Ancient Inspiration

My exploration of this work began after I spent time observing prehistoric figurines at the Birmingham Museum of Art. As an art history major in college I remembered learning that the intentions of prehistoric artists are unknown for certain, but it is assumed that one purpose of ancient art was to act as a sacred object of spiritual power, possibly used in ritual. I tried to imagine how an artist today, given the vast cultural differences between then and now, would approach a similar intention. This curiosity gave rise to my Without a Net series. 

In short, if I were to imbue an object with a sort of non-material power, I supposed that I’d start with the only thing I knew I could possibly have power over: my own mind and actions. From there it seemed obvious, since I am human, that my mental and behavioral ground could use a little sweeping, and the idea grew into a thrilling prospect: that through my art I could become more conscious of myself, more effective at making change, and more accepting of how things are.

I’ve no way to exactly emulate ancient humans in their art-making rituals. I know that because the ancients were more connected with nature we sometimes romanticize their spirituality and see it as more intuitive, pure, and evolved. 

Maybe it was. But I’m not ancient, (exactly) so with a wide-open acceptance of the very interesting culture in which I presently find myself, I decided to investigate a current and individual take on the ancient pursuit of making art as a power object.

I chose oil paints as the medium of expression for the project because I’m a painter and have been at it for a long time. Contemporary trends in art encompass literally any medium and method of communication, and often lean toward the digital and technological. While all art forms are valid, I decided that oil painting particularly lends itself to my task. It is ancient, and involves a concentrated focus on a developed manual skill. The act of rendering an object by hand moves the mind from the analytical to the contemplative, and into a place where intuition and mystery reign. I was grateful to be a long-trained craftsman with enough experience to trust that painting would be an adequate vehicle for my journey. 

My Path

The art I’d made over the previous three and a half decades had served many purposes, all perfectly viable for the time of life in which they were created. I’d gotten my university art degree, made a living from my paintings, pleased critics and won awards, expressed my creative urges and enjoyed myself. What I hadn’t done was to intentionally combine my creative, art-making process with what I considered to be the most important work of my life: the search for self-knowledge, heading down a path toward self-realization.

Previously, I’d used reading, writing, yoga, prayer, meditation, attending group gatherings (like church, for instance) and sharing with trusted friends to explore my inner landscape. I’d considered the process to be successful, and an ever-expanding endeavor. This time I would take my search through the vehicle of painting. I would have eagerly jumped on the concept if it weren’t for the cynical ghosts of my training in art academia who I imagined would mercilessly criticize my intentions for being an unhip, unintelligent hippy endeavor—like something done at a workshop for “finding yourself.” But I stalwartly tabled this distraction, leaving the professors in my head behind, and vowed to include it in my investigations. From that moment I knew I had a vast reservoir of subject matter to draw from, always available. Even the darkest stuff in my mind was up for grabs. 

Beginning this series felt a lot like going into a confessional and revealing my deepest secrets. Only instead of baring my soul to a priest, I was exposing myself to the general public! The only thing that tempted me to go forward into this domain of vulnerability was something I’ve always found irresistible—curiosity. I wanted to see for myself the fantastic menagerie that might emerge from making my innards into paintings, and I wanted to see others’ reactions to them, horrified or not. The intensity of communication might lead to a monumental connection, especially if viewers personally identified with my mind-states. 

I’ve no doubt that other people will relate to some of my states of mind. Because of our individual uniqueness, it’s not likely that any one person would relate to all of them. But in my connections with many people through selling and teaching art for the past 30 years, I’ve found that not one of my foibles, shortcomings, or desirable traits is exclusively a Dori thing. When I’ve disclosed these things, time and time again bonds are forged with others who relate to my humanness. I’m convinced that our disconnectedness from others begins with our secrets. We stay hidden because we are broken, and we don’t get fixed by staying hid.

The Spiritual Aspect

I’ve read loads of literature over the years about spiritual leaders, saints, artists, mystics, successful people, and seemingly-crazy people who move through their inner landscape and come out the other side more enlightened. I’ve read the most inspiring, wise, poetic writings ever put on paper, much to my joy. I’ve seen the exact same sacred message at the heart of every tradition from every culture throughout time. In this imparted wisdom I look to see direction for my own path, and I most certainly find it, but at times I feel a teeny bit short-changed.On the road to wisdom, we are told, many of these giants of goodness in our world went through serious struggles, just like us normal folks. Their travails of self-discovery are described in a general way or in passing, or with a few words. It’s encouraging to know that those farther down the path wrestled with themselves like I do, but I never quite felt completely reassured because, although I know that they suffered, I don’t usually get a blow-by-blow account of how this went down. So you fought with demons? Exactly what does that mean? You did some soul searching? What did you find? You were silent for months or years. What happened? You claim to look at the worst parts of yourself straight in the eye. Well, what were they? 

I feel more validated in my messy, embarrassing search for my own truth when I know that those leading me know what I’m going through—that their path looked something like mine. I can get a sense that a teacher’s wisdom is unattainable if they don’t let me know how they’ve been as lost, off-kilter, and as nutty as I have been. I can hear of struggles, but the more specific they are, the more I can validate and accept the human weakness that I encounter in myself daily. I take away more hope if I believe that my present situation (however imperfect it is) is a normal part of moving forward. Moving forward into self-understanding is, for most, not that easy. By definition, it requires the unsavory task of seeing our ugly parts. If I am to proceed, I need all the handholding I can get. If my leaders look perfect and give spotty details about their path, the chasm from being me to being like them is too wide. Their greatness can serve to make me feel like a bottom feeder on the path. 

My desire for the gory details of self-examination inspired me to be as clear as I can about my own gory details. I have no illusions about becoming a saint, but I do feel capable of revealing my experiences in hopes of better defining and accepting where I am. That acceptance will breed more trust that my path will unfold the wisdom needed in each moment ahead. If sharing my gory details helps anyone feel more validated in their humanness and more supported on their path to understanding and awareness, that seems pretty good.

The Paintings: My Own Private Myth

To personify my states of mind, I needed a template. In many cultures and religions around the world, animals have been used to represent ideas, deities and demons, human traits—a wide range of inanimate phenomenon. Animals have represented characters in elaborate myths, their qualities brought to life in order to illustrate, inform, and relate to us in ways impossible by other means. Mythology is less understood now than it was by our predecessors. The contemporary theologian and Catholic Priest, Richard Rohr, explains myth beautifully:

            “…myths proceed from the deep and collective unconscious of humanity. Our myths are stories or images that are not always true in particular, but entirely true in general. They are usually not historical fact, but invariably they are spiritual genius. They hold life and death, the explainable and the unexplainable together as one; they hold together the paradoxes that the rational mind cannot process by itself. As good poetry does, myths make unclear and confused emotions brilliantly clear and life changing. Myths are true basically because they work! A sacred myth keeps a people healthy, happy, and whole—even inside their pain. They give deep meaning, and pull us into “deep time” (which encompasses all time, past and future, geological and cosmological, and not just our little time or culture).…Somehow deep time orients the psyche, gives ultimate perspective, realigns us, grounds us, and thus heals us. We belong to a far grander Mystery than our little selves and our little time.”

For my investigation I tried to recall the readings of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung from college days, but I felt like I was starting with almost no grasp on my task. I decided this might be the very best place to start, as I had no previous structures to limit my imagination. Taking cues from the traditions of cultures such as Native Americans and Hinduism, I began imagining how a mind-state might be represented by an animal. With a playful, watchful sense of openness, I watched for real animals in my daily life, read fairy tales and nursery rhymes, watched in amazement as serendipitous encounters unfolded, and didn’t take any idea for granted. 

I tried to think as primitive man might have—by cultivating an enormous respect for the intuitive mind. Long ago mythological creatures weren’t just tales. Ancient people really believed they existed. Theyknewthey existed! Existence didn’t only refer to the physical plane then, and the invisible world and the solid one were intertwined in a way we can’t wrap our tidy Western brains around. Since dabbling in the world of the unseen doesn’t come naturally for me either, I found myself rolling my eyes and second-guessing my ideas quite easily. But on I trudged, doggedly refusing to let the fun and magic be taken out of my investigations. After a few paintings, I knew that I could trust my intuitive instincts. 

I even allowed my newly created characters to jump off the canvas and participate in my life. They had been with me all along, stuck in my unconscious, poking their heads out to make trouble or fun. Now I had a face for them, and I could imagine them tormenting me, inspiring me, or whatever I knew very well they were masters of. I could dislike them or be grateful for them. It all helped to deepen my acceptance that they were indeed mine. Friend or foe, they were mine. And for the ones I was really sick of, I recalled Abraham Lincoln’s quote, “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” I allowed the idea of myth to take shape in my life, to work for me.

Ancient cultures sometimes portrayed their mythological figures as animals with human traits and clothed them in symbolic garb, with various props and environments to narrate the character’s story. I have enjoyed the wide array of options for dressing up and creating backdrops for my critters to convey the essence of the mind-state it represents. I sometimes refer to stories, clothes, or scenes from my past, and other times I indicate dreams or wishes I’ve had recently or long ago. Although they can be very specific to my personal vision, they do what myth is supposed to. They point to ideas that are hard to express in words (even though I try to give suggestions in my writing,) they offer symbols that simplify complicated concepts, and they translate universally.

The Visuals

I place my subject in the center of the painting, like an icon. Iconic figures played a significant role in my childhood, one that directly relates to the concepts brought forth in my present work. 

My dad raised me Catholic, and my devout Granny frequently gave us kids little white cards with images of Mary, Jesus, or the Saints. I was convinced these were delicate, special cards with subtle (or not so subtle) powers. Each person on the card represented an idea, and if I treated the card well and believed even nominally that the card should be taken seriously, maybe some the ideas would rub off on me. I thought praying to St. Christopher for protection couldn’t hurt, and Mary seemed so nice and calm I might be more like her if I put her card on my dresser. The saints that got shot full of arrows or hobbled around with ugly sores reminded me to be thankful for my lot, and to be brave when things went wrong. The cards held just one focus for your attention: the person in the middle. A few attributes described their message for the viewer, and that was what mattered. 

Another iconic image from my youth came from my mom’s spiritual instruction, quite distant in practice from Dad’s, but visually and conceptually similar. As an enthusiast of all things New Age (this was, after all, Colorado in the 60s and 70s) she experimented with many spiritual practices, but Tarot cards remained a favorite for decades. She was paid to do readings occasionally, and although I didn’t embrace her ideas with any more gusto than I did Catholicism, I had a healthy respect for both. Tarot cards usually have a figure or object in the center, and each represents a theme, if you will, that is interpreted by the reader. There were kings and queens and numbered cards, just like in a normal deck, many relating to different parts of life, such as money, relationships, and health. I won’t get into the specifics of Tarot reading. The important thing impressed upon me was that, much like the saint cards of Catholicism, the Tarot was not to be taken lightly. We were to handle the cards with care, and be respectful of what they meant and referred to. It took a while for me to loose my fear of the Death card or the Hangman, but Mom made it clear that the “negative” cards held just as much rebirth and light as the so-called happy ones. 

Whatever their impact on me, the little cards I grew up with had images with strong associations. Their resemblance to my current work is recognizable, and I’m pleased that I had very different camps from which to draw influence. 

I paint realistically, but with a smoothed-over cartoonish style that could be compared to imagery from children books or pre-Renaissance figural painting. I suppose this pseuso-realism conveys the idea that I like to be straightforward and unapologetic about clarity with my subject, but absolute detail and accuracy are not necessary. When seeing umpteen fresco cycles in various Cathedrals in Italy I was much more taken with the ones that pre-dated the scientific realism of Michelangelo. I liked the flatter, less sculpted imagery that called attention to the story instead of the details of anatomy and wardrobe. I don’t mind at all if certain parts of the piece are a little off-kilter or have a slightly wonky perspective. A little more interesting, human, and goofy, I say. 

A children’s picture book is an apropos comparison to my style because I have drawn a good deal of influence from Mother Goose, Brother’s Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson. My mother often read these classics to us, and I’m not sure I knew of many other children’s tales until I was introduced to more modern books in school. Imagery from the famous tales appeared much as my paintings do now—realistic without being photographic, slightly stylized, and colorful. My painting subjects probably come from a similar place in the imagination that brought to life Little Bo Peep, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Little Match Girl. 

I like to exaggerate color; I just can’t help it. When I try to make a neutral-colored piece I get bored and blah feeling and find a way to spice it up with color. The nature of my subject doesn’t read in black and white. My mind-states don’t feel anything like neutral states. Color is, to me, the most powerful tool of visual expression, and I’ve always delighted in the amazing fact that I get to fool around with the Real Deal. The building blocks of the world. The vibrant, expressive, heart-grabbing, wow-producing tools of beauty. Beauty! What a job I have! I understand that subtle colors have their place, too, and some of my favorite artists use them like poetry. But I can’t resist the enchantment of straight-out-of-the-tube color. When I occasionally tone it down for the sake of making a point, my next piece pops out with a vengeance of color. 


With each painting that follows I’ve shared some of my inspiration and discoveries that accompanied my painting process. The paintings could be enjoyed without explanation, but for me the project is as much an experiment with personal awareness as it is a series of crafted objects. If I didn’t share the thought process that complements each piece I’d be leaving out a good chunk of its content. 

After I’d completed many paintings in this project, I formed a small focus group to answer a question I couldn’t get out of my head. Could others use the essays and imagery of the project to engage in dialogue about these investigations? There are many group gatherings designed to encourage self-honesty and vulnerability in a safe setting, so would my take on things add anything valuable to this endeavor? I assigned four women, each about a decade apart in age, me included, to read three essays per week. We gathered on Fridays to discuss them. I was honored, floored, thrilled, and humbled to find how quickly the material brought our hearts together and opened insightful and deep conversations about all manner of subjects. Our similarities were uncanny, and our differences endearing. The spirit of the essays impresses a clear assessment of issues followed by an uplifting, hopeful path to solutions. To my delight, our new group of friends kept our conversations within this vision, and negativity and complaining never entered in. It wasn’t long before our group hated to miss our meetings. It motivated and inspired me.

As I’ve continued on the journey I’ve seen my ideas and opinions change a great deal, and sometimes rapidly. That’s kind of the point of self-inquiry. I worried that my ever-transforming  perspectives would require me to constantly revise the essays. Since so many of the pieces hint at the idea of acceptance, I practiced what I preached, let go of perfection, and accepted that the versions as they stand are nothing more than a snapshot of my perceptions at the time I wrote them. Helen Keller was big on saying that change is the only constant, and this project ever reminded me of it. 

What’s Underneath

The whole of my work revolves around the idea of vulnerability. All this uncovering of layers and removing of masks is supposed to reveal something, right?

What lies beneath the layers of protection (constructions of the mind) has been talked and written about by theologians, people of the cloth, scholars, philosophers, psychologists, mystics, quantum physicists, poets and artists. In many different words, languages, and means of expression, they all have names for the beautiful reality underneath our protective created personas. Yogis call it Atman or Perusha. Christians may call it the True Self, referring to being in harmony with the teachings of Christ. Buddhists call it the Buddha. It means being in or in harmony with Heaven, or Enlightenment, or Nirvana. It is being totally connected to The Great Spirit, the Unified Field, Allah, God, the Universe, or Higher Power. It is what lies under our masks. It is what happens when we let go of the fears that keep us imprisoned. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like an unimaginably wonderful thing to discover. 

The great Sufi poet, Rumi, refers to God in his gorgeous poems by a long list of lovely names, including Master, Sunbeam, Light, Hidden Treasure, Breath, Sustainer, Generous One, Most Beautiful, and, his most often used word, Beloved. He often refers to the inner search as a burning or a cleansing.

Sally Kempton, meditation teacher and writer, eloquently describes the process of self-discovery as “moving beyond limiting beliefs to identify our basic goodness, the unbreakable beauty of our inner heart.”She speaks of the “alchemical power of adversity,” and teaches practices that affirm and work with all parts of ourselves, negative and positive. She writes, “another name for God is "reality"—the life energy that flows through every circumstance and makes things happen the way they do. Much of our suffering comes from the simple refusal to accept that reality. So, moment to moment, … is the choice to open up to what is actually going on inside us and around us.”

Thomas Merton said, “In order to find God, whom we can only find in and through the depths of our own soul, we must … first find our own selves. Our ordinary life, cluttered and obstructed as it is by our own bad habits of thought and action as well as by the bad habits of the society we live in, is little more than a semi-conscious, torpid kind of existence when it is compared with the real life of our deep selves—the life that we are all supposed to be leading.” 

Mythological stories have witches and warriors, princesses and toads, kings and trolls, valiant quests and naps that take a hundred years. These symbolic stories are meant to reflect places inside ourselves and parts of our personality. The ultimate quest in each, whether to win a kingdom, mountains of gold, or the handsome prince, is a metaphor for our journey to our inner kingdom. Often, the hero must go to dangerous places, sometimes as deep and scary as Hades to complete her quest. Our everyday, real-life desires for all enticing things are reflections of (and a poor substitute for) a yearning for the reward that is at the end of the mythic search. 

I’m finding that removing the layers of psychic junk, whether slowly or quickly, brings me closer to peace and fulfillment. As I find less attachment to those things that used to be so easy to crave, I lighten a little. As I stop running from my pain I find it isn’t as scary as I thought, and mistakes and losses are taken a little more in stride. In the words of poet John O’Donohue (as introduced to me by my friend, writer Lanier Isom) I gain a “courageous hospitality” toward my shadow side. The resulting equanimity leaves me more often in contact with the Beloved, which really is the ultimate goal of this quest. My paintings, the writings about them, and the friendships forged in the making of them have become part of a boundless expression I am thrilled to share.