"There is a romantic idea that myth comes from the people," writes the great mythologist Joseph Campbell. "It doesn't; it comes from the teacher, the shaman and visionary as the giver and interpreter of myth. The visionary translates what he sees into an art or ritual form. Myth must be kept alive. The people who can keep it alive are the artists of one kind or another. The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world."
Mark Wagner is an artist who has dedicated his life to keeping myth alive in magical art that fairly dances off the page with its crackling energy. His work is inspired by ancient stories from cultures all around the world — including the myths beneath our feet in the bones of the American landscape. To Mark (as to Joseph Campbell), these myths are not quaint relics of the distant past, but vibrant tales still relevant to modern art and modern life. "Life is a wheel," he says. "The spokes are religion, science, mythology, psychology and the various healing disciplines. Art is the hub. Art is the magic that brings these things together. Then some magical force moves the wheel, like evolution, and art is created out of the movement and it holds everything together."
Mark was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Amish farm country, where he spent a great deal of his childhood in the woods along the Susquehanna River. He studied at New York's Pratt Institute, graduating cum laude with a BFA in illustration. He received a grant from the N.E.A. to explore computer–generated imagery and drew illustrations of prehistoric bones for the Museum of Natural History. In 1982, he moved to New Mexico to live "the classic starving artist life." Surrounded by mountains, desert skies and the rich indigenous cultures of the West, his work underwent a profound change, rooting itself in the magic of the land: Native American rituals, Hispanic art and myths, and the transplanted legends of peoples who came to this land from around the world. Mark's paintings began to explore the vital connection between humankind and the earth — particularly as this is expressed in shamanic stories told the world over.
The shaman is a figure we find represented in our earliest art: painted on cave walls, carved out of stone, molded into vessels of clay. He is the intermediary between men and women, nature, and the spirit world — as well as a shape–changer, a trickster, an embodiment of creative powers. The shaman is often portrayed in shape–shifting guise as part–bird or part–animal; or else (like the Celtic Cernunnos) as a "horned man" with branching antlers. "Shamanism," wrote Mircea Eliades (in his classic study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy), "is a religious phenomenon characteristic of Siberian and Ural–Altaic people; the word shaman itself is Tungus in origin. But shamanism must not be considered limited to those countries. It is encountered, for example, in southeast Asia, Oceania, and among many South and North American aboriginal tribes." Through chanting, dance and ritual the shaman communicates with spirits unseen, and brings their "medicine" (wisdom, warnings, healing and oracular powers) back to the human realm. Most ancient cultures (including Caucasian cultures of Europe, such as the Norse and Celtic tribes) had men and women to perform this mystical role: sibyls, seers, sorcerers, medicine men and wise–women, yogi, priests, hermits, artists . . . visionaries of many kinds. In some ancient lands shamans walked a thin line between wisdom and madness, one foot in the human world, and one in the world beyond. In general the shamanic calling was never one to be taken lightly, for training and initiation was arduous, often dangerous — commonly involving a time of isolation in the wilderness, feats of physical endurance, or ritual death and resurrection. Siberian shamans were said to leave their flesh behind during the initiatory trance, descending into the land of death to learn to clothe their bones in new skin; through this ordeal they learned the intimate workings of the human body. The wizard Merlin is a shamanic figure found in Welsh Arthurian lore; according to ancient texts Merlin went mad after the Battle of Arderydd, living like a beast in the wood, and only after this complete retreat into nature did he gain his "magic": a deep understanding of nature, of animal life, and oracular wisdom. For the North American people known as the Yaqui (called the Yoeme in their own tongue) the "deer dancer" is a man who takes on the movements and consciousness of the deer; dancing through all–night rituals he is able to enter the Flower World that lies beyond the human sphere — a mystical place, but one dangerous to linger in too long.
Various other rites still practiced in cultures around the world today retain elements of the initiatory process — particularly, on this continent, in Native American ceremonies where feats of physical endurance (and individual retreats into nature) are acts of prayer, a means of communication with Mother Earth. After moving West, Mark participated in the ritual life of its mixed cultures — and then brought visionary experience back from the wilderness into the studio, turning Art itself into prayer and Storytelling into ceremony. His paintings are rich with imagery inspired by these ancient ways and the animistic beliefs of many lands: totem animals and pictographs, tricksters and clowns, angels and devas . . . blending Buddhist, Taoist, Christian and Native symbols with Jungian archetypes. Mark sees his art as a celebratory act, expressing one painter's appreciation of the wonder and mystery of life; it is also, he says, a conversation with people from countless centuries past who told these same stories, saw these same visions, walked this same earth before us.
In 1986 Mark moved from northern New Mexico to northern California, where he now lives in the Bay Area with his wife (the writer Laurie Wagner) and their two children. He earned a Masters Degree from John F. Kennedy University, and now divides his time between teaching, making music and making art: designing for films and CD-ROM, illustrating books and magazines, and exhibiting his beautiful canvases in galleries and museums. To walk through Mark's crowded studio is to enter a vibrant, mystical world where trickster figures dance at the edges of sight, whisper when your back is turned, and beckon you into landscapes that seem as real as the earth below. (For a virtual glimpse into Mark's studio, visit his website: Hearts and Bones Studio.) Mark is gifted with technical proficiency ("He can draw anything," one reviewer comments.) and a dazzling singularity of vision. He is also prolific, a quality greatly envied by other painter friends (myself among them) — his studio and his slide file are packed almost beyond belief with imagery which fills you with wonder, or sorrow, or makes you laugh out loud . . . and each one is a story, a tale that you know in your bones, a tale that your ancestors knew. Stories told without words, told with color and line. And, of course, with Spirit.
The painter is no less a trickster than the figures moving through his canvases. He likes to fill his car with paint when he heads out on road trips through the desert (usually in search of rocks to climb), stopping on empty stretches of remote Western highways to paint eagles, wolves, spirit dancers and other creatures right onto the black asphalt. These images will soon deteriorate under passing traffic and the hot desert sun. And yet for a brief while a bit of anonymous beauty glows on an isolated roadway — a mystery is left behind, and the world is a magical place.
Joseph Campbell believed that artists must be the shamans of our modern age. Mark might not claim that name for himself — but his art, like his life, is pure magic.