June 20, 2022
This week we recognize the work of artist Fern Shaffer.
"My interest in science has always directed me to information about the environment. By recognizing how everything is interconnected, our society can avoid mistakes that will only come back to haunt us. It makes no sense to poison the water when we will ultimately be the ones to consume it. The pattern is repeated over and over again revealing the crisis potential of our culture’s desire for immediate gratification. Living in an increasingly dangerous, toxic, and stagnant environment, for both animal and plant life, led me to investigate the dilemma through my art."
Ginkgo is a genus of highly unusual non-flowering plants. The genus first appeared in the Permian, 250 million years ago, possibly derived from “seed ferns” of the order Peltaspermales, thus the Ginkgo is a living fossil. A single tree can live as long as 1,000 years and grow to 120 feet. The Ginkgo is a tough and hardy tree, they can live in most climates therefore they have been planted and cultivated all over the world. For thousands of years, leaves from the Ginkgo Biloba tree have been a common treatment in Chinese medicine.
"As an artist, this tree represents the plant kingdom, and I paint the leaves as a way to show respect and pay tribute to its strength and endurance. If humans became extinct, life on the planet would survive, but if there were no plants, humans would perish. Our existence depends on these species."
The "Morphogenic Fields" series from 1983 (above), its title referencing the aura of radiation that emanates from living beings, features the female form, rendered in soul-baring, tenuous outline. Shaffer uses a shifting figure/ground relationship calling to mind the flow of energy in, out and through us, depicting women enveloped within fields of gestural DNA-like marks or packed with radiating color strokes like bursts of energy set against darker voids. Evoking both the personal and universal, these works address women's identity on the threshold of exploring, and perhaps realizing, the possibilities for fulfillment opened up by feminism.
In 1980, inspired by her interest in Edgar Cayce, Mircea Eliade and Michael Harner, and prompted by ecological concerns shared with her collaborator Othello Anderson, Shaffer began enacting self-designed shamanistic rituals as a form of spiritual intervention. Anderson documented the rituals in sequential photographs that were later exhibited with elements (ceremonial garments and objects) from the performances. Feminist art critic Gloria Feman Orenstein situated Shaffer's work as part of an emerging Ecofeminism movement, describing the rituals as introducing "feminist matristic resonances" intended to create connections and restoration in the sites and communities within which they are enacted. According to writer and critic Suzi Gablik, Shaffer's "process of creating a shamanic outfit to wear can be likened to creating a cocoon, or alchemical vessel, a contained place within which magical transformations can take place." Art critic Thomas McEvilley related the garments to "an earth mother or fertility-goddess motif," evoking "non-Western or non-Modern identities" in the service of ecological concern. The artists describe the rituals in terms of "energy and thought centered on the equal balance and harmony between Nature, science, and spirit," connecting with the Earth as a living entity whose energy can be reached and unblocked through ritual, prayer and touch, much like acupuncture works on the human body.
Fern Shaffer is an American painter, performance artist, lecturer and environmental advocate. Her work arose in conjunction with an emerging Ecofeminism movement that brought together environmentalism, feminist values and spirituality to address shared concern for the Earth and all forms of life. She first gained widespread recognition for a four-part, shamanistic performance cycle, created in collaboration with photographer Othello Anderson in 1985 title Rituals. Writer and critic Suzi Gablik praised their work for its rejection of the technocratic, rationalizing mindset of modernity, in favor of communion with magic, the mysterious and primordial, and the sous. Gablik featured Shaffer's Winter Solstice, 1985 (below), as the cover art for her influential book, The Reenchantment of Art, and wrote that the ritual opened "a lost sense of oneness with nature and an acute awareness of ecosystem" that offered "a possible basis for reharmonizing our out-of-balance relationship with nature. Shaffer is a long-time activist for women in the art through her involvement and leadership at the Chicago alternative art space Artemisia Gallery (1982-1992) and work with the national Women's Caucus for Art. www.fernshaffer.com
Featured Images: Above, ©Fern Shaffer, The Swamp, 2007, of the Cache River Swamp, Southern, Illinois, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 180 inches; Ginkgo Leaves, Building a Tree (ongoing), oil and acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10 inches each; Morphogenic Fields (series), 1983, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 inches; Fifth Ritual, May 9, 1999, Death Valley, California; Life, Ontology at 36, 1981,canvas, acrylic, raffia, 108 x 100 inches; below, Winter Solstice, 1985, ritual performance, Lake Michigan.