Friday, 11 March 2011

Owl Words



WESHIMULO the Gypsies call her - Ghost of the Woods - hoohoo could she be?...
Owls have fared badly in folklore in general, being portents of death and ill omen:

Men beoþ of þe wel [owl] sore aferd. þu singst par sum man shal be ded: euer þu bodest sumne qued [evil].
~c. 1250 Owl and Nightingale - ed. J W H Atkins

The oule ek, that of deth the bode bryngeth.
~c.1374 Parliament of Fowls - Chaucer

Whil'st the scritch-owle, scritching loud,
Puts the wretch that lies in woe,
In remembrance of a shrowd.
~ c.1595 A Midsommer Night's Dreame v. i. - Shakespeare

In 1934, an old country-man told of the death of a common acquaintance. "And .. it weren't no more nor I expected. I come past his house one night, and there was a scret owl on his roof, scretting something horrible. I always reckon to take notice of them things."
~1936 The Gods Had Wings - W J Brown

{All quotations above were taken from The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions edited by Iona Opie and Moira Tatem}

In medieval bestiaries owls were described as an allegory for the Jews, since they "shunned the light". And indeed superstitions of bad owl-omens are found across the world: many Native American tribes held beliefs that owls were harbingers of death, some even describing death itself as "crossing the owl's bridge". A Mayan religious text describes owls as messengers of Xibalba (the Mayan "Place of Fright"). And in Cameroon the owl has no name at all, it is simply referred to as "the bird that makes you afraid". But not all mythology tells terrible owl-tales, some cultures think of owls as spirits of their dear departed, and others consider them lucky talismans. In Russia, hunters used to carry owl claws to help them climb to heaven when they died. In India owl-eye broth was believed to cure seizures in children and cause one to be able to see in the dark. And in England the practice of nailing an owl to the door to ward off evil continued into the 19th Century.



But of course, probably the most oft thought of owl-quality is that of wisdom. Indeed, I have painted the owl before as animal-symbol of the sixth chakra, associated with far-seeing and psychic perception. Owls are often depicted as bespectacled librarians, keepers of knowledge.
From Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom to Blodeuwedd, the flower-faced goddess of Welsh myth, owl goddesses were powerful shape-shifting women. Marija Gimbutas in The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe traces veneration of the owl as a goddess, among other birds, to the culture of Old Europe, long pre-dating Indo-European cultures.




I present here three owl works of mine painted in recent weeks. The first, a new Once Upon O'Clock, commissioned by Nicholas as a gift for his mother. He told me she loved owls and books and trees. So a wise owl hides in a tree hole with his book, as time turns around him in these dusk woods.

please click to enlarge

But what is he reading? Words about himself I think... the owl-eyed linguists amongst you will spot words for owl in many languages*, painted tiny underneath the clock hands.


The Word Owl Clock is painted on a piece of apple wood which I show you here in my hand to give you an idea of the size of these clocks.



It was good to be clockmaking again, and another (with Gypsy flavour) will follow soon.



The wisdom or wordiness of owls is interesting, specifically in relation to a particularly curious play on words that I noticed some years ago between two Russian words. In Russian, owl is сова (pronounced sova) and word is слово (pronounced slova).. and it struck me that this word play would make an intriguing basis for a painting.

It's interesting how ideas germinate and gestate. When I thought of painting this сова-слово idea, I vaguely imagined some sort of rich Slavic-flavoured design, like a lubok, perhaps, with Cyrillic lettering and folk imagery. But how far from this the final work ended up!
I sit down at the drawing board in a certain state of mind, and let my pencil take the lead, and it still surprises me how surprised I can be at how my own work turns out! In fact this one has been rather a wrestle. The usual arc of creation-beginning-elation to looming-failure-depression followed the first few pencil strokes. And I suppose I didn't help myself (or the work) by deciding that I needed to step away from my comfort of tried and tested tools and media.

in progress

This is painted in gouache mostly - a paint I know little about, and am not used to using (the only other time I have used it was to paint that Hermitage blog header image up there!). I seem to use paints entirely not as one is supposed to. Oils I paint thin and watered down with a tickle of a paintbrush so minuscule it could have been a flea's toothbrush. Watercolour I use in tight small areas, and layers, paying no heed to the masters' techniques of washes over wide vistas of pale sky, and unworried flicks to denote figures. So I suppose it follows that gouache has foxed me a little; I understand it is best used for tight, opaque, detailed painting, which explains my difficulties covering large areas with it successfully. I was painting on paper too, and when the whole thing began to get the better of me, I left the paper there on the drawing board which is also in our living room and let her watch me for some days....
During which time, Tom and I walked with Macha out in the evening woods, and we heard hoo-hooing, and saw a shape flap onto a branch in the nearly dark just by us. There a Barn Owl preened. As we watched, we hooted hand-hoots and she hoo-hooed back.



The "her" that emerged was an owl-woman - a woman becoming a bird. She looks wistfully out of her owl-eyes at who knows what. She writes, with a feather from her almost-wing; she writes on the sky and on the tree: words of words and words of owls.
Owl-word, Word-owl, Owl, Owl, Word... Owl...




Behind her broods a dark turquoise sky. I looked at the painting for some days when the sky was still plain, feeling that the "something" that was still not quite right must be the emptiness of the sky, and so I sat down with another unfamiliar medium: pastels! Almost never have I used them before, but in the spirit of boundary pushing and desperation to salvage a possibly disastrous work, I carried on. Over the sky I drew pale stars, surrounded by dotted Van Gogh lines, and in amongst: more owl words, written by her. I added pastel to her feathers too, and her hair.

please click to enlarge

But still it wasn't right. She crouched there for more days in our living room, looking woefully at me, while I felt unable to resolve her.
In the end I sat down to work more on the painting and realised it was finished, even though I was unhappy with it. Knowing when you are done with something is an art and a half. So often for us perfectionists, the finish can only be reached with excellence, with a sense that you have done good and achieved. But of course much of the time we don't do good: In my own opinion I sometimes make utter failures, mostly I make sort of adequate mediocrities, and very occasionally: a really wonderful piece of true good work. But whether something is finished or not isn't really related to this sense of achievement. And after all, what, or who is the work for? A piece I may consider disastrous, someone else may love. Something might just perhaps speak through my arrangement of lines and colours to someone else in a language I am quite unfamiliar with. And it is for this reason that I am showing you this painting here, even though I feel the awkward shame of "exposure" in failure. Perhaps one of you might love this?

Slova Sova - print available here

So I rolled this painting up and thought on it for a few days... what ever happened to the original flavour of an idea? Could I make a little drawing closer to what I'd originally intended?
There followed this...


A small pencil drawing in my sketchbook, begun without definite direction in mind, but finished with some sort of pleased feeling, as if this had worked. Not in a brilliant masterpiece kind of way, but it reached its completion in a different place from our owl woman on her branch. I cannot really explain it.


Here two children hoo-hoo through their hands, but they too are the hoot. This owl sings her owl words through children hooting in the woods at dusk, just as we did on that other evening when the other painting wasn't working.

Who the Owl Said - print available here


I sometimes wonder if I am the hooted child, and my work the hooted word. But who is doing the hooting? Who is the owl?











SOME POST SCRIPTS:

The recording of owl calls are from Owl Pages, where much owlish information, mythology and hootery can be found.

And should you wish to buy a print of either of these owl-works, they are perched now in the evening tree of my etsy shop.

Just the other day I found evidence that I was not the first to note the Slavic sova-slova word play. Here's a linocut by Solomea Loboda (found in an owl menagerie on the ever excellent Animalarium blog) of a Ukrainian folk rhyme about the owl which rhymes these two words, and also vindicates my use of an а at the end of слово!


*German, Russian, English, French, Estonian, Polish, Bulgarian, Dutch, Norwegian, Hungarian and Finnish respectively.


49 comments:

John Barleycorn Must Die said...

WOW! Look at all those owls. Fantastic!

Thomas Haskett said...

I think that your owl painting works Rima, I can find no flaw in it!

And I like the unorthodox use of mediums too....

Stille Linde said...

This is a treasure in our evening and night, thank you, hooted child !

Lynne Pfeiffer said...

A book often studied in the US is "I Heard the Owl Call My Name". It's memorable. About the book (from Wikipedia):

I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a 1967 novel by American author Margaret Craven.

The book tells the story of a young Anglican vicar named Mark Brian with not long to live, who learns about the meaning of life when he is sent to a First Nations parish in British Columbia. First published in Canada in 1967, it was not until 1973 when the book was picked up by an American publisher. Released to wide acclaim, it reached No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list. In the year of its American release, the book was adapted to the screen by Gerald Di Pego as a CBS television movie of the same title.

ON THE OTHER HAND, when I lived in New Mexico, the local Pueblo custom was to give a small statue of an owl to friends moving into a new home.

AND ON THE OTHER OTHER HAND, here there is a praiseworthy organization called OWLS (Oregon Women Lawyers) which does much good work.

Owls seems deep in our human psyche.

tut-tut said...

What an inspiration you are! I loved reading your words and looking at your work.

Aaron-Paul said...

Owl woman, she will be the image in my mind when i next take Odie our mutt for his night time walk, theres always a whiley owl hooting in the darkness from a clump of oaks as we pass, I love your concept Rima :-)

Grey Walker said...

I like the owl woman very much. Her wistfulness isn't something I often associate with owls, but it works for her. The way she is tilting her head is very owlish.

And I've added The Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions to my wish list!

Thrup'ny bits said...

Another informative thoughtful post. I didn't realize the clocks were the size of your hand. The first image is exquisite revealing such an attention to detail that the image appears, to me, to be carved . . .

Thrup'ny bits said...

. . . and I too will add the Oxford Dictionary of Superstitions to my reference shelf of Oxford books.

Charlotte said...

How I love owls, and have passed on the love to my 6 year old. When he is up tomorrow I will bring him straight to the Hermitage to meet your first pictures. I rather like your owlish lady of the woods, she puts my attempt at a bird man to shame.

Have just got my lovely (but very urban) year 6 class to research owls. They loved them so much I have decided to make a life size tawny for the classroom: he can sit owlishly on my desk and keep his eye on them all.

I hope your barn-ies continue to hoo hoo to you, we hoot to our suburban tawny.

MakingSpace said...

Beautiful work and I love your description of your process - I love how you allow enough time... something I'm contemplating myself these days in my musical creations...

Ms. said...

-A fan and follower sending appreciation, praise & gratitude for the richness of your work, and the riches on your site-

Rimaiku
by Ms.

Oh my, you should know
I must 'hoo-hoo-you-you-hoo',
wandering watcher

Heather said...

I too love owls, books and trees - Nicholas's mother will be thrilled with her wonderful gift. It came as a surprise to see it fit into your hand - I thought it would be larger. All your art work is amazing and I never tire of seeing it.

Anonymous said...

The owl woman is wonderful! I would have made her an older woman but that would been a different picture entirely.

Joel Le Blanc said...

Where I live in New Zealand the Maori people have some interesting mythology related to our small native owls, the moreporks. Also known as "Ruru", they considered magical and wise creatures.

"...known as Hine–ruru, the “owl woman”, Maori traditionally believed that these owl guardians had the power to, protect, warn and advise. According to such beliefs, the presence of a morepork sitting in a conspicuous place nearby, knocking on a window or even entering the house signifies a death the family while the high piercing call of the morepork is thought to herald bad news and the ordinary call to indicate good news on the way."


Excerp from http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/ruru.html

Diana said...

I adore your owl woman--all your owls are lovely, but she especially so...

Sunshineshelle said...

Blows me away, so glad to follow your post, the magic of your art & words are inspiring, thank you!

Zen Forest said...

Rima,

I have purchased a print of the owl woman. In her, I see many things. I feel that perhaps she feels somewhat like you feel about her, "What is going on here? I can't quite place my finger on it..."

I love her feet, her wonder at the transformation but also her calm acceptance of.

This painting to me is a beautiful painting of ascension from a weighted down five-sensical existence to a wise, flying, light body.

Thank you~

Rochelle B. said...

Fascinating! I friend referred me to your blog and I just love it. Plain and simply.

Anonymous said...

Dear Rima - I love love love your owl clock and especially your lovely owl woman...your art always evokes deep emotion and is so inspirational....thank you!

from the west coast of Canada...

Samana

Melissa said...

Rima, the owl woman, though you may not see it just yet, is heart-achingly beautiful. There is a lovely melancholy about her that brought tears to my eyes. If I weren't so poor right now, I would give her a home in a heartbeat.

bhán said...

Your owls are lovely, and I appreciate that you were willing to post a picture you were not pleased with. I was so frustrated with a painting the other night that I blogged about it even though I felt odd doing so because I'm used to seeing only other people's successes. I'm not finished working on that piece, I'm sure it will never be one of my favourites, but I know many people are going to like Slova Sova a lot.

Also, I love that you incorporate wordplay in to your art! Your work is so playful anyway, it just adds another layer of fabulousness.

A mermaid in the attic said...

"...the shadow-lit, whispering, mare-faced, cat-faced, owl-faced ageless huntress and thrice queen..." (from Robin Williamson's 'Five Denials on Merlin's Grave').

I love your owl-woman, Rima, she is beautiful and perfect. I am very partial to swirling Van Gogh-ish skies myself, and also to experimenting with media I really don't know much about. I'm also working on a small painting that I really don't know is working, and I don't quite know where to go from here with it. But as you say, and as I've discovered myself, sometimes a painting that I think is not working at all, will sing to someone else. I guess that's part of the magic, and why it's worth carrying on...maybe it's the journey of making that's important for the maker, while the finished product is important for someone else.

WOL said...

Here in the plains of north Texas, we have a little owl (Athene cunicularia) who lives in a burrow -- very adaptive for the wide-open prairies. It can run its prey down as well as catch it on the wing. It is in the same genus as the little European owl (Athene noctua -- "Athena of the night") that was so common in Athena's temple precint on the Acropolis that it became associated with the Godess. It is from Athena that this genus of owl gets its name, and, as Athena's messenger and alter ego, its reputation as a wise bird.

http://grundlepod.blogspot.com/2010/07/for-those-who-wondered.html

Interesting that you gave your owl lady those two little whisps of hair like owl "horns." When I do my hair back in a pony tail, I'll have little whisps of hair sticking out like that before the day is half over. (8>)

Half-heard in the Stillness said...

Your owl clock is wonderful, I'm quite sure his Mum will be thrilled! I too was surprised to see it's smallness I also pictured it bigger.
I love Owl's I think they're very beautiful and fascinating.

Crafty Green Poet said...

what a wonderful post, such beautiful artwork, your clock particularly is amazing. Thanks for sharing all the mythology around the owl too. I have a favourite tawny owl, who I often see in the daytime in its roost in an old tree, it looks so anciently wise

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I adore these creatures. We have many outside our window, hooting in the tops of the trees at midnight. Funny, I never remember them as a little girl, but as their habitats have fallen to increasing human population, they seem to have found our well-forested neighbourhood. And for that I am glad. I think your clock is just magnificent, and I love both the paintings, even though you have problems with the morphing lady.

Lecte said...

Its a wonderful picture - both of them. The background of the owl-maiden image has the frosty, semi-transparet, northern quality, a hint of Aurora Borealis in the night air, or so it seems to me.
It was especially touching to find the Estonian word on the pages of the owl's book; I didn't think anyone outside Estonia would be using this language :)

pip said...

I've never thought of an owl as a sign ... I've tended to realise harbingers as they've happened in my life. I'll probably pay a bit more attention to an owl now :)

Snippety Giblets said...

Three amazing works Rima, and all so different. I adore the owl clock, which reminds me of Owl in Winnie the Pooh, and in Squirrel Nutkin, which I loved as a child, especially when the owl bites off his tail :0)

The owl woman is amazing. I skimmed through the images without reading first of all, greedy for the pictures :0) and assumed it was Bloduwedd being transformed into an owl. That imagery always reminds me of Alan Garner's "Owl Service" - another childhood fave. I must admit, although I love the picture I don't know if I could live with the look of loss and sadness she has. It's a very powerful piece.

I think the last is gorgeous. I love the way the children's arms are linked, and the fact that they are the owl's hoot.

Am I right in thinking that the Latin for Owls - Strix - also means "witches" ? So it's like they are her spell. Wonderful :0)

Much love to you two from we three xxx

Swan Artworks said...

She's fascinating, spellbinding, powerful,seeming steeped in superstition and old magic, especially in the kind of ritual way she's scribing the words...
In the photo of her on your drawing board partly lit, she looks as if about to hop off the branch onto your table! I find it quite a compelling image, exuding so strongly all the various folklore and symbolisms of the Owl and of shapeshifting.
In contrast the other in pencil is almost playful, I love the two children and the way they echo your own owl-hooting walk in the woods...
It's also great to see your work in progress of the painting...
Carrie... :-)

Jessie said...

I think both artworks are fantastic but the second one has such depth!xx

Jessie said...

Oh, and I meant to say...I aDORe that owl clock! The owl's eyes are astonishing. They remind me of little emerald beads. :) xx

Tonia said...

Have long been capitivated by owls, ever since a tame one turned it's head and held my bewildered gaze with its own steady one, years ago. Keep promising myself that my first tattoo will be of an owl.
The owl woman is astonishing and oddly beautiful.

Lunar Hine said...

Maybe an omen of passing more generally, as well as death; cleansing sometimes, and the relief of difficulty completed.
Wonderful to share the first sprouting of your gouache and pastel wings.

kanmuri said...

In Japan, Owls are also associated with knowledge. My host father gave me a hand sculpted owl when I was a university student in Tokyo. He said it would help me perform :)

I like your painting. The owl lady, I really like what you did with her. I would hang the paiting in my study :)

Lindsey said...

What an excellent post Rima. I love the owl clock, i'm always curious about your clocks because I know most of them are commissions now so we don't get to see them all, it's great to have a look.

I know what you mean about handling paints in a non-traditional manner- I also tend to go thin and weak with layers of oil..although I believe this has its supporters too...As for gouache, I think you did a great job with it! And pastels in the background are a good move. Actually the background i'd never have attributed to you if I just saw it cold. Maybe that is why you're not sure? It seems nothing like your usual palette, for me it's nicely surprising.

And the owl drawing - superb...Just the perfect softness of rendering and warm natural paper.

And here's a thing - Last night I had a dream that i'd gone to the front door to call the cat in and out of the darkness came a giant barn owl. It glided right by me and was gone.....This morning doing the washing up I remembered it but it took me a while to realize it was in fact a dream...the whole thing had been totally ordinary-seeming. And here I opened your post...and it's nothing but owls all day and night :) x

gz said...

The owl-woman has knowledge, sometimes knowledge is sadness

jodi said...

I think the owl woman is brilliant, really brilliant. I find it hard to express in words what I think of it, so I'll just say that. I completely love it. What a happy meander off the path of intentions!

Maggie said...

Your owls are beautiful, and the owl woman is very lovely.

I love owls. An owl used to live in an old deodar cedar behind the house where I grew up. Many nights I woke to hear the soft call. Owl and tree are gone now, but even though I live in a huge metropolitan area, occasionally owls fly overhead. I've even seen them downtown!

http://tiny.cc/rj3xt

Anna said...

I second the recommendation of Margaret Craven's 'I heard the owl call my name'. Every seminarian in British Columbia probably receives at least three copies on ordination! it makes me homesick. Owls are associated with death in several Pacific Northwest First Nations cultures, and they feature in masks and other art forms. Love the Wordowl Clock.

Andy Letcher said...

Thanks for the kind wods about our music!

Ah, but I know the feeling all too well of when a piece refuses to work - it doesn't matter what others say, there's a nagging sense that something is missing, that you were trying too hard, or that the parts don't quite make a whole. Horrid!

I have a box full of songs that didn't make it. Every so often I get them out, dust them off, see if age has improved them. Nope! Hey ho - I've yet to meet an artist who doesn't experience the same thing, but hey, it sucks.

But often the piece that doesn't quite work for you is the one that leads on to the one that does. Maybe you needed the frustration of the owl woman to get to the, frankly extraordinary, hoot? Small comfort, perhaps.

Went to see the poet Don Paterson read the other day. He cautioned that you should never know what your poem is going to be about before you write it - or rather, what it's about should emerge in the writing. If it doesn't surprise you, how will it surprise anyone else.

Looking back, I see that all my songs that haven't 'worked' are the ones where I tried to make them 'about' something. He is so right.

So, solidarity at the coalface. Keep hewing - you know we love what you do.

Andy xxx

Lrc said...

I think the owl-woman is a wonderful exploration into new material and the real mysterious nature of owls. Art pieces often have a life that begins after creation that is unpredictable...she is melancholy,wise,and still creating. I like the incorporation of the words for owl too. Its great that two people mentioned 'I Heard The Owl Call My Name'--I love the book and a cousin of my dad wrote it! I also live in the northwest and have recently learned more about the lore of the owl. The owl hooting the couple is lovely too...

LittleInsect said...

Where I work is surrounded by a nature reserve, and if ?I go outside, almost nightly I hear the call of a tawny owl.

Then, a few nights ago, just as the sky began to grow light, I saw him. Silently flying low over our grounds. He was accompanied on each side by blackbirds.

It reminded me so much of the famous Historic Flight - the Lancaster bomber flanked by a Spitfire and a Hurricane.

One harbinger of death reminding me of another..........

Despite that, I love owls, and their big soulful eyes

Anna said...

yet another owl-woman, Ovid's Nyctimene from the Metamorphoses

Kristine said...

I love them all, Rima, whether you see them as failures or no.

steven said...

rima i've been away for a while and so i'm rooting through the little pile of treasures and parcels that have arrived in my absence. i'm drawn to the idea of almost owl for its opening up of the almost i see in so many people. almost cat, almost butterfly, especially in children. it's interesting to try and see "mistakes" or "not-so-good" in your work rima, simply because my critical sense fails me when i see your drawing and painting - it takes me into the world i love and so how could i see anything wrong with it?! thankyou for the introduction to the worlds of catherynn valente. i've been reading her since the post you created on your artwork for her. i'm so glad that the world of her worlds has melded with mine! steven

Pikku Myy said...

Another bit of owl-death folklore, in a piece of 17th century who-hootery: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbkTP7NJXME

Ronnie Rabbit said...

Your illustrations are heavenly, and the clock too. Such beautiful owls, we are lucky to have a family of them near by and often come into our paddock, such beautiful creatures.You capture them perfectly