juried Religious Art Show, St. Paul, MN, 2004)

So I'm really talking about art, music, and poetry as recordings of continuous inner continuous, which you produce, as an artist, in order to, first, share the experience with others, and second, get it out of your own system. There is a valid element of art-making that is therapeutic for the artist, a venting and purging of inner systems, of getting it out of the body—although not all products of venting and purging should be considered art.


Photoshop allows me to do this with visual art, in ways very parallel to the poetry- and music-making practices I've just described. In truth, an important reason I don't make strong distinctions between artforms, and why I practice crop rotation among them, is because, for me, the process of dipping into the stream of creative force that is always there, always available, feels the same to me no matter what artform I'm working in. In truth, the process of art-making is almost exactly the same, no matter what artform I'm working in. That's why it's easy to pick up another artform when one is lying fallow. That's why I don't believe in writer's block anymore. That's also why I tend to perceive as multi-sensory rather than mono-sensory; multimedia is more evocative of the immersion into life as it is lived, than single-sensory artworks. Not to mention the parallel channels, triggered simultaneously, of synaesthesia.

Angel 2

The process of making visionary art in Photoshop is often improvisatory. I might start with a photo, or scan, or group of images. I might start with a drawing or piece of calligraphy, scan it in, and see what it feels like it wants to be merged with. A lot of visionary art-making is about finding correlations and correspondences, about blending. When I out in the world making photographs, I am not only looking at the world in order to find and make solitary, unitary, complete-in-themselves photographic images. I am also looking for elements that will later be combined with other images to make collages and visionary art. You multitask when you're out making photographs, just as you multitask when browsing magazines at the library, or surfing the internet: you find wonderful things that catch your attention as you pass by them, while your original purpose was to discover something else. Sometimes the most interesting things are found while on the way to looking up other things. So, I will shoot elements as well as finished images. Photoshop allows one to make seamless merges of multiple images; to create new realities out of multiple single frames.

Gateway: Departure

More than once, my visionary Photoshop art has been used for magazine illustration, book cover illustration, and album cover art. I enjoy the occasional commission. I also like the challenge of creating a visionary art piece that illustrates a concept creatively. I don't make a strong distinction between "fine art" and "commercial art," as that boundary has been repeatedly crossed in both directions, with regards to my visionary art.

Raccoon Spirit

One of my most beloved and powerful influences as a visionary artist is photographer Jerry Uelsmann, who began making darkroom photographic visionary collages in the 1960s and 1970s. His work was done by combining multiple negatives into single large prints on the photographic enlarger. I am in awe of Uelsmann's painstaking care and attention to detail in his work. What I can do in Photoshop he has done with photographic negatives. If this were just a technical trick, it would still be of note; but in fact, Uelsmann's art is sublime, liminal, and beautiful in deep ways, his images arising from the collective unconscious, from dreams and visions, to be seen in the light of day. There are connections in his pieces to those same realms of dream and mystery that have been mined by photographers Duane Michals and Arthur Tress. But Uelsmann is even more pre-verbal, more purely visual, operating in mysterious realms not where words fail us, but where words have not yet even arisen.


Another beloved and powerful influence on my visionary art is painter Alex Grey. He discusses his history and goals in his book The Mission of Art, which is also a mission statement. Grey speaks directly to artists like myself, who aspire to do something beyond "personal expression," when he writes: It is your responsibility to find the ways your visions can positively influence individuals and your culture. . . . The mere process of fixing imagery onto surfaces or forms does not ensure spiritual development. It is the intention and awareness from which artists create that determine whether their work will serve mammon, ego or spirit. Intention and awareness are core elements, even core values, for visionary art.


What I get from these influences is not direct imitation of their styles or concepts, although it's hard to avoid following in Uelsmann's explicit footsteps, but rather: permission. Permission and validation to explore where my inner eye goes in my artwork. Affirmation that I am not alone in either the visionary art that I want to make, or in my reasons for making it. Affirmation and validation that this is not a personal project, a dead-end bit of solipsism, but rather is linked to a global art movement that is much bigger than myself. Permission to be hopeful, honest, and uncynical in my art-making, contrary to the fashions and trends of the irony-entrenched and cynical artistic mainstream of the day. Validation that doing what I want to do, as a visual artist, is worth doing.

crow dance

When I start to do a Photoshop piece of visionary art, I often don't know where I'm going. I could discuss the technical steps for visionary art-making in Photoshop; and perhaps I will, later. Improvisation is part of the process, but so is exploration. It's deep play. Far too many artists get hung up on the notion that "intention" equals "control," when in fact the intention with which visionary art is made is to give up control to some aspect of Self or Mystery that is greater than the ego or mammon, but rather serves Spirit. "Channel" has become a discredited, unfashionable word; but how then are we to describe this feeling of stepping aside so that Something greater than the known little-self can step in and direct? How to put into words this sense of not-being-in-charge of the process, but excited as anyone to see how it all comes out? A lot of artists feel they must dominate, control, or tame this flowing part of themselves: put it subject to will and mastery, require it to turn itself on and off like a light-switch at their command. This will-driven paradigm for making art doesn't work for me; it doesn't describe at all the process that I feel a part of. The Taoist sages have much better ways of describing the artistic process: Water is of all things most yielding, yet it can wear down the hardest places to nothing. . . .

paths, prints

Now that I am taking up brush and pencil, as if for the first time, and teaching myself to draw, I find myself combining that art into the digital art-making process as well. A photograph of a drawing can become an element in a larger visionary piece. Japanese brush calligraphy and enso have already worked themselves into new pieces. The process of convergence of all the various artforms I work in, converging towards unity, is continuous and ongoing. No doubt carrying synthesis, synergy and synaesthesia to as-yet-unarticulated realms of being. I don't expect the journey to end anytime soon. This is the process of making new maps of still-uncharted territory, of going up the mountain to see what's there, of the discovery of what is not yet manifest.


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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Some good stuff here. My wife and I both loved the image of music escaping from the piano. Carrie is far more adept with Photoshop than I. Most of the things I use Photoshop for I could do just as well in Paint.

BTW I've just finished that haiku blog you requested. Carrie has still to proofread it though.

1:42 AM  
Blogger mand said...


Music taking flight may just become my Desktop background in a minute. 80)

I love crow dance; in fact they all have something special. Thanx for this post, Art.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Thanks, I'm glad you guys liked these pieces. The piano in the picture is my mother's, BTW.

I look forward to the haiku piece.


Thanks very much.

I haven't really talked about this body of work, of visual work, before. Obliquely, perhaps, but not directly. It's a little more close to my soul, and thus a little harder to talk about. This body of work really began to kick into high gear circa 1997, and has been in progress ever since; with gaps whilst doing other things, of course.

Lately, even though I've been more active as a "pure" photographer, with no image manipulation beyond correcting values for proper printing, this body of work never goes away. It's always in the back of my mind.

i guess I've decided to talk about it more directly, now, since it's become clear to me that one of my big topics, the overall connectedness of all my art, its lack of distinction, that I've talked about most explicitly in terms of writing, also includes this. So I expect to be digging deeper into this material, its sources and techniques.

I haven't decided if I want to talk about the technical aspects of making this kind of art, or demonstrate them, the way I have for the mechanics of the craft of poetry. I have to think about that some more.

11:45 AM  
Blogger mand said...

The thing about visual, of course, is that it's not verbal. ;0)

Having said that, i look forward to hearing more about it!

12:12 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


I'm thinking about doing more, to pursue the whole arts-integration thing by way of example, anyway, so I'll take that as positive reinforcement. :)


8:14 PM  
Blogger prairie mary said...

Art, I've just gotten broadband and discover that at last I can get to the comments without waiting twenty minutes. Just in time for this exquisite post! I so appreciate all your comments on my blog as well as the posts on your own blog.

Barrus and I are getting wild: We don't know where we're going exactly, but it sure is fun. I'm trying to learn how to handle sound at the moment. I don't have music in my head all the time, but I do have a steady stream of ideas.

Prairie Mary

9:39 PM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

These are really striking! I like the 'Gateway/Departure' especially but they're all dazzling in their way.

3:30 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Thanks very much! The feeling is mutual, believe me, and I've been enjoying following your steady stream of ideas, as they emerge.

Now that you have broadband out there, we hope to see more of you in these parts, out and about.

Thanks very much for the comments—


10:02 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Thanks! There are a few images that work with the Gateway idea, arrival, departure, etc. And windows into other worlds. Enough to make a small series-within-a-series. I'm glad you like these.

10:03 AM  

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