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American Artist Chris Sedgwick was born in Florida in 1981 and began painting at a young age. He graduated from Florida State University and started a career in painting after moving to North Carolina.
Sedgwick’s inspiration spans from the spiritual to the scientific and his work often evokes intense emotional responses. The inter-penetrating layers of symbolism, mysticism, and narrative in Sedgwick’s work constitute a timeless world of ancient rituals and divinatory rites. In synthesising techniques of the old masters, ancient mystical teachings, and contemporary science, his work focuses on the uniqueness and universality of inner landscapes and transcendent experience.
The purpose of art is such a debatable topic and what the artist depicts can be so different from what the viewer perceives. “I want my art to have a purpose. I want people to feel a sense of mystery”, Chris Sedgwick tells us. Sedgwick’s work is not art for art’s sake, nor is it a display of technique for technique’s sake. His main goal is to invite the viewer to think a little deeper and drift into a hypnotic, emotional warmth that leads them to temporarily enter a transcendental state of mystery. This artist wants his art to occupy a middle ground where the technique leads the viewer into their own mind where they identify with the symbol in front of them.
Sedgwick’s creative process begins with a conceptual structure. He often writes out ideas then lists relevant philosophical, symbolic, and compositional connections he can use in order to flesh out his original concept. He then makes a little sketch of the composition and thinks about the colours he wants to use, always sourcing the finest materials including the best oils, gold leaf and quality woods.
Sedgwick makes an effort to explain the compositional and conceptual aspects of his works, along with his own colour cyphers, sometimes almost imperceptible to the untrained eye. Most people love the information provided by the artist about his paintings, but there are some that prefer not to know: “Once at an opening, someone stopped me when I began describing what the work meant to me. I suppose that is understandable. Generally, people love the cyphers when I point them out. I think people love layers of mystery in works, and when you give them the keys to unlock them they can have a much richer experience of the concept and process involved in the work’s creation.”, he confesses.
Sedgwick’s work is in numerous private collections worldwide and is housed in the permanent collections of hotelier Richard Kessler, Florida State University and Western Carolina University to name a few. Sedgwick currently lives and works from his home in Colorado Springs.
How do you choose the subjects of your paintings?
I choose subjects that I know can be transformed to reflect the conceptual structure, mainly sourcing from spirituality rich in esoteric pathways or emotions resulting from personal experiences. When choosing an experience, I make sure that I’ll be able to turn it into a visual symbol and still retain its emotional depth. Without a good conceptual base, one can end up making “Art for Art’s sake,” and while I don’t see a problem with this kind of art, I prefer to have mystery and narrative drive my work.
Technically, what is the hardest part in their execution?
The hardest part in the execution for me is really the conceptual planning phase and then the colour choice. Colour juxtaposition has always been a pain for me and I often look at my work years later and think of how I could have changed the fabric colours.
How long does it take you to finish a piece?
It really depends on the size, as I have sold paintings ranging from 6ft. x 11ft. to 4 inches x 5 inches. I would say I can do a 1ft. x 1ft. painting in about 30 hours, including the framing, photography, and shipping.
What is the purpose of symbolism in your art?
My use of esoteric symbols began quite a while ago when I started painting ritual scenes of my own making. As I read more and more about various forms of occultism, I began adopting their symbolic language and narrative. I feel that these marginalised forms of spirituality have a lot to offer and, though they are not outwardly perceivable to those not versed in them, they are expressed everywhere. They are used in advertising and movies. Even politicians utilise the symbols when they speak. They become an embodiment of archetypes. These symbols, translated into action, can create a powerful reaction that springs from deep in the psyche of the viewer. They are complex, though, so they are not easily explained in our world of quick sound bytes. Often, one will not realise what archetypal structure or symbolic stage one is in until it is gone.
The words I most often hide in my paintings are “So that the beginning is to the end as the end is to the beginning and that to the distance between there is neither.” This is above the heads of the three figures in “The Three Fates” (above), though it is hidden in a colour cypher and expressed in colour-coded stars that must be read like a sheet of music. To me, this echoes the theme of the Three Greek Fates and also the way we live our lives.
Our birth and death are moments that we cannot remember, during life we are forever entwined in time, and the mystery of our beginning and end can never be remembered. We travel through this time loop, forever wanting to peer beyond its veil into the great mystery of existence. This is the purpose of symbolism: to peer beyond this veil.
Experimenting with LSD in early adulthood led you to experiencing the interconnectedness with everything else (Gaia), and then you became interested in the esoteric. Have you been able to experience that connection any other way after that? Can someone find it through your art?
I have been able to experience interconnectedness in many ways besides taking a substance. I find that a substance is the quickest way, but the best way is to commune with nature. Hiking through the mountains or finding a secluded little waterfall is my favourite way. I also feel a markedly cerebral transcendence in studying history, understanding how the connections of cultures, races, philosophies, and one’s own ancestors have shaped our world.
This form of learning is to me like diving into a dark pond and pulling up little gems. When you have enough gems to form a collection, you can prepare a web of thought that links back to the beginning of human experience. You then have your own time loop. This is transcendence, and what is most interesting about this display is the symbols we discover; not in a wordy, linear fashion but in the visual and emotional impact that is felt from the grand ideas of a culture condensed into symbols. From the little traces of thought left behind for our future use. I would hope that people can feel this through my art, but I can only allude to small snippets and gateways. One needs to create their own loop of symbols.
Alchemists and artists counting Maxfield Parrish, Botticelli, Joseph Campbell and Klimt, are influencers in your work. What reaches you most, the artistic or the philosophical?
As an artist, I am apprehensive when stating this but I feel the philosophical reaches me more. I consider art to often be a product of its culture and time, which is ultimately influenced by the moral, emotional, and conceptual framework governing everyday life. I believe that the aforementioned figures were able to transcend their culture and gift a wonderful arcanum to posterity.
However, I enjoy being around the artistic more. I was told once by a psychologist that I had “real picture thinking,” which is a way of processing the world around us based solely in pictures. Of the 30% of the population who use visual/spatial thinking, only a small percent process information in pictures alone.
When I think, I never have words or sentences running through my head. But I always have colour and place. This way of thinking leads me to easily forget people’s names or when events certain occurred, but it does help with translating concepts into visual objects. I think this is why I enjoy philosophy: I picture it in a visual manner and the philosophies richest in visual concepts are generally those that spill over into the spiritual, like the esoteric traditions.
You sometimes refer to visual artistic creativity as a gateway to the spiritual world, from the beginning of mankind. Is this gateway still open, or have we lost this ability with further civilisation?
I believe this gateway will be open as long as humans are alive. It is part of our natural motivation to experience the unknown and leave behind a message about what we have found. Though, in my opinion, a lot of work since the artistic revolutions of the early 20th century have really been about mixing and matching previous concepts while deconstructing mental architecture that has been in place for thousands of years.
Though the oldest cave paintings are thought to be from Indonesia, the West seems to have really refined realistic work. We have examples, like the Lascaux and Chauvet caves, that show the great effort made to capture motion, to perfect shape, and to depict narratives. I think the 20th century really started deconstructing this ancient tradition. For example, Picasso’s influence from African and ancient European tribal works, Klimt’s mixing of Asian styles and Medieval illuminated works, right up to today, when Marina Abramovich is influenced by, and defiles, sacred magic rituals that are part of the Rosicrucian and broader Occult worlds.
This postmodern deconstruction can go on for only so long before it begins to deconstruct itself, becomes pedantic, and replicates itself without beauty. There will always be those who are willing to pick up where our ancestors have left off, and this encourages me.
You were raised as an atheist but your work is devoted to the transcendent. Have your beliefs changed through your research, experiences, and practice?
Yes and no. I often find myself engaged in the “Willful suspension of disbelief.” This is not to mean that magical or spiritual experiences cannot be real to the practitioner, but that I personally feel handicapped by my upbringing as an atheist as well as my love for science. The constant learning about new forms of Spirituality has led me to have a deeper admiration for the ancient beliefs of my genetic ancestors: Pre-Christian northern Europeans. Their spirituality would be considered the Germanic Pagan belief system of Woutanism or Heathenry. I do not practice or wholeheartedly believe that Odin, Thor, or Freyja are really existent, but I do see them as the most relatable archetypes to guide me.
As I mentioned, my favourite saying to hide in paintings is “So that the beginning is to the end as the end is to the beginning and that to the distance between there is neither.” This saying can be seen as somewhat valueless in relation to knowledge of the afterlife, since it defines life in terms of the importance of present tense experience, but I often find solace in it, as it leaves room for interpretation. Then again, another colour cypher I created reads “Acts created within the self have no boundaries.” So I suppose I am still undecided when it comes to a set belief structure.
What do you believe is the role and relevance of artists in the current society?
In non-Western societies, art is still tied into a somewhat homogenous spiritual community where rites, rituals, and celebrations require it. In the West, I think we have commodified art and decoupled it from a need to capture a timeless beauty. Subsequently, a majority of contemporary art gains relevance through current events and trends.
For instance, I can’t picture anyone wanting that huge inflatable butt plug or “tree”, that was installed across from of the Louvre, in their permanent collection. Though at the time it made a (brief) statement, to history, it may just be an old headline. Objects like this, the piss Christ for example, seem to gain relevance only in their defiance to tradition.
There is now a growing group of artists who are interested in creating traditional work that draws from the human experience and utilises beautiful atelier methods to create timeless compositions. This movement is in its infancy, but I believe it will explode when it is applied to conceptual art, though I do think the movement needs to go beyond painting figure studies, still lifes, sketches, and traditional landscapes as the bulk of their final product. When this happens, I think the elite art world will have to acknowledge it. I hope it comes in my lifetime, but I know art movements flower slowly.
Do you see a revival of spiritual art? A new renaissance?
I do not see a substantial revival of spiritual art in the near future. I see the 20th century’s love of Critical Theory and deconstruction continuing to ravage its way through our society. I think it could continue indefinitely, eventually leaving cheap copies of itself in its wake.
I think spiritual art will continue, but it will be for a small audience. The trick is to slip the spiritual nuances into the composition without overt means, if you want to appeal to a larger audience or fool the deconstructionists. In contemporary art, this is often done with the use of irony or exaggeration. A good example of this comes in Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture showing Pope John Paul ll being crushed by a meteor, thereby providing a sense of irony and sarcasm to the supernatural.
Sometimes just adding neon or urine to a traditional spiritual idea is cause for praise. I suppose these practices could be considered a form of neo-spiritual art, reviving the spiritual concept but taking it in a different direction. I do hope for some positive creative building to occur on top of the spiritual arcanum of old. Deconstruction often betrays time.
There are different layers to your work, and you have said in the past that the hardest is when you pour your feelings into your paintings through symbols. Is this process therapeutic or somehow harmful? Can this help the people that contemplate your work?
This process is both harmful and therapeutic for me. It can provoke sad and negative emotions, but I think it helps people contemplate the work. It shows humanity. It brings a lot of harmful emotions to the forefront at times, as depicted in “The Holy Choir”. But in the end, it is therapeutic to work through. Sometimes there are positive emotions that come to the forefront, like in “The Lovers”, where I got a chance to explore the concepts surrounding love and companionship. I think most of us go through the same emotions as one another, and it is comforting to see a reflection of your feelings in art, even if they are negative.
Using symbols as a way to communicate these ideas gives me another vantage point from which I can mirror these concepts. For instance, in “The Lovers,” which will be included in the 78 Tarot “Astral” deck, I got a chance to use occult symbolism to translate the concept of love. I used the traditional symbols and colours for male and female. The sun as male is bright yellow and I wrote “The Year of the Sun” in Latin at the top of the composition, and the moon/stars/night sky represent the female in their deeper blue at the bottom of the composition, and I wrote “The year of the Stars.”
This piece is influenced by one of my favourite illustrators: J. Augustus Knapp. The symbolism is as old as Egyptian mythology, from which Nut, the Egyptian sky goddess, is depicted as a female, often blue, with stars throughout her body. The Egyptian sun god, Ra, is depicted as a male figure with the head of an eagle (a creature that soars through the sky) and a sun disk rests upon on his head. So, in contemplating “love,” I look back to what has been built before and use it to create my own symbolic interpretation.
Are there any taboos in working with symbols? Are there some that should not be used or mixed?
For the extremely religious, there are taboos, but I don’t see any problems with using symbols, other than possibly turning some people off to it. One benefit of symbolic depiction is that a concept can be echoed many times in one composition. For instance, the figures can be creating a narrative and then you can echo this narrative with the symbols. I did this with “The Lovers.” I like adding colour cyphers so the paintings can literally be translated through colour into words. I think this gives the painting a secret quality that often is not noticed by the quick glance but, when discovered, operates in the mind dually by forcing the brain to view the painting as both word and colour. This mix can create a rich layer of symbolism that works on both qualities of the mind: the linear, right to left time-dependent nature of the written or spoken word, and that of shape and colour, an interpenetrating, spatial quality decoupled from time.
Some people would say that certain symbols should not be used or they invoke unintended consequences. This practice really gets in to the concept of sigils as magical language. These work almost like narratives crammed into a single symbol, as opposed to the traditional form of the English language that invokes objects and actions in the mind, word for word and letter for letter. I am currently learning more about this topic and am going to begin creating my own sigils and borrowing from my ancestors’ arcana: the Nordic Runes and the ancient Irish Ogham script, or the “Language of the Trees.”
To go back to the original question, there are some sigils that can invoke the “devil” in the mind of believers, but for the most part, the sigils are meant to be protective, communicative, and transformative.
How important has been the role of patronage in your career?
Patronage has been very important to my career. Before I started working with my biggest patron, I was selling works through about six galleries and putting works in various group shows. I stuck with the first gallery I was accepted in for nearly 9 years. Their insights, guidance, and art world knowledge really allowed me to flourish as a professional artist. I worked this way full time for about ten years and was able to meet many art collectors.
At the same time, I had a couple of patrons who were purchasing many of my pieces, more than ten and sometimes that many at one time. In 2014, I was given an incredible opportunity to work with my biggest patron, Mr. Richard Kessler, through his gallery system and his permanent collection. He has been of such great help in my career. He has afforded me the opportunity to focus on creating large-scale works that have in-depth narratives and reflect my inner thoughts and interests.
I think patronage is extremely important to any artist. I would not be where I am today if it were not for the many people, patrons, art lovers, and media outlets that have helped me along the way.