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Southern Art/Wider World is a digital humanities project that empowers dialogue about the historical and cultural themes present in WAMA’s collection and the Southern land. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also supported in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

In this lesson, mythologist and artist Li Sumpter examines the influences of the human psyche on symbols, mythic narratives, and archetypes across time and space.

LI SUMPTER PH.D. is a scholar and multidisciplinary artist who applies strategies of worldbuilding and mythic design toward building better, more resilient communities of the future. Her academic research explores the anatomy and aesthetics of apocalypse myths focusing on the role of feminine archetypes in End Time and afrofuturist narratives. Li’s creative research and collaborative design initiatives engage the art of survival and sustainability through diverse ecologies and patterns of change. Li recently completed artist and writer residencies with Haverford College’s Urban Ecology Arts Exchange (2018), Leeway x NextFab Art and Technology Residency (2019) and SWIM PONY’s Trail Off project (2019/2020). She is a 3-time recipient of the Leeway Art and Change Grant and was awarded support for her transmedia project Graffiti in the Grass from the Sundance/Knight Alumni and Puffin Foundations. Li is also an active independent educator and eco-arts activist working through MythMedia Studios, the Escape Artist Initiative and various arts and community-based orgs in Philadelphia and across the country.

Setting the stage for the discussion, Li Sumpter introduces the concept of mythology as it pertains to her work and scholarship.

00:00 / 01:15

TRANSCRIPT: Where do myths come from is an existential question, I think. It’s almost like saying, where does consciousness come from? Why does consciousness exist? It’s a tough one, and its one that folks have been trying the find the answers to for millennia. And myths have existed that long. That’s the important thing to understand about mythology. It’s timeless, it’s reinvented with the ages, with each generation, through its symbols and the archetypes. But I’ve rested my interest in the sweet spot that is contemporary mythology, like cinema and film. My focus was also on apocalyptic myth. The entertainment industry, history in general, the daily news, is chock full of the archetypes and symbols of the apocalypse. In terms of my perspective and where I’m coming from in terms of apocalypse, it’s this kind of cyclical, transformative perspective, one that incorporates birth, death, and rebirth, and these phases of transformation and change. It’s not all positive, it’s not all negative. It’s not all light, it’s not all shadow. It is all of the above.

A vignette inspired by Sumpter's work, created by filmmaker Zaire Love.

ARCHETYPE, ZEITGEIST, APOCAPLYSE

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Motifs on Graveline Pottery, c. 1945. Pen and Ink. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.

"I spent yesterday afternoon and this morning drawing trees – a great deal of variety – I suppose eventually I shall reach the archetype..."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Through much of his art making, Walter Anderson sought to cultivate a vision and understanding of his place in an expansive and cosmic history. When he achieved a successful watercolor of a bird or sunset, he might refer to it as a "realization" – a moment where he transcended the perceived barrier between himself, his subject, and the universe at large. These philosophical tendencies also influenced his aesthetics. 

Anderson was greatly influenced by cave paintings, ancient markings, and symbols. He adopted the use of the "seven motifs" championed in the 1920s by art theorist Adolpho Best-Maugard; these simple shapes, building blocks of all forms, were shared across global artistic traditions. Best-Maugard believed the motifs "give the student the seven most characteristic types of the archetype spiral and with this suggestion he unconsciously builds in his own mind the conception of the archetype and he gets the emotion of what is suggests; that is, motion, action, life, evolution; and conversely, motion, action, life, evolution evoke the archetype spiral."

Anderson applied the motifs to his own time and place. He made them his own, ever-conscious of his relation to artists and peoples who came before him. The pen and ink drawing above is evidence of Anderson's use of the motifs, as well as his search for connections to indigenous societies; he locates and identifies the symbols that he found on pottery shards along the shoreline near his home.

"Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices ... He transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of all mankind.”
– CARL GUSTAV JUNG, from The Red Book (1917)

Li Sumpter speaks about how old symbols are repurposed for new times and new mythmakers.

00:00 / 01:11

TRANSCRIPT: There’s really nothing new under the sun, but it’s about who we reinvent and reimagine these old symbols. And that’s how we give them new life. We have to adjust and reinvent them, reimagine ones that fit the zeitgeist. That’s a term that people use. This idea of the spirit of the age. And how important that is, and how it aligns with contemporary symbols. The zeitgeist is the thing – that vibe, that energy – that kind of fuels an age forward in terms of the consciousness. The way we see the world, the way we imagine things. Our dreams, our hopes, our fears. And find new symbols that work for our own personal mythologies that are different from our father’s and our mother’s. and their father’s and their mother’s. Or, if it’s a cultural mythology, the idea that the symbols that once stood for the American mythology, the mythos of American, and where we are right now. It very much operates on that level. On the idea of light and dark, shadow, and positive, negative, all these things.

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Artist Rowing, c. 1935. Pencil on Paper. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.

"So much depends on the dominant mode on shore, that it was necessary for me to go to sea to find the conditional. Everything seems conditional on the islands. Out there, if I eat I live, if something stronger doesn't destroy me first."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Walter Anderson's repeated trips to the island pushed against what he saw as a myopic and rigid modern world, which he called "the dominant mode on shore." Coming of age in the mid-20th century greatly influenced his perspective. He sought spiritual freedom on the island, where he could connect with nature. Yet on shore, he was surrounded by a society gripped by high-tech global war, increased mechanization and industry, and a distinct distance from the archetypal ways of life that had governed so much of life on earth for the thousands of years prior.

When he set forth from the mainland, he was launching his own odyssey, a hero figure searching for meaning and purpose in nature. The art he made, he hoped, might save the world and direct humanity back toward a purer way of living.

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Cupid and Psyche, 1945. linoleum block print and gouache. Gift of Leif Anderson.

Another influence on Anderson was the persistence of fairy tale and archetypal narrative – global stories retold and passed down, about flood and trial and transformation. Walter Anderson depicted many of these narratives in large-scale linoleum block prints made in the 1940s. He carved dozens of scenes from stories such as the Billy Goats Gruff, Sinbad the Sailor, Jack the Giant Killer, and Cupid & Psyche. 

These block prints became the subject of an exhibition in 1949 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. In the press release for the exhibition, Anderson surprisingly connected his project to the threat of nuclear proliferation. These stories, he believed, were a kind of archetypal antidote to the looming destruction. AS he depicted myths from the past, his own myth was being inextricable shaped by the zeitgeist and present social circumstances.

"These present attempts are by one who feels very strongly that the alternative to the atomic bomb explosion and the annihilation of humanity would be obtained through art in a series of small explosions (myths and fairy tales) which are so identified with the life of man that they stimulate without destroying life."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
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PSYCHOLOGY & SYNCHRONICITY

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Laughing Embryos. Watercolor on Paper. Collection of the Family of Walter Anderson.

“The force of life must find expression in the egg.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
Set the egg before you.
The God in his beginning.

And behold it

And incubate it with the

Magical warmth of your gaze."
– CARL GUSTAV JUNG, from The Red Book (1917)

Walter Anderson lived in a time a golden age of the development of clinical and theoretical psychology. Thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were experimenting with the meaning of dreams, subconscious desires, and human behavior. Jung's work, specifically, resonates with Walter Anderson's life and art. Jung, who was also an artist, published groundbreaking theories about how the human mind was influenced by repeating, archetypal structures, which he believed imbued our aesthetics, stories, and motivations on a subconscious level. Jung's ideas, like synchronicity – described as "circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection" – rested on the assumption that these patterns of repetition had real force and power, even if we could not always see it.

Walter Anderson saw meaning and connection in almost everything. Even Jung's and Anderson's biography and art resonate against one another. In 1910, Jung made a pilgrimage to Italy in search of Italian mosaics and frescoes; later, Anderson made his own trips to France and China in search of cave paintings and Tibetan temple art. Both were fascinated with the role of aesthetics in communicating a shared, multigenerational human experience.

A vignette created by filmmaker Zaire Love for this project.

“I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness, 'What is the myth are you living?'”
– CARL GUSTAV JUNG

Artwork from Carl Jung's Red Book.

References to sea monsters, mythic powers, and unified natural forces appear repeatedly in Walter Anderson's art and writings. Anderson not only considered these myth in his art making, he enacted them in his life. The triptych below depicts the return journey of the Greeks from Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. The seafarers are accompanied by dolphins, shooting stars, and a cloudless night. A passage from Anderson’s Logs resembles his illustration of the epic voyage:

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Detail from Walter Anderson's Odyssey Triptych.

The water was alive with phosphorus and I was accompanied by Porpoises. . . I saw Venus rise and when I was almost home daylight and the sun, and still with a fair wind I reached the wharf and the trip was over.” 
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Curator Mattie Codling takes us into the vault and the galleries, and explains how Anderson became a coastal Don Quixote.

Li Sumpter discusses the presence and meaning of synchronicity.

00:00 / 01:03

TRANSCRIPT: So many people, that’s one of the terms of Jung’s that so many people are buzzing about now. And they always have been, but I think it’s definitely on the tips of tongues of everyday people. Just like the idea of apocalypse is on everybody’s tongues right now. Because it’s part of our everyday vernacular, because it’s a part of our everyday world. And I think synchronicities, when you pay attention to them, you see how the material world connects to the psychic world. it’s when symbols of the unconscious mind pop up in our daily lives, and make those connections between the interior world and the exterior world. and that’s the beauty of synchronicity. When a synchronicity happens, it’s kind of like that aha moment that people have. It’s waving a flag to say, this is a moment when something mythic is happening. Something on another level is occurring in this moment.

INTERGALACTIC NATURE

“... a belief in the unity of the sciences – a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws."
– EDWARD O. WILSON, biologist
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Walter Inglis Anderson, Fern, c. 1940s. Block Print.

While Anderson read and consumed culture and art voraciously, his most revelatory understandings came from experience. Like ancient thinkers, he drew conclusions about the nature of the universe by gazing skyward at the stars, by feeling the ebb and flow of the tides, or by tracing the arcs of gliding birds against the setting sun. He likely could not have known the degree to which his somewhat mystical intuitions came to influence modern scientific inquiry. We are only beginning to understand the implications that virtually all of creation might be governed by shared systems of shape, form, and structure; an organizing mathematics existing at the very cellular level in our minds, bodies, and surroundings. As biologist Edward O. Wilson wrote of this realization:

"Scale expanded, and turned continuous. By inwardly manipulating time and space, I found I could climb the steps in biological organization from microscopic particles in cells to the forests that clothe mountain slopes. A new enthusiasm surged through me. The animals and plants I loved so dearly reentered the stage as lead players in a grand drama."

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Shells, c. 1940s. Block Print.

“I dove overboard and when I arose the sky above me was alive with birds ... There was one spiral over me and two more connected with it. Whenever anything below interested them, a spiral started."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON
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Walter Inglis Anderson, Blue Heron, c. 1940s. Block Print.

Li Sumpter speaks about the physical and natural manifestations of pattern and symbol, and the implications for humankind's place in the world and the cosmos.

00:00 / 02:02

TRANSCRIPT: Are we humans viewing ourselves as humans as a part of nature, like human nature? As a part of the bigger, natural world – and we’re part of that. Or is it man, human, versus the wild or versus nature. And I really would like to think, in terms of the traditions that I lean towards, our connection as a part of nature. And that being said, when you think of – when you talk about the spiral – and I guess maybe the glorified image of the spiral is the fractal... I wrote about fractals in my dissertation because I was just so fascinated by how there is this connection between psyche and nature and material reality, and these patterns. This idea that the fractal can be found out in nature, can be found in the human body, out in the cosmos. And this idea of the self-similarity, in terms of aesthetics. It’s that spiral within a spiral, a symbol within a symbol. And I feel that one mythology that’s so important right now – we talked about apocalypse – but it’s about the survival of the planet, you know? It’s a mythology that is all-encompassing. It includes not just humanity as separate from nature, but the earth and the planet and all life on it, as the mythology of this time, of this age. We exclude that to this planet and earth because that’s all we know, but I feel that what is going to be inherently natural to the human race, if all goes well, we will evolve to include an extradimensional, multi-universal, intergalactic natural experience.

final thoughts

So strange—so incredible is the relationship of matter to spirit."
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Li Sumpter concludes with reflections on the importance of living mythically, both for Walter Anderson and for all of us.

00:00 / 01:43

TRANSCRIPT: The nature of Anderson being such an explorer in his own right, someone who was so interested in the quest myth and quest mythology, and the fact that he kind of aligned that with his own life... In a lot of ways all of us do. We all want to insert ourselves into ou personal mythology. And it all becomes epic on some level. Your life, your birth, your death, your path toward mortality in experiencing that – everyone has that journey. I think everyone wants to see their path, their journey, as mythic – as epic, in some way, shape, or form – as mattering. 

I think when we talk about matter, we talk about nature, the material world, all these things. And I love that Anderson was very much in touch with animals, the animal world, too. The nature, the sea, the cosmos. He seemed like this archetypal – he was like a living, breathing symbol. A living, breathing archetype in his own right. And that’s a powerful thing, to live mythically. To be connected to nature, connected to the things beyond ourselves. Not everyone has the opportunity to do so. I think we could all make that choice. But, as Mattie was saying, this idea of how people viewed him – the Don Quixote character. This is aligning with the fact that sometimes when you’re concerned with things outside of the daily life, the daily rat race, the daily struggle – and you separate yourself from that, and you choose to live a mythic life, or a spiritual life – you get ostracized, or you get deemed as other, or crazy, or out there, or whatever. But that’s the price you pay. But there’s also lots of reward.
 

Additional resources:

Li Sumpter and MythMedia Studios

 

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1999). Penguin Random House.

more on Carl Jung's The Red Book (via NPR)