Exploring the sacred within

For most of us, the word “altar” evokes images of group religious rituals. But five local artists envision the altar as a singularly personal tool for spiritual focus and transformation.

The idea for an exhibit of personal altars came the day artist Sheri Bennett — who had recently begun designing and building wooden, mirrored altars for herself and others — walked through the door of Hands On (subnamed “a Center for the Creative and Healing Arts”) in Black Mountain. There, she met gallery owner Judi Ashe, a clay artist whose most recent works — which she calls “Purge Pots” and “Hope Pots” — also invoke a sense of ancient ritual. The two artists agreed that the altars and pots were complementary tools, and the seeds of Personal Altars: A Mixed-Media Expression of Sacred Space and Objects were sown.

“In many ancient cultures, the ritual of burning something symbolized an aspect of your life that you want[ed] to release,” says Ashe, explaining her Purge Pots. Paper inscribed with what one wants to purge from one’s life is placed into the pot; an oil lamp inside the pot is lit. The paper burns, and the ashes are saved in the chamber below. The ashes left in the chamber can then be scattered, in yet another ritual to honor the release.

If the Purge Pots are for clearing, the Hope Pots create. “You can use grains of rice which you hold in your hand [before dropping into the pots], while also mentally holding an intention,” she reveals. “Once the vessel is filled with the rice, it can be cooked in the pot, so the supplicant can ingest all the [good] intentions.”

Before embarking on her altar project, Bennett had her intentions (along with her husband’s) wrapped up in a successful furniture company in Illinois. But after five years of building furniture, she felt something was missing from her life. To discover just what that “something” was, the artist decided to meditate on the matter. She designed and built a wooden altar where she could place personal items, and incorporated a mirror (for self-reflection).

“It felt very strange to sit before myself,” Bennett recalls. She acknowledges that her daily altar devotion was a tool not only for discovering her heart’s desire but also for developing the faith to take action. Having found her personal altar a useful transformational tool, she felt it might work for other people, too. And since she’s begun designing and building personal altars for others, she notes, “I’ve found my heart in my work again.”

Helping others find their way had long been the professional goal of Lynn McClure Wilkinson, who’ll be exhibiting her Prayer Journals as part of Personal Altars. In her work as a psychotherapist, Wilkinson would sometimes suggest that her clients keep journals as part of their therapy. “I’ve always felt that the psychological and spiritual are not separate,” she notes. “It’s all of one piece. Our emotional, psychological, physical well being — [that’s] all part of our spiritual life.”

For many years, Wilkinson employed journal-keeping as part of her own daily ritual. “It’s one of my forms of meditation,” she reveals. “Long ago, I established a time every morning [when] I would do a number of things that would create a sacred center for the day for me. Journaling [became] integral to that.”

During her tenure as a counselor at the Penland School of Crafts, Wilkinson attended classes in paper-making, book art and textiles. Soon, she began to create her own sacred journals. Now a full-time journal maker, Wilkinson has her own studio and sells her books through the Penland Gallery (among other venues).

Wilkinson says she’s always had the sense that the books she makes are suitable for use as personal altars. A few years ago, in the first gallery exhibit of her work, she called them “altar journals.”

“It’s my way of laying my life, my sacredness, on the altar and turning it over,” she explains.

One of the books she plans to display in the upcoming Hands On exhibit has a cover of hand-colored papyrus, redolent with the flavor of ancient Greece. A mesh “window” is cut into the cover, and luminous colors show through. “We can peek through the veil between us and the thing we long for … [and] get little glimpses of it in our daily lives,” says Wilkinson about the journal’s window symbolism.

Glimpses of ancestral memories are what Jennifer Robinson offers in her copper Ancestral Memory Boxes. Family photographs, paper memorabilia and inscriptions are incorporated into the construction of these diminutive boxes. Already a practicing jewelry maker, Robinson decided to take a class in the art of box-making. The instructor was not only proficient at teaching her chosen art, but also adept, as Robinson says, “at having students explore their own psyche.” Out of that experience, Robinson created a series of seven boxes dedicated to the women in her life.

One of these pieces is a shadow box, in which Robinson displays a rosary-inspired form dedicated to her grandmother. But Robinson replaced the smaller rosary beads with thimbles, and the larger beads with small casings holding prayers she wrote. A family photograph anchors the piece, in the space where a cross would hang on a traditional rosary.

The fifth artist represented in Personal Altars, Beth Molaro, found inspiration in the design of an old, Gothic clock case she had owned for years. Molaro created two clay altars, each housing several hand-crafted ceremonial clay pieces. On the cases, she has etched personal inscriptions.

When asked what she would like viewers to gain from her work, Molaro chose not to say. “Different things … influence me in creating my work,” she notes mysteriously, before adding, “For the people looking at my work, I hope that they are touched in some way, that they come away with whatever it is that they need at the moment. Often, people tell me something that they feel about a particular piece of mine, [which] will show me another layer of my work that’s personal to me — and that I didn’t even realize I was working on.”

As evidenced by the deeply personal — yet universal and spiritual — nature of Personal Altars, Ashe sees Hands On as much more than a place for simply exhibiting and selling art. “I feel that we all carry … creative energy in us,” she affirms. “It’s the universal language that connects us, surpassing any external boundaries or belief systems.” To that end, Hands On offers a host of creativity and healing-arts workshops, inviting the artist in everyone to emerge.

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