Paintings As Portals

Paintings As Portals

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being part of OCCULT II, an esoteric art salon in Salem, MA. As part of the event I took part in an artist panel that was moderated by Greg Kaminsky (host of Occult of Personality) in which Greg asked the participants what Magician had most influenced our artistic practice. The questions brought me back to a very specific point in my life.

Winter 2004, a Greyhound bus dropped me off in Savannah, Georgia and an arm wrestling match with a stranger along with the good weather convinced me to stay. I got a crappy job waiting tables, a studio apartment and a library card and commenced on the investigation that had motivated my relocation to a new place. I wanted to delve deeply into the world of dreams and I wanted no social distractions and as few responsibilities or ties to the waking world as possible in order to facilitate that.

I began reading anything I could get my hands on about the subject of dreams and dream work including Yoga Nidra, Tibetan Dzogchen and most importantly Totlec practices as introduced to me through the writing of Carlos Castaneda and Ken Eagle Feather, both students of the Yaqui seer Don Juan Matus. I was simultaneously continuing my practice of yoga asana, meditation and pranayama and for the first time focusing a good chunk of time on painting.

As you might imagine, life got pretty strange, pretty quick. I was young, purposefully isolated, without teacher or spiritual community for guidance and going full throttle into some reality bending territory. In fact, if someone came to me today and said they were combining all these things I would tell them to slow down and with good reason. My six month experiment culminated in a quiet breakdown in which I quit my job and hit the road again. One can only fold reality so many times without mussing the map.

However, cautionary tale told and set aside, in the midst of this bizarre journey I had an experience that radically changed my ideas about art and art making and has influenced all of the work I have done since.

Castaneda documents many experiences in which Don Juan works with him to “shift his assemblage point”, causing him to have many fantastical journeys into non-ordinary realities. In the worldview of the Toltec seers the human body is said to appear as a luminous egg (connections here to the yogic ideas of the subtle bodies) that receives its light from its assemblage point of awareness located somewhere within this egg. The world and the luminous body consist of energetic filaments bound to the bodies assemblage point and connected to these emanations at large. Seers learn to shift the assemblage point and thus connect to a broader spectrum of what is, whereas most humans are limited in their awareness due to a fixation of the assemblage point caused by habits in perceiving.

While Castaneda was mostly using hallucinogenic plants to shift his assemblage point, the lesser known student of Don Juan, Ken Eagle Feather outlines many practices in tracking the natural shifts in perception that happen as we move from waking through several distinct levels of sleep consciousness and into the dream state. I was avidly tracking these shifts as well as training myself to be aware of similar shifts in the energy body that occur during meditation. Through these practices I began to get a sense of what a shift felt like, how it occurred and a limited map of some of the territory, like a baby grasping the concept of the physical body’s center of gravity and how to shift it from one foot to another.

So I was painting one evening and well into the process when I became aware of a distinct shift in my energy. Upon focusing my attention I was surprised to realize that my energetic body was actually inhabiting the painting I was working on as if it was a large 3-dimentional space and not a flat canvas. I actually sensed it as being at quite a bit of distance from my body as if truly being set within the large ocean and night sky that I was painting. More than that, I became aware that I was having a conversation with something within that space. I stayed with the experience long enough to get several messages. I returned supremely curious about what had just happened.

This is the painting I was working at that time.

This is a photo of the painting I was working on. I’ve kept it tacked up in every studio I have worked in since.

In the days that followed, I sorted through possible explanations for what I had experienced.

Possibility #1: I was going totally bat shit crazy.

Though I have certainly had times of questioning my sanity (the aforementioned nervous collapse being one of them), this possibility is fortunately outside my worldview. I am also pretty sure that if you side with the idea that perceiving things outside our 5 senses as “crazy” you would have not read this far anyway. As far as I conceive it, crazy is not in our ability to perceive but rather in an inability to sort. Without proper training (or with substance abuse or other weakening influences) the assemblage point will not rest anywhere and the threads all get tangled. In this moment I was very conscious of what was occurring, if mystified by it.

Possibility #2: The meditative process of focusing on the painting had shifted my assemblage point and connected me with a non ordinary state of awareness.

This is a plausible option to me. I was already in the practice of moving in and out of deep meditative states. At that time I was practicing a painting technique in which I applied many successive layers of paint to create multiple bands of color – a practice that was tedious and repetitive and hence a good recipe for entering an altered awareness. However, what begged me to question further is that I very clearly perceived my energy as being inside the painting. In trance states I had experienced through repetitive motion my energy would gather above my head, most often specifically above my head and to the left by about two feet. The only time I had experienced my energetic body traveling such a distance was in the case of astral travel. Which brings me to the next possibility.

Possibility #3: The painting itself is a locus for emanations outside of the luminous egg, unconnected to the assemblage point of my ordinary awareness.

In this possibility, the ordinary painting (2 dimensions) is a portal to a non ordinary reality that can be inhabited and experienced by the energetic body (3 dimensions) just as other realms are experienced through astral or soul travel. Sort of how I liked to imagine when I was a child that if I could only get past the glass of the T.V. screen, then I could get inside the movie that was playing. It seemed that I had somehow “gotten past the glass” and I was having a conversation that was completely surprising and outside of what my ideas of what the painting was about and most certainly outside the bounds of what would have been my personal musings.

Um, whoa.

Considering this, my ideas about the art making process and the function of art in general were just blown off their hinges. Rather then understanding a painting as something that could inspire reflection, emotion or aesthetic appreciation, I now saw the possibility of art as a portal to larger emanations that could then travel through the image to effect the viewer (or in this case, allow the viewer to travel into the space to connect to these emanations. In my experiments since I have noticed that some flow out and some draw in and some do both!).

To me, this means that that art holds the potential of ushering in energy that can literally shift our consciousness, that art could be a key to manifesting new ways of being by helping to shift how we are aligned within our own being. It brings new light to what it means to create a piece of art because in this model, the creation keeps rolling. The painting, once painted, does not sit idle but can be a window to a world in which many things are happening and that you are invited to be aware of if you pay attention.


  1. Phil Martin

    Beautifully, soulfully, and intelligently written. You have many gifts and I now have much to contemplate. Thank you!

  2. I think of this in terms of what I call healing. Because I believe as you wrote that non-ordinary ways of perceiving are more natural than being limited by our 5 senses, I actually think health is connected to our ability to allow energy to pass through. Another way to say this is authenticity, directness, clarity, alignment are factors in health and healing. Art and anything else, if it is this type of channel, has the ability to dramatically impact both people and its environment.

  3. Gunnar

    Wery interesting reading indeed

  4. T Parm

    Great line: “One can only fold reality so many times without mussing the map.”

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