Essay for CATHEDRALS Exhibition


“In the cathedral the wind and the trees sang a vesper song. And I prayed for quite a time long little prayers and long prayers for the goodness of us all.” –from Opal Whiteley’s diary[i]

“The word [cathedral”] is derived from the Greek kathedra through the Latin cathedra, throne, elevated seat. In early ecclesiastical literature it always conveyed the idea of authority.”- From The Catholic Encyclopedia [ii]

Sketch for "Cathedral 6 (Pink Light)"

Opal Whiteley (1897-1992) was an amateur naturalist and a poet.  As a child she lived in a rural logging community near Cottage Grove, Oregon.  Between the ages of 6 and 7 years old she wrote a diary, which was published in 1920 as “The Story of Opal.”[i]  The diary focuses on her uniquely religious relationship with nature. Opal became a celebrity when the diary was first published, and it is after that point that her story changes course.  In brief, Opal led an eccentric life, traveled widely, wrote, was accused of fraud, questioned her parentage, struggled to write, and ended up destitute, delusional, and institutionalized for schizophrenia.[ii]  Today, several biographies exist that explore the fascinating details of her life, but few are as compelling a read as her own childhood diary.

On the surface, the diary is about an imaginative young girl with many animal friends.  On closer examination, the star of the text is not Opal, but her relationship with the nature of her neighborhood and the “cathedrals” therein.  Opal knows her neighborhood by what it is bounded by: the “far woods,” the “near woods,” the fields, the clouds and wind, and the “singing creek.” These are the places she routinely visits in the text, places that take on a special meaning for her.

These sites become dynamic characters in the text, as dynamic as any of the human or animal characters. Many of these places speak to her, their voices quite clear. Her best “friends” are two majestic pine trees that literally hold her when she needs comfort.  The creek and stars sing to her.  The grasses whisper of a bountiful springtime to come.  The wind urges her to go exploring, or as she calls it, going “on explores.”  These voices of the natural world (which can now be interpreted as harbingers of a mental disorder,) appear to sustain her, even in dark times. She describes their voices matter-of-factly, as personable, benevolent. These are the most riveting parts of the diary: the scenes in which she slips into the space of the visionary.  These liminal experiences, which are simultaneously mystical, imaginative, and hallucinatory experiences, are grounded in the body, the mind, and in everyday nature.

Opal Whiteley, as she appeared in the frontispeice of her self-published book of nature poetry, "The Fairyland Around Us," 1918.

Quite regularly throughout the text Opal goes to her “cathedral” to pray and to celebrate the “borning days” (birthdays) and “going away days” (death days) of saints, friends, and historical figures. Going to the cathedral is a solitary exercise, save for the company of her animal companions.  These almost Catholic excursions make up a cyclical rhythm to the book: whenever something particularly wonderful or difficult occurs, Opal will go to the cathedral for a service.  Her religion is self-styled.  The services are hybrid blends of poetry, songs, and wishes for the future. Hymns are sung, but the cathedral itself is never fully rendered.

In the fall of 2010 I visited the lane where Opal lived when she wrote the diary.  I went with my father, an Opal scholar, and Steve Williamson, one of the world’s foremost experts on Opal.  Having lived in and studied Opal’s neighborhood for many years, Williamson knows where each and every specially named spot in the diary is located.  He drove us from site to site on this tour, getting out of the car to walk around whenever possible.  I asked Williamson where Opal’s “cathedral” was. He replied, “Opal made cathedrals everywhere!  You know how kids are; they find a special spot, play in it, then find a new special spot. They can shut themselves off and be in their own pretend world…. (S) he was also able to do this as a teenager when most of us have lost the ability to imagine a world of our own just next to the so-called real world. That’s how she was able to have cathedrals around the woods. In Opal’s world view all of nature was sacred so a cathedral could be made anywhere.”[iii]  Knowing this made all the difference.

The "Singing Creek" as it appears today

For Opal, it was not that these spots were aesthetically superior, rare, or magical in and of themselves, but that they held the potential to be what she needed them to be, on creative, emotional, and spiritual levels. These places became sacred sites, for Opal’s world was in a constant state of becoming: she was not separate from the natural world; rather she was utterly embodied in it, defined in sensual, energetic relation to the living things around her. This is an experience that she and I share.

Art critic Dave Hickey has described this as the phenomenon of the “soft self,” the haunting experience that many creative people have of a dissolution of the self into the natural world: a feeling sometimes awesome, and oftentimes overwhelming.[iv] This dissolution is both a loss of self and a commingling or a loosening of the self’s boundaries with that which is considered “nature.” This type of experience is not necessarily a blissful state, nor is it indicative of a reflective, passive state of mind.  Opal’s common complaint of loneliness may have been a result of her singular and peculiar perspective of the world and her place within it.

Where are the lines that designate the boundaries of self and not self in these liminal religious or psychological states?[v]  While I cannot claim to know exactly what Opal saw, I suspect that what she experienced in these visionary moments must have surpassed language- that even the most poetic words cannot adequately describe the rawness of such an experience of self as it becomes utterly enmeshed in the materiality of the world. Opal’s own descriptions of hearing the voices of the wind, soil, and plants are an attempt to describe that which is actually indescribable, and as indescribable, these experiences must find form somehow, if not through language, than through sensations, through actions.

“Friends,” 40” x 60 3/16” Oil on canvas 2011

This kind of experience exists within the spectrum between hallucination, imagination, and mystical vision: a categorization that shifts depending upon the subject’s historical and cultural context. Michel Foucault calls the vision of the mad a kind of “dazzlement.”[vi]  Those who see the world through the lens of dazzlement, experience a vision of the world that is at times almost too close to the Real, to the materiality of the physical world.  In Opal’s case this closeness may have threatened the integrity of her identity.[vii] While her own depictions of these moments are overwhelmingly positive, the child Opal best categorized these experiences not through words, but through performing rituals in her makeshift cathedrals.

My paintings are an attempt to convey this feeling; the subject being sites in my neighborhood that resemble the places Opal called “cathedrals” in her diary. I have named the paintings after her sites and her visions.  These are our cathedrals: our transitory, imaginary, roofless sanctuaries- humble sites that offer up the possibility of one’s own seat of religious authority, one’s own “cathedra.”

[i] Whiteley, Opal Stanley, and Benjamin Hoff. The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow: the Mystical Nature Diary of Opal Whiteley: with a Biography and an Afterword. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

[ii] Beck, K. K. Opal: a Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness. New York: Viking, 2003. Print.

[iii] “Opal Tour.” Personal interview. 2 Oct. 2010.

[iv] Hickey, Dave. “Burchfield’s Highway.” Heat Waves in a Swamp: the Paintings of Charles Burchfield. By Robert Gober. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2009. 41. Print.

[v] Grosz, E. A. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.

[vi] Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: a History of Insanity in the Age of Reason; London: Tavistock Publications, 1967. 243. Print.

[vii] Foster, Hal. “Blinded Insights: On the Modernist Reception of the Art of the Mentally Ill.” October 3-30 97.Summer (2001). Art Full Text. Web. 6 Aug. 2010.

“Cathedral” 6 (Pink Light) 12” x 10” Oil on panel 2011


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Filed under Art and Mental Illness, Art and Mystical Experience, Embodied Experience, Nature, Opal Whiteley, What Opal Means

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