Tuesday, December 14, 2010

When Santa Was a Shaman

I've admired Verne Dawson's work for years. This morning with dark clouds above, snow tumbling down, a whole day of sunless twilight in the offing and the Winter Solstice not far off, it seems timely and fitting to write about one of his paintings, entitled "When Santa Was a Shaman". I love this piece, and if a print was available (and affordable), there would be one hanging on the wall here in my studio. Sorry, but the only image I could find was somewhat muddy and leaves much to be desired.

This is contemporary painting unlike anything else I can think of offhand. A student of ancient mythology and archeoastronomy, Dawson has been fascinated by fairy tales, folklore, Stone Age archaeology, astronomy, zodiacs and early calendars since he was a young boy. Possessed of a fine restless intellect and a passion for the mythic, he is trying in his opus to knit things up, to come to terms with something cosmic and much larger than himself - where we came from as a species and where we are going. A reviewer once wrote that there is little resolution in his work, in its place, however, a reckoning with the impossibility of ever really knowing and the beautiful melancholy of nothing less than human existence.

"When Santa Was a Shaman" is one of a series of works from the late 1990s, illustrating life in the Magdelenian culture of the Upper Paleolithic, about 21,000 years before Stonehenge and near the end of the last Ice Age. The painting depicts a dark snowy midwinter night, twinkling stars above and deep snows underfoot, early humankind clad in furs and dancing a solstice observance with the tribal shaman presiding at the center of the circle.

There is no similarity in technique of course, but Dawson's work always reminds me of Andrew Wyeth's little known "Snow Hill" in which six beloved friends (three deceased) are dancing merrily around a winter solstice pole crowned with an evergreen and surrounded by drifts of snow. A seventh empty streamer in the image represents Wyeth himself who said wistfully that he wished he could be invisible when painting. He once told an interviewer that his aim was "to escape from the medium with which he worked, to leave no residue of technical mannerism to stand between his expression and the observer." Both statements sound Zen to me.

Dawson makes an ardent plea for living in harmony with the natural world. He reminds us just how small humanity's role in the great cosmic scheme of things really is, of how the past is with us at every sigh and glance and turn. How delightful it always is to encounter a thoughtful painter whose work embraces the mythic, who strives passionately to keep an awareness of our roots and a sense of interconnection alive in modern times.


the wild magnolia said...

This is a particular excellent post! To know of someone who is rolling it all around in his head, digging deep to reconcile life, checking under every stone, stirs up my ever longing to solve a mystery!

Great share and I love the picture! I'll have to check out the Andrew Wyeth's "Snow Hill".

"When Santa Was a Shaman", I love it!

Anonymous said...

This was such an interesting post, Cate. So though provoking. I'd like to find out more about his work.