Visual Poetry … Words Conjure More than Meaning

Maureen Shaughnessy 1987 Artist
That moment when you are trying to explain all the swimming thoughts and notions that go into a piece or series and you realize that you can’t get it all out and you crack up at yourself.

My post for today is about two things I think are related. Poetry — visual poetry. And how I feel about aging. I originally published this post on April 12, 2007 and the photos are from an exhibit in 1987 in Helena, Montana at the Third Eye Gallery.


Trying to look like one of the calligraphic stick-sculptures in this installation"Fragments of An Ancient Poetry"
Trying to look like one of the calligraphic stick-sculptures in this installation”Fragments of An Ancient Poetry”


I used to be part of a weekly online poetry group and originally wrote this post for the writing prompt, The Body Knows.

Fragments of an Ancient Poetry

Imagine a word such as moon. When you say moon, your lips curve. The word itself has curves. It conjures: round and old, and traveling on a long, slow-sounding journey. It’s interesting to me, that along with the sound of a word, the visual aspect of the word affects its meaning.

As a sculptor, I’m fascinated by the shapes of language and as a writer I’m drawn to the meaning of shapes. This is a natural merging of two of my primary interests.

Fragments of an Ancient Poetry is a three-dimensional page of my sketchbook-journal, revealing the increasingly refined and complex strokes of a thought process, or poetic idea.  ~ excerpted from my Artist’s Statement for Fragments of an Ancient Poetry.


art installation by Maureen Shaughnessy
Installation piece by Maureen Shaughnessy titled “Sometimes Breathing Feels Like Dancing.” Handmade paper cast on willow branches.

I completed the majority of the pieces in this exhibit (along with some working studies, sketches and paintings also exhibited) while attending a paper-making intensive at the Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada.

The other major piece in the exhibit is titled Sometimes Breathing Feels like Dancing. There were 10 large figures comprising a series of yoga/dance poses. I made the figures with handmade paper and willow branches, and had access to a live model (a dancer) at the Banff Center while I was doing my studies for the sculpture.


Installation art by Maureen Shaughnessy, 1987
Looking at the photos of this exhibit almost 30 years later, I realize I have always been so supported by my friends in Helena.

Now for some thoughts on aging and how that is related to these sculptures …


"Day Dream Night Being" Maureen in 2006/2007
“Day Dream Night Being” Maureen in 2006/2007

2007 (when this post was first published):  

  • I’m 20 years older now. Maybe 20 years wiser, though that’s arguable. As I revisit my artist’s statements and photographs of my work from that period of my life, I realize I have a different perspective now. I hope it’s a broader perspective. I still love these pieces and wish we lived in a house with walls large enough to display them. I definitely feel differently about my body these days. And I know my heart and head are different.
  • I look at the figures in Sometimes Breathing Feels like Dancing. I see my youthful body bent gracefully, supplely, just like the willow branches I used to form the dance. My life has taken some twists and turns … in many ways I am still dancing with life. And death. With joy. And sorrow. And grief. Feeling the grace along with twinges of pain, love, longing … feeling bent, slightly dried out, though still beautiful.
  • Will I ever truly know the steps of this dance? Enough to look ahead, to feel confident that I will not trip over my own feet? That I will be able to glide over the dance floor without regret, with my heart open to the music, to the senses, to the love of the one whose body sways in rhythm with mine?
  • Looking back on the experiences that have brought me to this threshold, I would also say, that “Sometimes Dancing Feels like Breathing.” ~Maureen Shaughnessy, April 2007
My mom and me in 2014
My mom and me in 2014

My thoughts in 2015, 8 more years later:  

  • I’m 60 now. I am happy to be this age. My body, my face, my hair all look very different. I have gained weight, have wrinkles (duhhhh) and my hair is really short, silvery (and cute.)  My body is shorter too — almost 2 inches shorter. Geez!
  • And… I am still beautiful. Sometimes I hate looking in the mirror. Sometimes I love the way I look. Sometimes I feel bent and do not feel the grace. Other times I just do a happy dance. I revel in stretching my muscles on a walk or hike. I have less sorrow. Less heart-pain. More joy. Lots more joy.
  • I think I am wiser. World-smart. More engaged with others, though content to spend long hours alone.
  • My heart is full with the love of my partner, Tim, our 5 children and 5 grandchildren and all of my siblings and mom.
  • I have lost some people who are important to me. I have gained new friends. Really good friends.
  • When I had that solo exhibit at the age of 33, I did not know I would become a full time artist. Or that I would own a gallery with my husband whom I had not yet met… I had no idea of the trajectory my life would take. The ups and downs.
  • I am grateful for every single moment I have had and every feeling, joy and loss, every person whose path I have crossed.

Sometimes Breathing Feels Like Dancing. Sometimes Dancing Feels Like Breathing. These days, in gratitude, I Feel Like Dancing and Breathing. Namaste´

1987 Independent Record Article about the mixed media sculptures exhibited in 1987 at the Third Eye Gallery in Helena, Montana

All of the black and white photos were taken by my dear friend, Robin Leenhouts. She is a wonderful artist and art teacher, now living in Milwaukee.

Most likely the day has arrived

I did not sleep last night

before dawn I watched
the changing light
through bedroom curtains.

From a cold dark gray,
the soft folds of cloth grow
and lighter while
my heart

I stare at a single point
of gold
it’s the size of a pencil eraser
in a field of gray and beige
most likely a porch light across
the busy street.

The tiny light is the only spot
of warmth.

It draws me
yet I cannot gather the
mental energy to do anything
other than just stare

The tiny light

Most likely the day has arrived.

thank you God for most this amazing day

blue sky, green leaping leaves

One of my all time favorite poems is by e.e.cummings, a poem I first read when I was 14 years old, living in Virginia. My dad introduced me to e.e.cummings. Throughout my spiritual journey, from Catholicism to Buddhism, to exploring other Christian faith communities and finally finding my spiritual home in Huichol Shamanism, e.e.cumming’s poet-mystic vision rings true to my heart.

We are all climbing to the top of the same mountain on different trails.

May all Beings be Blessed. May all Beings be Loved.

blue sky, green leaping leaves

Here is the poem:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

– e e cummings

Huichol Shamanism in the Desert

red sandstone rock formations in Zion Park

Canyon in Zion ©Maureen Shaughnessy 2006

It’s about time I wrote about my spiritual journey. This is not something I talk about or write about very often, though if asked, I will tell you whatever you want to know.  But my spiritual beliefs are so intertwined with being an artist that I think it’s important to acknowledge and honor that part of me here. This is a beginning…

I was raised Catholic, went through a period of studying Zen Buddhism in college, and now consider myself to be a Huichol.  I have been studying Huichol Shamanism since 1985, when I met Brant Secunda at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana. Somewhere in there, I attended a Methodist Church where I found a nurturing community who helped me raise my two sons as a single mother. I am still connected to the friends I made along the way and thank everyone whose lives I have shared and still do share.

The Huichol say we are created from the elements of the natural world — fire, air, water and earth. Because of this, each of us is a miniature universe, a mirror of both the natural and the spiritual worlds. All the knowledge and secrets of these two worlds are inside of us and everything is perfectly arranged. Shamanism teaches us to tap into that arrangement, to understand and to live in harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds. –Brant Secunda, Dance of the Deer Foundation

Connecting to the spiritual world is part of my daily life. It’s not something I do on Sundays. It’s everyday all day. It’s in breathing. In cooking healthy whole foods. It’s in the way I greet the day or say hello to friends and strangers. It’s in writing, painting, taking photos, walking with Charlie, stroking our cat’s sleek black fur.  It’s in having coffee with a friend, doing housework, laughing with Tim or planting the garden. It is being plugged in, charged up with the power of Nature, no matter where I am: in the city or in a red sandstone canyon. It is remembering that I am not separate from the rest of Creation. That everything is sacred and everything is inside me.

Three times a year, my husband and I have a special opportunity to get really charged up, with our ongoing shamanic study group in different places around the world.

For eight days this April, we stayed on a high plateau just outside of Zion National Park. This year was our seventh year near Zion, and we were able to complete five years of pilgrimages to many beautiful and powerful places inside and outside the park. I hope these photos and excerpts from some of my writings (and those of one of my favorite authors, Ellen Meloy) give you an idea of how I connect with nature — and how you can, too.


In May, 2005 and again May, 2008 I photographed a few of the places we visited after our time with our group. Here is what I wrote when I posted those photos five years ago:

The Utah desert is filled with firey colors, textural canyons, ephemeral pools that reflect the shadows and light. In springtime everything bursts with a kind of soulful joy at being alive! Although I cannot do justice to the beauty of this magical place on our planet, I tried to record how I felt while we were there … There are other photographers who have succeeded in capturing the desert’s beauty far better than I have. But for me, this was and still is a personal exercise in connection with this harsh, yet peaceful and totally alive place on Earth.

The second year our group spent in Utah, Tim and I went into the park at dawn one morning to see if we could find an unmarked canyon trail I remembered from a time I hiked it in 1988.  We did find it, and it was even more lovely than I remembered.  I hiked in bare feet so I could feel the skin of Mother Earth.

red sandstone rock formations in Zion Park
Dawn in Many Pools Canyon in Zion National Park

Dawn in “my” little canyon …  we catch the first rays of sun making firey glow on sandstone beauty, the day still cool from the tattered darkness … sand cool on my bare toes and birdsong reflecting on the cliff faces in torrents of colorful notes. Everything is as still as the most peaceful place on Earth can be. Not a single other soul around except Tim and me.

Each year when we go back to this canyon, I welcome the sight of the wildflowers and the sound of the spadefoot toads. The pools remind me of a necklace of jewels connected by a thread carved in the sandstone. And each time we go, the canyon is different.

Pool carved by spring runoff in the sandstone canyon
A Jewel in the Canyon’s Necklace

The ephemeral pools of Zion’s canyons are home to a delicately balanced community of inhabitants. The most obvious of these are the desert toads Edward Abbey described so beautifully in his book, “Desert Solitaire.” The pools fill with warm water after a rainstorm, and the tiny toads “wake” from their sleep-state to sing out in a loud chorus full of desire and need. They mate quickly, surrounded by the calls of thousands like them. The toads lay their eggs in sandstone pools like this one and the eggs hatch into tiny immature toads — tadpoles. Tadpoles must metamophose quickly into their adult form before the pools evaporate. Then they begin their cycle of estivation/ awakening/ singing/ mating/ hatching and transforming all over again.

The shape of this pool (above) looks to me, like one of the tadpoles wriggling around in the water.

Pool in Canyon with Reflection
Canyon Pool at Dawn

The mesas creak and strain in the frigid air, audible only if I lay my ear to them. The colors in their flanks-terra cotta, blood-red, salmon, vermilion-bear the temperament of iron. Against the steel-blue sky of a summer monsoon, the ridge bleaches to white. Moonlight blues it, and bright sun turns it pale cream or, if you are making love atop it, blush pink. — From “The Anthropology of Turquoise” by Ellen Meloy

Prickly Pear and Indian Paintbrush in Zion
Prickly Pear and Indian Paintbrush in Zion

Colors bear the metaphors of entire cultures. They convey every sensation from lust to distress. Flowers use colors ruthlessly for sex. Moths steal them from their surroundings and disappear. A cactus spine glows red-gold in the angle of sun, like an electrocuted aura — Ellen Meloy, Anthropology of Turquoise

I will close with another of Ellen’s amazingly poetic observations:

… perhaps this is all that a person can try to put into her days: attention to the radiance, a rise to the full chase of beauty.

"Singlet" a desert flower at dawn
“Singlet” a desert flower at dawn

Night Swimmers

abstract light painting

abstract light paintingLast night, just moments before the sun went behind the ridge, I stopped along Prickly Pear Creek just a little south of East Helena. There, the creek runs between two ridges and has been used and abused for years, by locals who toss beer cans and garbage in the gulch,and by hunters who discard elk and deer carcasses after taking what meat and trophy parts they want to keep.

I had driven by this creek numerous times, though I hadn’t stopped until now. I had Sam with me and we both wanted to get out someplace new. So, this is where we ended up. I had to keep Sam on a leash for this walk – if I hadn’t, he would have availed himself of the opportunity to douse with that special fragrance loved by dogs — “Eau de Carcasse.” There were at least 30 carcasses along the stretch of water we walked. Eeeuwww!

I had my camera with me, of course. The light was fading fast and I knew I had to hurry to catch it before nightfall. As I looked around for something that appealed to me — a scene or detail I might want to shoot, I thought about what many people have told me when they see my photographs of Montana — that I must live in Paradise, that Montana is so beautiful, pristine, that they want tovisit here, to see what (I) see.

Yet here I was, scanning this trashed-out, dumping place for some little detail to photograph. It was worse than a garbage dump. This creek with its sad parking spots, its lovers’ lane, its game carcasses strewn in the bushes … this damaged wetland was a stark testimonial of how little we humans care for the earth.

In anger, I almost turned right around to leave. But something in the water caught my eye. A beaver dam, breached in the middle, icy willow branches bravely stacked against the winter, against the beavers’ predators. The little dam was something I needed to see last night – it was a glimmer of optimism, of hope, in this trashed out riverbottom.

I sat for a few minutes, just feet from the large ribcage of an elk. I scolded Sam for being too interested in the bones. He put his head on his paws and watched me shoot — quickly — as the light changed and the water shape-shifted.

I wanted to redeem my species somehow, to reach back in time, find the memory of who this little dancing creek had once been, before the cement plant started polluting the waters, before people started using the valley as an unofficial dump and drinking place … I wanted to catch the narrow slice of sky reflected in Prickly Pear Creek. I wanted to remember, with my mind’s eye and my camera, the way graceful branches danced with the current.

I tossed a stone just upstream of the beaver dam. I clicked and clicked the camera shutter until I could see only the beauty of water, of evening, of a beaver’s industry and natural design …

until I could see
only the deep
blue sky and black
branches and golden
light swimming in
blue night

winter river scenes

This is how to see the place where you belong.
This is how to love
the places you spend your days and nights.
Look under the surface
love the beauty you find there
no matter where you are.