On Celtic Fairy Stuff
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by Ursula Vernon
This month's theme is Celtic fairy stuff.
I could talk about process like I promised, before I got off on that whole porn thing last month, but... err... well, next month. Really. I swear.
Because I am going to talk about ethnic influences on art. I know, you're still dying to know how to lay out a thumbnail, but this happens to be the first time I'm usin' my freakin' Bachelor's in Anthropology in a hen's age, and the opportunity to justify all that money spent on student loans (which might I add, I am still paying off) is too much to pass up.
God, Celtic art.
It's one of the Cultural Triumvirate, along with Native American Schtuff, and that quasi-Arthurian Western European thing. Together, like pillars of the world, like the three limbs of Atlas,* these three motifs hold up the fantasy art sky.
And god, they're so damn bland.
The problem is not inherently the culture. It's certainly not the fault of whoever invented Celtic knotwork that it looked REALLY COOL, and those of us with a lousy grasp of geometry and short attention spans would be silently envious forever after. It is not in me to blame the grunting laborer, heaved up great megaliths, through back-breaking effort and rollers and sledges and A-frames and whatnot, for not pausing in his toil to wipe the sweat from his brow and think "I wonder if this is going to show up in a lot of fantasy art a few millennia hence?" They're neat cultures. If they weren't neat, we wouldn't have so much art from them!
It's a case of overuse, but more than that, it's that so few artists go to an original source on this stuff.
Do not take this as a finger pointing. I've done it, too. I still do it. I am guilty as anybody, and more so than most, because I probably oughta know better.
Let us consider Native American art, for example.
The motifs that so many of us associate with Native American stuff is the stuff with the beads and eagle feathers. It's pretty snazzy lookin'. It's also almost entirely from the Plains Indians, largely the Lakota (Sioux) and part of the reason for the prominence is that it's what gets worn at a lot of pow-wows because, yes, it's freakin' cool looking.
They were a great tribe and produced a lot of very cool individuals. But it's a big ol' continent, damnit, and there were a helluva lot of people on it.
Awhile back on Yerf - years ago, I imagine - somebody posted quite a good painting of two rabbits dancing, wearing Navajo outfits. The female wore a cotton skirt, and the male had on a lot of silver, and if there were any eagle feathers in sight, I've forgotten them. This painting has stuck in my mind (as alas, the artist's name has not, so if it was you, send me an e-mail!) for years because it was so incredibly rare to see Native American art based on a tribe other than the Generic Plains Indians.
Problem is, of course, that we draw based on what we see. Our sources are too often not actual native dances, they're other drawings of other drawings, which had neat beads and feathers.
It would be nice to see art based on India, Siberian, African, or Aboriginal stuff. But people like Native American stuff, and they like Celtic, and so we're just going to have to live with that... but even within those realms, there are vast and explored tracts of land.
There are other native cultures out there. There are the Pacific Northwest tribes, who carried mask-making to a rare art, and the Hopi kachinas, whom I personally love, and the Seminole and Navajo, who wove (how often do you see cloth, rather than leather, in this sort of art, huh?) and if you exhaust North America, start headin' south! The Brazilian Indians invented places to stick feathers that will start a conversation about any painting, trust me.
Nor is this unique to Native American motifs! Getting back to the Celtic stuff, there is no bloody reason that all Celtic art needs to be vaguely ethereal, drifty stuff with celtic knotwork and maybe butterfly wings. That's like a Victorian idealized version of Celtic art. For shame! The Celts were a rip-snortin', hard-fightin', hard-drinkin' sort, the gods love 'em. They were real people, they were bloody and hairy and didn't bathe very often, and they were alive, and probably no more prone to drifting ethereally through the misty wood than any of the rest of us at any given point. I would die a death of joy if I found some Celtic art with heroines who looked like they might pick their nose if nobody was looking, instead of gazing vaguely into the middle distance looking demure and consumptive.
Cuchulain would roll in his grave.
Our current Celtic art is generic Celtic art. It is bland. And the one thing that the Celts never were was bland!
"Now, Ursula," you say (if you're not just generally miffed at me for bein' an art snob and dissin' a lot of admittedly lovely Celtic-themed art, which is totally fine too) "where do we FIND this sort of stuff?"
Well, you don't find it by looking at other fantasy art, probably.
Consider Orkney. Orkney and Shetland are in that general area, and they've got some wonderful myths that hardly anybody draws. When was the last time somebody threw over griffins and unicorns and told you their spirit animal was the Nuckelavee?
Hell, consider even some of the less used motifs of Celtic art. We could wallpaper the world with Celtic knotwork (and before anybody starts, I have a knotwork tattoo, so I am absolutely guilty as sin on this one) even the most brilliant of knotwork is now greeted with "Yep, that's brilliant knotwork, ho hum," but I sit up and cheer when I see even a badly done Sheelha-na-gig.
What we need is more art history. There is a helluva lot of territory left in even Celtic art and Native American and that quasi-feudal Western European stuff, but you're probably not gonna get it by looking at art, however cool, from other artists in this day and age. You need to dig.
Depending on what you're after, some good places to start are with historical writings, in the cases of the Celts. The voyage of Maelduin has some fabulous imagery. So does the Voyage of Bran. In one of the Welsh stories, a man builds a wife out of flowers. Cuchulain has a transformation sequence with gouting blood and eyes popping out and his calf muscles crawling around the front of his shins that make the Incredible Hulk look like a green hissy fit. Nary an ethereal drift or butterfly wing in sight. Look at Irish medieval metalwork, some of the finest in the world - you may have to go find books at the library, or order 'em off Amazon, since a lot of this isn't on-line, but I swear it's worth it.
With the Native American stuff, I highly suggest historical photos. Go over to Corbis, plug in "native costumes" and start looking for anything in sepiatone. Find one of those large, not-terribly-cheap books of nothing but historical photos of natives - they're beautiful, even from just an anthropological sense, and you may get some ideas that aren't fifteenth-generation-recycled Plains Indian - or hell, you may see what a genuine historical Plains Indian looked like and go "Whoa."
Art influenced by cultures that everybody has done to death is still a fertile realm, because you can prove that it can still be done well. But to do it well, it cannot be bland and generic. Give it passion. Make it something that's a credit to the culture instead of a mayonnaise derivation.
Next month, drawing. Really. May Nuckelavees trample me if I fail.
*There was a tragic accident in his youth with an automatic pomegranate picker.
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