The Contemporary Artist as Shaman

by Denita M. Benyshek

The Healing Path

Standing in the dark, I sense a large room around me, seemingly empty. I walk forward. A soft, white glow appears in the distance. I walk towards the light. Gradually the glow acquires the form of a white mare, muscular, with a broad breast, and ears nearly touching the high ceiling. I stretch up towards her gracefully curving neck. My hands reach her shoulder. Desire lifts me up and onto her strong back. She walks slowly forward, majestically.

We enter a long, hallway with harsh fluorescent lights, linoleum floors, and sterile white walls. Other hallways lead off right and left, but the mare continues forward, carrying me through and out of the institution.

We move through a large medieval cloister. Tall, elegant columns frame the courtyard, forming narrow arcades around a central fountain. Moonlight illuminates pale stone and gently splashing water, casting deep shadows into mysterious corners. My mare walks on, incessantly forward. Riding bareback, I feel the fluid movement of her muscles and the potential of her strength. I know she belongs to me – and I to her.

We travel north, parallel to, but not upon, a narrow asphalt highway. All other constructs of humanity are absent. The surrounding trees are sparse and short. We are in the tundra of Alaska.

Denita Benyshek, a professional visionary artist and cross-disciplinary scholar, explores the relationship between shamanism and artistic creativity through visions, dreams, artwork, and autobiographical stories.  Using the definition of shaman constructed by anthropologist Ruth-Inge Heinze, Benyshek demonstrates how artists shamanically journey to other realms, undergo destruction and rebirth, unite opposites, and receive inspiration from nonordinary states of mind, transcendent consciousness, and sacred spirits.  Painter Paul Cezanne, choreographer Martha Graham, sculptor Constantin Brancusi, and Mande blacksmiths provide examples of shamanic creative processes.  Additional studies may find that shamanic artists contribute to individual, societal, and planetary healing.

As a young artist, I did not make the traditional pilgrimage to New York City. Instead, I went the opposite direction. I wanted to create without influence from contemporary art or the coastal art scenes. For 15 years, I taught visual arts, modern dance, and performance art in the Native villages of the Alaskan bush. Amidst that vast silence, far from metropolitan distractions, I traveled into the frontier of my soul. There I heard my unique artist’s voice. Illuminated by the slow flowing rose, coral, and gold of the midnight sun, my work became my own.

I look through the scope between the mare’s pert ears. Gentle hills dissolve into hazy distance. The mare and I converse telepathically, a light chat, becoming acquainted as friends. Then, full body conviction seizes me: I must keep her with me.


At this fenceless time in my life, I don’t have a home. My peripatetic existence is without stall or pasture. I fly village to village with few possessions. When I occasionally return to Seattle, I sleep in my black Ford van and shower in friends’ apartments, making sporadic income from fashion modeling and scene painting for theatres, dance companies, and films.

My mare cannot graze on the runways of bush planes or fashion shows. She cannot sleep in my van or travel in my suitcase. Resolving to find a home for both of us, I awaken from what Jungians, inspired by American Indian and African cultures, call a “big dream” (e.g., Whitmont, 1969, p. 225). Big dreams are revealed either through repetition or extraordinary vividness and power. Often, the dream serves as a conduit for communication with a power animal. The messages may be literal and urge immediate enactment of the dream. Precognitive dreams, wisdom-becoming and awareness-awakening, may presage the future.

Praying to the White Mare

The Institution

A decade later, I completed a Masters of Fine Arts degree. In my final thesis, I described numinous personal experiences that arose during the act of painting. I used words such as enlightenment and epiphany. The painting department “head” vehemently crossed out all spiritual references with a thick, red pen. Few words of meaning survived the attack. He ordered a complete rewrite.

After the head strode away, I was defiant, “No, I won’t rewrite. This censored thesis, with every red marker scar, perfectly represents my experience at this school.” I gave the slashed thesis to the department secretary, instructed her to place it in my file, and walked away down the long institutional hallway of harsh fluorescent light, linoleum floors, and sterile white walls. Other hallways led off right and left, but I continued forward.

In the sanctuary of my studio, I drew a prayer to my mare protector, asking her for the strength to hold onto my genuine self.

In the privacy of my journal, I wrote:

I am White Horse in the home of my heart.

The White Horse

I entered a seminar on shamanism and sat upon a rigid chair amidst other seated students. With pen and notebook ready, I expected a didactic presentation. Instead, Dr. Heinze instructed us to lie down and close our eyes. Upon trance-inducing drum beats, Dr. Heinze led us into visionary journeys. She encouraged us to “ride the drum.”

During the fourth session of drumming, my white mare returned.

Without saddle, bridle, reins, or clothing, I ride. A nude man loosely embraces me, riding behind me. Along a wide, sandy beach, naked to joy, we are ecstatically galloping, galloping, galloping.


We rode where the ocean meets and strokes the earth.

But, galloping over the beach sands of time, we were not the only riders of the white horse. In Siberia, the shaman’s drum is oft conceived as a galloping white horse. Ethnologist Dioszegi (1968) learned from the Karagasy that “while shamanizing, they call the drum white horse or reindeer bull. The denominations of each part also prove that the drum represents an animal, more specifically, an animal for riding” (p. 260).

Carried on throbbing drum hoof beats, I walk through the perpetually revolving door. The glass shatters and falls. I kneel, carefully, laboriously, stacking and restacking the bricks of future plans. The towers repeatedly collapse. I stand naked on the wide green prairie of my youth. Picking handfuls of long-bladed grass, I put the prairie inside me, filling myself with grass. I would move the prairie into me. I would become the prairie.

Four brief drum sessions led me beyond the charted bounds of consensual reality into a land of living images, rapidly back along the path of stolen dreams, opening the gate of lost hope, and carrying me into golden sunlight. There, wind-blown grass bowed towards the distant horizon and then reached towards a sky of robin’s egg blue.

Such visionary realms were already familiar to me, often entered and traversed during artistic acts of creativity. I wondered: do shamans and artists embark on comparable journeys, following analogous paths down into darkness, heading back into the past, climbing up to momentous view points, and arriving at like destinations? If these routes were charted on one map, to what extent would the journeys be the same, indicating the existence of an artist-shaman?

Calling from the Mirror

Contemporary Artists and Shamanism

Art historians and art critics sometimes refer to contemporary artists as shamans. Rushing (1986) noted how “shamanic intent” influenced the painting of Jackson Pollock (p. 283). Such statements romanticize artists, waving a magic wand of words, without offering comprehensive support for assertions regarding shamanism. Similarly, Weiss (1995 ) equated Kandinsky’s creative process with shamanizing. However, she did not provide support for her assertion. Levy (1993) and Tucker (1992) relied heavily on the classic book by Eliade (1951/1964), Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.

Several problems arise from use of Eliade (1951/1964) as primary reference. First, Eliade has been criticized for cross-cultural overgeneralization of certain culture-specific myths (Kirk, 1973, 1974.). Second, Eliade did not perform his own field work, instead using field reports from graduate students (Heinze, June, 2005) and also synthesizing the research of others (Kehoe, 2000) Third, the original publication of Eliade’s Shamanism occurred 58 years ago and does not reflect recent thought regarding shamanism.

Furthermore, the art historians did not utilize data regarding the creative process to explain how shamanic practices are like artistic creativity. And finally, art historians cannot speak from the perspective of artists who share personal experiences from decades of creative work.

Who Is a Shaman?

For Heinze (1997), a shaman performs community service in response to psychological, social, or spiritual needs, mediates between different states of consciousness, and creates connection to “higher powers” in a culturally meaningful and understood form. Are these actions also performed by contemporary artists?

Shamanic Journey

Through trance states and altered states of consciousness, shamans take journeys to other realms to gain knowledge, increase power, and help individuals and societies (Harner, 1986). “The pre-eminently shamanic technique is the passage from one cosmic region to another,” commented Eliade (1951/1964, p. 259). Noel (1997) identified an imaginal reality of subjective experience where shamans work, further explained by Winkelman (2000) as operating through a “focus on internal visual imagery [that] provides an internal experiential focus, a figure-ground cognitive reversal that enhances the primacy of the internal imagetic reality to the degree that it provides an alternate experience to the external world” (pp. 85-85). The travel of artists through levels of consciousness is the equivalent of shamanic flights to other worlds.

Riding upon the horse of color, Cezanne entered a lower realm:

A painting is an abyss in which the eye is lost. All these tones circulate in the blood. One is revivified, born into the real world, one finds oneself, one becomes the painting. To love a painting, one must first have drunk deeply of it in long draughts. Lose consciousness. Descend with the painter into the dim tangled roots of things, and rise again from them in colors, be steeped in the light of them. (Knafo, 2002)

Cezanne descended into the abyss of the underworld, not to view the picturesque beauty of buds, leaves, or branches, but in search of tangled roots. He saw what is beneath appearances. In the ecstasy of seeing, the boundary dissolves between Cezanne and the painting.

As Cezanne returned to consensual reality, he reintegrated. Then, the “dim tangled roots” changed in light. Painting functions as a mother through which Cezanne is reborn. Likewise, after suffering, the shamanic initiate is reborn into a new identity.

A similar process of loss, destruction, and rebirth is found in the repertoire of choreographer Martha Graham. Graham knew that to create, the artist must be destroyed. Moreover, the medium of dance must also be destroyed. Beiswanger (1980) described how Graham choreographed:

Companion to this act of ‘destruction’ was the effort to lay bare the impulses from which the affirmative stuff of art spring….Furthermore, the desire to draw from deep wells was largely inhibited in the American character itself, so far as conscious art-making was concerned. (pp. 144-145)

Graham’s creative process broke up “the surface of dance (the conventional idioms, the accepted evasions, the brittle shell)….so that the underlying structure could be disclosed” (Beiswanger, p. 145) – like a skeleton, “an emotional core….a soul…bared” (Beiswanger, p. 146) upon which new dances were created. Thus, an art medium may also be reborn into a new identity. Similarly, initiation into shamanism often includes the transformative process of deconstruction or dismemberment, followed by reconstruction and rebirth (Grim, 1987; Vitebsky, 1995).

Accessing the Inaccessible

Artists may access spirit realms through creative processes. When the seer receives spiritual insight, divine presence is often felt as white or golden light. Such experiences have been described as illumination or enlightenment by artists. Matisse contrasted representational painters with enlightened artists:

Most painters require direct contact with objects in order to feel that they exist, and can only reproduce them under strictly physical conditions. They look for an exterior light to illuminate them internally. Whereas the artist or the poet possesses an interior light which transforms objects to make a new world of them – sensitive, organized, a living world which is in itself an infallible sign of the Divinity, a reflection of Divinity.

That is how you can explain the role of the reality created by art as opposed to objective reality – by its non-material essence. (in Flam, 1994, p. 61)

How does essence enter an artist? The recipient is filled with divine guidance and arousal, causing enlivening and exalting emotion. As its Latin root suggests, inspiration is the act of taking spirit in. In Mongolia, the same word indicates artistic inspiration and spirit possession. “Shamanism is wholly the world of inspiration…it is the expression of human world and inspiration world…inspiration is the agent of the secret world” (Batbayar, personal communication, March 21, 2011).

The “belief in the inspired source of creativity…is, today, a tenet not held by many,” noted Funk (2000, p. 55). However, Funk’s personal encounters with numerous reports of numinous experience and nonordinary states of inspiration led him to question the rational and environmental theories regarding creativity. Funk argued in favor of considering the “non-ordinary states of mind that, to varying degrees, can be ascribed to transpersonal sources of inspiration” (p. 55). While transcendence may be experienced at any developmental level or age, Funk believed “transpersonal experiences are more likely to occur to those at higher developmental levels since one’s ego boundaries become ever more permeable and open to the numinous….” (p. 58). He commented,” in the transpersonal view, people we label geniuses have the ability, some of the time at least, to access this transcendent consciousness” (p. 58). During mystical communion with the infinite, with spirit or the divine, the artist perceives “cosmic patterns existing beyond Newtonian space and time” (p. 59).

Uncertainty Rides

Shamans are renowned for presumptive paranormal abilities, including precognition, telepathy, clairvoyance, levitation, divination, changing weather, seeing souls of the dead and hearing their conversations (Kalweit, 1992; Krippner, 2000; Rogo, 1990). Funk (2000) mentioned that “creators reported insights in dreams, sometimes of a paranormal nature; that is, they seemed to exhibit some degree of extrasensory knowledge (ESP)” (p. 63). One incident of creative ESP or merging of different levels of reality and consciousness began in a dream:

I paint upon a canvas pinned to a wall. I stand near the painting, working intently, swimming in creative flow. I feel the weight of gravity. Light pours down upon the wall, from somewhere behind me, from up high. On the canvas, I work on the upper left corner which is white but thick with oil paint. I add black lines that curve this way and that. I observe the dream and think, “This is not like a dream. This is like reality.”

I float a green glaze over the white and black, making a transparent tint. I stand so close to the painting, without stepping back. I never view the entire work.

Five months later, at the Ucross Foundation, the director gave me a private studio with a high bank of clerestory windows illuminating the opposite wall. I pinned rectangles of canvas onto this wall. After completing all preconceived paintings, I decided to paint spontaneously.

I stood near the painting. I drew the torsos of a woman and a man. The transparent figures, including their hearts and the rivers of blood veins, physically interconnect. I felt the weight of gravity. I painted two spirals, indicating the woman’s ovaries and fallopian tubes, merging in the wine glass of her womb.

Light poured down upon the wall, from behind me, from up high.

Two more spirals represented the generative power of the man. I worked on the upper left corner which was white but thick with oil paint, painting about creativity. I added black lines that curved this way and that. Black lines and luminous, jewel-like colors suggested stained glass. I floated a transparent green glaze over the white and black corner.

Suddenly, as though lightening struck me, I remembered the dream, the dream which was now waking reality. My knees weakened. Life presented a choice: sit down or fall down. I sat.

Confused, my concept of time fell apart, dismembered, and irreparable. Past, present, and future no longer fit on a linear continuum. How could I dream about the studio at the art foundation before my physical arrival, before my grant application was considered? How did I see the painting before the act of “spontaneous” creativity? I thought I was making a stream of choices in the moment, yet the painting obviously already existed somewhere, with all choices made. If the painting already existed, who was the artist, me or some entity speaking through me? How could I orient myself in nonlinear time and nonlocal space? Did I exist in three realms, past, present, and future, at the same time? Could I travel, like a shaman, not only up and down to different realms, but also backwards and forwards in time? Is time a level of consciousness? How did I access this?

Such questions, according to Krippner (2006, personal communication) are “only a problem if one thinks in linear terms. Most indigenous shamans come from societies with different time models.” Certainly, my dream pushed me towards a different understanding of time and space.

The Healing Path

May (1975) recognized the power of artists as “frontier scouts who go out ahead of the rest of us to explore the future” (pp. 146-147). Time is generally considered the fourth dimension of space. Is the fourth dimension of time explored during liminal acts such as painting, dreaming, and shamanizing?

Shamans transcend conventional Western concepts of space and time (Kraus, 1972). Likewise, during the creative journey, artists readily exit what Bourdieu (1990) referred to as “homogenous, continuous space” (p. 84).

In a 6’ tall watercolor, The Healing Path (see right), I painted a child with golden curls. Later, my golden son is born (see below). As a toddler, he was adamantly against a haircut. I thought, “It’s his hair. It’s his choice.” His hair grew until the blond curls reached down his back. He did not care what others thought, proudly declaring “I’m a boy!”

In a previous essay, I included a photograph of my son at age three with his long, golden curls. Several pages later, I inserted a detail from The Healing Path. During the final edit, I recognized the golden child in both images. Only then did I realize that the spirit of painting knew my son – fifteen years before his birth. Once again, painting had provided access to another realm.

Hatterer (1965) commented on artistic access of “dreamlike or depersonalized states… during the creative act. Such states represent the artist’s extreme degree of flexibility in ascending and descending to different levels of consciousness” (p. 29).

Higher Powers

McNaughton (1988) studied sub-Saharan Mande, or Bamana, blacksmiths. Nyama, a free floating, ubiquitous, natural, and mystical force, is believed to fuel and empower all blacksmith activities. This power is a prerequisite to all action and a by-product of every act. In massive concentrations, nyama can be dangerous, even deadly; however, blacksmith shamanic practices harness this power.

The challenge of working iron demands great nyama. Each hammer blow directs and implants additional nyama into the metal. In the crafted object, great power reservoirs are constructed and contained through skill and lengthy production. Nyama is carried by utilitarian objects such as lamps, tools such as spear blades, and ritual objects such as sacred staffs. Mande blacksmiths qualify as archetypal artists who, as defined by d’Azavedo (1973), maintain the bridge linking sacred and secular. By capturing nyama spirit in the understood form of iron objects, the blacksmiths occupy the common ground between shamanism and artistic creativity.

Understood Form

Constantin Brancusi was born in a Romanian village. As a young man, he walked to Paris. While urban sophisticates scorned folk art, Brancusi nurtured and sustained his relationship with peasant life through wood carving.

Folk art provided Brancusi with animist infused design and content. His sculptures embodied the spirit world in abstract form. Brancusi spoke of portraying a fish, not through illustrative depiction, but by expressing “the flesh of its spirit” (Shanes, u.d.) The artist believed “what is real is not the external form but the essence of things” (Wood, 1999, pp. 341-342).

In the Endless Column (see opposite page), one part of an ensemble of monuments comprising a war memorial, Brancusi refers to a folk legend about a pillar that holds up heaven. The column is approached through Kiss Gate (see opposite page).

The title refers to an earlier sculpture, The Kiss. In this work, Brancusi used two concentric ovals to indicate the eyes of lovers, merged in gaze. This ultimate act of seeing, where boundaries dissolve, became a central motif of the monument. The sculptor created a liminal zone where visitors enter another realm.

The gate joined male and female, in a loving monument to peace, a passage way via the ecstasy of sexuality, and a means of transcendence. Such liminal zones are also typically respected and mastered by shamans.

Hansen (2005) wrote of “liminal persons, phenomena, and events [that] tend to blur boundaries, upset classification schemes, and foster ambivalence and ambiguity. Such conditions are dangerous, but they can also be a source of supernatural power” (p. 3).

Nurturing connection with the ineffable, Brancusi clothed spirit in art. Thus, the sculptor satisfies the requirement that shamans connect to higher powers in an understood form.

Healing the Split

By attempting to heal splits, unite opposites, and re-member society, shamans and artists provide community service. Venezuelan artist Javier Tellez collaborated with the “human cannonball”, David Smith. To transcend the division between Mexico and the United States, Tellez shot Smith from a cannon. Tellez soared over the barricade separating the two countries (Spagat, 2005). Granted status as a Korean Living National Treasure, shaman Kim Kum-hwa performed trance rituals in Los Angeles to create community harmony after riots (Looseleaf, 2002).

Hans Janos Benyshek van Wyk, age 3

Wilber (1979) asserted “The ultimate metaphysical secret… is that there are no boundaries in the universe” (p. 31). Instead of being enclosed by boundaries, the shaman relates to a holistic, ever-expanding web of continuous relationships.

Artist Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith, a Native American, perceived her role as “a harbinger, a mediator, and a bridge builder. My art, my life experience and my tribal ties are totally enmeshed. I go from one community with messages to the other, and I try to enlighten people” (Server, Binstock, Connors, Everett, & Hartigan, 1996). Many artists attempt to heal splits in society and within individuals, reuniting what was separated, assembling a whole out of parts.

The Medium of Access

Regressive forces, according to Knafo (2002), “allow artists to frequent levels of consciousness not usually accessible to most adults.” From the Freudian box of psychopathology, the term “regression” bears a pejorative connotation. In Freudian theory, regression is a return to an earlier life stage, functioning as a defense mechanism and indicating mental pathology (Corsini, 2002). This definition implies backward movement and the presence of immature behaviors. Following Freud backwards, Kris believed creativity occurred during a return to an earlier developmental level (Corsini), during “regression in service of the ego” (p. 821).

Because creativity facilitated my developmental growth and psychological health, the term regression seems inappropriate to me. Perhaps, more accurately, the creative process is ego in service of regression. Ego serves by constructing an adequately strong, and flexible, container to “hold” the creative process. As Kremer (personal communication, July 9, 2011) noted, “This type of regression is far from a defense mechanism, it is a process of creating wholeness out of the depths of past experiences.”

The Endless Column

In contrast to the pathological concept of regression, Krippner (2000) offered an alternate concept, stating shamans “engage in activities that enable them to access information not ordinarily attainable by members of the social group that has granted them shamanic status.” Consider the meaning of access. As a noun, access is a means of approaching, entering, communicating with, making use of, or exiting. As a verb, access obtains, reaches, or retrieves. Access allows multidirectional movement and relatedness through communication.

According to McNiff (1986), “artists typically have more direct and visceral contact with a realm that is available to every person” (p. 17). How is this realm formed into apprehensible form?

Consider the definition of medium. Medium means midway or between. As an intervening substance through which transmission occurs, art is a medium. Likewise, the artist is a medium, a person who communicates with other worlds, dimensions, or realms. Heinze (1982) studied shamans and mediums, concluding that both:

… are individuals who mediate between different states of consciousness for those who seek immediate, personal experience of spiritual powers. Mediums and shamans fulfill spiritual and psychological needs which cannot be satisfied otherwise. Both have command over a wide range of alternate states of consciousness which they use for the benefit of others. (p. 38)

Art for Cultural Healing

The shaman is recognized by the following actions: mediation between different states of consciousness, connection to higher powers, communication through understood forms, and service to community (Heinze, 1997). As demonstrated within this essay, all of these activities may be performed by artists. Why is this endeavor important?

The myth of progress built a house-of-cards foundation for our society. During the past century, the flaws in this weltanschaung became increasingly obvious, with increased crime, environmental degradation, and horrific wars (Hoppal, 1996). In response, a growing number of people became interested in shamanism. Heinze (1991) recognized the validity of the twentieth century shaman who emerges “whenever an environment develops needs… it is the individual shaman who translates the sacred into the secular in a language s/he creates along the way.” (p. 17).

Kiss Gate

If the shaman-artist can alleviate suffering, nurture empathy, strengthen societal bonds, and raise awareness of the sacred, then additional studies will contribute to individual, societal, and planetary healing. Our survival may depend, in part, on the work of the shaman-artist.


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