Famous author and teacher, Joseph Campbell, had a gift for making ancient stories come to life. This paper introduces Campbell and offers tips for contemporary artists by weaving together stories from real life and art history. The main focus is a universal story Campbell called the hero’s journey. Using examples, I illustrate the fundamental hero story structure and from there I explore uncharted territories.
Campbell was born March 26 in 1904. (Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2015) He was a multitalented man with noteworthy success in music, athletics, and scholarship. Early in his life, he met several famous people who influenced his thinking. Seen as a rebel by some, Campbell’s ideas were not without criticism. Campbell taught that some stories, from history, hold keys to living well. Myth is the term for these special types of stories. Rather than dismiss myths as untrue, Campbell knew that myths are stories that represent psychological reality. In other words, myths are metaphors (Campbell, 1990). Campbell said, “a metaphor is an image that suggests something else” (Campbell & Moyers, 2011, p. 67).
I first learned about myths by stumbling upon a book in a store. I was attracted to the title, The Power of Myth. The Power of Myth is a series of interviews, recorded late in Campbell’s life, with Bill Moyers (Campbell & Moyers, 2011). The interviews are available in video, book, and audio formats. What captured my imagination most was Campbell’s ability to breathe life into these old stories from all over the world. He would introduce a character and identify qualities that matched stories from many other cultures. In essence, the stories were the similar all over the world—just like people are similar all over the world. For example, every culture has stories about a hero. Campbell studied the hero story and outlined the structure of it in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces (Estes, 2003).
Campbell identified that every hero must go through the same phases in his or her journey. The first major phase is called the departure, the second is called the initiation, and the final is called the return (Estes, 2003). Many stories fit this basic three-part story structure. Most famously, the film Star Wars is based on this model (Campbell & Moyers, 2011). Luke Skywalker is the hero in Star Wars. His journey starts when his home is destroyed and he must depart. What follows is a series of adventures in the initiation phase. In the final phase, the return, Luke gets to live in a new world (Lucas, 1977).
The hero story model can also be applied to real life, where each individual is the hero of his or her own life’s journey. I had a life experience that was similar to Luke Skywalker. My home burned down when I was 8 years old, and I had to move, with my family. However, this approach of literally comparing life events to the hero story is not the point. The story is a metaphor, and the point is to think about it psychologically.
For example, looking back, my fire memories are associated with the loss of a special necklace. I had borrowed this beautiful necklace from my great-grandmother, after some convincing on my part, and it was lost in the fire. The necklace embodied my strongest emotional memories of that loss experience. It was due to the fire that I became aware of my love for art objects. I shared this passion with my great-grandmother, an artist, who occasionally painted on jewelry as see in Figure 1. She was a big influence on my creative life path. Psychologically, the fire and the necklace marked a departure from normal life and a call to adventure that was my growing fascination with art.
Figure 1. Photo is of my great-grandma’s painted jewelry.
When Campbell was a child he was fascinated with Native American culture and read every book about it in his local library. His passion for history and literature was a focus throughout his life. As a result, Campbell’s career included authoring popular books and teaching college (Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2015). Looking at his life, it is clear that following his bliss, what he loved the most, opened up doors of opportunity. Choosing a creative life path like his, a writer or artist, has specific challenges. Campbell said, “The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn’t simply a sociologist with the program for you” (Campbell & Moyers, 2011, p. 122).
The above quote speaks to what has been difficult for me in my own creative path. I find it hard to make choices when I have creative freedom to do anything. How do I know what is the best use of my time and effort? I consider solving this problem to be the second, initiation phase, of my personal hero’s journey. My exploration included learning a variety of art techniques such as painting. It included studying classic art subject matter like portraiture. It also included making art for commercial use. Despite my efforts, the task of choosing a lasting subject for my art has remained a challenge.
Campbell’s work on myth and psyche has shifted my perspective on the elusive aspects of making good choices. Specifically, I found his thoughts on a triangulation between art, myth and psychology to be insightful:
Now in art when the images of the artist are purely personal this finally is slop and you know it when you see it. Also, it lacks a certain formal definition. But, then, when it hits the mythological that’s to say, the dual message level, psychological and metaphysical at the same time, you say, “ah ha,” because its talking about what’s deep in you. This is an important thing. (Campbell, 1990, para. 17).
Campbell is explaining that art can be psychologically significant for an individual, regardless of the final result. While art is significant for the individual who is engaging in a creative process, in the hands of a skilled artist, the final image has the potential to continue to be significant for many other people. However, technical skill alone is also not enough to create works of art that cause an “ah ha” moment. It is a relationship between psyche, myth, and art that makes images resonate on a deep and mysteriously universal level. In other words:
Let us accept the suggestion and recognize, then, that what is intended by art, metaphysics, magical hocus-pocus, and mystical religion, is not the knowledge of anything, not truth, not goodness, or beauty, but an evocation of a sense of the absolutely unknowable. (Campbell, 2002, p. 151)
So far I have discussed the departure, the initiation, and now I am going to talk about the final phase in the hero’s journey that is called the return. In the return, the hero brings back a boon, or treasure, from his adventure for the betterment of the community (Estes, 2003). In the life of Campbell, it could be said that his books on comparative mythology are the boon he brought back from his hero’s journey. Not many of us create art that reaches his level of world influence; however, everyone has the potential to bring back a boon from his or her adventure.
My boon is my most recent painting. Supported by two decades of technical art experience, and inspired by the wisdom of Campbell, this painting contains both personal and mythological imagery. My painting, seen in Figure 2 is titled Everyday Gems. It is 24” wide by 48” long and painted on canvas with mixed media.
Figure 2. Everyday Gems by Mitra Cline (2015).
The visual elements of this painting are worth consideration because they can illustrate Campbell’s (1990) earlier quote about the power of metaphor. The keyhole in the image begs the question, what key unlocks this painting? As we know, a metaphor has a double meaning. For example, the saying, “You have a key to my heart,” is metaphorical. It is a way of expressing how one person is uniquely able to evoke emotion in another.
The key in choosing a subject for art is metaphoric thinking because the magic is in exploring the mystery of the image. For example, what I found, from the plant pictured in the keyhole is that it tells a story about longing. I remembered that I selected plants as a subject for art during my first real winter or seasonal depression at college. I longed for spring and for life to come back to the world. I did not fully understand my choice in subject matter at that time and it seemed like a forced decision. Figure 3 shows a literal winter image comparison.
Figure 3. Photos by Mitra Cline. Santa Barbara is on the left and Kansas City is on the right.
The Greeks had a name for longing, pothos (Livius.org, 2015). My painting, Everyday Gems, illustrates this concept of longing for the unknown. Visually the keyhole image creates three spaces that you can only partially see and they are inside, between, and outside. The necklace, displayed alone, also represents the absence of the person who wears it. In this manner, mythic images are helpful for people living in a modern world because they use metaphor to explore psychological realities that are otherwise invisible.
Myths are powerful because they are connected to the psychologically challenging moments in life where people get stuck. It is possible to refuse the hero’s journey and never depart from home. It is also possible to refuse to return. For example, I could easily stay a student for life. When I feel stuck, I watch a film like Star Wars and get inspired to move forward on the next steps in my life (Grice, 2013).
What I learned from my recent study of Campbell’s work is a new way to think about the choices I make in selecting new subject matter to explore. These are the steps I take:
- The first step is to identify a focal point by looking back over life experiences for a recurring pattern of interest. In doing this, I noticed an abundance of Eden-like images or variations of a garden paradise in my art.
- The second step is to expand the pattern by referencing related mythic stories and noticing the common elements. In my case, this included looking at Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, and the Secret Garden, for example. They all shared an exaggerated sense of scale, lush plant imagery and drastic change in world reality.
- The third step is to take a clue from Campbell and consider the metaphoric. What deeper layers are connected to the story elements? This final step is critical because it validates the selected image of psychological reality with life experience.
It is impossible to offer a formula for art, but Campbell has done a pretty good job at providing a starting point. When speaking about art he said, “it is an order of something that speaks past itself–carries the radiance of the transcendent into the field of time. This is what its all about. This is why art is a sacred thing.” (Campbell, 1990, para. 44).
Myths, like the hero’s journey, validate and offer clues about how to grow in life. Whether we are living in Kansas, England, or a distant planet, the heroic journey is key for unlocking mysteries within our own mind. As we grow, mythic images continue to inspire, inform, and guide. The unknown in life, like art, is sacred and we all return to it.
Campbell, J. (1990). The way of art. Retrieved from https://thesithlibrary.wordpress.com/2008/03/09/the-way-of-art-by-joseph-campbell/
Campbell, J. (2002). Flight of the wild gander: Explorations in the mythological dimension – selected essays, 1944-1968. Novato, CA New World Library.
Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (2011). The power of myth. New York, NY: Anchor Books.
Cline, M. (2015). Longing and the secret garden. Retrieved from https://mitracline.com/2015/10/12/longing-and-the-secret-garden/
Estes, C. P. (2003). Introduction. In The hero with a thousand faces (pp. 1-20). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Grice, K. L. (2013). The rebirth of the hero: Mythology as a guide to spiritual transformation. Herndon, VA: Muswell Hill Press.
Joseph Campbell Foundation. (2015). About Joseph Campbell. Retrieved from https://www.jcf.org/new/index.php?categoryid=11
Lucas, G. (Producer & Director). (1997). Star wars episode IV: A new hope [Motion picture]. USA: Lucasfilm.
Livius.org. (2015). Pothos. Retrieved from http://www.livius.org/articles/concept/pothos/