Cheimonette

Artwork and writing by Eden Gallanter.

Eden is a professional artist, author, and scientist, and is the creator of the Cheimonette Tarot, sold in over 30 countries, across 6 continents.

The Life-Cycle of the Angels

            Many tarot books describe the first 21 cards of the deck following the Fool card—otherwise known as the major arcana—as the "Fool's Journey", in which the Fool progresses through 21 stages of existence. In the Cheimonette Tarot, one could just as easily call this the Angels' Journey. The Fool transforms into the Angel in two ways, both of which are represented in the narrative sequence of the major arcana.

The Biological Life Cycle

            If you have been following my recent work, you've seen my recent botanical/ entomological paintings, which experiment with different pair relationships: morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), geographic (the Southern Catalpa and the tredecassini 13-year cicada have intersecting habitats), morphological (maple tree samaras resemble the wings of lacewings), and chromatic (the petals of white columbines have the same hue—even down to their rose-mauve shadows—as the wings of the white moth). As I learned more about each of these species, I became familiar with their life cycles, which are often incredibly detailed and bizarre. For example, periodic cicadas remain underground in their larval stage for the majority of their lives, progressing through several morphological stages as they feed off the sap from tree roots. At last, they "hatch" out of their hardened larval bodies into the large, singing imago (the winged adult) at which point they mate, reproduce, and die over a span of only a few weeks.

 Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Magicicada tredecassini x Catalpa bignonioides, (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

 Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Acer circinatum x Chrysopa perla (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

 Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

Aquilegia vulgaris, Iris sibirica x Haploa reversa (2018). Ink and watercolor on paper.

The Cheimonette Angels

            The 21 cards of the major arcana organize different primary concepts of human experience. In the Cheimonette Tarot, the Fool (card 0) takes two overlapping routes to become the Angel (card XX): in one sequence, the Fool simply grows wings (card XII: the Hanged Man) and finally reveals the Angel nature it had all along (card XX: the Angel); in the other sequence, twin angels divide (card VI: Love), separate (card X: the Wheel) and converge (card XV: the Devil), and finally combine to become a single Angel (card XX), by appropriating the human qualities of the Fool.

 The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

The Fool (2002). Ink on paper.

            These two parallel life cycles of the Fool/Angel can be thought of as interrelated, symbiotic life cycles of different biological species: sometimes mutually beneficial or harmful, sometimes competitive, sometimes parasitic, sometimes merely commensal. The two angels in Love (VI) are locked in a shared gaze of mutual support, trust, and safety: the perfect foundation for great freedom, experience, and exploration. In the Wheel (X), the angels have separated to form two independent bodies, working together to turn the wheel of time, dreaming their private dreams. In the Devil (XV), separation has become painful and the angels are reuniting catastrophically, seemingly in the act of annihilating each other. Only by becoming human can they be whole again, and they at last take on the animal characteristics of the Fool (its two tails), and resurrect as a single being, with the flower of immortality from the Tree of Life growing from its body, and the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge for a heart.

 VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

VI: Love (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

 X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

X: The Wheel (2003). Ink and watercolor on paper.

 XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XV: The Devil (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

            The other life cycle is simpler and gentler. It represents not the fall of a God, but the apotheosis of a mortal. Even though the Fool and the twin angels have different characteristics (the Fool has its tails, and the angels have their wings), they are arrestingly similar creatures: bald as an infant, androgynous, and seemingly sexless. This insight is personified by the Hanged Man (a card I should have renamed as gender neutral), hung by its own tails in a window of one of the Moon towers (which appear in both the Priestess and Moon cards). The Fool in the Hanged Man is clearly not compelled into its position: as a symbol of its freedom, it holds an unattached chain between its hands as a plumb weight. Out of its back grows incipient wings. It is passively waiting for its transformation to occur, suspended between the strange world within the Moon tower and the outer world occupied by us, the observers. Its eyes are open—which shows that waiting is perhaps not so passive as it might seem. It believes in its own potential for divinity. In the Angel card, we can see that the Fool's conviction was justified.

 XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

XII: The Hanged Man (2003). Ink, watercolor, and colored pencil on paper.

 XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

XX: The Angel (2004). Ink and watercolor on paper.

            Plants and animals tend to have precisely as much as they need—and no more—to survive. If their lives are hard, they usually have the ability to endure those hardships. Animals are exactly as intelligent as they need to be, and so are we. Our own phases of existence are less apparently intricate than those of the 13-year cicada, but they are profoundly detailed nevertheless. The world we live in today is both of our own creation as well as far beyond our control. We experience reality as a web of probabilities: a fine mesh made from our own sensory experiences and from trusted authorities we use as outside sources of information.

           But I believe that these probabilities rest on a set of core beliefs. Whether those beliefs are religious, scientific, philosophical, or emotional in character is of little importance. What is important is that there is a fundamental particle, somewhere, in all of us, that will bear no division, no scrutiny. Our blind spot.

"If this is not true, then nothing is true."

Not all of us must reach that part of our life cycle where we are called upon by circumstances to shatter our fundamental beliefs. When we are, we often become even more hard and immovable, so that our shells may be the easier to shatter, our hearts more easily broken. To allow the possibility that the imago, winged and singing, may emerge from the ruins of truth.

The Tree and the trees

A few months ago, I began reading about something called "visual release hallucinations".

In neuroscience, the term "release" has always fascinated me. It denotes that the phenomenon preexisted, but up until now, was held back by the inhibitory functions of the brain. In receiving sensory information from the external world, the brain copies, analyzes, and reinvents the information it receives, and then treasures it up for future use. In a very real sense, there is a whole other, invented world, housed inside our minds. Visual release hallucinations, otherwise known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), tend to concur with the partial or total loss of eyesight. What this means is that, in the absence of external information, the brain simply supplies its own.

            People with CBS (unlike people with psychosis) are usually aware that their hallucinations are not real. CBS hallucinations also have some characteristic qualities—they tend to be composed of objects and spaces that are plausible, but almost never familiar. This is because they are thought to derive from a categorical image library in the brain, without much participation from the brain's emotional centers. They are purely neurological hallucinations.  They derive from a lower level of visual perception, where there is a dictionary of what researchers refer to as proto-objects or proto-images. Proto-images are a set of generic objects and object features—similar to a wooden art manikin, or those how-to books for drawing everyday things. By filling in common components of one's normal environment, visual models made from proto-images greatly speed up visual cognition. They facilitate object recognition and guide visual attention. However, by themselves, proto-images have no emotional or intellectual significance—they are simply building blocks for visual perception.

            One man with Charles Bonnet Syndrome saw a red double-decker bus drive through his living room. Close inspection of the bus would reveal any amount of detail, but there would not be anything surprising, or unexpected, to see. The bus was a generic bus, composed of the thousands of red tourist busses the man had seen any number of times on his daily walks through London. It was likely modelled on the very first such bus he could remember seeing— his image prototype, later elaborated by all the red tourist busses he saw subsequently.

            The most interesting part is, what we see is primarily composed of proto-images, not from the world around us, as we suppose. The brain, even before it perceives the environment, creates a model based on what it expects to see. This provides a rudimentary impression and directs our visual attention to discrepancies between our proto-image model and the real world. For instance, the bedroom we see when we open our eyes in the morning is the bedroom we expect to see. If the cat has knocked over a lamp in the night, we see it at once because the room then fails to match up with our visual model. The external world is thus used as a kind of memory storage. When we use language, we are accessing our brain's library of words, phrases, and grammatical templates. In visual perception, the "memory" we refer to is sensory data, continuously supplied by the external world.

            I didn't know it at the time, but I actually started making art about visual expectations back when I was an undergrad in college. The director of the art department had sneered at my portfolio, calling it "illustrative" in the same tone of voice you'd use while wrinkling your nose at an overdone dish and ordering the waiter to take it away. I loved making the intensely detailed drawings I'd always made, and I would make as much work for myself as I could possibly fit on the page. The end result was hardly important. I'd sit happily, drawing tiny details for hours, using whatever imagery came to mind. I never used any reference, and, while I certainly recognized that drawing from life improved my technique, life drawing never felt like art to me—it felt like practice. I discovered that I had to reconcile a heavily stylized aesthetic with the big, abstract ideas I wanted to explore.

 "Cascadilla" (1999). Graphite on paper.

"Cascadilla" (1999). Graphite on paper.

            I didn't think much of the art director himself—even at age 20, I could see that a person who assumed that certain styles of art couldn't be about big ideas, must be using snobbery as a foil of some kind. Nevertheless, I knew I had to start thinking about how my work might come across to others; I had find a way to connect my inner world to the shared outer world. My solution was to combine drawing from life with drawing from my imagination, to start exploring what exactly the difference was. I started drawing maps of familiar places from memory, and overlaying them on top of real maps. I got interested in how the things from my imagination did and did not line up with the things from life.

 "Tree" (2000). Acrylic on canvas.

"Tree" (2000). Acrylic on canvas.

            The best thing I made at this time was a painting of a tree. I painted what I thought of when I thought of a tree, the way I was used to: from memory. Next I went in search of real trees on campus (I was lucky to be attending Vassar College, whose entire campus is actually a large arboretum) that seemed iconic to me, reminding me of the Tree of my imagination. I color-coded them, and plotted out the different trees over the top of my proto-Tree, following their branch structure and internal architecture, trying to fit them together. It was the first piece of artwork I valued for its own sake, not just for the delight I got in making it. I gave it to a very dear friend four years ago, and I've made other artwork that I've loved since, but in many ways "Tree" will always be the most special and meaningful, and the most beloved art I've ever made, because it was the first.

 "Generation" (1998). Ink on paper.

"Generation" (1998). Ink on paper.

            In a sense, all the art I made after that was an effort to fit the style I had developed as a kid—madly doodling angels and devils in my school notebooks—into the world around me. When I learned about the brain's library of proto-images, I felt strangely vindicated. There is no such thing as real life. What we see begins with what we expect to see. Our world is unavoidably framed by our own content, supplied by the vast content of our imaginations. What the artists of the Italian Renaissance called "artifice" forms the foundation of how we experience everything around us. Objectivity is what is really artificial (Ceci n'est pas une pipe!), but why should we expect ourselves to be objective? Why not embrace the insights and beauties of our human, subjective understanding?

            In the visual-cognitive loop, our minds are in continual conversation with the world around us. We assemble a model of what we expect to see, receive sensory feedback, and modify our model, again and again and again.

 

The mind's model and world will never match, but they will always strive to meet.

And the mind and the world will always strive to meet, because they will never match.

The Composite Series

It's been a long time since my last post. For the past two years, I have been in a Ph.D. program, training in neuropsychology, and I haven't had time to do much artwork.

Then I got to a point where I became completely overwhelmed. In the aftermath of this, I realized that art really needs to be at the center of my life—no matter how valuable or interesting I might find other careers, my heart can only be in one place at a time.

So, I dropped out of school and went back to being an artist. The best part is that I got to keep my position in neuroscience research, and am still working in that part-time. Science feels a lot like art, except that the execution of an idea requires different materials than I'm used to using.

Anyway, here's what I've been working on recently: a series of seven paintings that take a Kantian approach to objects as transcendental schema—finding the "Tree" within three overlaid individual trees (in this case, Baobab, California Live Oak, and Dawn Redwood). Here is the finished painting (shown first), followed by previous iterations of watercolor underpainting leading up to it, in chronological order.

I also did another piece based on a similar concept: "Islands", which depict three overlaid islands, both from perspective view and an aerial view. They are loosely based on an island in the Stockholm Archipelago (which is one of the most beautiful places I've ever had the privilege of visiting), Tuckernuck Island (part of Nantucket), and Föhr, an island on the Danish border of Germany, and the birth- and death-place of a beloved lifelong friend of mine named Tilly, who died at age 96 last year.

I've started another one, "Bridges" which is by far the largest watercolor painting I've attempted. I plan to complete seven of the series in total, with "Towers", "Birds", "Ships", and "Tunnels" yet to come.

In any case, it's good to be back. And, as always a big "thank you" to my fans of the Cheimonette Tarot. Your continued patronage, kind words, and enthusiasm has given me the confidence to return to making art. If the Cheimonette Tarot continues to be so successful, then maybe I can make more things that people will love.

Lots of Love,

Eden

Copyright 2014 - Cheimonette