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Victoria Whitehand - Religiosity as Art

 Religiosity as Art/Victoria Whitehand  and the Transformatives<P>
©2002 by Debora Hill<P>
MedioCom<P>
Categories: Art; California

She is soft-spoken, and looks much younger than her years. In fact, it is difficult to tell her age within twenty years, except for certain moments when the light catches her the right way and you can see those laugh lines around her eyes. She's unassuming, too, and after she has served you with Celestial Seasonings Chocolate-Raspberry tea she sits unmoving in her chair, her hands folded in her lap. Serene, almost, as befits a woman who has studied and adhered to Tibetan Buddhism for nearly two decades. She is a sculptor and a painter, who doesn't care much for labels. In response to our question, she said,<P>
"I don't know whether people think of me as a serious artist or not; I suppose it's never concerned me. I work in clay, which is not traditionally considered a `fine art' medium;  I make a living, and I've achieved enough recognition that people come and buy my art; maybe that's enough. I think it's better not to become famous. I have a very broad interpretation of art, myself."<P>
For the first half of her life, Victoria Whitehand wasn't an artist at all...she was a Zoologist. In fact, she took her Master's Degree in Zoology, and the only art courses she ever had were as an undergraduate, to fulfill graduation requirements. What made her choose a second career so different from the first?<P>
"After twenty years of working in that field, in a laboratory with a microscope and a lot of squishy animals, I started to think, there's got to be something else for me. When I was an undergraduate I was told I couldn't graduate because all my classes had been in science and math. I had to take some different courses, and I wound up taking ceramics. And I remember thinking at the time, `Well, that was fun ... now I'll never do it again'. But I was wrong. <P>
The first sculpture I made was a chicken, only I didn't know that when I started it. I guess my unconscious was telling me I was being a chicken about getting into art. I eventually made sculptures of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, and when I got to the end of it, I didn't stop, I just kept going."<P>
This explains the primary reason why some people don't consider Whitehand a 'true' artist -- the fact that she was a potter first. But she has gone far beyond the appellation of craftswoman, so that her work is now well within the field of Transformational Visionary art. What makes her a Transformative?  Her sculptures contain elements of real life, but transformed -- just as a fantasy writer will incorporate some mundane details of living into an alien dimension so readers can identify with his work, so Whitehand has done with her sculptures.<P>
She is best known for her anthropomorphized animals, and reliquary jars. Her studio is filled with shelves, and the shelves are covered with sculptures. There's a dragon wearing a long lavender robe, lying supine with one human foot sticking out. He or she is looking over his shoulder at the viewer, with a very cat-like expression on his face. There are dancing horses, and elephants playing flutes, and none of them seem childish or juvenile. In fact, once you've seen Victoria's dancing animals, you'll wonder why your own cat doesn't get up on her back legs and start her own ballet. Perhaps if you make her a blue silk robe, she will. There are human figures wearing frightening masks from different cultures, and somehow their capering makes the masks not scary at all. There are figures of women, lying and sitting and flying on giant birds, and in the center of it all is a square pedestal of black on one side and white on the other, divided by mirrors. In front of the mirror on the white side is a coral-colored lotus. On the other is...well, exactly what is that sculpture of a woman with a hole where her face and body would be?<P>
"I found a photograph in a book of a bronze sculpture from the 16th or 17th century, of the goddess of the void. She was portrayed as a doorway, black inside, and she had little stick arms and legs, big funny ears, and an elaborate headdress. I made her a little more feminine, gave her real arms and legs, hair and something of a form. But she's still the void from which everything comes; anything can be seen in her...and nothing. A piece of art is best when it draws viewers into it so they draw their own interpretation. That makes it a dialogue rather than a monologue. I've known artists who wanted their work to say only one thing, but I'm not like that."<P>
The reliquary jars are often used to hold funeral ashes, or can be utilized for any kind of treasure or keepsake. Each one is topped by a figure -- human, deity or spiritual teacher. One, in the center of a shelf, is unusual and violent and appears to be some kind of a monster pulling the guts out of a man. Hmmm...not exactly the kind of thing you'd like to have on your mantelpiece holding mom's ashes, is it?  Well, appearances can be deceptive, after all ...<P>
"That one is based on a Hindi myth about a demon whose name translates to be 'Golden Eyes' in English. He was a very powerful Yogi, and he got so good at it he made the Heavens tremble. This sort of rattled the gods, who said, `Let's see what this fellow wants, that he's shaking everything up so'. They told him they would offer him a boon if he'd just stop shaking them around. Turned out that what he wanted was to lord it over everybody else, and he wanted to be invincible. `I want it to be so I cannot be killed by either man nor beast, by day or by night, indoors or out, with a weapon or without one.'<P>
"Well they granted his wish and he immediately began to oppress everyone around him. So Vishnu took a form that had the head of a lion and the body of a man...he was then neither man nor beast. He grabbed the demon as he was coming out of his house, just in the doorway, so he was neither indoors nor out. It was at dusk, neither day nor night. They fought and scratched and bit, all the way down to the water, where Vishnu snatched up a handful of foam -- not a weapon, you note, and formed it into his discus, to subdue the demon. My representation of the myth is Vishnu, in his lionhead, pulling out the intestines of the demon. If you look closely you can see the demon's tusks."<P>
You have probably realized by now that Eastern mythology is a life study for Whitehand. She is currently on hiatus from her art; during the late 1990's she spent several years at a Buddhist retreat in Northern California, and in 1999 she went on a pilgrimage to India and Nepal.<P>

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