Strands of Prayer: The Archetypal Artist

Untitled design (43)-2Mary Antonia Wood is the Chair of the M.A. in Depth Psychology and Creativity with Emphasis in the Arts and Humanities at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and has published The Archetypal Artist: Reimagining Creativity and the Call to Create, a book that addresses the confluence of Jungian and archetypal psychologies, the artist, the shaman, and creativity itself. I’m delighted to speak with her about her new book.

Angela: The Archetypal Artist does not shy away from the big questions, Mary! You begin the first chapter asking “What is the soul?” And more specifically, the type of soul work facilitated by the shaman, including the cave painters of Lascaux and Les Trois-Frères, the archetypal ancestors of the artist. In your estimation, what is the relationship between creativity and the soul?

Mary: The kinship between the soul and creativity is something that I felt compelled to explore first and foremost for myself as a creator. The first challenge is that the soul resists definition—the same is true for creativity. We commonly think of both as possessions, but these popular notions have impoverished our sense of soul and have limited our personal and collective creative expression. In the early chapters of the book, I look at both soul and creativity from a myriad of angles as one might turn a jewel over in one’s hand to experience every facet. The soul can be imagined as a world located between the world of the senses and the world of the spirit, or the ineffable; the soul is the fertile and generative middle ground between the two. The soul has also been imagined or personified as a being, a personal guide that nonetheless has a life of its own. There’s a reason that the name “anima” was associated with the soul long before it became part of the Jungian lexicon. Anima shares the same roots as animate and animation. The soul animates, it brings things into life, it brings us into life, it is the quintessential creator. The soul is also a psychopomp, a world-bridger, mediator and guide. Mediation between worlds is a key element of a shamanic sensibility that links the very first artists/magicians/healers to contemporary creators.

Angela: You mention John Berger’s assertion that painting was a form of creating magical kinship, at first between the cave painters and their animal prey, but perhaps in the long history of humanity, it marks the nature of all art.

“The strands of magic that Berger identified as a kinship between the ancient cave painter and the contemporary artist could also be described as strands of prayer—a yearning for blessing and a desire to bless in turn.” –Mary A. Wood, The Archetypal Artist

That phrase, “strands of prayer,” struck me, as a writer and a painter. Please say more about the strands of prayer we are making as we create our different forms of art, and how does this intertwine with shamanism, the descent below to the soul?

Untitled design (46)Mary: In its most potent form, artmaking is a power akin to magic. The fact that we need to be reminded of this reveals the dominance of both the marketplace and our largely unexamined puritanical biases that position artmaking as a frivolous, self-centered “feel good” activity, or a pursuit focused on entertainment and decoration. I’m not proposing that there’s something inherently wrong with entertainment and decoration, in fact both can oftentimes be soulful and transformative. You’ve probably noticed that I challenge the barriers between fine art and so-called commercial or popular art in reimagining what art “is” and what it can do. Berger’s observations on art and magic are echoed by a myriad of other voices, both ancient and contemporary. As Jung’s brilliant colleague, Marie-Louse von Franz asserted, the shaman, and those who share a shamanic sensibility, are not the ones who are performing the healing or transformation; they are the humble conduits who submit themselves to powers greater than themselves. These powers work through them. Regarding the connection to prayer, I can do no better than Franz Kafka, who stated that, “art, like prayer, is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace that will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts.” Artists bestow gifts of revelation, understanding, empathy, initiation, healing, and transformation. Poet Stanley Kunitz proclaimed that when our creative work has truly touched someone, it is as though we’ve offered a blessing; we in turn feel blessed through the encounter.

Angela: In Chapter 4, you focus on “the development of archetypal psychology—which was deliberately aligned from its inception with the arts and humanities” and also on the work of James Hillman, whose work provides one of the philosophical cornerstones of Pacifica scholarship.

“[Hillman] expanded the idea of the therapist and recovered the word’s etymological roots in the Greek therapeutes to include individuals attending to the seen and unseen world with awareness, devotion, courage, vulnerability and artistry – the very same poetic sensibility shared by artists and makers.” –Mary A. Wood, The Archetypal Artist

I’m intrigued by the idea of the artist both as an archetype and a therapist. Are we, in fact, healing ourselves and others when we engage in the creative process, when we inquire into the unseen?

Untitled design (44)-2Mary: You mention archetypes, and there’s been a tremendous swell of interest in the concept of archetypes in recent years. I make it clear in the book (as our faculty does at Pacifica) that one cannot “be” an archetype. We can, however, be influenced, driven, or claimed by archetypal patterns and energies. A sensitive eye attuned to archetypes will see these forces at work in every arena of human life, from family dynamics to politics. Through the crafting of objects and experiences, artists can bring these forces into focus for the benefit of all. Archetypes per se are inherently formless but they show up in archetypal images. “Image” is yet another term that takes some time and care to understand. Images, as understood in a depth psychological sense, are not pictures, but “picturings,” they’re emanations from the imagination. The imagination is the enigmatic fire that fueled the work of James Hillman and continues to fuel archetypal psychology. It’s not a psychology of archetypes, as one might think from the name, it is a psychology of the creative imagination. The value of archetypal psychology for the modern creator includes the fact that Hillman did not consider artists and creators to be special types of human beings set apart from others or elevated above them. On the contrary, he articulated the role of artists and creators to be closer to the bricoleur and the therapeutes. The former is a type of humble craftsperson who transforms the bits and scraps of the ordinary into the extraordinary—the “muck” of life, like the “muck of the studio or writing desk is where the action is. The therapeutes is an attendant to the divine, a servant of soul-making. Creators attend to the sufferings of the world in equal measure to the traditional therapist. To link this point back to your thoughts on the shaman/healer, I’d offer the words of Andreas Lommel from his classic book Shamanism: The Beginnings of Art: “Without artistic creation of some form or another, there is no shaman.” It is our culture’s bias toward specialization that prevents us from seeing and nurturing the intertwined roles of artist and therapist.

Angela: Your conclusion evokes the crossroads, a magical place in any song or story I’ve ever heard, a place where you might make a life-changing bargain with a mythical presence. But you refer to it more in the sense of a sacred place or the axis mundi, center of the world.

“The soul, the creative, and the artist are all residents of the crossroads. More accurately, they are the crossroads, the places of movement, exchange, revelation, manifestation, and transformation.” –Mary A. Wood, The Archetypal Artist

For anyone whose parents ever told them they couldn’t major in art because it wasn’t a sensible career, you’ve shot the importance of the artist into the stratosphere. In working with creatives in your classes at Pacifica, do you find that even people who have had successful careers in creative endeavors, as well as those new to it, transform themselves or their conception of themselves by thinking of the artist as important carriers of archetypal patterns such as you’ve described? How have you seen their creative expression change or grow from this?

Mary: Yes, many times. Each of these instances of transformation has been accompanied by a sense of wonder for all who witness it; this of course, incudes the creative individuals (our incredible maker/scholars) themselves. That’s the magic that this program has been known for. We live in a culture of control where creative individuals, with their powers to awaken us to injustice, are seen as a threat. Of course, those in control do not want to be challenged. Artists throughout history have been on the forefront of naming and showing what most people simply sleepwalk past each day. We diminish ourselves and our vital, necessary powers when we accept the widely held notions of the artist as a sort of courtier to the elite and/or a self-indulgent dreamer. Artists, like their ancestors, the shamans, are indeed dreamers, but they dream with eyes open. We would do well to listen to their dreams and model our lives upon theirs. You’ll see James Hillman making this very same claim in his own words in Chapter Five of The Archetypal Artist.

Angela: In May and June you will offer a course over six Saturdays called “The Archetypal Artist: Reimagining Creativity and the Call to Create.” Is this course inspired by your book and which topics are you most looking forward to exploring during the course?

Untitled design (45)-1Mary: Yes, the series will follow the trajectory of the book beginning with an exploration of the origins of depth psychology and why this collection of disciplines is so incredibly valuable for the contemporary artist/creator/maker. Week by week, we’ll explore the call to create through the insights of a “dream team” of creators and scholars from the past and present. Jung and Hillman will certainly make their appearance, but so will lesser-known masters such as Erich Neumann and Elizabeth Gordon. These will be intertwined with equally powerful insights of creators themselves from across continents, cultures, and centuries. Every week will offer opportunities to create in a variety of media alongside our intellectual engagement. It will be a communal journey of experimentation and conversation aimed at reorienting and revaluing ourselves as creators in a world that needs our gifts.

Angela: The program you oversee at Pacifica recently had a name change from “M.A. in Engaged Humanities and the Creative Life with Emphasis in Depth Psychology” to “M.A. in Depth Psychology and Creativity with Emphasis in the Arts and Humanities.” How does this better express the program and what do you see ahead for it as the Chair? Was The Archetypal Artist inspired by your work there?

Mary: The book was most definitely inspired by my work in the program. It is dedicated to the extraordinary students that I’ve had the good fortune to get to know, as well as to the brilliant and generous professors who became my own mentors. I have learned so much from all of them and see the book as an offering of reciprocity and gratitude.

Our new program name brings to the forefront the two most important things that our students come to us for: depth psychology and creativity. The arts and humanities are the arenas where we witness and participate in the power of creative work. Our innovative curriculum will not change even as we constantly strive to ensure that our classes reflect the diversity and complexity of our modern world; this includes ensuring that the material that we engage with is actually appliable to students’ lives in the world.

Angela: Thank you so much for talking with me and for the artistry and scholarship you brought to The Archetypal Artist.

All artwork was created by Mary.

Book Cover image: “The Sorceress”

“Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman”


“The Artist”

Want more of this content? Join us for our upcoming THE ARCHETYPAL ARTIST: REIMAGINING CREATIVITY AND THE CALL TO CREATE program beginning May 7th.  Register here:


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.


Mary Antonia Wood is Chair of the M.A. in Depth Psychology and Creativity with Emphasis in the Arts and Humanities program, and the founder of Talisman Creative Mentoring, a practice that supports artists and creators of all types. Wood has been a visual artist for over thirty years, working in a variety of media. Her work has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions and has been collected by both individuals and public institutions such as the National Hispanic Cultural Center, the Eiteljorg Museum of the West, and the City of Santa Fe, NM. In addition, she has collaborated with fellow writers and artists on public art commissions and presents frequent talks and workshops at Jungian societies around the US. She is the author of The Archetypal Artist: Reimagining Creativity and the Call to Create (Routledge 2022). Wood teaches a variety of classes in DCH, including Creativity and Aesthetic Sensibility, The Purpose and Power of Image, The Complex Nature of Inspiration, and Project Workshop I and II (program capstone courses). She has also served as Co-Chair of DJA (Depth Psychology with Specialization in Jungian and Archetypal studies) and co-taught The Soul’s Code in that program.