Transformational vessel

For the past few months, I’ve been feeling restless, on the cusp of a new horizon, like I am beside myself and don’t know quite who this new person is that I am becoming.  My experience of menopause is of a very deep and powerful transformation.  I’ve been feeling very alone in it too, but recently I have been having conversations with women in my life and on Facebook.  I’ve found some blogs and websites and have bought a few books.  I am coming to realise that each woman’s experience of menopause is as individual as her thumbprint, even though there are many commonalities.  I am also discovering that I, and many other women, view this transition as a deep journey and a time of coming into real power and profound Self-knowing.  I absolutely do not label menopause as an anomalous state to be ashamed of or as an illness to be medicated away.   Still, it isn’t an easy time for me.  My artwork is my medicine.

One of my friends and Steve said to me in the past week, ‘Draw how you’re feeling’.  My friend asked, What will you draw?  And with what?’  I answered, ‘This place I am in and maybe it will be a self-portrait.  I’ll use water-soluble pastels and maybe acrylic paints.  I have some canvasses!’  Steve said, ‘Maybe you should just make some artwork.  It will help you and maybe other people too.  It’ll be brilliant.  You’re brilliant’. 🙂

But I needed to feel into myself a bit more first.  It isn’t so much that I feel beside a duplicate of me.  More like there is a new empty space inside of me, new territory to explore and it’s scary.  I could talk about it with my friend and she knew what I was talking about.  I feel very grounded with Steve and it’s like he holds me and I’m holding this void.  There is this space for a new something.  A new something to emerge and a new place for me to inhabit and in the process, I am becoming someone new as I enter this new place.  It’s all of this.

I was peeling shallots on Sunday night.  You know how the bulb is wrapped in many layers of tissue-y skin, and then the flesh emerges?


Sometimes there are two bulbs curved into each other, or the one bulb is split in two, but is still contained within the whole.  That’s how it is.


I woke up the next morning and brought my wax pastels to bed and drew this picture.  To my surprise, ue-cetto, water snake in Muscogee, came to hold the space around my becoming.  In our view of the cosmos, the water snake or water serpent or water panther inhabits the Lower World.  I have so many books and websites that I have been visiting.  I can’t lay my hands on the source right now, but I’ve read that the Lower World is associated with the feminine, with creativity, with chaos.

I wrote some words about the water snake wrapping herself around me into a transformational vessel.


the place I know where dwells the me I know . . . . .

I decided to paint it with dip pen & India ink and water-soluble crayons, pencils and pastels.  I used a piece of 250 gsm mixed media A3 size paper.


First, I drew the design in pencil.  My eyes are now closed and my hand reaches through the membrane separating me from the void.


ue-cetto encircles me.


I love drawing with a dip pen.  I love the fluidity of the nib over the paper and the dipping into the ink pot.   I erased the pencil lines once I had finished.


And then I put all of the colours in.


I wrote a poem, ue-cetto (water snake).

(water snake)

She comes to me in the watery depths
and wraps herself around me.
A transformational vessel
This place I know
but I am beside myself
Where dwells the Me I know?
She holds my death and rebirth . . . . .
for a dark, deep time.
Deep we dive,
which way is up?
Up and down no longer matter
She holds me in the dark.
Dark, dark, dark and deep.
Deeper still.
My hands become my eyes
as I feel my way into a new place.
No longer beside myself
New horizons beckon.

-Melinda Schwakhofer, 2015

I wrote some of the lines of the poem onto the painting.


A powerful image from the Eastern Woodland ancestors of the Muscogee is the hand with the eye embedded in the palm.



She holds my death and rebirth . . . . . for a dark, deep time . . . . .


.  .  .  .  .  which way is up? Up and down no longer matter . . . . .


In order to place the complete poem well onto the margin, I first wrote it on a slip of paper.  Then I counted up the lines and penciled them onto the margin.



After writing the poem with grey ink, I erased the lines.



Here is the complete painting with the poem, which I may or may not keep intact.


Here are both images together.


I have a square canvas and acrylic paints.  I will paint this again and see how it continues to transform.  My artwork carries my transformation/journey which inhabits my artwork.


Perro, Hvcce and Oi-kåtca

I’ve been feeling a bit lost recently.  I’m in a transition from one phase of life to another and traveling, traveling on my journey into my Muscogee identity and heritage.  Not quite sure where I am going.  Wanting to know my destination before I arrive, to be there and forgetting about the importance of the journey.   I remembered that my artwork carries me and helps me to make sense of where I am.

In last Monday’s art class, made a boat, perro in Muscogee, pronounced /pithlo/.



I made a river, hvcce /hachi/ to carry it.



Interestingly, a Water Panther, Oi-kåtca /we-katcha/ came to be in the river.  This water being was a major component of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of the Mississippian culture in the prehistoric American Southeast.  It is related to the Tie Snake, which is a figure in the mythos of the Southeastern tribes.

In Native American mythologies of the Great Lakes, underwater panthers are described as water monsters that live in opposition to the Thunderers, masters of the powers of the air who live in the Upper World. Underwater Panthers, who inhabit the Lower World are seen as an opposing yet complementary force to the Thunderers, and they are engaged in eternal conflict.  In the Muscogee world view, people, animals, birds an all other creatures live in This World.  Harmony comes when the tensions and conflict of the Upper and Lower Worlds are held in balance.


Underwater panther was an amalgam of features from many animals: the body of a wild feline, often a mountain lion or lynx; the horns of deer or bison; upright scales on its back; occasionally bird feathers; and parts from other animals as well, depending on the particular myth.


Underwater panthers are represented with exceptionally long tails, occasionally with serpentine properties.  The creatures are thought to roar or hiss in the sounds of storms or rushing rapids.


Some traditions believed the underwater panthers to be helpful, protective creatures, but more often they were viewed as malevolent beasts that brought death and misfortune. They often need to be placated for safe passage across a lake.  Whoever Oi-kåtca turns out to be, helpful and protective or malevolent, she is certainly a powerful companion to have on my river journey.

A Fairy Tale

Sometimes it’s difficult to find out where things on the web originate.  I came across this photograph this evening on Facebook.

The Dream of Margaret Oenpelli

I think Margaret is a native Australian Aboriginal woman.  Her photograph and dream touched me very deeply.  I never met either of my grandmothers.  I have Muscogee blood on my father’s side of the family, but don’t have any connection with any of my Muscogee kin or culture.  This saddens me.

I wrote the following Fairy Tale about three years ago when I was a member of an online community called Way of the Monk, Path of the Artist.  This post has been sitting in my ‘Drafts’ box for two years.  Maybe waiting for this moment.  So here it is:

Las dos Melindas

Melindy Crabtree and Melinda Schwakhofer

Once upon a time, a baby girl was born. Her parents named her after her great grandmother, Melindy Crabtree, a woman no longer alive. These were some of the stories they told about her:

She and her mother and her mother’s mother came from a fertile land thickly wooded and criss-crossed with free flowing rivers. She could speak the language of the forest and knew where to find medicine plants. At the full moon, she would go to a well and talk to a wolf, there in the silver moonlight. . . . . But now, her language was forgotten and the places of these happenings were long gone. Her eyes which had lovingly witnessed the forest and rivers and all of the inhabitants there – two-legged, four-legged, winged and scaled, and held them in her care, had closed long ago.

But this newborn babe has her great grandmother’s eyes and sees the beauty of the world in the morning sun slanting through the bedroom window. She has her grandmother’s ears and hears the language of the forest in the windy trees. The breeze and leaves whisper to her,

‘We have given you her name.
You are the child who hears the call to home.
The one who can speak the ancient language,
The one who remembers.’

Then, a few years older, up and out at dawn. A backyard explorer. The little one who finds red salamanders beneath the stones, collected from a desert river  .  .  .  .  .

Exploring a sunflower

and lily of the valley growing secretly behind the garage. Rising early and into the sleepy garden to listen to spiders spinning stories and to pick the dew-dropped roses.

The girl who halts the games of tag and hide-and-seek to watch the sunset and climbs onto the roof at dawn to see a comet. She has not forgotten.

When she was twelve, only once ever and never before that day and never after that day, a vee of geese flew honking far above the suburbs, flying south.

‘Don’t forget’, they say, ‘soon you’ll stop hearing and seeing the beauty all around, but deep in your soul you won’t forget. We won’t let you forget.’

In the hard years that followed, she did stop seeing and hearing, in the struggle to survive being a girl in a time and place that was not friendly or safe. But, now and again, a beautiful sunset or pelicans following the shoreline after a day at the beach or, once, an hour spent playing with a dog in a mountain stream – these things would remind her of who she is. A Creek Indian princess with royal blood flowing through her veins and the fluent tongue of the river flowing from her lips.

Still, an iron band grew around her heart and stilled her tongue and silenced her hands.

This band kept her from remembering who she is and from speaking the truth about her people and the destruction of their lands and the winged and four-legged and scaled brothers and sisters who were and are in peril. About the ancestor’s story and how it affects us today. About how the land and the birds and animals and fish have fallen into despair over the loss of the people who could speak the language of the forest.

This girl grew into a woman, still silent, still half remembering, half forgetting. Yet, deep in her soul remained the memory, the flame, the truth, and every now and then, she would recognize a piece of music or artwork or a writing which had this same flame of truth, of what was true for someone who took the risk to say or write or paint or dance it. And this was good.

These encounters kept her flame burning, not so forgotten, but still hidden. The iron band made sure to keep it hidden, for if the wrong people saw the flame, it could be very dangerous for her and her people. It was still dangerous to tell their story, to tell the truth.

After a number of years had passed, the woman found her way to a doorway. It felt different from the many doorways she had encountered and gone through in her life. This one felt right, welcoming and safe, but like an adventure was on the other side. A thick sturdy oak door with beautiful iron hinges and a handle which just fit into her hand, like it was made for her.

A warm glow came through the keyhole. Looking down, she noticed that she was holding a key in her hand. An iron key which matched the hinges on the door. The key to this door!

She put the key in the lock, turned it and pushed the door open. The room was beautiful, rounded and lined with wood. Thick soft rugs carpeted the floor. Windows and skylights looked outside, but it was twilight now. The candles lit in the room reflected on the glass, reflected the room back to her. Here, a table laid with her favourite food, just exactly what she craved right now. There, a soft, inviting bed welcomed her to rest after she had eaten.

By and by, she awoke to sunlight and the murmur of soft voices. She opened another door and stepped into a flower filled courtyard. There were kind, compassionate, loving people standing in a circle, which opened at her doorway.

‘Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you to arrive’.

When she opened her mouth and spoke the language of the forest, everyone understood just what she was saying. The woman looked into her hand and found that she held a delicate golden key. As she took her place in the circle, the iron bands around her heart and hands dissolved and fell away.

Happily ever after?

We don’t know, as the story is still unfolding. Now the woman has remembered the fluent river language. From her days and nights and years of wandering in the desert, she can witness and speak of the endless beauty of the world and of the unbearable pain and agony of exile from it. She has vowed to the ancestors to unflinchingly tell the truth, to tell their story. Using her words, no longer silent, and her hands, no longer still.

The ancestors say,

‘We have given you her name.
You are gifted with the vision to see deeply into the heart of things –
to see the beauty and the pain.
You have the language to tell our story.’

Who will listen and will they be able to hear?

Who will look and be able to see?

The ending of the story depends on everyone.

New Look

Some changes are afoot in my little patch of cyberspace.  You may have noticed that I customised my blog header today.   I photographed a painted and machine stitched panel I made in 2008 depicting the stretch of river I used to live nearby.

River Journey, 18" x 8.5", 2008

I cropped it and used my logo with the font and text from my newly designed website banner that I designed earlier!

Actually, just last night I designed a new home page for my website that I feel pretty happy about.

I’ve been planning to update my website for quite awhile and want to gently tie it together with Inspiraculum.  My blog will still be the place where the new ideas are born.  For Inspiraculum, I’ve used the image of trees drinking deeply at the river’s edge, because it is the River that brings my memories and inspirations.  At the same time, the River flows ever onward and carries my ideas and artwork out into the world.

So I’m working with a web designer based in Exeter and will let you all know when my website is completely updated and relaunched!  Exciting stuff which has been in the works for a very long time.  It’s great when the ideas start to become grounded and made into something real.

In the meantime, I’ve started to put some of my art quilts up on a new page on my blog.

Remembering the forgotten people

Samhain. All Hallows Eve.  Hallowe’en.  All Soul’s Day.  At this time, both the Christian and the Celtic traditions honour the importance of our ancestors and recognize that this is a thin time when their Presence is especially near.

For the past few years in my artwork, I have been on the riverjourney.  This is a journey that traces the story of my Muscogee (Creek) ancestors.  Never a linear journey, but one that meanders back and forth;  sometimes quickly rushing, sometimes slowing to a trickle, freezing solid, damming up at times, but always in motion.   A journey with deep roots in the past that continues to branch into the future.



Trail of Tears


The Call to Home

The Gift of the Skull

Coming Home


At certain times in my life, when I’ve come through a hard time, I’ve thanked my Muscogee ancestors.  The ones who survived the Removal from their ancestral lands and the long walk along the Trail of Tears to make their life in a place not of their choosing.  That wiry toughness and sheer stubborness has served and continues to serve me well at times.

This year, I honour my lost and forgotten ancestors.  The ones who disappeared from the family tree.  The ones who just didn’t make the journey.  The ones who got lost in a maze of substance abuse, destructive behaviour and violence towards Self and others.  If forgotten, or even worse, ignored and written out of the family tree, these lost souls can continue to wreak havoc in the lives and relationships of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  I honour the ones from the dark side of my family tree and in doing so, hope to give them some shelter and to mend some of the broken places and disconnection within myself.

the forgotten ones

Thread journeys

Journeys and journeying.  This is the subject of one of the recent threads of my online community SOMA and one which leads to a vein of rich ore to be mined.

Now that I am finally settled into Home, first and foremost in my Self, and into the Home that my beloved Steve and I are creating together, I am also journeying.  It seems a paradox, but the type of journeying that I am doing requires a firm and solid base, deep reaching roots.

When I packed ‘Winter Trees Wept’ into it’s box to drop off at the NEC for the Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, I felt a pang of sadness.  I put much of my soul into that quilt and it’s destiny is to go out into the world and tell a story.  I think I felt the way a parent might feel when their child makes a milestone step.  For our deep works of art may be like our children, conceived deep inside and birthed into the world.  Dar la luz (to give light) is a beautiful Spanish phrase for ‘to give birth”.

I certainly went on a journey when I made Winter Trees Wept.  I wrote these words a couple of weeks ago while I was doing the handquilting:

“I got up very early this morning to do some more handquilting. I chose a dark grey metallic thread to border each side of my blood red silk river stitching. The grey thread pierced the fabric like needles of sleet.

As I made each stitch, I remembered that 1836 was the year that my great, great grandfather Tecumseh Phillips was born. 1836, the final year of the Muscogee Removal – wintertime, snow, many of the men in shackles, the remaining Muscogee leaving their ancestral homeland for the final time, the ones who held out and tried to remain. I don’t know if he was born en route or if his parents were in an earlier phase of Removal and he was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma)

I felt such an unbearable grief. For a moment, it felt like I carried all of our grief, which has been passed down for nearly 200 years. I wondered how they possibly bore it, then remembered that it is grief which has been forbidden to feel. Grief which has been buried and masked with alcohol abuse, violence, under-achieving.

In making this piece of work, I’m breaking the vow of silence. I don’t know why I’ve chosen this, or why it’s chosen me, but it feels like a very powerful healing. Powerful medicine.”

Feathers for safe travel, flight, protection and safe return

and now it makes it’s first journey out into the world.