by Terri Windling
"There is a romantic idea that myth comes from the people," writes the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. "Itdoesn’t; it comes from the teacher, the shaman and visionary as the giver and interpreter of myth. The visionary translates what he sees into an artor ritual form. Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is themythologization of the environment and the world."
Mark Wagner is an artist who has dedicated his life to keeping myth alive in magical art that fairly dances off thepage with its crackling energy. His work is inspired by ancient stories from cultures all around the world — including the myths beneath our feet in the bones of the American landscape. To Mark (as to Joseph Campbell),these myths are not quaint relics of the distant past, but vibrant tales still relevant to modern art and modern life. "Life is a wheel,"he says. "The spokes are religion, science, mythology, psychology and the various healing disciplines. Art is the hub. Art is the magic that bringsthese things together. Then some magical force moves the wheel, like evolution, and art is created out of the movement and it holds everything together."
Mark was born in Pennsylvania and grew upin Amish farm country, where he spent a great deal of his childhood in thewoods along the Susquehanna River. He studied at New York’s Pratt Institute,graduating cum laude with a BFA in illustration. He received a grant fromthe N.E.A. to explore computer–generated imagery and drew illustrationsof prehistoric bones for the Museum of Natural History. In 1982, he movedto New Mexico to live "the classic starving artist life." Surroundedby mountains, desert skies and the rich indigenous cultures of the West,his work underwent a profound change, rooting itself in the magic of theland: Native American rituals, Hispanic art and myths, and the transplantedlegends of peoples who came to this land from around the world. Mark’s paintingsbegan to explore the vital connection between humankind and the earth —particularly as this is expressed in shamanic stories told the world over.
The shaman is a figure we find representedin our earliest art: painted on cave walls, carved out of stone, moldedinto vessels of clay. He is the intermediary between men and women, nature,and the spirit world — as well as a shape–changer, a trickster, an embodimentof creative powers. The shaman is often portrayed in shape–shifting guiseas part–bird or part–animal; or else (like the Celtic Cernunnos) as a "hornedman" with branching antlers. "Shamanism," wrote Mircea Eliades(in his classic study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy), "isa religious phenomenon characteristic of Siberian and Ural–Altaic people;the word shaman itself is Tungus in origin. But shamanism must not be consideredlimited to those countries. It is encountered, for example, in southeastAsia, Oceania, and among many South and North American aboriginal tribes."Through chanting, dance and ritual the shaman communicates with spiritsunseen, and brings their "medicine" (wisdom, warnings, healingand oracular powers) back to the human realm. Most ancient cultures (includingCaucasian cultures of Europe, such as the Norse and Celtic tribes) had menand women to perform this mystical role: sibyls, seers, sorcerers, medicinemen and wise–women, yogi, priests, hermits, artists . . . visionariesof many kinds. In some ancient lands shamans walked a thin line betweenwisdom and madness, one foot in the human world, and one in the world beyond.In general the shamanic calling was never one to be taken lightly, for trainingand initiation was arduous, often dangerous — commonly involving a timeof isolation in the wilderness, feats of physical endurance, or ritual deathand resurrection. Siberian shamans were said to leave their flesh behindduring the initiatory trance, descending into the land of death to learnto clothe their bones in new skin; through this ordeal they learned theintimate workings of the human body. The wizard Merlin is a shamanic figurefound in Welsh Arthurian lore; according to ancient texts Merlin went madafter the Battle of Arderydd, living like a beast in the wood, and onlyafter this complete retreat into nature did he gain his "magic":a deep understanding of nature, of animal life, and oracular wisdom. Forthe North American people known as the Yaqui (called the Yoeme in theirown tongue) the "deer dancer" is a man who takes on the movementsand consciousness of the deer; dancing through all–night rituals he is ableto enter the Flower World that lies beyond the human sphere — a mysticalplace, but one dangerous to linger in too long.
Various other rites still practiced in culturesaround the world today retain elements of the initiatory process — particularly,on this continent, in Native American ceremonies where feats of physicalendurance (and individual retreats into nature) are acts of prayer, a meansof communication with Mother Earth. After moving West, Mark participatedin the ritual life of its mixed cultures — and then brought visionary experienceback from the wilderness into the studio, turning Art itself into prayerand Storytelling into ceremony. His paintings are rich with imagery inspiredby these ancient ways and the animistic beliefs of many lands: totem animalsand pictographs, tricksters and clowns, angels and devas . . .blending Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and Native symbols with Jungian archetypes.Mark sees his art as a celebratory act, expressing one painter’s appreciationof the wonder and mystery of life; it is also, he says, a conversation withpeople from countless centuries past who told these same stories, saw thesesame visions, walked this same earth before us.
In 1986 Mark moved from northern New Mexicoto northern California, where he now lives in the Bay Area with his wife(the writer Laurie Wagner) and their two children. He earned a Masters Degreefrom John F. Kennedy University, and now divides his time between teaching,making music and making art: designing for films and CD-ROM, illustratingbooks and magazines, and exhibiting his beautiful canvases in galleriesand museums. To walk through Mark’s crowded studio is to enter a vibrant,mystical world where trickster figures dance at the edges of sight, whisperwhen your back is turned, and beckon you into landscapes that seem as realas the earth below. (For a virtual glimpse into Mark’s studio, visithis website: Hearts and Bones Studio.)Mark is gifted with technical proficiency ("He can draw anything,"one reviewer comments.) and a dazzling singularity of vision. He is alsoprolific, a quality greatly envied by other painter friends (myself amongthem) — his studio and his slide file are packed almost beyond belief withimagery which fills you with wonder, or sorrow, or makes you laugh out loud. . . and each one is a story, a tale that you know in your bones,a tale that your ancestors knew. Stories told without words, told with colorand line. And, of course, with Spirit.
The painter is no less a trickster than thefigures moving through his canvases. He likes to fill his carwith paint when he heads out on road trips through the desert (usually insearch of rocks to climb), stopping on empty stretches ofremote Western highways to paint eagles, wolves, spirit dancers and othercreatures right onto the black asphalt. These images will soon deteriorateunder passing traffic and the hot desert sun. And yet for a brief whilea bit of anonymous beauty glows on an isolated roadway — a mystery is leftbehind, and the world is a magical place.
Joseph Campbell believed that artists mustbe the shamans of our modern age. Mark might not claim that name for himself— but his art, like his life, is pure magic.