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Burning Water


2003, oil on canvas

This body of work stems from a mural entitled The Ascent of the Plumed Heart: A 21st Century Interpretation of the Mythology of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl completed last May in Cuernavaca, Mexico, concerning the extensive pre-Columbian legend and mythology of Ehécatl-Quetzalcoalt. 


This collection of work includes drawings and paintings created before, during and after the project as I struggled to more deeply understand the peculiar image lexicon of feathers, snakes, spirals, helixes, shells, corn, nascent figures, branching forms and birds which inherent in the symbolic language of the myth and its attendant worldview. Few drawings actually served as models in the mural. I don't work that way. Rather, they were created in an effort to inform my intellect and imagination, as well as to generate the nerve to improvisationally extend a certain confidence across the expanse of the mural's surface.


Nearly all of the paintings have been completed since my return to Oregon. As such, I have been riding the tail of the Plumed Serpent, so to speak, in order to bring some the insights gained in the process of researching and creating the mural back to my life as a North American professor, painter, husband and father. These newest works are, for the most part, more abstract and distilled than the mural imagery, though the color palette has remained the same. They are more about forms and textures of energy and transformation than they are about snakes and feathers; though I would insist they are fundamentally no less about Quetzalcoatl. 


Quetzalcoatl, and the later conjoined Ehécatl-Quetzalcoatl is a 3000+ year-old mythic entity--god if you wish--concerned with physical and spiritual sustenance and ontological relatedness; of the inexplicable unity of opposites and the transformative forces of nature, such as water and wind, blood and breath. Quetzalcoatl's poetic names are many: thePlumed Serpent, Precious Twin, Burning Water, Wind Before the Rain, Morning and Evening Star, and so on, almost always combining a dyad, usually juxtaposing opposites of some sort, a bit like the "stone that floats" in European alchemical thought. For many present day Mexicans, and a surprising number of foreign devotees of Toltec philosophy, Quetzalcoatl is less an artifact of the past than a living force and a unifying principle from a heritage and lofty worldview nearly lost in the aftermath of the Conquest. For me, the myth is less a lesson in theology and ethnic history than it is a profoundly animistic and ecological philosophy in which the bird and the snake, evil and divinity, male and female, spirit and matter, earth and sky, water and fire are seen in their unity leading to a sort of meta-biology of relatedness as our seemingly separate selves are understood to be nested, and the nest is nested; all as One. As an academic I particularly value the notion that whereas intelligence (tonalli) is about making distinctions (about which formal education makes a fetish), wisdom (tayolia) is about how things go back together again. For me, and apparently the ancient Mesoamericans, image metaphors are especially helpful in this regard. At a point, words fail, and then I paint.


Imagery binding this work together includes the plumed and vascular heart, organic tissues and textures, the conch shell, the serpent, the spiral and the helix. The latter is also known as malinali or "twisted grass". the Nahuatl image of the Many becoming One. The double helix is also the conjoined Precious Twins and perhaps the umbilical cord and/or the shaman's ladder. Those a bit more esoterically minded than I even imagine a prophetic visualization of the structure of DNA . The heart has of course long been a powerful image in both pre-Conquest America and European art and poetry; so much so that we forget it is but a symbol signifying things other than romantic love. In this context, it is an image of sacrifice, of giving up the illusion of individuality (which, I concede, may in fact include romantic love after all). In Nahuatl poetry we read that the conch shell is the perfect form to house the formless soul, and we see the spiraling cross-section of the conch used as a pendant over the heart and as an emblem by those enlightened by el conocimiento de Quetzalcoatl in diverse pre-conquest codices, paintings, architectural decorations and other stone works. Precious feathers had great symbolic value and were traded extensively among aboriginal Americans. The iridescent green Resplendent Quetzal tail feathers were most prized in ancient Mesoamerica, and so to wear quetzal feathers (the same word is use for "precious" in Nahuatl) is to show spiritual, political and/or military rank. It is also suggested that the feathers mimic the shimmer of auras around the body.

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