Building Magical Vocabulary

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As has likely been obvious, to at least my regular readers, I’m just coming off a long stretch at work where one major brief, after another, after another, after another, after . . . (you get the picture) has kept me really, really busy. I love my job and these were wonderful, plum projects to get to write, but I am happy to now have some time to return to what I kept promising myself throughput the process would be “a more balanced life.”

Last weekend was the first weekend I’ve had off in months and I spent a large chunk of it beginning to get my home, garden, finances, refrigerator, and laundry back under control (I still have a long ways to go!) and a large chunk of it at the lovely Blueberry Gardens in Ashton, MD, receiving treatments from four wonderful shamans, a very good way to transition from one phase to another.

One of the practices that I promised myself I’d revive is going to see art.

I can’t draw a straight line to save my soul, but I learned, due to Mr. Tucker, a wonderful man who taught art history in my high school (Hecate’s Mother: “You have to take one art course and you can’t draw to save your soul. You’d better take art history.” This is one of the three or four good bits of advice my mother gave me. The others were: “Who cares what other people think?” “If you’re bored or depressed, go clean out a closet.” “You can so give birth. For millennia, billions of women who were stupider than you have given birth and so can you.” “Better to buy a good carpet and throw some pillows on the floor than to buy cheap furniture.” Her most constant advice was: “Get your nose out of that book,” but I ignored that, to my everlasting good.), to appreciate good art. Of all the things I learned in high school, that class has added the most to my life. (PE and Geometry, not so much.)

I think seeing art is good for everyone, but I think it’s especially important for Witches and other magic workers. In my humble experience, working magic is far less about chanting the correct incantation while sprinkling the precise proportions of exactly the right herbs (cut with a white-handled boline, not an athame, and cut at the precisely correct phase of the Moon) over a cauldron passed down from Gerald Gardner than it is about having a good imagination, an imagination with a large visual vocabulary. And seeing art is one of the best ways I know to establish a vital, robust visual vocabulary.

Which is why this afternoon, I headed over to the Sackler Gallery to see two wonderful small exhibits that were made even better by being seen together. The Sackler Gallery is one of the Smithsonian’s newest jewels on the Mall and it keeps getting better and better. It’s paired with the Freer Gallery; both museums showcase Asian art and the Freer also has a large collection of Whistler’s paintings. The Sackler sits on one edge of the spectacular Enid A. Haupt garden: a beautiful, formal Victorian garden in the middle of DC. Just now, the garden is host to the Lost Bird Project, four large, black sculptures of American birds that were driven to extinction by human pressures. The whole time that I was in the garden, a lovely robin stood just atop the black statue of the Great Auk, as if protecting it, as if, in some odd way, it were claiming its heritage.

The Sackler is hosting two exhibits of artists who recorded the evolution of large cities into early modernity: Whistler in London and Kiyochika in Tokyo. The exhibits complement each other wonderfully, as Whistler studied Japanese woodblocks (Kiyochika’s medium) and Kiyochika portrayed Tokyo as Western creations such as telegraph poles, trains, and bricks transformed the city. Whistler painted women in Japanese dress (which had an important influence on late-Edwardian-into-1920s women’s fashion) while one of Kiyochika’s most well-known devices was the silouhette of a man in a Western hat, often juxtaposed with women wearing traditional kimonos.

The Saclker website describes both exhibits:

Living within sight of the river, Whistler recorded the changes wrought by industrialization: changing vistas, new landmarks, even the dense atmosphere of smog mingled with gaslight. Over the years his subject matter, techniques, and compositions evolved with his sites. He sought to convey the essence of the river—the lifeblood of the city—ebbing and flowing before his perceptive eyes and caught by his skillful brush. In the 1870s, after a period of self-imposed artistic re-education that included close study of Japanese woodblock prints, Whistler’s style became more atmospheric, his colors more limited, and his point of view less descriptive.


Beyond describing the odd juxtapositions of traditional and modern, Kiyochika lingers on more subtle shifts in communal sensibility. He shows a population inclined to spectatorship over participation and introduces solitary figures sleepwalking in a new landscape


In the end, my favorite picture from both exhibits wasn’t so much a cityscape as a picture by Kiyochika of a tiny spot within Tokyo that seems to be outside a city, and one lit by fireflies, perhaps especially because I’ve been sitting outside each night this week after dark, watching fireflies light up my own Bit of Earth and because I love these spots (there are a number of these in DC, not the least of which is TR Island) where one feels deep in nature while deep in a city.

What feeds your magical vocabulary?

Picture found here.

One response to “Building Magical Vocabulary

  1. Writing fiction. I’m not an experienced writer and not likely ever to be good enough to publish, but I’ve done enough to learn that there’s a wonder in writing fiction. The characters come to life in my head and surprise me with the things they do and say. I suppose that wisdom has always been mine – it’s my head after all – but I was never before aware of it. I don’t know if that qualifies as adding to vocabulary but it feels as if the creative act gives me ideas I never had before.

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