Are you a “shadow artist”? In her seminal book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron defines shadow artists as people “too intimidated to become artists themselves, very often too low in self-worth to even recognize that they have an artistic dream, these people become shadow artists instead.”
“Shadow artists” tend to befriend and date artists. They spend their money and time nurturing other artist’s work. They choose careers adjacent to their creative dream, including art therapist, art critic, film or literary editor, artist manager, etc. In other words, shadow artists are artists in denial.
“Shadow artists are gravitating to their rightful tribe but cannot yet claim their birthright. Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist – hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the touch.”
I was stunned when I first learned about “shadow artists.” I fit the bill in every single way. My entire community was composed of artists. I’ve worked as an art curator, publicist, magazine editor, film director’s assistant, photographer’s agent, record label creative director, etc. I checked Cameron’s entire list, except for art therapist, at least not officially.
What brought me (and many others) to The Artist’s Way was an identity crisis. I had built a career on promoting the work of others, connecting people to form partnerships, creating with the goal to please and sell. Many would have said I worked in the “creative” field, and rightfully so. Yet something was missing. I felt creatively starved.
And there it was: SHADOW ARTIST. A name for my condition. And a way of healing it too.
I spent the following 12 weeks diligently working my way through the book. Everyday, I wrote the prescribed Morning Pages (a stream of consciousness). Every week, I took myself on an Artist Date (a fun outing alone). I tackled each chapter, answering every question – slowly decomposing and restructuring my deeply ingrained beliefs around what it means to be an artist.
It’s been almost two years since I’ve completed The Artist’s Way. I still write the Morning Pages every day, one of my favorite routines. Artist Dates have become sporadic but I’m much more receptive to the importance of play. I’ve revisited childhood hobbies (remember those?) such as drawing and book-making. I’ve started projects that showcase these newly-found or long-lost talents. I’ve been writing short stories and poetry. I learned Japanese calligraphy from a friend and taught myself video-editing. And most importantly for me: I’ve been sharing my work. My poems no longer collect dust on a forgotten hard drive. My visual ideas can leap beyond my mind, to find life on the page. My art is no longer closeted.
Have I become a world-famous artist or author? No.
Has my art and writing been rejected countless times? Absolutely.
Would I return to the safety of the shadow? Never again.
The journey is far from over. I continue to learn and unlearn ways of being an artist. I believe it’ll be a life-long process. But to be able to recognize and now nurture my inner artist has made all the difference. It’s what enables me to be here, with you.
If you too are a “shadow artist,” I hope you find the courage, tools, and community to help shine light on your creative talents. When you do so, you spark others too. This sentiment is perfectly captured at the end of my favorite Marianne Williamson poem “Our Deepest Fear”:
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously
give other people permission to do the same.
As we're liberated from our own fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.
This month’s journey for your senses – see, hear, smell, taste, touch, balance and envision – is an invitation to come out of the shadows and discover hidden gems.
“The Artist’s Way” | book by Julia Cameron
Purchase at your Indie bookstore - Barnes & Nobles or Amazon
Whether you’re a writer, painter, cook, filmmaker, photographer – or a shadow artist hiding behind them – this book can help you address some of your deepest creative blocks.
Published in 1992, The Artist’s Way continues to be a favorite among countless artists, with over four million copies sold. Written by Julia Cameron (who was once married to Martin Scorcese), the book is a direct response to her own creative blocks. It’s thoughtfully organized by weekly themes with corresponding exercises, meant to be completed over the course of a 12-week period. The questions and prompts tackle some of our subconscious beliefs around money, safety, reputation, family, and failure.
Loosely inspired by 12-step programs (Cameron is a recovered alcoholic), the book is conceived as a creative recovery through spirituality. It takes time, demands dedication and for this reason it sat on my shelf untouched for many years. Finally, in January 2021, I was ready to give it a try. I’m glad I did, as I continue to reap its transformational benefits. I found the new year to be an opportune time to start. If you’re looking for an artist resolution, here’s your sign.
Voyager Golden Record | cosmic sound
Purchase on Ozma Records
In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager Interstellar Record into outer space. The goal was to capture and share the story of our planet with any extraterrestrial intelligence that might encounter it. The record included over 100 encoded images, as well as an “audio poem” with spoken greetings in 55 languages and music by Beethoven, Chuck Berry, Benin percussion, Solomon Island panpipes, amongst others. Our planet’s natural sounds were also captured such as birds, whales, a baby’s cry, a kiss.
The project was lead by astronomer and science educator Carl Sagan, with the support of Frank Drake, the father of the scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), writer and novelist Ann Druyan, and science journalist and author Timothy Ferris.
In 2017, The Voyager Golden Record was recreated and released to the public for the first time. I purchased the boxset, beautifully redesigned by art director and friend Lawrence Azerrad. Beyond just a music record or picture album, it truly feels like a capsule of humanity.
Ozma Records, the label responsible for the public release, has just made the record available again recently on their site.
Extinct Scents | cultural memory
Though smell is the strongest sense to evoke memory, it is often overlooked in our collective heritage. We preserve paintings, songs… but what about scents?
Cecilia Bembibre, a researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, has been developing techniques to preserve today’s scents and recover “extinct” ones. She’s extracted delicate old scents, such as the smell of ancient books housed in St Paul’s cathedral. For her, “smells are the olfactory heritage of humanity [yet] our knowledge of the past is odorless.”
Preserving scents as part of our cultural heritage is now gaining traction in Europe with the recent €2.8m project “Odeuropa.” Scientists, historians and experts in artificial intelligence have teamed up to identify and recreate the aromas that existed between the 16th and early 20th centuries.
They’ll be screening historical texts for descriptions of odors and their context, and searching for aromatic clues in paintings. The information will then be used to develop an online encyclopedia of smells, along with insights into the emotions and places associated with certain scents. Eventually, they hope to recreate these smells to enhance the experience of visitors at museums and heritage sites.
Lastly, a scent extinction project that I found both powerful and heartbreaking is Resurrecting the Sublime by artists Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sissel Tolaas, with biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks. Since launching in 2016, they’ve recreated the smell of three types of flowers lost due to colonial activity. The Hawaiian native Hibiscadelphus Wilderianus was destroyed due to colonial cattle ranching. The Orbexilum stipulatum was last spotted in Kentucky in 1881 before the US Dam No. 41 flooded its habitat. And the Leucadendron Grandiflorum, which originally flourished in Cape Town, South Africa, was wiped out for colonial vineyards.
To recreate the scent of these extinct plants, the team extracted DNA samples from preserved specimens and sequenced their genetic code. Ginsberg explains:
“What we end up with is a blurry picture of the past, a false yet powerful memory… Experiencing this creates an emotional, physical connection with the natural world. It is that sense of awe and terror and nature’s fragility in the face of human devastation.”
Underground Cooking | Specialty Food
I first came across the underground cooking method in Chef’s Table episode on Francis Mallman. In it, the famous Argentine chef demonstrates “Curanto”, a South American slow fire cooking tradition. It involves digging a hole in the ground, wrapping vegetables and meat in cloth, then burying them covered in hot embers under a bed of rocks and dirt. Everything is left to cook in this underground pit for 4 to 7 hours.
After doing some research, I found that this approach exists in many cultures, including the seven following:
Imu in Hawaii. This earth pit is used to cook the famous Kalua pork, which translates to “pork baked underground,” a dish at the heart of nearly every Hawaiian lu’au. The whole pig is wrapped in banana leaves and baked for a day in a dirt-covered pit.
lovo in Fiji takes a similar approach, with the addition of a layer of banana stalks laid over the pit like the bars of a grill. The food is stacked from bottom to top with meats like chicken and pork, then vegetables, then desserts on top like vakalolo (a coconut and cassava pudding).
Barbacoa in Mexico (known as pibils by Mayans in the Yucatan) originally came from the Taino people of the Caribbean, who brought it to central Mexico. The term “Barbacoa” may derive from the Taino word for fire pit or the Spanish phrase “de la barba a la cola” which means “from the beard to the tail.”
Hima’a in Tahiti. In this method, a wide hole is filled with volcanic rock and heated by a wood fire. Pork and vegetables are wrapped in large leaves and covered in burlap and soil, and left to steam for an afternoon.
Mumu in Papua New Guinea is a pit filled with hot stones, covered with long-bladed grass, vegetable fiber sacks, and banana leaves. A whole pig is cooked in the center along with vegetables such as yams, taro and sometimes coconut or gourd. One method involves steaming the food by removing the sticks and pouring water in the holes left behind.
Hāngī in New Zealand uses hot stones and soil to cover and trap the heat to cook fish, poultry, and vegetables like sweet potato wrapped in flax leaves.
Tandoor in India. Technically more of an oven, but still underground. A charcoal fire is lit at the bottom of the tandoor and then spiced meat, often chicken or lamb, is cooked inside vertically. Bread dough is pushed on the sides to bake. It’s believed to have originated in the Middle East, with various versions found throughout North Africa and Central Asia. In Morocco the clay oven is called a tandir while in Turkey it’s a testi. The most well-known though is the Indian tandoor.
Erasure Poetry | creative prompt
Erasure poetry uses existing text to create a poem, by erasing or obscuring the unwanted parts of the text.
“A Humument,” a book by Tom Phillips, is thought to be the first work of erasure poetry. Ironically, Phillips doesn’t consider himself a poet and the project started off as a playful creative challenge. In 1966, Phillips walked into a thrift shop, with fellow artist R. B. Kitaj, and declared “the first book I can find for threepence, I’ll work on for the rest of my life.” The book he found was “A Human Document,” an 1892 Victorian book by W.H. Mallock.
Since then, Phillips has altered every page with paint, collage and cut-up techniques to create an entirely new version. The first edition was printed in 1973, and Phillips continues to transform it, revise it and develop it. Five additional editions have since been published and I ordered the latest version.
Another poet whose erasure work I love is Mary Ruefle. She describes her approach of erasure poetry:
“All the words rise up and they hover a quarter inch above the page. It’s like a field, and they’re hovering. I don’t actually read the page. I read the words, which is different. So I’m looking, and I see all the words. And I go in and I pick a phrase or a word that’s delicious that I really love.”
As a word and visual artist myself, I can deeply relate to her statement:
"I have resisted formal poetry my whole life, but at last found a form I can't resist. It is like writing with my eyes instead of my hands."
Along with more traditional forms of poetry, Mary Ruefle has been producing erasure books since the 1980’s. Most of them are one-of-a-kind collectibles, except for “A Little White Shadow” published in 2006.
Below are a few other favorite erasure poems, including Ronald Johnson’s ‘Radi Os’ which revises John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’ And the sculpted work of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Tree of Codes’ created from Bruno Schulz’s book ‘The Street of Crocodiles.’
Even if you’re not a poet, I recommend experimenting with erasure poetry. You can use any printed text: the newspaper, an old book or magazine, a receipt or recipe. Though erasure poetry is an art form in itself, I also find it to be a helpful exercise to release creative blocks and kindle the muses.
Jumbled Mantra | visual meditation by Kenshō studio
A new visual meditation as part of my Jumbled Mantra series. I invite you to contemplate the following message:
Light can only shine upon darkness
Meditate on these words. Let them travel through your mind. Inscribe them in ink. What do they mean to you? There’s no right or wrong answer – infinite options.
Erasure Poem | art by Kenshō studio
Instead of a video poem I wanted to explore Erasure Poetry, also known as black-out poetry. I experimented with various styles, using different colored inks and white-out. I also recreated a few on the typewriter. For materials, I mainly used art and literary magazines, especially those with large legible fonts. I allowed my subconscious to guide the process. I tried to not overthink, letting the eyes naturally gravitate towards the words without analyzing their meaning. It felt more like sculpting than writing poetry. The process involves finding what is already there, making space for it, and releasing it from the confines of the text. It reminded me of the Michelangelo quote: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
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the segment on "extinct smells" was fascinating! i never connected that there are smells that are extinct or heading that way - but our brains could still have a latent memory of them? so interesting! thanks for all the love and thought u put into these.
The hidden gem of this month's newsletter is that it makes for great Christmas gift ideas!! Love love love. Always thought provoking and now the only way I can properly read the local newspaper -- with a sharpie and flow to create erasure poetry!