Thursday 13 January 2022

Interview: Author & Sacred Art Creator Imelda Almqvist

Imelda Almqvist is a wonderful painter as well as writing and teaching about sacred art. I've had the privilege of reading several of her books and I'm delighted she agreed to let me interview her. Here's what she replied to my questions:

Q: Could you tell me a bit more about sacred art? How does it differ from other forms of artistic work?

A: Thank you for this interview! When we make sacred art we step away from the realm of “egoic consciousness”, where our ego is central stage and things are generally “all about us”, and we shift to a frequency where we connect to spirit, as we perceive and understand this mysterious force. Spirit is different for everyone and will depend on belief system and personal cosmology. When we connect to this force greater than ourselves, it guides the process and we are in flow. You could say that spirit creates through us or that we become an instrument for Spirit to create something in the material world (a piece of art, writing, embroidery, a dance or object etc.) Working this way, writer’s block or artist’s block do not exist, or dissolve if they were there before. Childhood and cultural conditioning around “art” also drop away. I have seen many deeply creative people move beyond lock-standing blocks, inhibitions and fear, working this way. It takes us back to the place of raw and boundless creativity, which is our birthright.

A distinction worth making is that many people assume that sacred art is the same thing as religious art. That is not correct. Under the larger heading Sacred Art we certainly find religious art, but it is a much larger umbrella where we also find the dot paintings of Australian Aboriginal people, the healing sand paintings made by the Hopi and other First Nations peoples etc. In my book I include even art made young children and art made by people with severe mental illness (psychiatric settings) or in art therapy sessions, as forms of sacred art. This is a personal choice regarding inclusion, which other people may well challenge!

Q: How did you develop your artistic techniques?

A: I attended art school for four years in Amsterdam, aged 18 to 22. I consider myself very lucky that I was of a generation that still received old-fashioned training in fine art. We studied perspective, human anatomy, history of art, even psychology and philosophy. We spent years drawing portraits (old-fashioned ones, as in accurate representations of the subject) and working with life models. We also worked in a wide range of materials: water colour, oil, charcoal, pencil drawings and sketches, printmaking etc. 

My sacred art students tell me that soon after my own training a major shift occurred within art schools. Today you can attend art school without even being able to draw a cat (you can make, for example, conceptual art or digital art). I am trying to remain open-minded and embrace the zeitgeist, but I am very grateful I can actually draw absolutely anything and paint oil portraits, if I choose to, or clients ask me to.

Q: What advice would you offer to others who would like to learn more or try it out for themselves?

Many people stumble across sacred art - and here I am referring to my own way of working and teaching - through my website or reading my second book, Sacred Art. There is always a moment of revelation: “I have been doing this all of my life, but I did not know that there was a name for this particular art process.” People have generally felt that their artistic process is at odds with the current standards of making “fine art” or “contemporary art”. Often they do not realise either that there many other people working in similar ways. Many people have felt lonely, even excluded or not accepted. They might have had continuous negative childhood messages from parents and art teachers, for example. Meeting kindred spirits, for example on a course I teach or in the dedicated FB group I run, is like a hot shower to them. They feel: "I am not alone, this is a valid way of working, I have a community after all where there is no competition and 'human egos locking horns', just encouragement, sharing of work and process, constructive feedback and inspiration/cross-pollination!"

In my book, Sacred Art: A Hollow Bone for Spirit (Where Art Meets Shamanism) every chapter ends with a chapter exercise which leads people into direct experience of the material described. And I thank you, Bad Witch, for the concept of chapter exercises! You suggested that for my first book and I have made it an integral part of all four non-fiction books I have written so far. A brilliant suggestion!

Q: I understand that you are also a teacher of Seidr/Old Norse Traditions. Can you briefly explain what these are?

A: The short-hand for terms this work is “Norse Shamanism”, at least in the Western world of “shamanism”. There are serious issues with that term because shamanism is a word that anthropologists coined and derived from the Tungus (indigenous Siberian language) word “shaman”. Today we are more aware of counter-cultural appropriation and there is more effort to use terms indigenous to the region concerned. 

The Old Norse peoples did not practice “shamanism” (because that is a word from another region, coined about a millennium after the Viking Age!) However, they certainly had a rich tradition of spiritual or magical work performed in altered states of consciousness. In the texts we have - the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda and the sagas - the general word for that work is Seiðr. Technically this is the Icelandic word. The contemporary Swedish word is Sed or Fornsed. The Old Norse word was siðr. As a teacher I insist on historical accuracy, or else much of this work becomes flights pure fantasy, but to be understood in my own culture I need to use words that people around me understand most easily. Therefore I use primarily Seiðr and Old Norse Traditions, when asked what I teach, but simplify that to “Norse Shamanism” if necessary. 

Of course most people - as in most of the regular population - will still not understand what I am talking about. So talking to strangers on airplanes, for instance, I will say that I am a teacher of spiritual material from pre-Christian Scandinavia. If I am not in the mood for explaining, I usually say that I am an art teacher (and people assume that I am a secondary school teacher!) 

Another term commonly used is the Northern Tradition. However, there has long been an unfortunate situation where Nordic material is abused to promote white supremacy style beliefs. There are rather frightening revivals of that happening as we speak. For that reason I myself prefer using the term Old Norse Traditions, because I feel this refers to the past, the material in its original and pure form, long before any Nazi regime came into existence. That period is the Viking Age, 793–1066 BCE to be precise.

Q: How do your spiritual and artistic practices complement each other?

A: For me they are one and the same. In my own mind there has never been a division between artistic and spiritual work. Sacred art can be a way for spirit to take physical form or expression. Handcrafted sacred objects are containers for spirit. My paintings all have their own indwelling spirits who direct both the art process and the trajectory my art takes in the world. Problems can occur when someone wants to buy a painting and the in-dwelling spirit of the artwork refuses to go live with that particular person. This has happened more than once!

I often feel that I make art in attempt to show other people, who are less attuned to the spirit world, what other worlds and their inhabitants look like. I know that not everyone has the gift of second sight or seeing in the dark, or at least not in equal measure, so I see my paintings as both portals for people to step through, and visual aids. I hope that my paintings make other worlds more real and accessible.

After completing art school in Amsterdam I trained as an art therapist in the UK. That gave me therapeutic skills I still apply in shamanic healing work. Last but not least I will mention that I often craft power objects for people I do healing sessions with (a magic wand for a child, a dreaming stone, a portrait of someone’s higher self, or even a portrait of a spirit child).

Q: Your latest book, Medicine of the Imagination: Dwelling in Possibility, is about imagination as a powerful tool. However, you mention that imagination causes problems in the world as well as the potential for finding solutions. Could you briefly explain what that means?

A: The basic premise of my third book is that we are all born with the gift of the human imagination, but most of us do not harness this gift. The default setting for many people is to use the muscle that is their imagination in a rather mindless (or default) way, following cultural and childhood conditioning. 

Jack D. Forbes, author of Columbus and Other Cannibals, wrote: “It is always very difficult to live in this life so as not to be a damaged person or one who damages others”. This is one of life’s greatest ontological dilemmas (the other one is that “other life forms must die if I am to eat”). Without harnessing and honing our imagination, we stand little chance of not living as a damaged person who damages others.

The human imagination gives rise to the most beautiful man-made structures and creations on Earth: architecture, literature, theatre, music, art, humanitarian initiatives, moon landings and space exploration, mythology, science – they all require a large dose of imagination. We are all surrounded by the results of the imagination of our peers and ancestors!

Without imagination there is no compassion, no moral compass and no progress. Without imagination there are no fear of death and no magic (either “black” or “white”) but no premeditated murders or terrorist attacks either; all rely on the human ability to imagine, to call up images and test-drive possible scenarios in the human mind. Once we get out the magnifying glass, we discover that the imagination is a double-edged sword indeed. 

The human imagination can both ignite and misfire. Tragically and obviously the Holocaust started as a concept in people’s imagination before it became an irreversible reality. The same goes for other examples of genocide. If we are to learn from History - and not repeat the lessons - then we must enter a fearless and critical relationship with our imagination and our own thought forms.

Q: Your first book, Natural Born Shamans, is about teaching children shamanic techniques. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

A: As a mother of three children it is my belief, and observation, that children are born as magical beings. Very young children naturally talk to trees, animals and clouds. We all know that young children often have “imaginary friends”. My own take is that those friends are not imaginary at all! They are real beings without a physical body. Ancestors watch over children and children often have a deep connection to spirit animals as well. Other belief systems reinforce the same message. The Roman Catholic Church of my childhood taught me that I had an invisible but powerful guardian angel.

I coined the phrase “Natural Born Shamans” for this innate magical mind set. I ran a shamanic programme for children and teens for five years (The Time Travellers programme) here in London, UK. This was requested by the parents of children I worked with, one-to-one, in my private shamanic practice. 

The idea was for these children to meet kindred spirits and work together to receive a spiritual toolkit from their own spirit allies for the challenges they encountered in their lives, families and schools. If children keep their connection to Spirit alive, and the door to other worlds open a crack, it brings incredible gifts on the level of resilience, problem-solving and maintaining good mental health.

I have worked with so many adults who had 'shut down' because their early experiences were ridiculed or frowned on. Many of these people enrol, as adults, in introduction course in shamanism to open the door again. My book essentially suggests ways for parents and adults to help children keep their innate spirituality alive, so they have a well to draw soul nourishment from. The door remains open.

Q: What would be your top advice for pagan parents and for young people and children who are interested in paganism?

A: To check out my new series of picture books for children: The Green Bear Series, which you can see on Amazon.

On a more serious level: my top advice right now is to watch very closely how children and teens (all age groups really, from new born babies to young adolescents), are impacted by the pandemic and to use both “everyday” and magical means to help young people navigate the pandemic world. Help them build a powerful spiritual toolkit. 

It is my belief that the mental health provision for children and teens was inadequate before the pandemic and is dangerously lacking now. This is incredibly short-sighted as the young people in society literally are the future for all of us, they are our future teachers, nurses, farmers etc. My conclusion is that we, as parents and teachers/uncles/aunts/youth leaders etc. need to take matters into our own hands and create support networks and mentoring systems where young people have access to a dedicated mentor, who is not in their family system. By a mentor I mean someone who makes the commitment to be there for them; who listens and has their best interests at heart.

I very much would like things to be different but the reality is that only young people with diagnosed and severe mental health problems can expect to receive treatment in the near-ish future. Essentially your child needs to be suicidal if they are to stand a chance of receiving any treatment within 6 to 9 months, here in the UK on the NHS. If not, they are put on growing waiting lists by their GP and sent home to (essentially) sink keeper into profound anxiety, depression or addiction.

I talk to Katharine Haw0rth about that on YouTube.

Q: I see that you have a book coming out later this year called North Sea Water in My Veins. What is that about?

A: My fourth non-fiction book is a love letter to my country of birth: The Netherlands. It reconstructs the spiritual heritage of the Low Countries and covers pre-Christian, or heathen, material from The Netherlands, Belgium and just across the border in Germany. There are even some snippets in Afrikaans.

I attempt to answer the following question: is there enough material for a reconstruction of an indigenous pre- (or non-) Christian spirituality. My conclusion is a resounding yes! I felt like a painter applying paint-stripper to my own culture, revealing and unveiling the animist and ancestral material that slumbers just under the veneer of everyday life.

Let me just mention that a glossary of Dutch words, and an introduction to working with the runes of the Frisian Rune Row, are provided. This book was deliberately written in English to make a large amount of material accessible to anyone who is interested. There are large numbers of people all over the world with Dutch-Germanic ancestry who are unable to read Dutch, German or Frisian. 

And yes, I have already received criticism from people in the Netherlands: they would much prefer to read the book in Dutch! My reply is that all Dutch people read and speak excellent English. Most people outside the Netherlands do not speak or read excellent Dutch… 

Q: What are you working towards at the moment in terms of books, art, teaching or anything else?

A: I am currently working on a handbook for rune magicians, about the runes of the Elder Futhark, as well as a compendium about relationships between the runes. I am also working on the artwork for more stories and books in the Green Bear Series. This is a series of picture book for children, aged 3 – 8 years. The stories and vibrant artwork, set in Scandinavia, invite children to explore enchanting parallel worlds and to keep their sense of magic alive as they grow up.

In terms of painting I have some art commissions to complete and I am working on a series of paintings inspired by the text Sigrdrífumál in the Poetic Edda with a special focus on references to runes.

I will be teaching a course about the additional runes in the Anglo-Saxon, Northumbrian and Frisian Futhorc, to coincide with the run-up to the publication of North Sea Water In My Veins in June 2022. 

I am also very excited about teaching a course in Old Norse Astronomy this year. I have a passionate interest in cultural astronomy, a field consisting of studies in the field of archeoastronomy (the astronomy of earlier cultures and civilizations) and ethnoastronomy (the astronomy of non-Western or indigenous peoples). It has been stated by some scholars that all world mythology is essentially based on night sky observations. In our culture we are deeply immersed in one particular conceptualization of the night sky, but actually there are many other cosmologies and conceptualizations!

I have spent years learning everything I possibly could about the night sky of the Old Norse peoples (this is the night sky that the Vikings had overhead as they navigated and travelled long distances). I obsessively collect star lore and related snippets in all European languages I use for research. The Old Norse people did not leave a record of their astronomy. Having said that, there are many references in the Eddas and myths and it has been claimed that the Poetic Edda is really a veiled book about astronomy.

My on-line school is called Pregnant Hag Teachings. It is worth mentioning that all courses and webinars I teach remain available as recordings, which can be watched or revisited any time. You can find that here:

Links and previous related posts:

No comments: