Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thoughts on Symbolism


Over the years I've been asked what certain pendants 'mean' or why I've decided on one symbol over another. Ever since I could remember, I've had a fascination with symbols, especially in art. It seemed to me that it was a secret language, or visual poetry. It wasn't so much that the image  had another meaning, but that meaning could be many things, depending on the viewer, on the artist, on the color - it was a riddle. I am still bewitched by the idea that a symbol can be as old as the world, yet still persist, altering and evolving as we do. Symbols of hands and eyes have been found in our earliest art, in cave paintings, formed from mud and scribed on vases. When I was a child I drew stars with eyes, after hearing a poem with the line 'the night has a thousand eyes, and the day but one'. The image stayed with me, so that I found myself trying to find the source of my favorite symbol. I found that the eye could mean so many things, like protection, or to keep away covetous glances, but mostly, it was to say 'Look! See!' and be watchful.  

So, regardless of any negative connotations a symbol may have picked up, I'm going to use it. Because, as an artist, I believe in the power of intention. There is something tangible in what one thinks about, or feels, while making art.  When I'm carving a piece, I think about the history of a symbol, of its roots, then think of what it will mean now and focus on that. Of course this idea has limitations. One can't change the meaning of a cross, or the swastika. But, symbols can be changed and they do all the time. It's what makes it so interesting.  One of my all time favorites, the harpy, had their image changed from lovely wind spirits, to ugly hags by the Romans. They probably originated from the Egyptian symbol, Ba, a person headed hawk that flew into the afterlife. Anyway, I adopted the image of the bird person into my visual language and use it all the time. I've written stories of bird girls finding lost things and returning them to their owners. I suggest not arguing bird girls, as I have one tattooed on my arm  and will get snappish.
Anyway, at the end of the day, a symbol can mean whatever you want it to. Here are a few of my favorites, some that I made, others from friends. The little horned statue is completely made up, but I like to think of her as forest guide -  same thing with the antler creature that is sometimes called Cernunos, or Lord of the Hunt. The silver eye bead is from Anne Choi, my favorite artist of all ( plus her eye beads are the best!). The little arrow was a gift from my buddies at Cabela metals ( to hit my goals). The tiny bronze bird girl is special. Only me and Wiesel have bronze ones. The eye pendant is very special to me. I was wearing it on one of my  best days - the day that my long lost brother contacted us after 23 years AND I found out I won an amazing ball jointed doll in a contest! So, I consider it a lucky charm.

5 comments:

mjsee said...

One of my most treasured possessions is an encyclopedia of symbols, given to me by a college friend. I love your bird girls...always have.

Andrew Thornton said...

I agree, there's a power in symbolism, both personal and historical. It's interesting to follow the paths of symbols, such as the bird girl. She has spread her wings in nearly every culture on the planet. One of the things that I love about your work is how there are layers. It's more than just visually appealing, but has depth and one could easily spend a lifetime with the things you create and never tire of them. Keep up the good work!

Shaiha said...

Actually the meaning of the swastika has been changed. At one time, it was actually a protective symbol and then it was warped.

Cynthia Thornton said...

Yeah, I know. But there's no way it can come back now.

Sarah Gornick said...

Hi Cynthia, I was thinking about you this morning and Steve said you were just creating like always so I decided to look up your blog. You are making some beautiful things, of course, and I enjoyed reading your essay on symbols. I would like to add to the commentary on eyes that it has been a pet peeve of mine when cartoonists take a short cut to portraying emotion by giving human-shaped eyes to animals like horses. Horses have their own ways of communicating emotion and don't need human eyes to do so. These cartoonists that I thought were lazy may be trying to access some kind of cultural symboism index--I will have to try to *see* it differently.