Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Lorraine Capparell: The Dream Becomes the Work

An Interview with Lorraine Capparell


It was my privilege, in the late 1980's, to share conversations about art, spirituality, and cultural transformation with some extraordinary artists in pursuit of a book I came to call SEEING IN A SACRED MANNER:  Conversations with Transformative Artists  (1.)

The book was meant to document the work of contemporary artists whose visionary work was influenced by their unique spiritual  insights and experiences.  Travelling across the country not long after graduate school, I met artists who defined their work as spiritual practice in New York City, in Arkansas, in California, and elsewhere.   Among them were  contemporary artists  Rafael Ortiz, Rachel Rosenthal, Alex and Allison Grey, Kathleen Holder, Beth Ames Swartz, and others.   Although I was not successful in finding a publisher for SEEING IN A SACRED MANNER as a book and ultimately moved on to other endeavors,  I did publish some of these interviews  (2.) so graciously granted me by these artists, in a number of art journals.

More than 30 years later, as artists continue to seek encouragement for the deeper matrices that drive them to create and seek purpose in their work, I believe these conversations about art and spirituality are more relevant than ever.   I take the opportunity in this paper to share the wisdom of these voices again.    Most  of them I have digitized and they can be viewed at: http://www.laurenraine.com/articles.html

Below is the interview I was fortunate to have with the  vibrant visionary artist Lorraine Capparell at her home in California so long ago.  It was a pleasure I  remember well.   She is as creative as ever, and although this interview is not about her current work, please visit her website to learn more about Lorraine's work:    http://www.skymuseum.com/

Lauren Raine
June, 2020


When I met Lorraine Capparell our interview,  it was at her home in Palo Alto, California, where she had developed a following as a sculptor, photographer, painter and free-lance graphic designer.  Originally from the East Coast, she studied art at Cornell University, and later at San Francisco State University.   At the time of our Interview, her solo exhibitions included "Hands", her extraordinary sculpture that was first shown at the San Jose Museum of Art in 1982, and "Hand Signals", a show of watercolors at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York in 1988.  Additionally, her work was published and written about in a number of contemporary publications, including the WomanSpirit Sourcebook, and Dreams are Wiser Than Men, edited by Richard Russo (North Atlantic Books, 1987). (3.)

Capparell practices Buddhist Vipassana meditation, and has twice travelled to South East Asia and Sri Lanka to study Buddhist and Hindu art and culture.  Vipassana is a meditative technique that teaches close attention to the breath to develop a profound internal stillness, the "spaciousness" below the chattering, reasoning mind, from which genuine creativity and receptivity may arise.  In a statement to her work, Capparell commented that  "Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form" .

This  quality of attention informs her art process as well as her life.  Remembering and recording dreams is an important daily activity as well, one that  provides her with a resource from which she draws inspiration, as well as solutions to creative problems encountered along the way.  Her dreams introduce her to imagery that is archetypal as well as intimately personal, and her dreams reveal their meanings as she actualizes them in her art.  Such was true of her amazing sculpture "Hands", which she saw fully realized within a dream two years before she completed. 

Interview with Lorraine Capparell

December 11, 1988

LR:      You said that you often receive ideas for your art through dreams?

LC:      It frees me to pursue the work.  I began using my dreams because of a "judge" I had inside, always questioning "what is this you're making, why are you making it, is it good enough?"  All of that stressful inner dialogue.

 If I get a powerful image from a dream, and make a sculpture of it, it's not a problem.  It is valid to me, because it already existed in some way within the dimension of dreams.
Sometimes I see them as finished pieces.  I saw "Hands" in a dream - I saw it vividly as a photograph in a book!  I dreamed that my father gave me an art history book:  I leafed through it and saw the piece.  "Hands" was written on the page, and it also said, curiously, that it was made by an artist other than myself.

LR:  You saw what later became your Sculpture "Hands" in a book within your dream?

LC:  Yes.  That's why it's been such a joy to see the piece published, the most recent publication being in the Woman Spirit Sourcebook.  I saw it in the dream as a picture in a book, went through the process of making it, and now at last see it published in an actual book!

LR" Do you think dreams can be prophetic?

LC:  Yes, if you put the energy into manifesting them, if you make the dream a reality not only in the world, but in your consciousness.  What's a dream?  It's all intricately intertwined.  We first have to think of something in order to create it on the physical plane.  If you have a dream, your subconscious or super conscious is planting something in your mind, which you can then manifest.

Sometimes, when I'm working, before I go to sleep I'll suggest to myself that I would like to dream a creative solution to a problem.  For example, I was trying to figure out how to glaze "Hands".  So I asked my dreams to show me the ways.  In fact, I finally stopped working on the piece because of a dream.  Each torso is separate, and was glazed individually in an electric kiln.  I airbrushed and fired each torso about six times, and was planning to do a last bit of firing the next day.  That night I dreamt one of the torsos blew up!  I was so upset by this dream that I decided it was over, I wouldn't glaze any further.

LR:  The dream not only inspired the work, but also told you when to stop?

LC:  Yes.  I saw it shattering in the dream, which was  actually  a real possibility.  I had fired the torsos so many times, and they are large irregular shapes.  But you can be at the end of a long process and not know when to stop.  The dream told me it was time to stop.

LR:  In "Hands" each figure has three faces.  Did you relate that to the three aspects of the Goddess (Mother, Maiden and Crone), or Trinities such as Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu?
LC:  No, not really.  I had heard of the three faces of Eve, and the myth of Janus.  That was about it.  Of course, in the process of working, I learned a lot more.

LR:  Yet "Hands", along with the sculptural installation you created which you titled "The Three Ages of Women",   are very closely related to the symbols associated with the Goddess.  It's interesting that you saw the image in your dream in a "history book".  The re-emergence and re-discovery of the Goddess in the Women's Spirituality movement, along with the work of Marija Gimbutas (4) is also about the surfacing of "buried history".  You also mentioned that you saw the sculpture rising out of the Earth?

LC:      I dreamt the entire image just once.  What I saw in the book was a photograph of the piece.  But n dreams you can look, it's a photograph, and you look again, and it comes alive.  So I also saw it emerging wet, as if it came from within the Earth.

LR:  When did you have this dream?

LC:  In 1980.   It was my first major sculpture.  I worked on "Hands" for two years.  I haven't sold it, because I feel it needs a special environment.  It could be a fountain - I've thought of plumbing it so that water will come out horizontally, at the waist level of the figures, flowing over the platform.  I would like to make it active, make it wet.

Each time I've exhibited it I've also created a ritual for it, or one was created by others.  When I showed it in 1982 at the San Jose Museum of Art I asked two dancers to design something for it.  I also asked the women who posed for "Hands" to do a ritual, and we choreographed a simple circular ritual, our hands pushing and joining to music.  I have a videotape of that.

LR:  The hands in the sculpture, in gesture and placement, resemble flames.  Did you realize that?

LC:  Yes.  I found out that that position, the gesture of pushing forward, is equated in Tai Chi with the hexagram for fire.  So I learned the gesture related to fire, and I glazed it as fire.  The open hand is also a gesture of Buddha.

"Hands" also has to do with the possibility of enlightenment, because it rises from the Earth, from the dark, moving through the flame of the senses, the flame of physical life, of passion and transformation.

LR:  And the gesture itself - are the women pushing out?

LC:  Pushing forward.  Pushing out, to me, is about exclusion.  Pushing forward is dynamic growth.  In Tai Chi you push and then bring back.

LR:  How did your sculptural group "The Three Ages of Women" come about?

LC:  It began as a possible commission for a woman who had a home in Big Sur, with a beautiful Pacific view.  She wanted a column to hold up the branch of a tree.  I began designing columns based on Greek columns.  From my reading about Ionic columns I learned there were certain shapes that were considered masculine and certain shapes that were feminine, and I created a number of designs based on the classic feminine styles.
I made studies, and sent them to Big Sur.  She eventually decided she didn't want to continue with the project, but by that time I was so turned on by the idea I kept going anyway.  I chose three different shapes that I particularly liked, and made 26" models of them.

I later met a woman who is interested in the Goddess, and she arranged for us to install some sculpture in the yard of a woman who is a psychologist.  She  was planning a weekend retreat for women, and she wanted to exhibit sculpture as a part of it.  When I showed her pictures of my columns, she said "Those are the three ages of women, didn't you know that?"  I said "No, tell me about it!"

That was how I learned about the Maiden, the Matron, and the Crone.  That sort of thing seems to happen a lot.  I'll work on an image, especially if it comes from a dream, and later find out is connected to something.

LR:  You often access your art form your dreams, but your art also allows you to access meaning and symbolism - while you didn't dream the columns, it wasn't until later you learned what they represented.

LC:  Right.

LR:  Why do you call the Circle of five figures in the installation the "Temple of the Crones"?

LC: Actually, it's a Temple to the wisdom of old age.  The gate is formed by the Maiden and the Matron columns, each standing opposite the other.  You progress through the stages of Maiden and Matron in order to enter the Circle of Crones.

When I showed it, I asked Chloe Scott, a dancer in her 60's, if she would choreograph something for the "Three Ages of Women".  She has a troupe of women dancers called Dymaxion, who have been working together for years.   Her performance began with the Maidens running into the space, very sprightly.  The more sedate Matrons then entered, rounded up the Maidens, and brought them back.  Then Chloe entered alone, in order to dance the Crone's Dance - it was slow and stately.  Finally she led the group into the Temple, and they performed a ritual of hands crossing, based on my sculpture "Hands".

You see, as I worked on the piece I realized we are lacking in reverence for elders, particularly for elder women.  We don't honor the Crone, the "Saga".  I made five Crones in a circle, representing five wise old women.  The circle represents the wisdom of old age, and in particular, the wisdom of mature womanhood.

LR:   Do you keep a record of your dreams as a resource?

LC:   I keep a dream journal.  I have volumes of dreams from over the years!  Periodically I'll go through them.

I'm currently working on a series of ceramic figures; gold leafed, enclosed or framed in boxes.  I ran across the image of a torso in a box in one of my dream journals, and I began to work on the idea, and did two or three of them.

About that time I was rejected from an art gallery.  They rejected a piece called "Dream Shower" and "Hands" because of nudity.  So I began using classical paintings as a basis for the figures I put in the boxes.  I used Titian,  Raphael's "Three Graces", Ingre…..I made sculptures from the paintings because I wanted to validate my use of the body.  I was reacting to being rejected!  Hey look, nudity occurs in the classics!

I showed them to a friend, who said "Oh, those are Hindu temple pieces!  Don't you see that?"  Well, no, I didn't.  Sometimes I feel I'm blindly manifesting these things, and have no idea of where they come from or what they are.  I just like them.  So now I think of them as "Temple pieces", and I want to display them in that context.  I'm to show them in February, 1989, in conjunction with the Women's Caucus for the Arts.  I want to place them at different levels, all these niches, to suggest an altar.

My friend Rhodessa Jones is an actress.  One of her characters she calls "Lily Overstreet".  She and I planned to do collaboration - I would create a room or sculpture, and she would do a performance.  She wanted a table to put things on, so I decided to make the table actually her - her figure is the base of the table.  The "Lily Table".  The set will also include a giant bed shaped like a hand, which also might represent the "Hand of the Mother".

I seem to pursue the hand image again and again and again.  In the last year I've done a series of watercolors I call "Hand Signals".  They are different hand gestures; some are mudras, like the mudras for wakefulness and fearlessness. 

LR:   You mentioned that you make yourself do at least one painting each day?

LC:  It's a good way to access your unconscious, to get ideas.  Some days I don't know what to do for my daily painting - so I'll paint my dreams, or mandalas, whatever comes to mind, because there is a void to fill.  "Hand Signals" came from my daily painting practice.  I ran out of ideas, and felt like tracing my hand, but it seemed too plebian.  I finally gave in, and that led me to the idea of gesture as a window to a scene.

This became a series.  I would never have hit on those ideas otherwise.  I did about 70 paintings, and now have a show of them.

LR:  What kind of intention do you think you have in your work?

LC:  The first time I displayed "Hands" I received a letter from a docent, who said that she loved going to the room it was in, just to sit during her lunch hour.  I couldn't have asked for more!  I would like the work to evoke serenity, contemplation about your place in life.

In the 70's I remember talking with a  friend, a discussion about  what art meant to us.  I decided I wanted my art to be essentially religious, which then provoked an argument, because that word is so loaded.  "Religious"  meant dogma of some kind - but at that point in my development I didn't know any other word to use.

Now I can say that I want my art to convey something that is archetypal, something that transcends everyday life.  I would like to point to the unity  we all belong to, and perhaps thus provoke others to work on their awareness of that as well.

Although, in truth, it doesn't ever start out that way.   With an intention or a purpose.   If I have an original idea I just let it grow in myself and in the art process.  I don't have an goal.  I didn't begin with a specific idea when I made the columns for the "Three Ages of Women" or the framed figures I'm working on now.

LR:  And yet you did make what became a Temple, and altarpieces for contemplation.  What is a sacred space or a religious object - or for that matter, what is a myth, a ritual?  Aren't they really objects or spaces or stories or images to……………..

LC:  Trigger something!  You can't call it religion - what it's about is working on your awareness.

As an artist, I work on something I may not be clear about, I just work on it, and in the process go through every imaginable state of liking and hating and doubting and desiring, but there is a bonus.  My artwork allows me to learn along the way.  I learn by trying to make these pieces real, trying to make them tangible and physical.  I haven't always understood them, but along the way I learn their meanings.

LR:  Sometimes the inspiration precedes the comprehension?

LC:  They unfold. 

In other words, don't stop!  There is an opportunity to learn more, always.  Any time you work, you're actually working on yourself as well.


"Edited by Richard A. Russo, this anthology of essays, poems, and short stories recounts dreams, analyzes dreams, and celebrates dreams. Dreams, like human experience, have intrinsic value apart from any interpretation we make of them. Instead of asking what dreams can do for us, ask how we may honor the dream."

"Agricultural people's beliefs concerning sterility and fertility, the fragility of life and the constant threat of destruction, and the periodic need to renew the generative processes of nature are among the most enduring. They live on in the present... The Goddess-centered religion existed for a very long time... leaving an indelible imprint on the Western psyche." -- Marija Gimbutas

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