Esoteric art 1: Essence Portraits (1990 – 92)

In 1990 a very different kind of illustration emerged in my work, and continued to develop throughout the 90s in the form of personalised ‘esoteric’ artworks – portraits, symbols and mandalas intended to reflect and affirm the deeper nature of the individual they were designed for.

Before I continue, I feel it’s important to set a context: every development of my creative work is entirely a conversation with my emotional and psychological experiences along the way; that is, I do not make a distinction between my creative work and my personal life, they are intrinsically the same thing.  During the 90s I became conscious of this and it changed all my thinking about how (and why) I create.

I had moved to Melbourne from NSW following a devastating personal upheaval – a sudden separation from my partner and newborn son in late 1989 had led to a nervous breakdown and near-suicide, so I fled interstate in a state of shock and fragmentation.  This psychological jolt and its accompanying trauma opened me to a powerful journey of self-discovery and deep transformation, which continued to shape my creative work thereafter.

The move to Melbourne marked a rebirth; in my ‘newborn’ state I was both emotionally raw and sensitive to the subtle currents of life. I was a traveller, unanchored, a ‘feather on the breath of God’.  I moved to Melbourne with virtually no belongings or money, at the invitation of the only person I knew there at the time, Victoria, an old friend and mentor.  I had called her during my crisis and she offered a spare room while I worked out what to do.  Victoria had been my English teacher in high school, an inspirational teacher who always encouraged her students to think more deeply about themselves.  A few years after I finished high school I discovered she had quit teaching to concentrate on her other interests in clairvoyance, psychology and spirituality, and we stayed in touch intermittently until she moved to Melbourne in the 80s.

Victoria had established herself in Melbourne as a professional clairvoyant of some repute, and during my stay she introduced me to many helpful techniques for attuning the Mind – meditations, affirmative reprogramming, developing attitudes of intention as well as surrender – exercises that flexed the power of Mind to willfully alter thoughts & perceptions. She introduced me to some of my favourite thinkers, in particular Robert Anton Wilson (Quantum Psychology) and Richard Bandler (NLP), Carl Jung and others. As a child in the thick of 1960s/70s counterculture, I had been immersed in the language of spirituality, mysticism, psychic and paranormal phenomena, occult philosophy and transformative psychology (including the popular dilutions and distortions of the times); but while names like Jung were familiar, I hadn’t yet explored their work for myself, as an adult in the context of my own psycho-emotional need and initiation to self.

In our many freewheeling discussions that first year, Victoria pointed me towards philosophies on the nature of perception, non-ordinary experience, symbolism, parallel realities, and the intrinsic messages of self-transformation behind the exploits of people like Alistair Crowley and Carlos Castaneda. The Artist in me was especially drawn to Jung’s creative model of archetypal realities and the collective unconscious; I delved deeply into the world of symbology and experimented with various symbolic props (rune stones, Tarot cards, prayer or invocation etc) to communicate with my own unconscious. I began to recognise patterns of connection between different mystic and spiritual systems, shamanism and Zen buddhism, and the intersections of modern psychology with these systems, as descriptors of human experience. Previously I’d had experiences of ‘psychic’ presentience, but I was less interested in ‘psychic phenomena’ than in the practice of attuning to one’s immediate intuition, as a state of creative intelligence. Essentially, the harnessing of the mind.

The more the Artist delved into this world of sacred symbologies and archetypal forces, the more the Shaman entered a persistent non-ordinary reality in which the ‘mundane’ became, in my view, more vivid, more colourful, and richer in meaning.  I developed a sense of myself as living within a mythological journey, and anyone I encountered along the way was a well-defined character with symbolic gifts and messages that had special relevance to my story. This perception was like a parallel reality ‘skin’ layed over my ordinary reality, the two experienced simultaneously, so that I felt myself in a state of heightened awareness as I moved through the world. In this state, nothing was accidental, every event had a sense of connection somewhere, and synchronicities were a regular feature. I was intrigued by the meta-metaphors of alchemy, the Grail, spiritual warrior traditions such as the Knights Templar, and the archetypal devotion to the White Lady (aka Nuit, Celestial Mother, Blessed Virgin etc). It was certainly an interesting way to experience.

Psychologically, I was still processing the grief and trauma of separation from my baby son and his mother, and the disorientation of living in an entirely new world (Melbourne), full of new people and new ideas.  By engaging with this deeper process through myth and symbol, I was activating creative coping mechanisms that provided sensemaking, direction, affirmation of my inner resources and discovery of new capacities. 

This heightened awareness also seemed to give me access to insights about other people’s deeper, often hidden, nature, which came to light when I began creating the drawings I later called ‘Essence Portraits’.  During my first year in Melbourne I was still quite raw and vulnerable, and there were several people whose friendship and generosity were particularly meaningful for me. To communicate my feelings of love and gratitude to these individuals (creativity being my most authentic expression), I drew each a pencil portrait, capturing their physical likeness, but moreso unconsciously capturing something of their presence, their nature.  This style of drawing – ie realistic portraiture, in pencil, building the forms with swift scribbly energetic lines – was a total departure from my usual carefully-rendered, graphic, pen-based cartoon and design approach.  My first portrait of this kind was in ink pen, but I quickly realised it was too rigid; pencil gave the illustrations more flow, subtlety and spontaneous energy. Later I developed a freer hand with ink portraits as I refined my approach.

Mostly I created these portraits in the absence of the person, and in a kind of trance – I would focus on my ‘felt’ memory of the person as my pencilhand skimmed lightly over the page, finding whispers of lines that ‘felt’ like the person, and as the impressions grew more definite, the drawing would seem to draw itself while I looked on. I’m not suggesting I was ‘channeling’, but these portraits seemed to be state-dependent, and never ‘worked’ unless I felt positively connected to the person; my conscious control took a backseat while I surrendered to the flow and feeling of the work’s impulse. As I drew, a mythological story would emerge around the person, and every detail came to represent something of their character – the design of the clothes, any tools or weapons, elements of nature, animals – all symbolic of the particular qualities and strengths that I perceived in the person. I had been immersing myself in Celtic mythology, and the early portraits reflect that. Later portraits expanded to whatever mythological reference felt appropriate for the person at the time.

The first few of these portraits were accompanied by a personalised symbol and a short poem describing the character’s mythology (these additional features later split off and evolved into the Personal Power Symbols design work). My friends consistently commented that the portrait had somehow captured an aspect of their nature that they rarely, if ever, shared with other people, a deeply personal place; this response came often enough for me to believe I was accessing some kind of latent skill or ability in myself – some kind of intuitive receptivity.

An early example is of my friend Sue (pictured at right). Her portrait depicts her as a daughter of the ocean, Splash-and-Sparkle, her dynamic, inspirational energy described as the force of a wave smashing against the rocks & of the myriad sparkles of sunlight caught in the wave’s spray. While her character’s energy is playful & mischievous, she holds the shell by her ear as a reminder to listen to the deeper currents of the ocean (life) and not force things – much like the Tao state of wu wei.

During my first year in Melbourne, I shared a house with a couple in a beachy outer suburb that reminded me of my previous home in Newcastle. In drawing Andrea (see slideshow below), I felt I had to draw her as two characters; the first, the ‘fair young princess of How-and-Where’, was an accurate likeness, but felt somewhat contained and sternly-refined, even aloof; the second (the ‘bold young princess of Why-and-When’) was a girl-warrior, impassioned, playful yet also deeply reflective, frustrated by ‘decisions of men’. In the context of Andrea’s life at that time, the two drawings seemed to capture her internal forces at play. Her boyfriend Leigh’s character (‘the Moorlord’) was describing a complex mix of very different internal forces – he was born of the ‘windswept waste’, hardened and driven by the elements of life, the mace represented his communication & self-protection, and the falcon acknowledged his acute perceptiveness & sensitivity within the hardened exterior. Also from that period, Mike, a friend from Newcastle who had also just moved to Melbourne. He was a cuddly bear of a young man, a solid rock drummer with a strong sense of ‘rightness’ and an earthy stubborn streak that made for lively exchange of ideas. He was an unexpected friend at that time, stalwart, honest, a ‘true’ companion in ye olde sense. When I drew him (or it drew itself?), I was reminded a little of Bjorn the ManBear from Tolkein’s Hobbit – a keeper of the Deep Forest, a steward of Nature, and as such, powerfully protective and dangerous if crossed. Another friend, Cathy, emerged as a kind of Fire Pixie Warrior, dancing in the torchflame around her trap of briars, flicking sparks from her fingertips but unable to feel the warmth of her own fire. Antoinette’s character is looking directly into the light while clutching her cloak of shadows around her – symbolising her passion for deep transformation, penetrating her personal darkness to bring things into the light.

Sometimes these associations didn’t suggest themselves until I had completed the drawing. Often when I finish a creative work, I sit in the company of the ‘thing’ (in this case, the drawing) and absorb its details as if someone else had created it, mentally noting any impressions and connections that come to mind, and gathering a story. I learned later that historically this has been described as ‘scrying’ – moving a relaxed gaze over an object of ‘significance’ and elliciting information about events in time (sometimes inadequately described as divination, oracle, fortunetelling, ‘reading’ etc). If nothing else, I find it a soothing mental exercise, and it gives me pause to fully appreciate the work; but I also enjoy the open-ended, intuitive exploration of thought that this process invites. It is all the more intriguing when these impressions turn out later to be accurate in the ‘real’ world.

During this time (1990- 92), I had naive ambitions toward creating a book – ‘The Living Eye’. I was young, and experiencing myself through some kind of Vivid Poetic Renaissance Filter, so I cringe a little on the re-read, but I know my intentions were entirely sincere and I was enjoying this new burst of creativity. I ditched the book but kept ‘Living Eye’ as my business name for several years. Below are the pages that remain, and a couple of other miscellaneous drawings that emerged during the years 1991 – 92.

I gradually developed enough confidence to offer these ‘Essence Portraits’ as a ‘service’, but soon encountered the common creative paradox: you can’t force something that only ‘works’ when it manifests spontaneously. I found that if money was discussed beforehand, it intruded on the process somehow, constricting or muddying my motives. Interestingly, many autistic adults report feeling that ‘commercial expectation’ interferes with the flow of their particular skill, and that they are more motivated by the natural pleasure of doing what they love, than by money, which necessarily implies expectation of some sort or other.

If, however, my ‘client’ had particular skills of their own to offer, we often negotiated an exchange – eg if their skills were in bodywork, I could receive a series of sessions with them.  Not only did it allow access to some excellent therapists at a time I was in need of it, the contact with them via the best of their skills built on my sense of them as I worked on their portrait. 

I produced a handful of A2 size colour portraits in this spirit of mutual exchange.  These were meticulously rendered in colour pencil, carefully and subtly layering the tones to give the colours depth.  I had to work on these portraits slowly; the technique required it – many hours were spent in a rhythmic meditation, lightly brushing the pencil back and forth across the paper, trying to avoid any obvious pencil strokes.  I worked on them in bursts and they often took months to complete, but I was excited by the process of refining my technique and gave myself completely to it, wanting to offer my best to the art.

The first two large colour portraits I created in this way were gifts. One was for my son Cooper, who was only a toddler then and I missed him powerfully. I drew it to channel my love for him into something that might develop meaning for him as he grew.

The second was for my friend Alison, who at that point was the proprietor of the Esoteric Bookshop, then in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn (suburbs in that area have very Olde English names, which added to the Celtic atmosphere of the time).  I frequented the bookshop often, it was something of a magical cave, as you chimed through the door and into a space that was at once sparkling and soothing, and an atmosphere that encouraged free-range philosophical discussion.  I was unemployed and offered to help Alison out by manning the shop from time to time without pay.  She happily agreed, and for a time I enjoyed both the responsibility and the pleasure of my position, and I respected the trust she was placing in me.  In lieu of wages, she often let me select books or other treasures from the shop, and I acquired some of my favourite (and formative) books during that time.  Alison’s background in Jungian psychology ensured there was a healthy section on psychology of all kinds, alongside Wicca, Eastern religion, shamanism, theosophy and spiritualism etc.  Whenever the shop was in a lull I spent my time reading or drawing.  It was the sort of place people often came just to linger in the shop’s rarified respite from the shopping-strip busy-ness outside, and invariably a customer and I would get lost in conversation for an afternoon.  I also made a few significant friendships through those conversations, received commissions for artwork, and explored a myriad of influential ideas.  I drew the portrait of Alison as a gift of thanks, for the wealth of trust and learning she had provided.  I depicted her as a scholarly Elfinmother, ensconsed monklike at her desk inside a large peppercorn tree, its walls lined (the ‘book-buttered womb’) with ancient leatherbound books on magic and alchemy. I was especially happy with how I captured the woodgrain patterns and inlaid effect of the drawing’s frame – it’s always exciting to work out a new technique for oneself.

(Later, new owners took over the bookshop, a delightful couple, David and Julie.  Whereas Alison’s presentation of the shop leaned more towards the Jungian, the scholarly, and the spiritualistic, David and Julie leaned more in the territory of the occult, the shamanic and ‘do what thou wilt’.  They practised magick together and had a background in Wicca, Druidry, shamanic healing and other forms of intentional living.  The atmosphere of the shop became a little more earthy, a little more mysterious and, with David’s mischevious wit, quite a bit more irreverent about the Game of Life.  After seeing some of my designs, they commissioned me to intuit a symbol for the shop, to encapsulate its character, and this formed the basis of several other artworks for use in promotion, including a large full colour poster transposing Northern Hemisphere solstices and elemental attributes to a Southern Hemisphere cycle (a resource for practising magick traditions from Europe and America, Down Under).  Julie told me they used the shop’s symbol as a focusing tool in ritual, through which they set intentions for the shop’s success.  They were both extremely generous of spirit, with a sincere belief in the principle ‘what goes around comes around’ – they always made me feel welcome and valued. You can see the designs in the Personal Power Symbols page.)

I mostly stopped creating Essence Portraits after 1992, as I focused more on designing Personal Power Symbols, and later, the personalised mandalas.  By this stage my ‘personal mythology’ had moved beyond obviously Celtic references towards more universal and archetypal symbology, but the portraits had played a significant role in my creative and personal development. The final large colour portrait I drew was of Tahlen (at right); I had met his dad Alan at a transformative training we attended together, he was separated from his young son and asked if I would create a portrait to help bridge the distance. I understood his situation intimately and the drawing was one of my alltime best works, a fitting note to complete the cycle. When I completed this portrait it was 1995, by which time my work was focused elsewhere, and while the colour pencil technique was deeply meditative, I was progressively finding I had less time for such a gradual process. I was also recognising that my temperament was better suited to more immediate, dynamically-interactive creative processes such as workshop facilitation and drumming.

In retrospect, my ‘knack’ for intuiting the more private nature in people isn’t so surprising when I think of the many years I spent keenly observing people when I was a boy. From as young as seven I drew caricatures of friends & family, carefully working on the likeness but also capturing something of their behaviour and personality – at times my observations were too close to the bone and not always received in good humour. These days, I tend to think of my ‘intuitive receptivity’ as probably more the result of (though not entirely) perceptual sensitivity, that is, a capacity to unconsciously pick up subtle signals of body language, intonation and even fluctuations of breath & skin from the other person. This heightened sensory perception also fits with my current understanding of my autistic processing, whereas back then I was describing it to myself in the languages of poetry & mysticism.