Excerpt from the upcoming book Everybody Speaks Blue Sky
Madeline M. Rugh
PhD, ATR-BC, Assistant Professor, St. Gregory's University in Shawnee, (Oklahoma USA)
In her essay, American artist and art therapist Madeline Rugh shares her understanding of the relationship between art and animism, understood as endowing the natural world with life and a spiritual essence. Artistic creation and the work of the imagination not only reflect or imitate the world of nature, but also represent a meeting place for communication with it. One of the author’s works of art and her literary-poetic narrative are given, reflecting her experience of reality, in which the world acquires its “sound”, evoking a creative response in the author.
Key words: animism, art, artistic creation, image, more-than-human realm
This essay describes my understanding of the interface between art making and animism. The connection between the two came to me, not from books, but from my direct experience with the living world since early childhood. As an artist and art therapist who has specialized in art as a form of listening to and engaging with the more-than-human world for more than 65 years, I hope to share some of my journey of sitting at the edge of wonder.
“In the animistic reality everything is possessed of life or spirit. The old animistic sensibility is a sensibility that both Judeo-Christian doctrine and scientific objectivity have censored. Its loss to our worldview may even be at the basis of our ecological crisis and our spiritual discontent.” [Roszak T., cit. in 3, p. 20]
I realize that my use of the word “animism” may cause some readers to reject this essay. But I know of no other word in the English language that captures my direct and personal experience with the more-than-human world from early childhood forward. So, at the risk of being misunderstood or maligned, I would like to take some time to explore animism before combining it with art and the way in which this has manifested in my life as an artist, art therapist, and teacher.
Based on the quote from ecopsychologist and historian Theodore Roszak, an animist view of life is the antithesis of the Western mind trained to left-hemisphere dominance and hyper rationality. This worldview is paired with an economic engine for consumption and materialism created to satisfy the spiritual hunger left by our abstract, mechanistic, and empty empiricism. Animism is not superstition or worship of nature. It is reverence for the created realm, for all life; it is a feeling of belonging, and of being an integral part of this vast and varied landscape. It is the full recognition that all things have spirit or soul, that all things are alive and aware. All children are born animists. Animism is the oldest form of loving and honoring nature.
Very often the words animism and anthropomorphism are confused. There is an important distinction between these words and the experiences they point to. As has been stated, animism refers to the attribution of “life” or spirit in all things, that everything is alive and aware. Anthropomorphism refers to the attribution of human-like qualities, emotions, and intentions to non-human beings and things. Given these definitions, it is possible that animism may be foundational and anthropomorphism one possible form of expressing or experiencing an animist foundational reality. However, it is important to realize that one may be “projection” and the other “reception.” Here are some recent writings about these two ideas:
In his book, The Empathic CivilizationIn , Jeremy Rifkin considers anthropomorphism to be an empathic ecological imperative representing an evolutionary shift in consciousness necessary for the survival of our species and planet. He refers to this form of awareness or development as “homo-empathicus.”1
Traditionally, however, anthropomorphism has had a negative connotation in that it involves overlaying assumptions about the life and intent of other beings with human emotion or human attributes. This is a form of “projection” that may or may not hear the voice of the other. However, it is very common in young children and may be our first form of connecting with the diversity of life around us. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman adds the idea of personification as part of this process when he states, “personifying not only aids discrimination; it also offers another avenue of loving, of imagining things in a personal form so that we can find access to them with our hearts.” [6, p. 14] Rather than reject anthropomorphism as another human failing, I sense that it is indeed an early developmental stage necessary for the fuller expression of an animistic state of consciousness and remains purposeful in the cultivation of “empathy” and “access.”
Depth psychologist Jerome Bernstein refers to persons who hold and actively live by an animist view of the world as “borderland personalities”. Rather than view this animist state of mind as somehow regressive, primitive, and irrational, he believes this kind of awareness represents a newly evolving state of consciousness specifically for the Western mind. Animism is not a “belief” - it is the resulting understanding of nature arising from direct experience with an en-souled world.
Split the wood – I am there; lift the stone and you will find me there.
- Jesus (Nag Hammadi Library, Gospel of Thomas saying 77b)
“Borderland experience is not a “neurotic” experience; rather it is a natural evolutionary occurrence whose prevalence is rapidly developing. The evolutionary momentum is aimed at adapting and transforming the overspecialized (left hemispheric) western ego which is threatening the survival of the human species and the planet.” [2, p. 116]
Bernstein believes that what is perceived in this borderland state of awareness is trans-rational (not irrational) reality…sacred reality. It is not a projection of the individual. It appears to be direct apprehension and communication with the consciousness of the “other”, whether that other is animal, plant, or element.
“Everything animate and inanimate has within it a spirit dimension and communicates in that dimension to those who can listen.” [2, p.8] The “borderland personality” (or animist) does not see or experience themselves as separate from the natural world or above the natural world; rather they feel deeply embedded in it and cared for.
This is and has always been my personal experience and it is what I wish to share with the reader who may also have had these experiences unacknowledged or actively discouraged when they were children. I also feel very deeply that our current environmental crisis can only be averted and transformed by a complete change in consciousness through coming into communion with the living world, falling in love, and listening to the more-than-human realm with our hearts.
Art and Animism
Visual art is a form of “bio-mimicry” in that visual work is non-verbal. Its voice is composed of infinite arrangements of colors, lines, shapes, textures, and movements in direct synergy with the ever-changing colors, lines, shapes, textures, and movements of the living world. It is the same language! Art is not just a universal language for humans–it is the cosmological language of form, the sensory realm from which we construct our very thoughts.
Art making and image work (which would include dreaming and reverie, poetry, dancing, singing, drumming etc.) are not just recording or imitating the beauty of the living world but represent a meeting place for communion and connection facilitated by the spiritual perception of the heart in coherence with the thinking brain and the expressive body. Our modern orientation has made the arts a commodity and a specialization of the gifted few, something for social critique, personal expression, entertainment, or adornment. This differs from our ancestral orientation (understood in this essay as animistic) where what we now call “art” involved life-enhancing healing rituals and community celebrations of caring and connecting through song, dance, and image.  We only need consider the powerful and exquisite images of animals in the Lascaux caves to realize the care, love, and attention with which our ancestors greeted the living world.
Art making can serve many functions then, from extraordinary creative imagery by the highly skilled maker to simple and heart-felt recordings of the experience of being present to beauty and wonder. But there is more possible, familiar to artists across time and cultures. And it is from this place of “more” that I teach art as healing, as a form of listening to and communicating with the more-than-human realm.
Louise Cullen  in an interview by Alex Woodcock describes the perspective I am referring to in the following incredible quote:
“Images are doorways to heightened perception of the world. A meeting place, luminous, betwixt and between an enchanted place like shore and sand or forest and field. Finished work is a by-product or record of that meeting place.”
More than a mere visual record of an experience, imagery that is made with an intention of being present to the more-than-human realm can serve as a bridge or doorway to the deeper soul level of the living world. Work that emerges from this place may communicate information not immediately recognized during an experience in nature. The “more” of the encounter may reveal itself within the completed image in two ways: (1) In the visual language or structure and elements of an image that we observe and listen to with our eyes, or, (2) During the process of making – noticing the silent language and metaphors of our body selecting media, colors, arranging shapes and forms. An image, therefore, is not just a “picture,” it is a place, a language, and a communion.
In addition, images that depict representational aspects of the living world are not always a metaphor for ourselves. The tendency to speak about images that arise from us (through us!) as “just” our own psychology is very limiting. While it is useful as a layer of the conversation, it is not the complete story. James Hillman  spoke of the image arising from the Imaginal Realm (from the soul) and having its own agency and purpose. For example, the Tiger that comes to you in the dreamtime is not just a metaphor for your feline instincts, it is also itself and has come to work with you of its own accord; it does not belong to you. This remains a powerful reminder to us when engaging the arts in the service of listening to the more-than-human world; that the “Other” has an inner life too, purpose and intention and a kind of consciousness, not the same as ours, but available to the ever-responsive and watchful multilingual heart.
So let’s look at one image and one story as an example of how this communication through art and animism might work.
Fig.1 Sitting on the Edge of Wonder 6 ”X9” Photo Montage. The author's artwork.
A story….It is late December, 2015…
I am eating breakfast with a very good friend, gazing out of her bay window at the early morning shadows cast by leafless winter branches moving across a grey groove-barked tree. We were discussing the looming environmental crisis: catastrophic global climate change. We wondered about our own behavior, what we were doing or not doing to reduce our use of material resources, to stay within a carbon budget, to challenge the Western capitalist ideology of no-limits growth, materiality and patterns of unrelenting consumption. We went over and over a litany of actions and reactions: recycle more aggressively, change purchasing behaviors, reject massive long distance transportation of food, purchase of solar panels, dig a well for water and install a hand pump. Then we examined all the reasons that these actions presented a challenge. Solar panels are not affordable, environmental hazards of wind generators (which kill thousands of birds according to Audubon.org) are obvious. The structure of the neighborhood and cities in which we live require driving in order to get to work. We examined how to reject the cost and convenience of food found in grocery stores vs. that which is locally and/or sustainably grown but not as readily available, knowing we should participate in some activist effort but come home exhausted by our work. Our enthusiasm to help, to change, is suddenly absorbed into a dark hole. We feel caught, heavy, trapped in the overwhelming structures of our comfortable but clearly unsustainable Western way of life.
We sat silently for a few moments absorbing this recognition and subsequent guilt over clinging to old familiar habits.
A blue jay, wearing the sky on her wings, alighted and began poking around for insects where a tree branch had been severed and the old but open wound now a shallow harbor collected very small amounts of soil, bits of seed, rotted wood, and moisture creating an abundant source of food for the Jay.
Psychotherapist Francis Weller describes this familiar impasse as arising from the two sins of Western culture, Amnesia and Anesthesia. Amnesia, because we have forgotten our place in the wider world leading to a sense of isolation and alienation. “What we forget allows us to do untold damage to our world and one another.” [9, p.xx]
Anesthesia, because our senses are numb as we try not to feel the overwhelming and intense grief and sorrow for the suffering of the planet. Weller notes that “whole industries have been developed to keep our senses dulled and distracted…we substitute alcohol, shopping, television and work to ward off our feelings of emptiness, grief and anxiety.” [9, p.xxi].
Weller further believes that our death-denying culture, part of the growth without limit ideology, is an integral part of our environmental crisis. Death awareness and unexpressed grief are pushed into our collective shadow only to resurface in the form of death dealing epidemics of violence toward one another and toward the soil, forests, air and water upon which all life depends.
A few dried leaves are tossed by the wind like dice across the asphalt, tumbling pale tan to coppery brown. I can’t hear them inside the house, but I know they are making a scratching sound as they skittle and roll to the other side of the sun- warmed winter street.
During our breakfast conversation …the shadows, the blue jay, the dried leaves were all speaking. My eyes know this language. My heart followed it mutely while my brain and tongue were engaged in following the contours and textures of our conversation. The surprising title for my book suddenly arose, “Everybody Speaks Blue Sky.” Were these shapes, patterns, beings, movements, colors, sounds just “background” to our conversation? This is one of the ways we in the Western industrialized nations see the natural world (if we see it at all)…as backdrop to our human drama this is part of the worldview that needs to change, that MUST change. Paul Devereux suggests that the living landscape may even enter into our neurological structures to guide our inner and outer reflections and responses to the land and to our own connective stories [9, pp. 247-248].
As we attempt to develop creative technological plans and struggle with scientific solutions in response to global climate change in the absence of a radical worldview shift, we can expect that our solutions will fall short and remain out of harmony–not unlike the wind generators that kill so many birds. The restoration of connection and communion revolves around listening to the world, learning from it again, asking it for guidance.
Sitting at the Edge of Wonder
The image “sitting at the edge of wonder” was created in response to the “breakfast story.” In this image we see all the usual characters; the dry winter leaf larger than life, the tree branches have become sticks, shards and shadows, daylight Bluejay wings turn into indigo night sky. The movement of daylight to night, of Bluejay to indigo cosmos, of tree branch to splinters and shards is speech. A kind of shy “soul speech” which shuns the bright daylight of examination, preferring instead the velvety dark star sprinkled sky, as decay and breakdown become breakthrough. These visual shifts of form and color tell me to pay attention, that there was more to the experience than I was aware of. That is the threshold that art is, the window, not only the record of our gathering but a continued conversation. The image has its own timing…it speaks to me slowly, sometimes not at all until now (for example) as I continue to contemplate and listen to the image with my eyes, my heart.
The human figure is small. She takes her place among the things of the world, sits quietly listening, looking, arms grasping her knees in the cool of a winter evening. Her chair is composed of the same elements she observes. She and her chair belong to the elements, held by them, decompose with them. Each form “listens” to the others through juxtaposition, integration, overlapping, holding, penetrating, and flowing. I further realize that we are all; the leaf, the water droplets, the wood shreds, the chair, the person, the galaxies - surrounded and interpenetrated by the indigo night sky. Every kind of “body” knows the sky, is embraced and surrounded by it as am I, as are you.
During this conversation with my friend, with the living world, with my inner world, not only did I receive this title for my book (from which this essay is an excerpt), but a deeper awareness regarding the environmental trauma and drama we are witnessing and participating in that formed the matrix for the “breakfast story.” For me that message is, we are all in this together, there is a natural process underway that involves decay as well as dynamic growth. Keep your seat! Do not fear…everybody speaks blue sky… we are a contemplative process - verbs not nouns, in continuation, evolving, spiraling, contemplating, leafing, earthing, dying, and birthing.
Art and an animistic sensibility are powerful partners in teaching us to listen, bringing us home to our interconnectedness and interdependence, showing us how “to speak with and to, rather than about” the more-than-human-world. [7, p.11]
It isn’t the Earth that needs to heal, it is our worldview or state of consciousness and for that “we need the Earth to help heal us.” [4, p.16]
Bernstein, J.. (2005). Living in the Borderland. NY: Routledge.
Cullen, L. (1999). Animal Spirit. Resurgence, Sept./Oct., 196
Devereux, P. (1996). Re-visioning the Earth. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Dissanayake, E. (2002). What is art for? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning psychology. NY: Harper Collins Press.
Kaza, S. (2019). Conversations with trees. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.
Rifkin, J. (2009). The empathic civilization. NY: Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin.
Weller, F. (2015). The wild edge of sorrow. Rituals of renewal and the sacred work of grief. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic.
Reference for citations
Rugh M. Sitting on the edge of wonder. Art and animism in the service of person and planet healing. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 1(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)
1For an interesting animated summary of Rifkin’s ideas, please look at TedTalks.com, the RSA animate empathic civilization youtube