Soul Retrieval Collection

Art Talk with Shana Kestrel for Nashville North Studios – August 2020

What inspired this collection?

As an artist and shamanic practitioner, I have been looking to form a sort of sacred marriage between my two passions. Nashville North Studios art gallery in Linwood, NJ has gave me the opportunity to explore and play with this idea by giving me a solo show in 2020. The collection is called Soul Retrieval. Soul retrieval is a healing technique used in shamanic healing to call back and return the parts of our soul that have been lost or broken due to trauma; a return to wholeness, if you will. I should probably take a minute to explain that shamanism is not a religion, it is a way of life that some also incorporate into a healing practice. The basic concept is that everything is alive, possessing a vital life force, and we interact with the various spirit worlds for healing, guidance and instruction on how to walk in balance with nature and the world around us. Living a shamanic lifestyle is more like answering a call than a choice, and it takes many years of practice to learn the language of the spirits and ancestors. With that said, my inspiration was to officiate this marriage between art and shamanism to create paintings that are actually vessels for healing. Each painting carries a different energy, or “medicine” as it is referred to in certain practices. Each painting also comes with a handwritten poem that explains in a little more detail the nature of the healing energy contained within the painting.

How did you choose the color palette for this collection?

                I knew from the start that I wanted to incorporate the wheel of the year and the 7 directions into the structure of this collection. In traditions that use the wheel as a spiritual dashboard, each direction has a corresponding color and season, as well as host of other attributes. My current art mantra “find the shimmer” is from my creative awakening in the Mojave Desert in 2018, so I knew I would be using glitter and metallic paint in these works because it is just so joyful and fun to play with these mediums. During the period of Yule in December 2019, I offered up an awakening ceremony to call in the muses and awaken the spirit of this collection. In this ceremony, I did a shamanic journey or meditation to seek guidance about the colors to use and how to use them. I was shown to use metallic paints to cover the black primed canvases as a way to represent the highest, most evolved aspects of our soul. The shiny thing we all strive to know. I was guided to use silver for the east, gold for the south, copper for the west and pewter for the north. There are 3 paintings aligned with each of the four directions, for a total of 12 16”x20” canvases. Plus 1 larger 30”x40” painting to encompass the directions of above, below and within, which for this collection, I am calling the center. In my journey I was shown this base was to be a blend of blue and green, which I interpreted as metallic teal. This color was to represent the alchemical combination of blue sky and green earth. The idea of the metallics as the bottom layer, was that as I began to pile up and scrape away my layers, this shiny layer would peek through in certain areas and catch the light in surprising ways during the different hours of the day and night, and those peeks of shimmer would catch our eye and remind us of who we are and what we are reaching for. The colors and layers that followed were really just a lot of experimenting with mixing colors rather than using them straight out of the tube. It was also a great excuse to buy a ton of various metallic paints so that as I was moving through some very serious concepts and stages of healing throughout this series, the metallic and glitter always brought a sense of playfulness. The layering was done in a way to express the way life can really pile up on top of us. And the scraping or scars (as I’ve come to call them) are the battle we go through to rid ourselves of these layers. A number of paintings have what I started calling glitter scars where I would fill these gaping wounds with glitter because I believe we earn our scars and stretch marks and should wear them like badges of honor.  

How did you choose the animals for this collection?

                In a shamanic practice, working with the spirits is a partnership. When I offered that ceremony in December, I left it open until the 12th day of Yule which coincided with New Year’s Day 2020.  So, by the time I closed ceremony, I still thought this would be a strictly abstract collection, mostly highlighting my use of color and layers. In late January, I kept seeing a dragonfly wing emerge out of one of the copper canvases. Next came the diamondback terrapin in the east. A story was forming. I realized that I was being told to bring in animal shapes to act as containers for healing. I resisted through most of January because it seemed like a lot more work, but the urging became relentless, and by February’s full moon. I had a growing list of animals that had revealed themselves as wanting to come through. Some of the animal choices were clearly mine, like the swan. When I was a child, I would obsessively draw swans, and it felt right to share that piece of my past as a full circle moment with my childhood. Others were clearly spirit driven, animals that I have never thought about and way out of my comfort zone to draw or paint, like the Stag. So, the choices of animals were a compromise at times. I wanted a bear, the spirits wanted a Stag, that time they won; and I’m happy they did because that painting pushed me in new ways and forced me to address my relationship with masculine energy.   When things at work started getting overwhelmingly stressful in late February, the squirrel arrived to teach me how to stay out of the gossip and drama. I also wanted to paint animals that many people find disgusting like the snake and the spider as a way to reveal the magic they are missing in not giving these creatures an opportunity to share their wisdom. In recent years, the term spirit animal has been trending, which has caused a severe misappropriation of the term. I would encourage anyone who currently uses that term to describe your connection to an animal, to go back, dig into your own cultural roots and find the word your ancestors might have used, like familiar, helping spirit or follower. It is our responsibility to become mindful about whose spiritual practices and terms we are stealing, and correct our course.   

How do you know when a painting is done?

I am guilty of repeatedly pushing paintings too far, especially when I was working in gouache and watercolor, there’s no going back when you overpaint a piece. Acrylics are more forgiving as you can paint over a mistake, but through my deepening relationship with the spirits, I have learned how to hold back, give space and listen to the paintings. As I mentioned before, to me everything is alive. My paintings have a unique spirit and personality. While I am painting, they are constantly talking to me, kind of like the buzzing encouragement from a friend. Sometimes it’s so much at once, I have to stop to take notes. So, when the painting goes silent for a length of time, I know I can walk away from it and feel complete. Sometimes, when going through old paintings, they’ll start talking again, in that case I’ll pull them out and start painting until the silence returns, or I sell it. My studio is full of partially painted pieces just waiting to hear their voice start up again.

What are reparation paintings?

If one recurring feeling has prevailed for me during 2020, it is helplessness; especially in the face of culture shifting moments like the one we are currently living in. I feel like I don’t know where to begin in using my voice to show up and support the issues I care about; the issues we have ignored for far too long. In confronting my role in systemic racism, one of the things I have learned is that you can show up for people of color is by sharing what you know or giving what you can in support of the movement. I realized that I can give art. Whether its donating a painting to be used in a fundraiser, or donating proceeds to a charity that supports marginalized communities, this is what I can do to help change the narrative. These paintings I am calling my “Reparation paintings”.  From the Soul Retrieval collection, I am donating 100% of the proceeds from my largest painting of the series titled “The Matriarch” (aka, the white elephant in the room; aka the matriarch of white privilege). I have  chosen to donate to the local women led non-profit C.R.O.P.S. which stands for Communities Revolutionizing Open Public Spaces, who work tirelessly to respond to food insecurity in South Jersey, by maintaining 3 community gardens, and offering paid internships to locals to gain experience working in the gardens, at their farmers markets and other events. The bulk of The Matriarch was painted in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder, and during the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that ensued; not to mention the murders of Black, Indigenous and trans lives that go unnoticed every day. As I painted on thick layers of white, I fell deep into the rabbit hole of seeing how I am complicit under the many guises of racism, and how much work there is to do. It is my responsibility to do better. It is time for all of us to do better, to unlearn, to make room in our lives and minds for new voices and different colors; to be examples to our children and our children’s children so that future generations can erase bias from their world view.

What’s next for your art?

So many things I want to do. Always! I want to play and experiment. I want to work really and really small. There are a few collaborations I’ve been discussing with some local artists and poets. But I also need a rest. I put my whole self into this body of work. I’ve never done anything like this before. I have gone through a full life cycle in the nine months it took to create this collection. There has been an incredible amount of upheaval and healing that has transpired, and I think this fall I just need to sit with it more to let the dust settle. I am immensely grateful to Judy and Jim at Nashville North Studios for providing me this opportunity to understand myself better as an artist. I am also so grateful for the unwavering support shown to me my family, my friends, my co-workers and social media followers who have been on this journey with me. We are all connected by the threads of this web. Aho!    

The Collection