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Images of Native American spirituality: Painter James Ayers shares his journey
Artist James Ayers is renowned for his paintings of historic North American native cultures. His most popular images are those that involve American Indian spirituality – a complex and delicate topic for any artist to portray.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design, James began his career in the early 1990s by learning about world indigenous cultures.

In his two-year quest, he explored the innermost parts of Africa as well as many of the American Indian reservations throughout the United States. Most notably, he lived with the Hopi people of Arizona for fourteen months, working the fields and participating in everyday Hopi life.

Here, James shares the philosophy, research and motivations behind his spiritually-themed work.

Sacred Rhythm, Blackfoot, 2012
Sacred Rhythm, Blackfoot, 2012
James, your work is devoted solely to painting historic Native American cultures. Do you always paint on spiritual themes?

In a way, yes, I do. Everything I paint has a spiritual component because all aspects of life for Native Americans were (and still are) permeated by their beliefs. For example, in my painting The Sacred Bounty, you see two Crow men praying to the Great Spirit after killing a bison. Even though the animal was completely utilitarian for the people – everything was used, including the hide, bladder and testicles – they considered the bison to be a gift from the Creator to be revered.

When you choose a spiritual subject to paint, what criteria do you use?

I am extremely aware of ‘the line not to cross' regarding what is appropriate to portray. Ceremonies, dances and other rites are sacred and should not be depicted, especially by an outsider like myself. The guidance I have received from my Native American friends is that they do not mind paintings that show activities occurring before or after a ceremony. So showing a man preparing for a dance or showing a warrior after a kill is fine; showing something that would occur during a ceremony would be off-limits. Of course, this rule has to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis. In Mountain Spirit, I depict an Apache Ga'an dancer performing in a puberty rite ceremony - a choice of subject matter that sounds contradictory to the criteria that I just mentioned. This particular ceremony, however, is performed publicly and spectators are invited to photograph the dance. I would never dream of painting a ceremony without that permission.

Your artwork depicts scenes set hundreds of years ago. Why does it matter to get  approval from living tribe members before you paint something spiritual?

Because today's Native Americans are the keepers of these same spiritual traditions. The practices I have experienced with them are firmly anchored to the old ways. I've seen ceremonies that incorporate sacred objects which are hundreds of years old. Prayers and songs are handed down intact through the generations. The haircuts and clothes of the participants may be different, but the rites and beliefs are the same.

Prayers of the Shaman, Lakota, 2009
Prayers of the Shaman, Lakota, 2009

What research into Native American spiritual traditions have you done?

My most important research has been knowing Native Am-erican people who have an active spiritual life, as well as participating in actual ceremonies. These experiences have allowed me to view for myself what is important and to recognise what parts I am allowed to see, hear, and do – and what parts I am not.

In addition to my first-hand knowledge, I study museum catalogues, artifacts and objects, and historical accounts. I think it is important to stress that I am by no means an expert on Native American spirituality - I leave that to the academics.

The traditions are so ancient and so rich, there is no way I could possibly know anything more than just a sliver and still have time to paint! I try to learn enough to be accurate but allow room for artistic interpretation. My goal is to create a poignant composition, not necessarily to recreate an exact historical record.

Message of Love, Lakota, 2002
    Message of Love, Lakota, 2002
How has participating in Native American spiritual traditions changed you?

After I spent a lot of time living in Hopiland (the traditional homeland of the Hopi people), I was invited to see many ceremonies - but not all of them. There were some aspects of traditional Hopi spirituality that I was not allowed to see, such as the initiation ceremony to adulthood.

For me, seeing these rites helped me to grow as a person. I examined my own beliefs and came to understand more about the similarities between all faiths on the planet. There is an underlying cohesion to human beliefs, and living on the Hopi reservation helped me see and respect those parallels. These spiritual concepts also gave me a new level of artistic expression. For example, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I spent a
The Pipe Bearer, Mandan, 2006
The Pipe Bearer, Mandan, 2006
great deal of time at the easel working through my feelings. From this introspective time came Prayers of the Shaman, a painting about the nature of healing and prayers during a health crisis. Of all the ways I could have dealt with my emotions, creating the image of a medicine man trying to heal seemed the most relevant to the person I had become.

How do you choose which spiritual image to paint and how do you paint it?

Choosing an image is both exhilarating and challenging. Anything can provide a creative spark: visiting a museum, reading an historical account, or remembering one of my own tribal experiences.

The more difficult part is how to communicate the layers of meaning behind what is going on in the painting; when dealing with a spiritual matter, the sacred concepts behind it are inexplicable in many ways.

What I try to do is depict what is real and true in the scene and approach the painting with a respectful, pure heart. If I can honour the subject and the sanctity of the spiritual concepts, then 
I believe the work will be a positive addition to the world.

To see more of James Ayers' work, visit his website at jamesayers.com or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/JamesAyersStudios.

All images copyright James Ayers Studios, LLC. Used with permission.

A key to the spiritual symbolism in James Ayers' paintings

In his two decades of research into American Indian lore, customs and symbols, painter James Ayers has created hundreds of meaningful images of historic Native American life.

Here are a few of the spiritual roles that the artist incorporates into his work:

The Drummer

"A drummer reflects the heartbeat of the tribe," says Ayers. "The rhythmic beating is the representation of life energy." In Ayers' Sacred Rhythm, a Blackfoot drummer performs by firelight.

The Flute Player

"Musicians, just like now, were considered highly attractive to the opposite sex," Ayers says. "I have read that men who played the flute were considered by the Plains peoples to have ‘elk medicine,' as the elk make similar, high-pitched whistling sounds in their mating call." Message of Love features a Lakota warrior making his version of elk medicine.

The Pipe Bearer

A pipe bearer is a respected tribal position found in many Native American cultures.

"The man who carries the pipe is a person of high stature in the tribe; sometimes he is even the medicine man," Ayers says. "The typical belief is that one blows smoke from the pipe after a prayer is said. The smoke solidifies the prayer, carrying it to the Great Spirit."

Warrior with a shield

In accordance with the idea that spirituality permeated all aspects of historic Native American life, a shield was used for more than simply deflecting arrows.

"Symbols painted on shields were endowed with protective powers," says Ayers. "As a man comes of age as a warrior, he embarks on a ‘vision quest,' where he discovers his true life purpose. The symbols on a warrior's shield are given to him by the tribe's medicine man and reflect the vision the man saw during his rite of passage."

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