Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives.
This month, we asked a group of artists, How do mythology, fables, folk tales, and traditional stories impact your art?
Poet Kirun Kapur, visual artist Ethan Murrow, printmaker Debra Olin, Bharatanatyam dance artist Soumya Rajaram, and photographer Astrid Reischwitz respond.
Ethan Murrow, visual artist
I grew up on a tiny farm in rural Vermont. We were new to raising sheep so we asked neighboring farmers to assist us. Their advice was a mixture of evidence tested animal husbandry and deep knowledge handed down from family and friend. Some of this latter understanding was less scientific yet just as helpful. For example, the ways in which many animals have fore-knowledge of danger long before humans do or the fact that dowsing can help you locate a well. These tips were not myths, but they weren’t explicitly factual either. As a young person interested in history, these experiences helped me gravitate towards understandings of the past that valued story as much as data. We have much to learn as humans, yet we are adept at erasing and ignoring generational knowledge. My own work attempts to celebrate the ways in which spoken stories about the land often have a tinge of magic, mystery and abstract understandings of the world. Many of the tales I am interested in are not mine to tell or relay, but I work to learn from them and find what is parallel to my own experience of having my nose in the woods.
Astrid Reischwitz, photographer
Traditional stories have a profound impact on my current photographic work. I grew up in a small farming village in Northern Germany, a village that is bound to its history and that stands out through its traditions even today. Long ago, village women met regularly in “Spin Clubs” to spin wool, embroider, and stitch fabrics for their homes. I imagine their conversations as they worked, the beautiful stories that lifted their spirits, as well as the stories of sadness, sorrow, and loss. My composite images are based on these stories and cultural characteristics. They take the form of tapestries, combining images of original spin club fabric with new and vintage images from the village. In modern times, village women continued to meet in this tradition, but shared stories over coffee and cake instead of needlework. Today, these clubs barely exist. My project “Spin Club Tapestry” transforms this tradition of storytelling into a visual journey.
Kirun Kapur, poet
I’m fascinated by the stories we tell across centuries: myths, epics, scriptures, fables – foundational narratives of all kinds. We may hear them a hundred times and yet they always feel fresh and strange and true. This may be because while they feature familiar characters and plots, at their heart is a mystery we are compelled to return to, over and over. They embody what has remained truest and most unsolvable about being human. They help us to reconcile the utterly familiar with the utterly unknowable. They also contain that ancient impulse to ensure the survival of the tribe by preserving its stories. Traditional stories remind us that wherever we might find ourselves now, we’re never as alone as we think. The ancestors are with us. We, too, can survive by telling the story.
Debra Olin, printmaker
I have been exploring folklore and superstition for quite some time. The folk beliefs I grew up with came from Eastern European Jewish tales, but as I started incorporating related imagery in my work, people from other cultures began sharing similar stories. About 12 years ago, I learned that the ethnographer, S. An-sky had created and distributed a questionnaire within the Jewish villages of The Russian Pale of Settlement (1912-1914). Through this survey he collected the folk beliefs, songs, games, dances, jokes, stories – the heart of a culture. An-sky was from Vitebsk, the town where Mark Chagall had grown up. Chagall’s paintings reveal an environment rich with mysticism and magic. This is what An-sky was hoping to capture. An-sky’s survey contained over 2000 questions. I concentrated on those dealing with pregnancy, childbirth and newborns. Pregnancy is a very vulnerable time for a woman and there are folk beliefs around the world that offer protection from harm. As I read the questions, the corresponding visuals began finding their way into my compositions. The garments, the birds, the vessels, the use of text, the hands, the amulets, the mirrors – all became imagery for my monoprint collages.
Soumya Rajaram, Bharatanatyam dance artist
I practice Bharatanatyam, a classical dance form from India which started as part of the Hindu ritualistic tradition, as an offering to the Gods. When dance and music expanded beyond the temple premises, the audience were drawn to the storytelling aspect where Hindu mythological stories were regularly illustrated as part of improvisations.
Today through my practice, I wish to become introspective. And as my audience leaves a performance, I wish for them to contemplate – both about their own world as well as the world we share. I regularly share mythological stories and fables in my presentations to evoke an emotional resonance.
These familiar stories recount larger than life characters, extraordinary situations filled with incredible acts of courage, benevolence, and love. They serve as the vast landscape with dynamic paradigms expounding the good, the bad and all the shades in between. Thus, all of them have in some form become relevant to our lives today. These traditional stories are vehicles for me and my audience to reach a place where we can reflect on life and where we can experience a sense of self.
Storytelling is a universal human experience. It is my privilege to retell stories from India’s greatest epics – Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas, through dance.
Ethan Murrow (Drawing & Printmaking Fellow ’16) has recently exhibited at Winston Wachter Fine Art in Seattle, Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris, and the Cahoon Museum of American Art in Cotuit. His children’s book Zero Local: Next Stop: Kindness (co-created with Vita Murrow) was recently named a Massachusetts Book Award Honor Title.
Bharatanatyam dance artist Soumya Rajaram (Traditional Arts Finalist ’20, ’18, ’16) recently received support from the New England Foundation for the Arts’ New England Dance Fund. Visit her YouTube Channel.