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Behind the Art | “Dream Journal”

Dream Journal by Sonya Shannon

“Dream Journal” @ 2014 Sonya Shannon
People often ask me which of my artworks is my personal favorite. I would have to say, “Dream Journal,” which is also by far the most misread.

Sex
—But Not The Way You Think

Maybe you glanced at this artwork and reacted, as though to a Victoria’s Secret ad. Lots of people do. Yet “Dream Journal”—besides being my most misunderstood artwork—just may be my most spiritual.

 

Sometimes it’s perception-altering to know what the artist was actually intending.

I prefer “Dream Journal” to the more popular pieces like, say, “The Narrow Gate,” “Prairie Ocean,” “Patchwork Earth,” or “Burning Down the House,” because it has been with me for most of my life. I channeled this vision in my early twenties. This artwork is a metaphysical probe into identity. It’s about accepting and owning the specific gender you’ve been assigned and all that entails: discrete rights and responsibilities, mystical potentialities and karmic dictums. It’s at once very personal and yet profoundly universal. It’s about sex, but not in the way you might think. It’s a resounding YES! exactly where you might expect a NO. It is about accepting all people, regardless of their gender or orientation, starting with yourself.

The Problematic Conception

female shapes, sketched by Sonya Shannon

Female shapes, sketched after a dream July 1, 1991.

When I was thirteen I was told without pretext or context that, at puberty the main girl in my life would be turning into a man—instead of a woman. Though today she is a woman (and an extraordinary one!), as a young teen I had no information and no way to comprehend what I’d been told. So I braced myself. What if, when my puberty came, I’d be the one to transform from a girl into a man—or perhaps a half-and-half?

 

Woah! Denial and overwhelm set it. I didn’t really see why I needed a gender. The thought of being neither male nor female seemed more angelic, somehow…more like a child and…a great way to forestall childhood’s end…

 

Long after I ended up as a “normal” young woman, I wondered how it would be living as both genders, or neither, or something in-between.

Back in 1972, we had rudimentary “egg and sperm” explanations of sex but no mention of sexuality. Gay and Lesbian were barely beginning to be mouthed in open conversation. The term “transgender” hadn’t been coined and its closest ancestor was the ancient “hermaphrodite.” A mythology book whispered its meaning to me: one who is half man, half woman. I was forbidden to speak of this issue with anyone, especially not the person it involved.

 

At the same time, as a young artist I couldn’t help but page through hundreds of female nudes and only one nude male: Michelangelo’s “David.” Was I supposed to paint nude women? Or was I to become the naked model? The whole world looked safer—and easier—from the man’s viewpoint.

 

 

Silence fuels the imagination… I soon lost myself in an inverted fantasy-world where I was a boy, and Goddess ruled in place of God. I walked around interpreting everything in this way. How does a girl (or anyone, for that matter) prepare to become a man? I wondered. At the gates of adulthood, what does it mean to be one gender and not the other anyway? How different is a man from a woman—or are they essentially the same, as in equal?

 

Gender, even more profoundly than race, rules our identity.

Dress was unisex in the seventies. Women had fought—and won!—the right to work alongside men. Young women began to support themselves—and were expected and encouraged to do so. Growing up in the age of women’s lib, I was told I could do any job—with one exception: my Grade 11 science teacher warned me a woman would never make it as a neurosurgeon. So changing genders (to a pubescent person) seemed largely a psychological question of which emotions were allowed: anger was legal and even desirable for boys—but never fear or sadness. Girls could cry with pain and sorrow, or shriek with fear, but anger was strictly forbidden.

 

It was time to dig in my heels and love myself for the gender in which I’d been born: female.

I eventually got a “unisex” job as a computer animator (I was the first and only woman at one facility where I worked). I “nerded” my way alongside the guys, though in 1982 it was still “a Man’s World”: I was paid one-fifth (1/5) what men with the equivalent ability made. Eat that for dinner! So I certainly fantasized (and cried!) about what it would be like to be a man, how much more money and power I might have had, how much clout and recognition, hey—how many chums! I had sliced my toe on the political-religious slants of gender. Regardless how deeply I froze my feelings or steeped in the cross-gender fantasy, I couldn’t change who I was. It was time to dig in and love myself for the gender in which I’d been born: female.

Dream Journal pencil sketch

“Dream Journal” @ 1980 Sonya Shannon.
The original pencil sketch was about being half-awake and half in the dream state.

The Artwork

In 2012 I was poring over some journals. I had just developed the cinematic style of art and was searching for subjects to explore. As an artist, and also as a way to work through growing up to maturity, I have kept many a journal of thoughts, sketches, and dreams. I came across mystical symbols and writing from a particularly vivid dream I’d had when I first got involved with the man who is now my husband.

 

In July 1991, I dreamed a flood of mysterious shapes and symbols unfurled from transparent ferns and floated fish-like underwater. On waking, a great and blissful awakened trembled through my soul. I was haunted by these symbols and made several sketches (one is above). I knew they were part of a mystical language I needed to decipher, but I didn’t know how.

 

In retrospect, it was obvious that my husband awoke in me levels of being never touched before. When people connect on the highest spiritual and intellectual planes, by reflection they connect on equally profound depths. Through him, I fully experienced my gender for the first time—it was at once embodied and disembodied or contemplative. As though in a dream or a vision, I saw that “female” truly was Earth, that female bodies are an extension of the great Mother in which all new life is planted. Everyone knows this, but there was the moment of awakening and opening to a higher consciousness which cannot be described, only experienced. This awakening is what “Dream Journal” expresses. It is a young woman’s awakening to the secret of her oneness with Mother, Mater, matter. She is the field into which life roots. Her face is not seeing reality, but instead views the mystery of the dream, the moment barely glimpsed in the altered meditative state. She cannot quite take in the meaning, but her consciousness is shifted. She KNOWS.

 

When I studied an ancient healing technique, Sat Nam Rasayan, I learned to enter the meditative state through the dream portal. This arcane skill helps the practitioner reach a place of “śūnya” (Sanskrit) or absolute emptiness. This hollow void is also profoundly feminine, passive as the field, waiting in utter stillness. “Dream Journal” is acceptance of gender. It is acceptance of All, and acceptance of Nothing. Consciousness is the void in which the cosmos has planted itself and grown. Compassion for all beings, regardless of gender, persuasion, preference, or lack thereof, is the interpenetration of wisdom and love.