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Echoes into Mythology: The Art of Michael Massie as Personal Mythology

Prepared at Kent Cottage

Brigus NL

by Martin Poole

A special thanks to the board of Landfall Trust for allowing Mary MacDonald and I a beautiful place to think. And for me, some valuable time to prepare this article.

The use of the term Personal Mythology isn't new, but in context of Michael Massie’s sculptural work, we are provided with an active example. Outside of the art world, Psychoanalyst Carl Jung is one of the first to fully realize the epistemological import of personal mythology. In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he says in the introduction:

“Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only ‘tell stories.’ Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth”. (1)

Jung’s truth is not the rigid truth found logically or factually, and yet it remains an impenetrable truth to the person who believes it. Personal mythology stems from personal experience and seems to hold more truth than the historical account.

Lost in Transformation :: Courtesy of Michael Massie

'Lost in Transformation'; (serpentine, ivory, bloodwood, ebony, mahogany, 9.5" by 6" by 5.5"). :: Courtesy of the Artist

The desire to record personal experiences has aided both the formation of mythologies and multidisciplinary arts. As well, these records have influenced each other in turn. Still it would not be fair to treat the sculpture of Michael Massie, or other artists, as an effect of mythology. However, we can expose the ubiquitous and invisible nature of mythology through these routes: first, Massie’s artistic process and result; second, the relationship we have with historical objects, towns, and landscapes; finally, the relationship that people have with a completed sculpture. Overall, Massie’s ability to narrate through sculpture allows us to imagine beyond the physical object, akin to mythologies which manage to extend beyond physical grounds.  

As a starting point, note how mythology is a petrification of experiences that blend historical fact and fantasy, and natural phenomena with miracles of spiritual order. All-in-all, that one’s environment effects one’s imagination is a small truth that we can take from this.

Given the spirit of this piece I decided to preclude all essay divisions with my own memoirs during a writing residency at Landfall Cottage in Brigus, Newfoundland. The central aim is to put the practice of personal mythology in motion, and to illustrate through my own recorded experiences.

Recalling His Journey :: Courtesy of Michael Massie

'Recalling His Journey'; (serpentine, bone, brass, mahogany, bloodwood, ebony, 16.75" by 13" by 5.25") :: Courtesy of the Artist

Introduction to Michael Massie

While writing this piece at Landfall Cottage, in Brigus, I have already formed an odd relationship with the land. I collect various plants and berries and place them on the oil stove to scent the kitchen. It is funny how one treats a new environment. At first it is mild apprehension from sheer wonder, or the unknown, and then it becomes a level of control, a seeing of things through one’s own hands; the picking of berries, the moving of stones, all of which leads to making one feel at home.

How this view is magnified behind the work of Michael Massie epitomizes this essay. Massie narrates from his native land by altering it at an elemental level—the chipping and polishing of wood, bone, and stone, the melting and fusing of metals, reveal his personal experiences and beliefs. His sculptures manifest subjects and situations that are developed with a keen sense of personal moral development, and ethicality within the cultural milieu of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Massie was raised in Labrador, and currently resides in Newfoundland. His heritage is a mix of Inuit, Métis and Scottish. His work to date has paid homage to his diverse roots, notably: his sculpture that evokes Inuit art styles, and tea pots which illustrate aboriginal themes while embracing the Scottish tradition of “High Tea”.

Green Tea :: Courtesy of Michael Massie

‘Green Tea’ (silver, serpentine, 7.5” by 5.5” by 1.5") :: Courtesy of the Artist

I met Massie briefly in 2006 during his exhibition “Silver and Stone” at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John's Newfoundland. I could sense that he cherishes his work as much as it is a part of him. Perhaps his feelings reflect the motives behind his work; that it denotes experiences personal and familial, and stories of cultural significance passed-down through older generations that had echoed into the mythologies surrounding his upbringing. A sense of care also stems from his use symbols that epitomize a devotion to the narrative landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador, allowing for private admissions and his sense of humor.

There is a sense of romanticism surrounding this image, of living in a semi-isolated portion of Newfoundland, quarrying and carving stone from the land to tell its tales. It is something of a blood relationship; a meeting of many existential ends that is difficult to imagine without achieving, or seeing it from another.

Personal Myth as Sculpture and Imagination

Brigus seems to hold a perfect balance of nature and nurture. You are never far away from society and a few steps away from wilderness. In the town itself, cultivation was practical—the waterways that are lined with rock walls, the twisted road system that conforms to the landscape—yet, for all the human footprints left, nature is preserved, with many trees and gardens, and a waterway that is now full of wild mint.

Sculpture is deceivingly simple. Unlike paintings, photographs, and other plastic arts, sculpture is not normally framed or put behind glass, it is objectively individual, a self-contained art piece that acts as its own vessel. The presentation is built-in, and offers little outside of these physical limits. There are obvious exceptions to this, but the point is that sculpture, in many cases, is an art piece that is physically complete.

Sculpture reveals the deliberation of the artist that can be more revealing than other art forms. Simply, it can be felt. And when this is the case the viewer has opportunity to feel through touch something that the artist may have intended beyond sight.

Another process evokes a vitality that betrays the work as a mere object. And the viewer encounters two points of view: first, the visible, marking the typical relationship we have with physical objects; second, the envisioned: how we feel for the art, how it touches us, and how we imagine it. Through our imagination the sculpture can become a vital object, a life given momentarily.

Consider the narrator Issac “Ike” McCaslin in William Faulkner’s The Bear who envisions life through a patch of inert trees:

[They] heard the first cry out of the wet and thawing woods not two hundred yards ahead, high, with that abject, almost human quality he had come to know, and the other hounds joining in until the gloomed woods rang and clamored.(2)

A Struggle :: Courtesy of Michael Massie

'A Struggle' (serpentine, bone, ebony, mahogany, 13.5" by 9" by 10") :: Courtesy of the Artist

The former “gloomed woods” holds a momentary burgeoning of life, an activity, a happening so powerful yet it will never occur at the same intensity again or even perhaps at a remote instance. However, it is only through McCaslin’s evocation of the moment that it becomes significant. All experiences have degrees of memorability, some of which are powerful enough to be reiterated throughout generations of its own accord, and some which require summoning. It requires to be suspended in time. This fleeting moment is what Massie manages to petrify, a moment that requires preservation so that it will not be forgotten. Such a moment can be communicated by amplifying the overall meaning of the story that exists within common happenings.

Environment and Objects

I search around the grounds of the cottage daily, looking at the stone formations and pondering the history behind them. In doing so, my questions begin with the factual, as in: when were the walls built? How old is the cottage? And they quickly transform to the vivid: who walked these stairs before me? Did people view the landscape a few hundred years ago as I view it now?

When I consider both, the history of a particular town, and the sculptural process stated above then perhaps a town or city can be considered a sculpture at a grand level. That a group of people shaped the land to their respective needs. But then where is the narrative in this? My questions address a phenomenon more interesting than the answer: that the house—where I am currently writing this piece—and the surrounding lands have mythologized through the ages, and now by my thinking of it. 

Perhaps these stories are in whispers, some of which I have heard. But then, it seems that this is only possible when something of the old form still exists; that the rock stairs, in front of the house, became a subject of thought in my journal because they still exist, and perhaps someone wondered the same in the past. And that the same brook cascading behind the house, providing it with fresh water, was previously used by “sealing fleets on their way to the ice floes” (3) in the early twentieth century, lends to the landscape a dual-moment: the history, and the present moment of receiving it.

In a similar light, consider Massie’s piece Grandfather I Have Something to Tell You:

Grandfather I have Something to Tell You :: Courtesy of Michael Massie

‘Grandfather I have Something to Tell You’ (anhydrite, bone, mahogany, ebony, bird's eye maple, 17.25” by 9.25” by 12") :: Courtesy of the Artist

First noticed is Massie’s use of the stone; that so very little went to waste.  It would be interesting to know just how much of a finished sculpture is visualized beforehand. The original stone, in this case, survives the change. It maintains its shape after alteration. Now when we look at it, we can see the figure and still imagine the stone as it was. It seems that this pattern can be appropriated to the above: the cascading brook, that I see it in present time while imagining the history preceding it.

The stone also presents its own history. That is, the powdery blue color, and the brown and white veins throughout. In a way, these details allude to the history of the stone, its many years of formation into the creation we see. If we combine this thought with the story that Massie is offering us, then we have multiple historical referents; one of nature, and one from the artist. The former is timeless while the latter borrows timelessness.

Yet, we can view the sculpture without considering any of the above. That it forms a new starting point, an objectification of a past experience that will never disappear because it is shared with the viewer. As an object of interpretation it carries forth a passed moment as a new experience.

Copyright Michael Massie

‘Thinking Long and Intensely About Contemplation’ (anhydrite, bone, ebony, birch, brass, 5.5” by 7.5” by 2.5") :: Courtesy of the Artist

Mythological Stories

Many houses in Brigus have names. And every house is as unique as these names; all specifically built for the needs of each family. The physical layout of these houses would reveal plenty about the history of the families that built them. Perhaps it is many bedrooms for many children, windows facing the water, or a study for an academic. It all reveals some familial detail from many years ago. And the name given to these houses, gives them an identity that transcends physicality.

Mythology has been suited for many purposes over the years. As a starting point perhaps, it serves to describe natural or unusual phenomena in a personified fashion. Considering Inuit legends, there is the Mahaha, a thin but strong person-like being that would walk the frozen wilderness, and search for lost travelers to tickle them to death with its long claws. Another is the Taqriaqsuit, a group of beings that exist in a realm slightly beyond our perception (4). Although they are rarely seen, they are sometimes heard as playful giggles and mysterious footfalls. These legends appease the unknown, the mysterious dead smiles found, or other footfalls heard while alone.

Copyright Michael Massie

‘A Bow of Thanks’ (serpentine, bone, ebony, coco bolo, 5.5” by 8” by 4.25") :: Courtesy of the Artist

But what about the common, every day, and banal experiences that we may desire to narrate? Let’s consider some of Massie’s works: first, an anhydrite sculpture of an owl sitting and contemplating with eyes half closed, called “Thinking Long and Intensely about Contemplation”; second, a serpentine depiction of an owl fallen over, due to not paying attention while walking, called “Hey…Look!”; third, a serpentine figure of an owl giving a bow, titled “A Bow of Thanks”. These works were consciously prepared to depict common and everyday situations, which arguably—in our regular perspective—hold no real symbolic value. However, these events are amplified through the means that Massie chooses, the figure of the animal, the decorative highlights on the stone itself, and the life-like quality of the finished piece. In a sense, these sculptures serve to exaggerate the banal to the beautiful.

Copyright Michael Massie

‘Hey......look!’ (serpentine, bone, ebony, birch, brass, 6” by 10” by 2.5") :: Courtesy of the Artist

To offer permanence to common situations inevitably elevates it to interest, that is, the viewer will let the imagination drift beyond the immediate idea of the sculpture into narrative. Imagine a stone sculpture of a figure sleeping, and how quickly the imagination verges onto something more poetic, or even nonsensical: i.e. timeless sleeping, stone dreams, the sleeping stone, etc.

The advent of myth works in a similar manner. When it depicts common phenomena, it records the banal through poetic symbolism. And with my former explanation, mythologies that explain unknown phenomena, we still have the imagination leaping from normal events and objects to the actions of spirits, gods, and life from other dimensions, in short, it creates another historical referent that stems from the otherworldly.

Massie’s works takes a similar narrative leap. He sculpts the qualities of a situation; contingent idiosyncrasies that lend to great storytelling. For instance, his work The Endurance Game depicts a man who draped himself with a caribou skin to hide from bothersome mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are the size of small dogs—lending to the victim’s exaggerated perception of them—yet, they are not monstrous while still appearing fragile. The caribou antlers are still dangling from the skin which lends humour to the piece. Overall, the story has many meanings and insights; that either the figure was in a hurry to escape...or to participate in The Endurance Game. Is this game a cultural tradition, or just someone fooling around?

Copyright Michael Massie

‘The Endurance Game’ (serpentine, bone, ebony, brass, birch, 8.5” by 8” by 5") :: Courtesy of the Artist

Now, what of the personal mythology behind “Grandfather I Have Something to Tell You?”? Massie offers a detailed explanation of his work:

Going outside for a minute, I noticed a small bird (a “Tom Tit”, not much bigger than your thumb) which landed not far from where I was standing. I quickly went into the cabin and grabbed the pellet-gun and went back outside. Now Grandfather had always told us not to kill any animals that we didn’t eat, especially a little Tom Tit—but I aimed and pulled the trigger—and watched as the bird turned tits up—dead. Stunned and riddled with guilt and fear over what I had just done, I picked up the little bird and brought it into the cabin to show the boys… and was roundly told off for it. (5)

Copyright Michael Massie

‘Grandfather I have Something to Tell You’ (anhydrite, bone, mahogany, ebony, bird's eye maple, 17.25” by 9.25” by 12") :: Courtesy of the Artist

A mix of guilt and fear reveals in the subjects face, looking awkward enough to be confused with surprise. His feet prove the same, that he is uncertain of how to stand, or how to best approach a daunting situation. A “Tom Tit” hanging inertly behind Massie's back is bright and telling against the greyish blue stone. Even more profound than his obvious reluctance is his overpowering sense of responsibility. 

I wonder if a realistic portrait would carry the same weight, instead of the caricature presented. In a sense it would, but the caricature adds the point of view of the artist as a child, as not seeing the situation for all of its complexity save the mistake that killed an animal and the burden to follow. In the end, the depiction is not factually accurate, yet it holds an undeniable truth; affixing to the person, the experience and the young mind that experienced it.

Michael Massie uses his surrounding land to tell stories of the land, that verge on a personal mythology. And this personal mythology, is not to be believed or disbelieved, it is his mythology, because the ground of these myths are his own truths. 

Story and space cohabit and influence each other. Sometimes the land remains unchanged and the stories alter to suit the people who are reside there, and sometimes the story alters the physical, the building of a town, the many telling artifacts discovered, and today, the sculpture of Michael Massie. 



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