Category Archives: Creativity

Home Base: Place Altars As Connections to Wilderness

Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.

I am not a huge fan of “nature” as being separate from humanity. The perceived divide of “natural” and “artificial” may seem like a way to emphasize the non-human nature that we often seem to ignore, but it still reinforces the idea that we are somehow divorced from natural processes and cycles, especially in cities. I do, however, favor the concept of “wilderness”. It evokes a place where humans have not had nearly as much of a dominant place in the ecosystem, and we can see more of what the rest of nature is like when we are just another critter in the woods (or fields, or desert, etc.).

Like many other Portland residents, while I live in the city proper, I do get out quite a bit to the wilderness areas that surround the metro region. Usually I’m off to hide somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge or spending a couple of days at the coast, but I’ve ranged further at times, depending on the situation.

Pilot Butte, Bend, OR, July 2010, by Lupa

This is a lifelong habit, this seeking less human-populated places for recharging and respite. When I enter the wilderness, I feel as though I am immersing myself in a rich, lush energy, though the nature of that energy changes from place to place. The treasures of the deserts of Eastern Oregon are of a distinct quality compared to the conifer forests of the Gorge. And the genii loci of these places are their own beings as well, though like the boundaries of the places, large and small, they shift and blend and overlap, less distinct than our linear minds might prefer.

As much as I might like to stay immersed in wilderness forever, I also recognize that I am an urban creature. I have wants and needs and obligations that require more connectivity of a human sort. And, admittedly, I like comfort. Snow hiking is much more fun when I know I have a warm home to go back to.

But I don’t want to forget these places I’ve been, nor the often deep spiritual experiences I have while in their embrace, whether tender or terrifying. And so I collect small, single souvenirs for each place—a small stone, a Douglas fir cone, a piece of driftwood, a pheasant feather. I even got an antique glass jar lid from a local wetland that had been cleaned up after years of garbage being dumped there. And for every thing I take with me, I leave a bit of myself: hair, energy, water for a plant if I’ve enough to share. They come home with me, and I mark them with the date and the place as their number has increased with each place I become acquainted with.

They used to have their own shelf, but eventually they migrated over to one of my two primary altars. You can see them scattered around the top of it here, amid the small stone animals I’ve used to signify directional totems for many years.The relocation of those stones and sticks and such is significant. For years I had a fairly typical generic Wicca-flavored neopagan altar, with the directional markers (animals, of course) plus the tools I used back then (athame, wand, etc.) and my image of Artemis, all from various places around the world and having more abstract than immediate symbolism. Once I began to embrace shamanism–and bioregionalism–more deeply, the tools I no longer used so often ended up on a second altar specifically for ritual implements old and new, and that’s when the gifts from the land spirits made their move.

Place Altar by Lupa, 2011

It’s a beautiful weaving, actually. The centerpiece of the altar is a ceramic wolf-themed jug I made back in high school when I was first getting involved in paganism, and it represents me; it’s decorated with a pair of scrimshaw fossilized ivory necklaces that were instrumental in the processes that brought me to the Pacific Northwest. Immediately surrounding it are the four animal statues—Grey Wolf/North, Brown Bear/West, Red Fox/South, and Red-tailed Hawk/East—that survived the shift from my early neoshamanism and neopaganism, through my chaos magic explorations, and on into my more formal shamanic path. They represent the roots of my practice, like a volcanic core of basalt that has survived the erosion of softer stone surrounding it over time.

Radiating out from them, oriented toward the places they came from, are the reminders of the places I’ve been. They ground my practice more deeply in the place I am at. Not only have the spirits of place taken me in, but their other denizens have as well, and increasingly my altars are covered in gifts from other locals—the mule deer leg bone that is the handle of the beater for my drum, or the portrait that Steller’s Jay requested I get from the artist Ravenari in lieu of illegally possessing molted jay feathers.

Looking over these gifts, I can remember for a few moments—or longer, if I wish—what it was like to climb Dog Mountain in a November storm and nearly be blown off the summit; or the first time I met the Pacific Ocean; or the time I retreated to Bend, Oregon and found solace in the deserts there. I can remember the wildlife, and the plants, and the stones, and all the beings that come together in these places, just with these few small reminders.

And they’re all invitations to come back, to reconnect, whether physically or through journeying spiritually. Even the places that scared me weren’t out to get me; I simply wasn’t observing enough respect for them. Every visit is a chance to try again, to go in deeper, to give more of myself to the land spirits and see what happens next.

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Bridge over Drift Creek near Lincoln City, OR, November 2010, by Lupa

Bella Morte

Note: This was first published on No Unsacred Place around 2011-ish, which went defunct a few years ago (RIP–it was a good site). Then it was on Paths Through the Forests, but I split from Patheos a couple of years ago due to philosophical differences with their new ownership. As they have not honored my request to have my writing taken down, and I don’t want to direct more traffic to them, I am slowly reproducing my work from there here. That way if I want to share this post with someone it will come from my site and not theirs. Please help me by sharing this link around–thank you!

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The beauty of the wild is the long gesture of life in time. The beauty of skin and fur and feathers, the beauty of blood, the beauty of bones sinking into grass.

–John Daniel, from The Soul Unearthed

That is the quote I painted on a recent creation of mine, shown in the picture above. My canvas was a piece of rawhide left over from a drum kit. The visual punctuation of the entire piece included an eclectic mix: a rooster feather; a coyote toe bone; a sea urchin spine; and two pieces of deer hide, fur and leather.

I chose the quote deliberately for that piece. There is a certain ambiguity to the words, flowing from one end of the life-death cycle to the other. “Life in time” breathes and pounds its heart, while the “bones sinking into grass” create a vivid image of the core structure of the animal, all the rest borne away, disintegrating into nourishment for the flora. In between, the hides and the blood are left open; they may be alive and running yet, but the blood may also be sluiced upon the ground, and the skin stripped from muscle and tendon and prepared for preservation.

In much of the United States, people have a poor relationship with death, to include that of nonhuman animals. The idea of the “poor, dead animals” (particularly those that aren’t carved up on a dinner plate) is often enough of a shock that no one wants to think, let alone talk, about it. We eat beef and pork, not cow and pig, and very few of us ever eat anything that’s looking back at us; even the shrimp are conveniently decapitated for our culinary comfort. The most common discourse about dead animals seems to come from some animal rights activists who quite often use guilt, shame, and shock to try to convince unsuspecting leather-clad omnivores into changing their ways. When the choices are either silence or stigma, there doesn’t seem to be much room in between for more moderate discussions.

“Skin Spirits” book cover photo by Lupa, 2009

I choose what I perceive as one potential moderate path, tempered with much awareness. For over a decade I have been an artist of animal remains, part aesthetics and part spiritual work. On the one hand, I very much appreciate the lovely curve of bone and the lush texture of deerskin, the intricately veined colors of feathers, and the varied structures of the hairs of all sorts of furs. Beyond animal parts as an artistic medium, though, the core of my work is funereal. From the beginning my art has been about reclaiming these remains from being trophies or status symbols, and a significant portion of my “supplies” is made of old fur and leather coats, reclaimed taxidermy, and the like.(1) I guide these remains to a better “afterlife” with others, as has always been my role with them, and everything I make with animal parts gets a full ritual purification as part of my pagan practice.

Over the years I’ve gotten a wide variety of reactions to my work, from awe to indifference to outright hostility. Thankfully the responses have canted toward the more receptive, whether in person or online. I get the distinct feeling, though, that most people, regardless of their views, are highlighting certain individual facets of the work that, together, I tend to take as a whole.Most of the people who favor my work seem to primarily connect with it on an aesthetic level. They like having something pretty, whether as something to wear, or as a “powerful” ritual tool. They appreciate it as art, which is perfectly fine. At the other end of the spectrum are the occasional activists who come in swinging; they see the death and the remains, to the exclusion of anything else.

On some occasions, though, I will meet people who bring my art home both as art, and as sacred remains. They haven’t glossed over the fact that what they hold was once living, often combining the parts of animals that never would have met in life (such as the cow and the sea urchin in my wall hanging above). But they still see the beauty in those remains, and in the fact of their death. They can appreciate the loveliness of a long-dead deer’s ribcage seated in a field, and the arrangement of those same ribs into a totemic shrine. They know they carry lives in their hands.

I have not lost sight of the living end of the cycle, either. I have always donated a portion of the funds I make from selling my art to nonprofit groups that work to preserve both animals and their habitat, as well as informal donations to friends and acquaintances in need of help with emergency vet bills and the like. I think my partner, S., put it best when he told me that my most powerful alchemy was taking the remains of animals that had often died cruel and inhumane deaths, and turning them into funds to help those creatures still living and the environs that support them.

And I do my best to educate people about the sources of the remains; I maintain a database of international, federal and state laws on possessing and selling animals parts in the US to help them make educated decisions. Nor do I lie about those of my “materials” that are byproducts of the fur industry; I do not claim they’re roadkilled or “natural deaths”, or wild instead of farmed, to try to assuage people’s guilt or to make me look more ethical in their eyes. To do so would be an insult both to the people I speak with, and the animals themselves, never mind my artistic and spiritual work.

Coyote totem headdress by Lupa, 2011

This work with the remains is another foundational part of my nature-based path, and as I write in this place over time, you may see me refer to the “skin spirits” as a collective term for the spirits of all the animals whose remains I work with, skin, bone and otherwise. My nature-based paganism is rooted in all of the life-death cycle, and this is how I seek the beauty in that which is all too often ignored, or so symbolized as to be almost entirely removed from the gritty reality.

(1) I have become so known for collecting dead critters in certain circles, in fact, that I have been over time gifted with a number of antiques that were inherited by people who had no idea what to do with them, and so decided I was a good next stop for Grandma’s fur coat, or Uncle Doug’s deer heads.

Did you enjoy this blog post? Consider picking up a copy of my book Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Use of Animal Parts, or The Tarot of Bones, or my other books (some of which also have dead things in them!) Or you can check out my artwork made with hides, bones and other natural and found items. And I have a forthcoming book about Vulture Culture, the subculture that has formed in recent years around the appreciation of taxidermy and other dead things.

How I Store More Art Supplies Than I Know What to Do With

So I had a special request from one of my Patrons over on Patreon. They wanted to get some advice on storing art supplies, which sounds simpler than it actually is. See, if you’re an artist, you probably have a tendency to buy way more supplies than you actually need in the moment, often spurred on by creative impulses that say “Hey, look at this neat thing–you could TOTALLY make something out of it!” Which is how, over the years, I have ended up with everything from a vintage floorstanding radio to a full-sized taxidermy hyena to way more tchotchke shelves than anyone has any business owning.

Having been a hide and bone artist for two decades has at least given me the opportunity to figure out how to best store lots of big, bulky supplies like fur coats and antlers. Now, I am not one of those people who has an entire basement floor to work with, with walls full of shelves holding a hundred identical plastic tubs, each neatly labeled in legible handwriting. You won’t see my studio in a magazine extolling “Twenty Enviable Artists’ Spaces.” But I’ve made do with a whole bunch of living situations for me and my stuff.

Not everything may fit perfectly, and that’s okay. As long as you can keep everything within a certain set of boundaries without stuff falling over regularly, you’re good to go.

The first thing you need to think about when stashing your art supplies is the space you have to work with. My living quarters have ranged from a single bedroom to a spacious two bedroom apartment. Storage has been everything from tiny closets to the laundry room. These days my current studio includes not only part of a house but a loft in a barn for storage as well. (I am incredibly spoiled, believe you me.)

You’re going to have to be realistic about the space available to you, especially if you live with other people. It’s tempting to just let it all hang out, so to speak, but that’s not really fair to anyone besides you in your creative moments. So assess what space you can reasonably have for your supplies. It’s best to focus on out of the way spots like closets, shelves, and back rooms that don’t get that much traffic. This isn’t just to keep things out of the way, but also because these spaces are good for keeping things more or less contained.

Next, you need things to keep things in. I am a big fan of plastic bins and milk crates. They’re boxy, easy to stack and easy to move around, and are often abundant in thrift stores. I mean, if you really need all your bins to match you can go to any general-stuff store and pick up a bunch of the same type, but I have poached mine from all sorts of sources, even free piles on the side of the road after someone has moved. They’re mismatched, but they work pretty well.

Soft, squishy things lend themselves well to being stuffed in bins, like the ones in the picture at the beginning of this post. Most of mine are full of fur and leather scraps of varying sizes and sorts. I also have a few that are full of assorted smaller odds and ends, like shells and feathers and so forth. Keep in mind that the bigger the bin the more stuff you can fit, but the more you also have to sort through to find that one tiny thing that inevitably has fallen to the very bottom. You can also put hard, awkward things like antlers and bones in bins, though you may have to play a little Tetris to get them to fit right.

This part of my studio is a work in progress. These are bins that either haven’t made it into the barn yet, are full of really fragile art, or have things I need often enough that they need to stay at the house. Note also the stacks of milk crates.

Crates work well for smaller hard, awkward things. However, my favorite use for them is as storage for stacks of jewelry organizing boxes. These are those shallow tray-like boxes with little dividers in them that are perfect for beads, fishing lures, hardware, and other teeny little easily-lost items. One milk crate will typically hold a stack of five, and then you can stuff some baggies of other stuff in along the side. Make sure that you don’t put things in above the top edge, or else they won’t stack properly. I use the very top crate in a stack for stuff that won’t fit neatly and might stick out the top. I don’t like to stack more than four crates up as they can get tipsy otherwise. (Plus it’s a pain having to unstack and restack them every time you want something from the bottom crate–which is a great reason to put the things you use the most in a crate higher up the stack.)

Not everything is perfectly neat, of course. I also have a shelving unit full of oddly-shaped cardboard boxes, and stacks of more boxes, and bags of packing materials, and so forth. But I make everything more or less fit, and since a lot of that stuff is either packing materials or destashed art supplies just waiting for someone to buy them, most of what’s there is temporary. (Don’t feel bad if you can’t make everything you have fit into neat boxes, so long as you can keep it basically contained.)

I also am fortunate enough to have a decent work bench. I have some small benchtop shelves for things I use a fair amount like adhesives and tools. The rest of the bench….well…the condition of that depends on how busy I’ve been. But having a flat surface that is reserved for my work helps keep it somewhat contained. If you can have a table that isn’t shared with other things (like, you know, meals) make the best use of it you can. Otherwise, put your stuff away as soon as you’re done working so that you stay in the habit of keeping things neat.

One more thing: it’s really important to reorganize and declutter on a regular basis; you can either sell or donate whatever you cull. If you watch the supplies section of my Etsy shop, you’ll notice that I destash stuff several times a year. That’s just the stuff that I think my customer base may be interested in. I donate even more than that every year to SCRAP, a Portland-based nonprofit that resells art supplies and uses the money in art education and other community projects. Not only does this help me make space for more art supplies (or, you know, things that aren’t art supplies) but it also lets me revisit what I already have in hand. One of my biggest challenges when sorting is not getting distracted by “Ooooh, a shiny thing…let me just stop a minute and start making it into something.” Usually the workbench ends up with a pile of projects-to-be by the time I’m done sorting and reorganizing.

Of course, this is just the art supplies. My personal animal skull collection, on the other hand, isn’t so neatly contained. But that’s another post someday…

Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming my Patron on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/lupagreenwolf for as little as $1/month!

Commissions and a Brief Update!

Hi, all! Long time, no chat!

First, I wanted to let you know I’m open for commissions on something that’s not my usual hide and bone art. This month my $15 Patrons at http://www.patreon.com/lupagreenwolf got these awesome 3″ x 3″ mini wildlife paintings in the mail. I am now open for commissions if you’d like one of your own! Your choice of species (animal, plant or fungus) and background colors/pattern for $15 plus shipping anywhere in the world. Comment or email me at lupa.greenwolf(at)gmail(dot)com if interested! Here are a couple more detail shots:


Second, I just wanted to touch base with you about how things are going here. I know I haven’t been blogging a lot lately; most of my writing energy has gone toward putting the finishing touches on Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things. I’ve also still been creating artwork, but I’ve also been doing some volunteer and contracted work for a local conservation organization. So I’ve been super busy, just a lot of it has been behind the scenes.

I’m hoping to have some new posts here soon enough, so keep your eyes peeled 🙂

The Vulture Culture 101 IndieGoGo Campaign is Live!

The Vulture Culture 101 IndieGoGo Campaign is officially live at http://igg.me/at/vultureculture101!
What compels me and many other people to fill our homes with the preserved remains of animals, and how can you join in the fun? Vulture Culture 101: A Book For People Who Like Dead Things explores the modern revival in acquiring, preserving and creating art with these natural specimens. Written by author and artist Lupa, this is the first full-length guide to Vulture Culture, a subculture that in recent years has grown up around the appreciation of hides, bones and other animal specimens.
Want to help Vulture Culture 101 become a reality AND get your copy of the book at the lowest price ever? Want to get neat perks like my other books and art made from hides and bones? Want to help a self-employed author and artist create a valuable resource both for members of the V.ulture Culture, and people who are just curious about what it’s all about?
Back the Vulture Culture 101 campaign today at http://igg.me/at/vultureculture101! We’re already well on our way, and early bird specials are going fast. Even if you can’t back the campaign right this moment, please send the campaign to anyone you feel may be interested, and thank you for your support 🙂

Leave the Witchy Kitsch At the Store, Please

Note: This article was first posted over at my now-defunct Patheos blog. Due to contractual disagreements, which included them refusing to remove my posts from their site after repeated requests, I am moving some of my writing over here. Please link to this version of the article rather than the Patheos one. Thank you!

Ah, mid-August, how I love thee. It’s the height of summer here in the U.S., with barbecues and campouts and calling the air conditioning repair company because the HVAC is down again. My garden is overflowing with fresh produce and I have no idea how we’re going to eat all this kale, but I’m going to make it work. And all the kiddies are trying to squeeze the last remnants of summer vacation out before having to go back to school. Even the stores are getting in on the act, with shelves and displays full of backpacks and pencils and all that other stuff on the school supply list that just arrived in the mail.

Of course, the back to school displays have been up since the fifth of July. But soon enough (probably just after Labor Day) it’ll be time shopping for Halloween, or so the chain stores say. (Sure, it’s a little early to be talking about this, but I have to beat the stores to the punch!) You can expect endless lines of green-faced witches, styrofoam tombstones, little plastic cauldrons, and strings of Christmas-style lights with translucent smiling skulls and ghosts. Right on cue, the feeds on my social media profiles–Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter–will be full of squealing pagans all excited about “Look at all this Halloween stuff I got from Michael’s for just twenty bucks! They had a sale!” and “I got this cute gargoyle statue with red LED eyes at Wal-mart!” (In fact, I’ve already seen a few posts–apparently Michael’s already has their Halloween stuff out. Yikes.)

Most of the time I just hold my tongue and cringe. The very same pagans who have been reblogging and sharing calls to action about fracking in Canada and human rights abuses in Gaza are proudly displaying cheap, chintzy tchotchkes that are the products of environmental degradation and slave labor. It’s a peculiar sort of cognitive dissonance driven by materialism and rampant consumerism without reflection. It would be one thing if there were no alternative options, or if it were over something necessary to life like access to food or water, or even something educational like books. No, these cheap, mass-produced items (only slightly different from the ones offered last year) are purely luxuries, and not even luxuries in the traditional sense of actually being worth something.

Check out this festive oil spill!

And they come out of a well of toxicity. Those cute plastic window decals are derived from the petroleum industry, which severely damages the environment throughout the entire process of harvesting, processing, and using oil. Fossil fuels are also implicated in a whole host of human rights abuses. That cheap metal candle holder with the flying witch cut out? It was made from metals that were probably unsustainably mined, producing countless toxins and destroying nearby waterways and habitats.

These materials are then turned into purely decorative items, usually by poorly paid and abused slave labor in China and elsewhere. In 2012, an Oregon woman bought a set of Halloween decorations from K-Mart. Inside it was a letter written by one of the workers, detailing the horrible conditions at the factory. It is almost certain that this year’s shiny new decorations from Michael’s and the like are made by similarly abused workers.

And what’s it take to get all these trinkets from China to the United States? Generally they’re sent by giant freight ships across the Pacific Ocean, ships which create a massive amount of pollution and devastate wildlife and marine plantsthe noise from these ships also interferes with whales’ ability to communicate with each other, particularly as the sound is often on the same frequency that the whales use.

How else can these big box chain stores sell you their tacky items at low, low prices except through abuses to the environment and our fellow human beings? When you get to pay $5.99 for a packet of paper plates with smiling black cats on them, or get a buy one get one free pair of resin skeleton candle holders, you’re not paying the full price for these things. Other living beings are your coupons, and future generations of humans and other living beings will be paying the price for your purchase for decades, if not centuries, to come.

The sad thing is, there are plenty of alternatives to the crap you’ll find on the big box shelves, and yet millions of people convince themselves they just have to have these useless, toxic items, to include people who claim they venerate nature and believe all people should be treated equally and humanely. It would be one thing if we were talking about something necessary to human existence, like food or water access, or if these were carefully hand-crafted pieces bought directly from the artist. But we’re compromising the environment and each other over things nobody actually needs, and which can be easily replaced by better options.

Want to break the cycle of damaging consumerism? Make your own decorations and costumes using recycled and reclaimed materials, and invite your friends and family to get in on it. Here’s one set of tutorials, and here’s another, and some more over here, and those are just three of the first links that popped up when I Googled “how to make Halloween decorations with recycled materials”. If you want to get really artsy about it, try sculpting your own scary skeletons and witches out of recycled paper mache instead of buying the resin ones from the chain stores.

If you don’t feel you’re artistic enough, consider going through Etsy* or other avenues to patronize artists who make holiday wares. You can ask them about where their materials come from, request custom work, and you’ll be giving money to an individual person, not a nameless corporation. Chances are whatever they make will be better constructed than the cheaply made offerings at the stores, and so will last much longer. It may be more of a financial investment in the beginning, but it pays off in the long run.

Remember, too, that Halloween (Samhain) was originally a harvest festival, and many pagans still celebrate it as such today. This means that edibles like squash, sugar pumpkins and apples all make great decorations. You may also be able to find corn stalks from local farmers, and fall leaves are always abundant wherever deciduous trees grow. Once Halloween is over, you can eat the vegetables and fruit, and compost the rest.

If you absolutely must decorate your home in poor-quality, mass-produced Halloween kitsch, consider checking out Goodwill and other thrift stores in your area. Plenty of people offload their old holiday decorations when they move or clean house, and every year I see aisles full of perfectly serviceable secondhand Halloween items available for cheap. A lot of it will end up thrown out because there’s just too much to go around, and too many people insist on heading to Target to buy brand new costumes and decor (most of which will probably end up tossed, or donated and then tossed, in a few years). If for whatever reason you’d be horrified if your friends knew you went thrift shopping *gasp*, you don’t have to tell them the truth of where that inflatable vampire came from. Just tell them you bought it at the Halloween Superstore a few years ago.

Halloween can still be full of fun decorations and playful costumes, and those of you so inclined can still make your home look like October year-round. But with a little care and consideration, we can make this year’s Halloween better for the entire planet, and take some power away from the truly scary monsters that we face in our world today.

* Please be aware that Etsy now allows mass-produced items. You may have to be a little careful in shopping there. Generally speaking, if it’s cheap, it’s probably mass produced.

Did you enjoy this read? Consider supporting this self-employed author and artist by buying my books, or checking out my Etsy shop, or purchasing the Tarot of Bones! You can also get exclusive content, art in the mail, and more by being my Patron on Patreon!

Reclaiming My Adventure

In 2006, I made a terrible mistake. I got married.

Now, marriage itself isn’t a bad idea. But it is when you get married a year after you met the person while on the rebound, and after they pressured you into first taking you with them on what was supposed to be your solo cross-country move and then pressured you into getting married so damned fast. Needless to say, my emotional boundaries used to be a lot mushier than they are now.

And like so many people who made bad decisions, I also got a tattoo on my chest on our honeymoon. Well, we both did. And we hadn’t really thought too much about the designs, other than choosing small symbols that were personally meaningful but didn’t say a whole lot about the relationship. In hindsight, my tattoo of a dragon’s claw tightly clutching a pearl marked with my then-husband’s personal sigil was all too prophetic.

Predictably, the marriage was a slow-burn disaster. I won’t bore you with the details of its three and a half year span. Needless to say, when I finally asked for a divorce it was far later than it ought to have been. It ended amicably enough, and over time we drifted apart; that part certainly could have been a lot worse.

When I moved into my own apartment, I was stuck with the task of trying to figure out where the hell my life was going after that derailment. I’d had dreams of adventure when I moved to the Pacific Northwest twelve years ago, dreams that had been born a decade earlier when I’d first visited family in Seattle. After spending my life in the Midwest, I was ready for oceans, markets, and grand conifer rain forests. And I managed to eke out some of that during my first few married years there, though I was also entangled in career changes and relationship woes.

Now, back in glorious solitude, I could think quietly. And so I spent the next seven years taking adventures. I went to Bend, OR for the first time and introduced myself to Oregon’s desert side. I hiked Dog Mountain in a wind storm, and Elk Mountain in the snow. I got to know the coast better, both on my own and with my now-partner. I went on my first backpacking trip with the help of a friend, and then later did my first solo excursion.

That adventurousness carried over into my creative life, too. Now in full control of my finances again, I was free to make investments in my art without someone else’s worries holding me back. I got a contract with a bigger publisher. I started an annual arts festival. I created and produced a tarot deck and book. I moved my studio to the coast.

Most of all, I flourished emotionally. For the first time since I moved to the Northwest, I felt in control of my life. I could come home and be comfortable in cozy, warm sweats that did nothing for my figure but plenty for my well-being, and not feel guilty about how much time I put toward my creative work. I felt free to explore my spirituality and to discard the last vestiges of supernatural belief that were keeping me from direct immersion in what I found most sacred: nature itself, unfiltered by human mythos and superstition.

And so, seven years after my ill-fated marriage ended, I finally felt that I could cover up the last reminder of it. After much thought, I decided on one of the trees I’ve become most attached to since I moved here: Western red cedar. I seem to have a thing for cedars that aren’t actually cedars; Eastern red cedar, which was one of my childhood loves, is a juniper. Its western counterpart is no cedar, but a cypress.

Through two sessions with Chaz Vitale of Ritual Arts Tattoo, whose natural history-inspired art was a perfect fit, I watched that old ink disappear under a flourish of greens and browns. A sprig of cedar stretched its healing needles and fertile cones across my heart. By the time it was done, I could only see what had been there before if I looked too hard.

I can’t erase my past; no one can. I know that the old tattoo is still under there. But like the rest of my life, I’ve overwritten that patch of skin. It took me seven years* to regenerate the majority of the cells in my body, and it took me seven years to regenerate myself. Now I feel like I am the person I was supposed to become when I first arrived here; my adventure continues as though nothing had disrupted it.

And I can’t wait to see what’s next.

*Yes, I realize that the seven years to regenerate all your cells is a myth. I’m using it poetically. So there.

I Have Another Reason to Celebrate!


As of this afternoon, with the creation of the Lovers assemblage I have officially completed all 79 assemblages for the Tarot of Bones! You can read the official announcement here, and you can find out more about the Tarot of Bones, my HUGE art and writing project, here.

Now excuse me while I go play some video games before leaping into my next project.

How to Reconcile Tarot and Non-Human Nature

I’m taking a bit of a break from working on the last few assemblages for the Tarot of Bones, and I had some thoughts regarding working non-human animals into the very anthropocentric symbolism of the tarot. See, my deck has no humans in it whatsoever; it’s all made from the bones of other species of vertebrate, and draws heavily from natural history in design and meaning. This is very different from the majority of decks out there; most are based in one way or another on the Rider-Waite Smith deck, itself derived from even older decks.

With the exception of the Seven of Wands and the Three of Swords, all of the RWS cards include a human, humanoid figure, the Moon’s human face, or in the case of the Aces a disembodied hand popping out of a cloud. Where there are non-human animals, they are largely symbolic of human interests and biases; the Knights ride horses as is appropriate, the depths of the psyche are symbolized by a crab or lobster in the Moon card, and Strength shows the taming of a lion. Even some animal-themed tarot decks are essentially the RWS in fur, feather and fin. We reign supreme, and the other animals are merely bit players in our archetypal dramas.

This is, of course, to be expected. While tarot readings for pets and other animals certainly exist, for the most part we’re pretty self-centered, wanting to know what’s going to happen with us and our fellow human beings. Unfortunately this anthropocentrism has contributed heavily to our current environmental crisis; whether through necessity, malice or apathy, we have all contributed to one degree or another to the poisoning of the land, water, sky and their inhabitants.

One of my goals as a pagan, author and artist is to help people break out of that self-centered perspective. The Tarot of Bones is one tool I’m using to that end. While I, too, have drawn on the RWS deck for inspiration, I also rely quite a bit on the behaviors and other traits of the animals whose bones I’ve worked into the assemblages for the card art. This is especially true for the Court Cards and Major Arcana, all of which utilize the skulls of species specifically chosen for each card.

But this isn’t just a “this animal means this, that animal means that” deck. I’m trying to show the parallels in our behavior. I want us to internalize the ways of other animals so that we recognize them as kin. We may not want to acknowledge our inner sloth, but my Hanged Man draws on how that animal has used its slower lifestyle to survive and thrive over thousands of years–and how we can learn to do the same. And anyone who thinks we’re the only ones who fall in love have never seen two red foxes playfully courting each other! (Okay, so we’re less likely to run around peeing on our territory in the process, but you get the idea.)

The thing is, a lot of the lessons in the tarot are universal, not just for us alone. Every male ungulate has had to fight to the top of the mountain and hold his place like the Seven of Wands, and eventually even the King of the Mountain must fall, a la the Five of Swords. There is the feasting time of the Three of Cups, and the famine of the Five of Pentacles. Some cards may seem a little too abstract for our non-human kin, like the Magician. Consider that that card’s figure relies on making use of the resources available to him at any time, though, and we quickly see how every other creature survives doing the same.

In the end, there’s really not a whole lot that we humans can claim as our own without exception. Our technological skills are just a result of tool-making instincts coupled with a ridiculously large and complicated brain; our wars are no more than territorial squabbles writ large, and our peace is the baseline sought by every creature (except, perhaps, curmudgeons like the sarcastic fringehead).

So for you tarot enthusiasts out there, the next time you break out a deck for a reading, consider how the outcome might affect a coyote, or a monarch butterfly, or a giant squid. How might you read for the other creatures of the world?

In Pursuit of Less Plastic: Acrylics vs. Tempera Paint

Earlier this year I talked about my dislike of plastics in my art supplies, and how challenging it can be to find materials that don’t include petroleum-based synthetics. I already discussed the pros of using real fur (and, by extension, real leather) over plastic-based fake hides, and now I’d like to delve into a series of posts in which I try to find better alternatives to my usual materials.

(You can click on any of the images in this post to get bigger versions of them.)

The Contenders: Acrylic and Tempera

One of the most obvious sources of plastic in my art is acrylic paint. I use it for detailing headdresses and other hides, decorating pouches and other creations, and in my assemblage work. Acrylic paint combines pigments with an acrylic polymer emulsion, and water as the liquid vehicle. The water content allows the paint to dry much more quickly than oils, though early acrylics used mineral spirits instead of water for the same effect. As with almost all paints today, the pigments themselves are also usually synthetic or inorganic, though a few may still use organic pigments.

Since I’m a cheapskate, and I don’t actually like the thicker texture of professional-grade acrylics, I get the buck-fifty tubes of acrylic paint that are popular at craft stores. I find that the thinner texture works better for painting on leather and the like anyway; I very rarely use canvas, and even then the thicker texture still makes me unhappy. Most of my acrylics are actually secondhand; between the thrift stores and SCRAP I can get a whole rainbow of colors for way less than I’d pay new, and even if the bottles aren’t full the paint’s still perfectly usable. The only times I buy new acrylics are when I need to restock on colors I use frequently, like black, white and burnt umber, and I don’t have time to go searching through tubs and bags of secondhand bottles for the right shade.

I decided one way I could potentially cut down on my plastic consumption was by buying tempera paints, since I’d heard they had a lower plastic content. I admit I grabbed my first set of temperas on a whim when I was at Fred Meyer (a regional chain of grocery/housewares/etc. stores run by Kroger). I don’t have a Michael’s nearby, so Freddy’s little aisle of limited art supplies is my go-to for when I need something really quickly–or when I remember I need paint or glue while grocery shopping. Plus I figure a lot of people will be similarly convenience-minded, so I wanted to speak to that first before diving into slightly more obscure materials.

Fred Meyer’s only tempera option is Pro Art, a company based in Beaverton, Oregon. They have a pretty limited selection of pint volume bottles, about eight or nine in the usual primary colors, black, white, and a few others. I grabbed the black, white, green and brown since those are the colors I use the most. I had also nabbed some Pro Art copper tempera paint at Columbia Art & Drafting Supply in Portland since I couldn’t find copper acrylic anywhere (this was before I’d had the idea to test tempera paints as an alternative to acrylics). Since metallic paints sometimes behave and wear a little differently than their less sparkly companions, I figured this would be a good addition to the lineup.

Examining the Contents

paints2While my acrylics are from a number of manufacturers due to their primarily secondhand nature, I decided to use the bottle of black I originally bought new as the primary comparison against the black tempera. The resident acrylic brand at Freddy’s, Delta Ceramcoat, is made by Plaid, who also manufactures Apple Barrel and FolkArt, the other two commonly found “little bottle” acrylic paints. On inspecting the labels of both the bottles of black paint, I found both conform to ASTM D-4236, which means they’re “non-toxic”. All that means is they aren’t immediately poisonous if you get some on your skin or accidentally swallow some. Obviously you don’t want to drink bottles of paint or get it in your eyes, but they’re less of a problem than, say, vermilion red oil paint made with cinnabar, which contains mercury. Both are also manufactured in the U.S., always a plus in my book.

However, Pro Art’s tempera paint has something very important that Ceramcoat’s acrylic doesn’t: a list of ingredients. There are no laws requiring paint manufacturers to include ingredients on the label, but Pro Art considers it “Right to Know Information”. Brownie points to them, then! The first ingredient listed in water, unsurprisingly, and then calcium carbonate, which is the same stuff that makes up limestone, chalk, coral and the like. Then there’s “Pigments”, with the specific “P.Bk.11”, which doesn’t tell us much. Ingredient four is the one that I didn’t notice til after I’d bought the paint: a proprietary blend of acrylic thickeners. Since there are no percentages given for the amount of each ingredient, I have no way of telling whether there’s less acrylic in an ounce of this tempera paint than in my usual acrylics. And below that is a preservative labeled CAS 4080-31-3. As it turns out, that’s the code for Quaternium-15 (examethylenetetramine chloroallyl chloride), an ammonium salt containing formaldehyde, and which is a known skin irritant for some people.

Since there aren’t any ingredient lists for Ceramcoat’s acrylics, I have no idea whether it’s even more toxic. But I have to still give kudos to Pro Art for their transparency. If I’m going to switch over to them for my quick-fix paint emergencies, I do need to test their product against Ceramcoat’s.

Performance Comparison

paints3I used some leather scraps for testing out the paints to see which I liked better. These first three patches are just a basic test for color and coverage; the top rows on the left and right patches are acrylics, the bottom tempera. The left and center are smooth leather, the right is suede. For the piece in the center with two black streaks, the left is acrylic and the right tempera. The black and white paints are exact matches; for the brown and green I did my best to match acrylics from my existing stock to the tempera shades. Since copper is a harder color to find, I had to go with whatever was available to me.

Right away I noticed the Pro Art tempera paints had a bit more body and viscosity than the acrylics, but nowhere near enough to affect their performance. They still laid down on the leather smoothly and without big clumps or ridges, and dried nice and flat. What I did notice was that, especially for the white and green, the tempera covered better with a single coat, even in the cases of the black and white paints where both the acrylics and tempera were bought brand new. This is a definite plus since the less paint I have to use, the better. And they did equally well on both smooth leather and suede.

paints4The one disappointment was the copper tempera paint by Pro Art. Where the other colors were vibrant and rich, and the paint coated easily, the copper was pale and the texture watery and thin. And the color was a lot less exciting compared to the copper acrylic. The pigments in the tempera were listed as “micaceous”, which leads me to believe actual mica was used in the pigmentation. This is a great idea; I think they just need to amp up the red tone in whatever their pigment mix is.

I found that for blending and layering, acrylics and temperas worked about the same, though since temperas are a little more viscous I found blending them to be a bit easier with the same amount of paint. Because acrylics and tempera both dry quickly and at about the same rate, any blending still needs to be done immediately. Sure, you can get slow-drying medium to add to the acrylics, but that just adds in more cost and chemical load. Since the temperas (other than the copper) are a bit thicker, you’ll need less per layer.

wearAs to durability? On smooth leather without sealant, acrylic holds up to being rigorously rubbed with a fingertip, while tempera wears off very quickly. However, on suede both held up just fine even without sealant. As with all painted leather, eventually both will likely crack and wear just from the movement of the leather, but with the right sealant tempera performs just as well as acrylic. The photo on the right shows unsealed black paint, an sealed brown (acrylic on top, tempera on bottom) after being distressed with a fingertip.

The Verdict?

While I’m still not happy with the acrylic content and preservatives in Pro Art’s tempera paint, the fact that they disclose those ingredients is a point in their favor. Additionally, I like supporting local businesses. So for my “I need white paint NOW and it’s 10:30 at night” emergencies, I’ll run to Fred Meyer and get a bottle of Pro Art. Otherwise, I’m going to keep buying secondhand bottles of acrylics from local thrift stores, and supplement with CeramCoat when there’s a color I need a lot of and Pro Art doesn’t make it.

For my next post, I’d like to explore a different brand of tempera paint that doesn’t have any acrylic content and see how it stands up to the test. After that, there’s a package of Earth Paints sitting here waiting to be tried out. Let’s see how my attempts to reduce the plastic content in my work goes, shall we?