Once a month, I plan to feature inspired artists who embody the Ten Tenets of Deep Creativity. Today's featured artist, Sue Ellen Parkinson, creates sacred art that plays with traditional spiritual themes in unique and exciting new ways. I had the pleasure of meeting Sue Ellen at the opening of her "Strength in Tenderness" exhibit in Fort Bragg, California. We then had the opportunity to sit down for this interview about her creative experience:
How would you describe your art? What are some of the recurring themes?
I would describe my art as non-traditional icon painting. I’ve been exploring my personal connection to the Christian mystics through creative means. I’m particularly drawn to depicting Mary Magdalene and the Sacred Feminine. I’m not a Christian or religious scholar. I've come to this from a purely intuitive place and I’ve found Magdalene to be an incredibly compelling archetype to work with. My sense is that her energy is deeply needed at this time—not just for myself but for the entire planet. This experience of painting Christian mystics was unexpected for me. However, I’m learning so much, and my imagination is absolutely on fire, so I doubt I’ll ever stop.
How did you get started on this path?
My mother was an incredible creative. She turned everything she did into a creative act. Growing up with her made my entry into the world of creativity feel very natural. I was fortunate to have had that. And being that I’m a quiet person by nature, the contemplative process of drawing and painting was very appealing to me. I’ve been drawing since I could first pick up and manipulate a pencil.
Painting was a natural progression and such a pleasure! Creating a painting is like an inner vision quest. It’s my favorite way to explore. Just relaxing into my intuition and observing. I feel an intimacy in observing things that’s more satisfying than words. I often discover a deeper understanding of myself. My painting the mystics evolved out of many things but primarily out of my love of painting portraits. I love to look at the way the shadows and light move across a persons face, the hands, the human form. It’s so beautiful. Painting brings me such peace. When I’m painting, it feels like a blessed unfolding—like when a flower opens up, or like when a babies fingers uncurl for the first time.
Were there specific moments or experiences that pointed you in a specific direction? If so, can you share any of them?
So many significant experiences…One very important turning point was about 12 years ago. I received a divination from the shaman, Malidoma Somé. He told me that I was a different sort of an artist, that I was a “healer artist.” I had never had anyone articulate that concept to me. He comes from a culture that understands such things—I don’t. So when he said that I was a “healer artist,” it was like having a missing piece of the puzzle fall into place. I knew in my bones it was true. That distinction helped me to make some important decisions and to go in the right direction.
You have described your creative experience as a form of prayer. What do you mean by that?
I've always felt that creativity was a form of meditation and my most direct connection to the Divine. That understanding went even deeper about 30 years ago when I had a cancer scare. I was looking for philosophical advice and was fortunate to find a teacher named, Mukusen Miyuki. He was a Jungian analyst and Buddhist priest from Japan. He became a dear friend and trusted advisor. He let me trade drawings of my dreams for counseling sessions. Working with him woke up my awareness that art was my spiritual path. Early on he suggested that I offer my creative work as, “spirit food,” to my ancestors. I started making offerings to my mother who had died when I was 13. To this day I begin any creative work with the intention of giving thanks. Creating is a way of giving my deepest self to the world. It’s a very grounded expression of my gratitude. That’s what a prayer is, isn’t it? An expression of gratitude.
It seems that dreams and visions shape your work to a certain degree. How do those images tend to come to you?
They come through actual sleeping dreams—and when I’m awake through intuitive visual flashes.
When I paint a dream I uncover much more detail about the dream. For example, I discovered the guidance of spirits through painting. That was something that I hadn’t been consciously aware of but I saw it clearly in a painting and knew it was true.
Dreams are another language—a visual language—different than words, but just as valuable. Working with my dreams has helped me to trust my intuition. When I get a visual flash, or idea of what needs to go into an image, I’ve learned to just go with it. Often those impulses turn out to be perfectly inline with what’s needed.
I recently received a strong message from my female ancestors through a painting that they wanted me to speak to the public. So even though I’m an introvert, I’ve been doing that. This interview with you, stems from their request.
Some of your art is a reinvention of the traditional Mexican retablo. How has this type of folk art influenced your work? And in what ways have you modified it?
Many years ago, I fell in love with Mexico, and Mexican Folk Art. Traditionally a retablo depicts a miracle that has occurred in a person’s life and it gives thanks to a particular saint. These are little paintings that are put up on alters in homes and also in churches. I was so charmed by them, I started painting retablos myself—just for family members and friends. I didn’t emphasize saints though, because at that time, I had no personal relationship to them. In my retablos I focused more on the divine qualities in the person being depicted. People would often cry when they first saw them, because folks feel so unseen in this culture. So these retablos could be very healing. This work was of course, inline with what Malidoma had perceived in me.
A traditional retablo painter is called a santero, or santera, because they paint saints. It was the tradition of retablo painting that led me to painting saints. I felt so much respect for these little paintings, and the santeras who painted them, I wanted to explore the saints for myself.
What role does intuition play in your creative process, specifically, and your life in general?
At this point I live by my intuition. It’s an inner barometer, that I stay tuned to in order to keep centered. My life wasn’t always like that. But now, my painting is my livelihood, and it’s also my spiritual path, and it reflects my emotional and intellectual life as well. Nothing is separated. It’s all of one cloth. In this modern world, that’s a precarious way to live. It requires a certain level of faith. I’m in my late 60’s and making a living as an artist is quite a roller coaster ride. But I trust that I’ll be OK—and so far, I am.
You have said that your creative process connects you to the mystery. Can you elaborate on that at all?
Yes. When I’m creating my sense of separateness dissolves. Fear and anxiety dissolves. I feel very connected, and strengthened by the world. I feel at one with the world. So I’m open and inquisitive and am able to solve problems with clarity. I experience a strong sense of possibility. The state of “awe,” is a good way to describe this experience.
How is your art evolving? In what directions do you see yourself going?
I had a dream that I was walking along the west coast when I noticed a huge tsunami was forming out at sea. Then I turned and looked in the opposite direction. I was stunned to see another huge body of water rolling across the land towards me. Both of these enormous bodies of water were dazzlingly beautiful. They were going to converge, and there I was in the center. No where to go.
I think that was a teaching dream and the lesson was: Be present to this exquisite Beauty.
I’m just a dot of dust. So my plan is to make some Beauty for the Sacred before I disappear. That’s my big plan for the future: Create some Beauty before the waters converge, and I’ll continue with the mystics and see where life takes me.
Thanks to Sue Ellen Parkinson for this beautiful, insightful interview. To learn more about Sue Ellen, her sacred imagery, and upcoming exhibits and workshops, please visit her website: http://www.miracleofyourlife.com.