My vision is to introduce ancient art images of early America to the people of today. For twenty five years, I have visited rock art sites in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. The ancients carved and pecked (“petroglyph”) or painted (“pictograph”) images of their rituals and spiritual visions into the stone. Many of these beautiful, sacred sites are in remote areas: most people cannot access them. This is why I need to create the art I do. When Americans talk about “cave art” they are usually referring to Europe, such as the paintings at Lascaux. The cave art of France is the most well-known in popular culture. My art and slide presentations open a whole new world to most viewers. “This is here in our country, the United States?” is the most common response.
When I visit these wonderful and remote sites, maps and compass in hand, climbing buttes, descending into canyons, dodging rattlesnakes in the desert, scrambling up cliffs, the adventure of it all, the admiration for early hunter gatherers and how they managed to survive and create beautiful images on the rock walls is overwhelming. When I create my art, all that I feel, experience, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, are within every piece of my art. When I first started visiting these sites 25 years ago and saw this magnificent art, I started buying books on it. Talking to archeologists out west, I realized that this is a lost history of our land. Why was information on rock art of the United States not taught in elementary school? The history books we have in our schools pretty much start with the Europeans coming to the land of America. If they talk about Native Americans at all, it’s in relation to the Europeans. I’ve never seen petroglyphs or rock art in the mainstream history books. This art is documentation of what was here in America thousands of years ago. The people who created this art put their world view, beliefs, history and knowledge of astronomy on the rock. It’s never mentioned in our schools. When I give my presentation, people are in awe that we have this in our country. Although there are a lot of books written about rock art, it’s a niche market. You can go on Amazon.com and type in “rock art” and get lots of books. You have to have an interest in the subject to know it’s there.
I want to encourage people of today to learn about these people who roamed the land thousands of years ago. There were real, living people here before us. So many U.S. citizens today are descendants of Europeans who came to America in the last two generations, and we haven’t been encouraged to honor those who came before us in the way most cultures in the world cultivate a dynamic, personal connection to the ancestors. I think it’s vital that people who live in America today have a conscious awareness of the past generations who were living, hunting, having families, dancing, drumming, singing, worshiping on the same ground on which we live. It helps the person of today help connect with the earth underneath them. The rock art is proof that there were people living here. It is a documentation that there were whole societies and cultures.
Once I became aware of that, I started searching out the previous cultures of the area that I live in myself, here in Indiana. For example, Cahokia Mounds in Southern Illinois. It was a true society of people with homes and a social hierarchy – a prehistoric society right here in our own backyard! There’s no rock art because the climate doesn’t lend itself to rock art, but you can follow the mounds, a trail of them that ends in Mesoamerica. You can follow them to Mexico and see the migration patterns of these people coming from Mexico. The Kankakee River was actually the Kankakee Marsh, rather than a river. Prehistoric people lived in the marsh. We find remnants of campfires, pottery shards, bones: they are piecing together the history of people just south of where I live. There’s a professor at Notre Dame University who has had on-going digs in the Grand Kankakee Marsh for decades. There are many prehistoric sites through our country, you just have to have an interest in finding them.
Spending time at these sites or contemplating them, especially the art at the sites, helps us connect to where we are, a sense of place. This is important because we live in a very anonymous and impersonal society where people have a difficult time connecting with each other. The media that we are exposed to encourages this. Knowing that there is a connection to the past, connecting to the land and the people who lived here, even if we don’t know where our biological ancestors came from, helps us have roots that we desperately need today. Humans are social beings. We need each other to talk with, to support emotionally and spiritually. Ancient people would sit around and drum and interact. Now people sit and look at TV. People are sitting in restaurants texting each other. We need to reconnect with each other on a personal, physical and spiritual level.
I love Life Force Arts Center because it’s a place that continues the old traditions of human connection. These connections help people value each other. When people value each other they don’t start wars, they solve problems, they learn dialogue, conversation; they support each other spiritually, mentally, socially. Rock art images and sites inspire me so much, I want to create my own interpretations of them through creating artwork so people who live today can make a subconscious connection with these ancestors and what they were trying to convey. People who see my art say “This speaks to me, but I’m not sure why. It’s saying so much I don’t know what it’s saying, but it’s important.” To pull people in to have a sacred, personal experience is what I’m trying to communicate. The spirits in the art are saying things to me through time and space, I feel it, even though I don’t hear it consciously. I know it’s significant.
I think each piece says something different to each person depending on their background. It gives people deep spiritual experiences – even a healing experience – depending on their own belief system. For example, in my painting Anticipation, there is a dancing figure in the front. A Catholic person interpreted it as a Nativity scene. The Virgin Mary is part of the Catholic belief system, but perhaps if this person had been familiar with the chakras, he would have interpreted it according to that conceptual system. When you’re interpreting something that hasn’t been depicted for 10,000 years, you interpret it through your own eyes, through your experience of modern life and the things you have been taught. For example, I grew up Catholic, and I would say there’s an indoctrination process of interpreting things through Catholic eyes. It’s important to be aware how much we are influenced by our own culture’s biases. Another example: I go to Utah to visit rock art sites, and the Mormons who live there now believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago. They don’t accept that the rock art images are 10,000 or more years old because that is not their world view. They just call them “Old Indian writings” and don’t have interest in them. They’re not interested in the Grand Canyon for the same reason: when scientists, geologists and others talk about the rocks in the Canyon being millions of years old, people who have certain beliefs don’t accept that.
In addition to rock art in the American West, I have traveled to many places throughout the world to view rock art, including Hawaii, Ireland and the Caribbean. I have had personal spiritual experiences at rock art sites. To give background about one of them: I was in Moscow at an ethnology conference, and in a ceremony we were attending, a local woman spiritual practitioner from Russia went into trance. The ancestor shaman who enters her when she is in trance comes from twelve generations back. The woman’s left leg went limp, and so she was dancing with an injured left leg. She fell and became unconscious. Everyone who was there was told to turn around and not look. The other people from her village gave her milk in a brass cup to bring her back. Suddenly, crows appeared and were cawing. Finally, the woman came out of trance. The villagers explained that there were so many people from so many cultures and beliefs present,that many different energies came through that didn’t belong and the woman couldn’t overcome them. She was fine afterwards, but it was scary to witness this incident. Later, a friend and I were visiting rock arts sites in the United States. We were looking for a site in a canyon in Montana that I had been trying to find for three years. No one would give me directions. Finally, a Native American woman referred me to a ranger who took time to talk with me about the canyon. The ranger was really busy, but when I told him where we wanted to go, he sat back in his chair and said “That canyon is very heavy, full of spirits. There are lots of graves in there. Be respectful and careful.” At the entrance to the canyon, I saw an owl feather. It was blowing in the breeze on a dead piece of grass. I had just been to a seer who said when I see a feather that means my mother is with me. I picked up the feather and said, “Let’s take my mother with us.” She had died 26 years before on that same day, June 26. My friend and I found a number of petroglyphs, but it was getting dark. We started to leave the canyon. I put the feather in our car. But when I got out of the car later and went to get the feather, it was gone. I believe the feather was meant to stay there, at the site. A week after we got back from the trip my friend’s left foot was hurting. She had major problems with it. No one could find anything wrong with it. We thought that maybe we had picked up some “hitchhiker spirits.” Then I remembered the Shaman from Siberia, who told me that Shamans often have trouble with their left feet.
Why do I create my own artwork inspired by the ancient art? I feel I am part of the continuum of the deep spirituality that the art represents. Each rock art image that’s on the wall is a portal to the spiritual dimension. I am meant to take what I am seeing and what is going through me, and become a channel of the energy and knowledge that was put on the wall. If I just took a photograph of the original artwork and didn’t paint and draw from the inspiration I receive, I don’t feel I would be channeling it or being part of the continuum.Doing my own artwork is a spiritual journey for me. I take in the deep spirituality from the wall and put it on paper, and move it forward into the future.
Dorothy Graden (dorothygraden.com) is an award winning contemporary artist whose art is inspired by Ancient Visions. She is a frequent contributor to Life Force Arts Foundation’s art exhibits, including each exhibit in the Life Force Wheel series. For many years she traveled through the American West, Hawaii, Ireland and the Caribbean – climbing mesas, hiking nearly vertical cliffs, boulder “hopping”, wading through canyon rivers, exploring caves and rock ledges – to photograph and draw prehistoric rock art images. Mystical and inspiring, Rock Art has been found on every continent except Antarctica: incised, pecked, abraded and painted on cave and canyon walls and boulders by ancient peoples. Some sites are 30,000 years old. The images represent world views, spiritual rituals, hunting magic, time keeping, vision quests, and more. Dorothy has presented her field work on rock art at the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow and at University College Cork, Ireland. Her photographs have been published in the Theosophical Society’s journal, Quest. She also presents, lectures and exhibits ink drawings and ceramic sculptures at various venues throughout the Midwest, including giving classes in Rock Art and interpretation at the Arterie and Life Force Arts Center in Chicago and the Lubeznik Center for the Arts in Michigan City IN.