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SOUL MEMORIES: The Mystical Paintings of Joanna Ballard
by Janice Stensrude
published in Uptown Express June 1994

[A few of Joanna Ballard's paintings may be viewed at http://www.artaddiction.net/members/ballard/ballard.htm]

The artist, a veteran of New York galleries, is bending over a painting in progress, examining it closely. "What craft! What craft!" he exclaims.

Really?" she responds in wondrous delight.

Joanna Ballard knows she has a talent, but has never quite become accustomed to the recognition of her peers. Though Ballard's clients are aware they own fine paintings, few are aware of the difficulty of water color as a fine-art medium. Ballard's original style, which frequently includes an egg-glaze technique she devised to reach translucency with refractive light, is a wonder to artists who understand the difficulty in her chosen medium.

Ballard grew up beneath the shadow of Machu Picchu in Peru and remembers her father's stories of the mysteries of Lake Titicaca and the history of the Incan people. As a science-fiction writer, he fed the fertile mind of his daughter. "I loved the drawings in the Oz books and in Edgar Rice Burroughs works and the artists in science fiction." says Ballard.

Ballard's magical childhood environment foretold the direction of her art. As a child, the favorite subject of her drawings was horses. Now her subjects are distinctly and realistically human, amid a rich pattern of symbolism.

Art as healer has been the impetus of Ballard's work since the early 1970s when, as a mental health worker, she developed art classes for emotionally disturbed juveniles and taught self discovery and life enrichment classes to adults.

In college, she majored in psychology and minored in art. The college art classes emphasized oil painting, and she continued in this medium until 1977, when she switched to pencil and began to study under Houston artist Robert McCoy. Because of its intimacy, Ballard claims pencil as an art form itself, rather than a prelude to art. "I was intrigued with lacy things I saw in nature and the intricacy that pencil could give me," says Ballard, "so intricate I could walk into the pencil and see other things."

Following her "pencil period," Ballard became interested in water color. Concurrently, her studies in metaphysical philosophies introduced her to the way the ancients related the form of Hebrew letters to certain numbers. Ballard saw a rich symbolism in the system and conceived the idea of formulating a painting through the numbers in a birth date. What evolved was her "Soul Memories," paintings springing from the artist's vision fed by the symbolism of the numbers.

"The results were uncanny," states Ballard. "Each person for whom I painted had a soul recognition or encounter that began for them a highly meaningful and interactive healing journey or resolution."

From the beginning, unusual things happened with Ballard's commissioned paintings. A man in California, who had commissioned his own birth-date painting several years before, commissioned another for his wife's birthday. When the painting was near completion, Ballard found that she had been working from an incorrect birth date. "I had to start over," she says. "The colors were all wrong." Months after the completed portrait had been shipped to California, the owner was visiting in Houston and called to meet the artist. "It is a portrait of her," Ballard exclaims in amazement. Never having met the woman, Ballard's visions nonetheless had led her to paint a remarkable likeness of the owner, garbed in robes from another era and framed in a rich border of flora and fauna.

Another commissioned painting became the face and form of a departed friend of the paintings owner. A moving characterization of angels with strong, bird-like wings, executed for a healing arts program, depicted details at the time of death of the program director's mother.

For one of the birth-date paintings, Ballard was moved to use strong geometric forms, very unusual for her work. Walking through the center of the piece was a slender man with a small red dot over his heart. "I didn't know why the red dot," she explains, "I just knew it belonged there. The owner was stunned. "That's my brother!" he said. "He died of a heart attack last year."

Another commissioned work was for a woman who wanted a portrait of her daughter who, 12 years before at the age of 16, had been a victim of a serial killer. Ballard worked from a photograph, adding elements that she chose intuitively -- a string of pearls, a dove, red berries. By now, Ballard had become accustomed to her work having a life of its own. When the mother called to ask of the progress on the painting, Ballard told her of her added elements. "She had a string of pearls that broke the day she was kidnapped," the client said. And the berries were the red berries that grew in the woods where the girl loved to go each fall.

Does the artist find dead people coming to life in her work macabre or depressing? "Oh, no," says Ballard. "There was a message of comfort and love for the survivors, a feeling that everything was alright and they could go on with their lives. I feel wonderful that my painting could be a part of their healing."

Birth and death are not the only inadvertent components of Ballard's work. When she undertook a birth-date painting for a doctor friend, the period of conception took much longer than usual.

"When I started to go in meditation over the letters that belong to the numbers, I had a vision, and it was of the gesture of a woman in moonlight, so that you only saw a frail ray of moonlight in almost a dance gesture at a very long distance away, and it was on water. Moonlight kept coming down that water, and cliffs were way up in back of that. And immediately the word Lila went through the scenario."

This vision led to a series of questions. The first that sprang to her mind was the historical period. She explains, "This is moonlight; this is the moon period. Now the moon period is our early Eocene to late Eocene period. That is when the earth is mostly moisture and heat creating the steam. In allegorical myth it's the time of the advent of Jehovah and angels. But in physiological time, it has to do with things -- giant plants. In the history of the arcane, we have that, in later periods, the entities of races that were forming were taught the rudiments of arts and sciences in temples. I looked it up and put it at the dawning of the Atlantean period."

The finished painting, of a white-skinned nude female standing in the water of a temple pond, is in hues of blue with splashes of vibrant color. In the foreground, emerging from the water, is a hand, a component that came late in the conceptual process. The artist describes a feeling of knowing something was missing, and then the hand "arrived." She laughs, "I said, Ahhh, the hand! The hand is beckoning home. Well, this has to do with the creative life force and also the procreative in Hebrew, and the whole term Lila means the delight of the creative act, which is back to integration into physical, into self-awareness.

"The waters and the temple reflect this collective unconscious from which it emerges. I began the painting with just creating the water of the inner temple, and it seemed right to create water. On one level [the painting] is a history of memory, on another level a psychological or physical occurrence, and on another level it's just strictly an art piece."

And as the painting was finished, its owner was in the early stages of a new romance. When his new love interest saw the painting, she was struck with recognition. "I have seen those colors and that imagery before in dreams," she now explains. "I looked at it and said, That's my painting!" The couple, who will be married this month, each have their own very personal tie to the painting, which now hangs in the doctor's bedroom. Like gazing at the clouds and finding shapes of animals and objects, they have both found faces hidden in the artist's brush strokes.

"A face in the water?" says Ballard in surprise. They point out to her a half dozen images of facial features in various parts of the painting. "Oh dear, oh dear," the artist murmurs, "I had no intention of putting any face anywhere."

"Every time you look at it, you can see something different," comments the painting's owner.

It's one of those things that you know you've seen before and then you see it again -- like these dreams that you have and you find yourself going around the corner and meeting yourself," states the bride-to-be. "I believe everything comes from water," she adds. "That's what everything is born from, and in my lifetime those are the shades of colors that I've surrounded myself with. It was very weird for me when I was first coming over here and saw that painting and thought, It's so weird for a man to have this type of painting."

"It's protective. It's kind of like a mother," he responds.

"I understand that," she counters, "but the typical male doesn't need anyone to protect him."

"Yeah, they do. They just don't know." He smiles.

"It showed a side of you to me that you were gentle and you did have awareness," she says.

"That made me feel very safe with him and it was very comforting," she says, addressing the artist.

Ballard reflects, "The painting has had some of its people restored to it, as opposed to the painting being restored to the people. It seems like the painting has come home. Or Lila has come home. The memory has been restored to its appropriate owners."

Ballard summarizes her "Soul Memories" work: "I get visions of someone else's soul memories, and then I access them and translate it into a composition of reflected images. In my process, I'm taking a lot of text that I'm writing down, and I'm reconverting the text back into symbolic visual for a reason. It's almost as if this is a Tarot reading, or it's your own Tarot card or your own totem or your own fetish. It's so highly personal to each individual."

Ballard's training in Tarot symbolism has had a great influence on the subject matter of her work. "The Tarot," she explains, "is an anagram of a wheel, and in an esoteric sense, is a great and living legend of a universal soul. Jung refers to it as a collective unconscious. I don't refer to it as unconscious but as a triunal of supersensuous consciousness of creative will, subconscious collective memory and everyday waking consciousness. My training was about bringing subconscious memory." She describes her mystical philosophy studies as a training of the subconscious for a disciplined psychism, utilizing conscious meditation and active imagination.

"This training with archetypal images," she continues, "safely sensitized or conditioned and awakened my subconscious to respond to certain symbolism. In using a visual sensorium, I access information which is composed into a painting. Since it can be very dangerous to access another person's unconscious complexes and paint them as a reflection, which could evoke in them a gestalt energy for which they would be unprepared, I take care to create safe images -- images that reflect the highest aspirations of soul memory. It is not my place to illuminate feared images, nor do I! I'm not trying to get them to meet their shadow, their unresolved areas. In memory in the subconscious, we have thousands of images. The Hebrew letters are in themselves books that lead me in vision and research. From research I get a visual sensorium -- a visual language.

"All my art is begun with an alpha state, allowing right brain imagery to feed left brain thought. My message is the mystical union of man and nature, and the main thrust in my work is utilizing decorative themes or symbolic themes from eastern and western ancient peoples."

Ballard does not consider herself a channel. "What happens is the whole stream of consciousness comes through whether I'm writing or talking. That is what I call my entire self. It starts coming through as if I'm just sitting here talking, and it isn't something that I ask for."

Ballard has completed the first painting in a series depicting black women as mythological archetypes. "Life began in Africa," she explains, "and this first painting, The Bride, is the beginning. She is the virgin, being infused or impregnated with spirit before she appears among her people." Ballard researched the physical characteristics of various tribes in arriving at her central figure. Interjecting a personal statement, her female figure holds an African king's staff, a symbol of power.

Also completed are the first two paintings in a series of giant flowers. And then there's the book yet to be begun -- 22 paintings that are reflections on the Hebrew letters and the major arcana of the Tarot.

"When I close my eyes," she says, "I see the images of paintings already done. Yesterday I saw four paintings of roses and angels. These are to be an exploration in preparation of my book. They will be roses with reflections -- the reflections of the pool of consciousness."

"My head is so full of paintings," she exclaims. "I don't know how I'll ever get it all done."

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