I have visions of a woman re-wilded. The unique and intimate connection of women to the natural environment is central to my work. My feminine iconography spans several media including painting, drawing, textile based sculpture, and installation, all charged with ritualistic and goddess based mythological associations. In my allegorical egg tem- pera paintings I present a florid woman who forays into the wild and engages with ani- mal spirit guides or familiars who are agents for her communion and receptors for her enchantments. Thread and lace banners bearing messages delicately rendered within the paintings connect and bind the figures and animals while honoring domestic women’s crafts such as lacemaking, and stitching. In my sculptural and installation work I use materials such as silk, embroidery floss, feathers, household tools, and soil which are methodically chosen to create reimagined artifacts, scenes of secret earth- rooted ceremonies, and interactive spaces that nurture women.
Essay by Pam Grossman
Ms. Mystery: Susan Jamison’s Secret Garden
What was said to the rose that made it open was said
to me here in my chest.
- Jalal al-Din Rumi
When stepping into Susan Jamison’s resplendent world of painted weavings and rose-colored lasses, the words “sub rosa” come to mind. Steeped in mythological associations that trace back to Greco-Egyptian initiation rituals, the phrase translates to “under the rose,” and has been used for ages to signify clandestine meetings and kept secrets. The rose, of course, has been a symbol of women’s mysteries for centuries, linked to Aphrodite, Isis, Mary, and myriad other female deities, as well as to later fairytale permutations such as Briar Rose, and Snow White and Rose-Red. And so Jamison’s work inducts us into her own matrilineal mystery cult, offering clues to consciousness through her distinctive feminine iconography and florid orientation.
Any magicienne worth her salt attaches deep significance to her spells’ material ingredients, and Jamison is no exception. Her medium of choice is egg tempera, which means that she must mix her own pigments with egg yolk and water to give them unique properties that are fixative and luminous at once. She also must paint with a painstaking technique that is meticulous, immediate, and extremely time-sensitive. It’s an alchemical process of a sort, and because of it, her creative work begins before she ever sets brush to panel. Furthermore, eggs are perhaps the most divinely feminine symbol on earth: the ultimate vessel of fecundity and metamorphosis. Her paintings are infused, then, with the stuff of life.
Prominent in this exhibition are images of Jamison’s signature ur-woman, a stand-in both for the artist and the viewer - though whether she’s priestess or neophyte is difficult to discern. She is a striking figure nonetheless: bald, nude, and literally clear-headed, with the lattice-workings of her veins and musculature rendered beautifully visible by the artist’s exacting hand. Though naked, she is highly adorned: fuchsia flower tattoos festoon her limbs and breasts. These dichotomies – surrender and agency; exposure and ornamentation; vulnerability and strength – are what make her such a powerful protagonist. Like all liminal beings, she straddles extremes, balancing opposites with grace and composure as she undergoes her own magical development.
This tension between contradicting elements is perhaps best represented in the painting, Lovelace (2007), where we see her standing upright, eyes closed, while luna moths wrap black ribbons around her, with needles hanging from embroidered phrases such as “SPEAK TO ME” and “TOUCH ME.” She beckons us close to her, while remaining mute and focused inward as the material winds tighter around her form. The image is evocative of the scene in Disney’s Cinderella, where birds and mice dress the titular character for Prince Charming’s fateful ball. Rather than a gown though, our painted lady appears to be receiving a cocoon or shroud from her insect consorts. The flame blazing from her third eye signifies that a spiritual transformation is occurring. After the darkness overtakes her and she dwells in isolation for a time, she will presumably emerge a winged thing, ready to take flight. It evokes thoughts of Eleusinian initiations and later Masonic ceremonies: enacting a death so that a resurrection can take place and a higher self can be brought forth.
Animal as spirit guide is an ongoing theme in Jamison’s work, populated as it is with birds, bugs, and beasts. Avian creatures in particular were considered by the Greeks to be psychopomps, or guardians of the soul, and they certainly seem to take on this role here. In Trust in Me (2007), the rosy maiden – this time with a translucent hand – reaches out for a barn owl bearing the reassuring title motto stitched in lace. Repair Me (2006), shows hummingbirds surrounding her tendril-embellished arm. Their beaks mirror the thorns of a rose that pricked her fingertip, though one gets the sense that they are here to heal her, perhaps with the thread they carry her way. Power Bear (2013), a more recent work, seems a more blatant self-portrait of the artist, shown curled up fetal-style inside a bear’s body. When one considers that bears traditionally correspond with Artemis, the goddess of wildness, childbearing, protection, and the hunt, the piece becomes a potent visual allegory about gestation and creativity in all its forms. Perhaps the woman will be reborn, renewed and recharged with generative energy. Or perhaps she is turning into a fearsome bear spirit herself through an act of shamanic transmutation.
If Jamison is an unabashed maker of feminine art, she is also the proud progeny of feminist lineage. The feminist art movement of the 1960s and 70s sought to reclaim women’s lived experience as valid and worthy of attention, and honored both female bodies and female craftsmanship. It brought so-called “domestic” arts such as sewing, weaving, and ceramics out of the margins and into museums and galleries. By incorporating intricate images of embroidery and mending into her work, Jamison is not only showcasing her own exceptional gift of painterly dexterity, but is also nodding to her artistic roots.
This is most apparent in her series of spider web paintings (2013-2016), inspired by her favorite book from childhood, Charlotte’s Web. These painted nets become mash-ups of spider silk and (wo)man-made lace, with messages such as “PLEASE CATCH ME,” “PLEASE DESTROY ME,” and “PLEASE BELIEVE IN ME,” imploring the viewer to confront the demands of female desire. The juxtaposition of these bold declarations against the delicacy of the fibers is yet another gesture of binary dissolution. Femaleness, after all, is a “both/and” system, subsisting on equal parts gentleness and force. Mythology is again a reference point here. Looking at these works, one thinks of Arachne, the fabled mortal weaver woman who was turned into a spider, and the Native American deity Grandmother Spider who was said to have created the entire world. These pieces pay homage to thousands of years of decorative arts and feminine ingenuity, while simultaneously whispering to us about how womanhood, magic, and nature are inextricably linked.
If Jamison’s paintings provide us with keys to unlock secret doorways, then her installation, Feathers and Weights (2016) is the cumulative portal to the other side that we can finally open and enter. Intended by the artist to be an active ritual space, replete with a magic circle and sacred herbs and talismans, the piece is an open circuit that the viewer can plug into and engage with both spiritually and physically.
The figure on the ground is a proxy for anyone who chooses to participate in this spell. Her body lies supine on dirt, an element that represents the chthonic, earthly realm and corporality. Scarlet thread – a classic symbol of protection, blessing, and female blood rites – emanates from her like rays, and connects her to the celestial realm of immateriality and infinite possibility. Her parallel self is an owl spirit - associated with Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and free to soar to the highest heights of her potential. The title also references the Egyptian belief that the hearts of the deceased would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, the goddess of truth and justice, to determine if they led a life of goodness. If a person’s heart was lighter than the feather, their soul would be released from purgatory and lifted up into the heavens.
Jamison has stated that this piece is meant to aid the viewer in “finding direction, where we have been, how we are anchored in place, and where we are going.” One might argue that all of her work does this however. Her immense imagination, supernatural skill, and deft story-stirring remind us that way forward can be found by mining the precious metals of our past. She shows us that through knowledge of ourselves and of our shared secret herstory, we can locate our center point, bloom from within, and claim our birthright to divinity here and now.
This catalog essay was written by Ms. Grossman for Jamison's Super Natural exhibition at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Longwood University