…And then there was only
It followed me home
and entered my house —
a difficult guest
with a single tune
from “Night and the River” by Mary Oliver
In alchemy, mortificatio is the process of death, destruction and decomposition. In Michael Meade’s words, it’s the point in the creative process when everything is going great, and then suddenly it all turns to shit again.
Last night, I gathered with some friends in an art therapist’s garage to explore the process of mortificatio through image making with the materials she had assembled there. Some were natural items – dead plants, rocks that resembled bones. Some were man made – rusted metal, shredded paper. Some things seemed to have long decayed while others had just recently died.
The gathering was part of a three week group aimed at exploring alchemical processes through images. Mortificatio proved a difficult place to begin. The art therapist asked each of us to consider what was currently dying in our lives, and the imagery that surfaced was violent, uncomfortable. My piece incorporated some crushed violets, heartbreakingly purple still, though they were wilted and bruised. Some drops of red food coloring proved startlingly and unintentionally reminiscent of blood. Where usually in image making I’m drawn to creating something with a permanent structure, something I can put in a corner of my apartment and revisit from time to time, I found myself unable to do much with a mortificatio image until I gave myself permission to make it impermanent, scattered. I wanted to remember it, but not to take it home with me. Other group members seemed to feel the same and thought it would be fun to toss all the images in a bonfire, or set them out on the water in a burning boat like a viking funeral.
Mortificatio did feel like the right place to begin, uncomfortable though it was. It felt very akin being lost, another uncomfortable place in which death and terror are possible, and yet, I know from experience, possibly the best place for a new adventure to start. Today, though I dismantled last night’s work as soon as it was done, it’s those crushed violets I remember, and the dark, loamy looking pile of dirt beneath them.