Women Artists Dreams of Flight
Finding the Links between Dreams and Artistic Practices
Stephanie Wilger, I Always Thought You'd Be a Writer, suitcase, silk bodysuit, letters
and envelopes, dyed sisal, postal stamps, silk thread, lead pencil, 27"x33"x23", 1996.
In 1926 Charlotte Reiniger, an experimental German filmmaker, conceived and produced the first feature-length animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. As part of Lotte Reiniger's extraordinary vision, beautifully conceived silhouettes of the characters and horse in the tale magically flew through subtly colored atmospheres and environments, enabling the legend to take wing. The film is a reminder of the ancient and persistent human desire to literally and figuratively fly, and is just one imaginative way this desire has been projected. Many of the Greek gods and goddesses were winged, or supernaturally able to become airborne. The Egyptian winged deity Isis was considered to be a great mother and healer; Quetzalcoatl, the chief god of the Aztecs, was a powerful plumed serpent. Leonardo built a flying machine more than 450 years ago.
Motivated by a desire to explore this preoccupation among contemporary artists, in 1994 I embarked on a project where I interviewed individuals of diverse ethnicities who had been working with the metaphors attendant to birds and flight as universally meaningful cultural signifiers. During a studio visit, Bay Area artist Laura Parker asked me whether I had ever flown in my dreams. Although somnolent volitation had not been part of my own experience, I became fascinated with the concept and began to investigate the possibility that artists whose work focused on birds or flight had dreams that were a catalyst for those tangible expressions It was fascinating to discover that in most cases there is a direct relationship.
It is particularly auspicious to have the opportunity to revisit this topic at this moment in history, in light of the recent attention to Linda Finch's successful renavigation of Amelia Earhart's less fortunate attempt to circumnavigate the globe sixty years ago. In addition, many films and books focused on this theme, such as Carol Ballard's poignant movie Fly Away Home, the tale of an adolescent girl's solo flight dedicated to leading a flock of orphaned geese to its migration destination; and the National Air and Space Museum's recent publication of Women and Flight, a wonderful series of photographs and interviews by Carolyn Russo.
In the context of the visual arts, Laura Parker and Stephanie Wilger are two women artists for whom dream flying has been a creative focal point for years. Having been in dialogue with both artists about this aspect of their artistic vision, I learned that, for them, dreams of flying symbolize freedom and balance in all their many manifestations. However, Parker's desire and ability to be in stratospheric reveries has shifted over the past few years. After consummating the exploration of dream flying with her massive installation Urban Landscape, 1994, in which nude women soared and cavorted on the walls and ceiling of Walnut Creek's Bedford Gallery, Terri Cohn is a San Francisco-based writer, curator, artist and educator.
Parker began to feel a need to be more earthbound (see illustration pg. 20). There are many possible reasons for this impulse to be grounded, among them Parker's realization that her dream flying had always been motivated by the need to escape something, and her growing urge to explore her connectedness to her rootsthe rural landscapeand what sustains us. Synchronous with this evolving path of exploration has been her expanding investigation of the unconscious mind and yearning, which Parker says has enabled her to be both more hopeful and out of control, aspects which at first glance seem diametrically opposed to the terrestrial direction of her art. Yet, after further consideration, it seems that Parker's more deliberate maneuvering of her psyche has let her begin to make connections between her subliminal self and the tangible objects to which she is attracted. As she succinctly explained to me, "the flying work was where I jumped off the cliff," enabling her to begin to live out her dreams for her art and life; to fly in new and different ways. Stephanie Wilger has continued to actively fly in her dreams and to manifest in her art the quest for liberation and balance this ability represents. As she says, "the dreams are very special... they're something I do when I realize I can fly and I'm not bound to the life I'm living...and I get total freedom as my gift to bring back for my everyday life." The sensuousness of Wilger's dream flying is one of the sensibilities that infuses her mixed media sculptures. While the need for autonomy has always been an imperative for Wilger, she strongly believes that her flying dreams are specifically about soaring and the sensory experiences it embodies. Wilger's involvement with the intent, process and feelings of dream flying are explicit and remarkable. She described the feeling of wind and how it moves her hair, and the sensation of breezes on her skin, even though she flies clothed. The experience appears to be a total integration of her anima and persona, as she is never lost and is perfectly able to negotiate all aspects of the flight experience. The manifestations of Wilger's dream life are visually translated into her interest in transparency and work with veils, which refer to seeing through things, and considering the thin membrane that separates inside and out, shadow and light, revealing and concealing. The dreams have also led her to explore chakra and aura healing and cleaning work that is done with feathers. As she suggests, "perhaps the flying is about clearing little book markers between life chapters."
While Stephanie Wilger and Laura Parker's lives have charted different courses for their paths of artistic exploration, for both, flight has served as a profound opening toward personal freedom and the quest for transcendent experience and balance. For these artists, flying has been an empowering and essential inroad to self-knowledge and understanding. *
Terri Cohn is a San Francisco- based writer, curator, artist and educator.
Dreams and Fantasies