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"The Inner Circle" Article by Lynn Luther

Artist Background

C.A. Michel, an artist more recently known for her fiber art - feather baskets - has also shown paintings, sculpture and large installations. Michel has received a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and shown at the Smithsonian. She is currently pursuing a teaching credential at Sonoma State University. She was my roommate for a short time and is now a neighbor and close friend. She prefers to be called by just her last name. For my first short paper, she offered some of her work. It was hard to decide what piece to critique. Her ballet shoe wall art pieces speak of her Agony/Ecstasy of being a dancer then suffering an injury which derailed a serious ballet career. I love her feather baskets, that take her so long to produce. But I was drawn back to the first piece she showed me soon after we met about a year and a half ago. The image is so haunting that when I think of her, this piece is my reference point for her depth and spirituality. She calls herself a concept artist. The concept determines the whole piece including: materials, media, colors, venue. She will not start to produce a piece until she has all the components available to her. She has done face casts many times, even recently with rowdy junior high school boys for her Practicum Art class.

The Piece, Background and Meaning of Inner Circle

In this piece she expanded the cast to the whole body. The cast is a mold for acetate satin, which she melts to create the 13 life size seated Buddha-like figures of this piece. The dark room in which the figures reside and the 25 watt bulbs which light them from inside are part of the piece as well. She did a follow up piece to this made-to-look-like sandstone sitting in an open desert, which makes a very different statement. The figures of "Inner Circle" seem to float in the darkness, although they are seated on the floor. A rheostat makes the bulbs dim and light like a heartbeat although the piece can stand with out that. She says that she was inspired by and created the installation after going to Stonehenge. She used elements from other spiritual traditions. There are 13 figures for the 13 members of a druidic coven. The meditative pose is like a yoga assana (posture). The concept is not of feminism, but the feminine expression within every person - like Jung's arch-typical anima and animas.

I have only seen photos and a video of this piece. I'm sure the experience of seeing it in person would be much more dynamic. The ARTPOST Magazine (a Canadian magazine) describes the experience like this:
"Tucked away in an electrical room below the Four Seasons Hotel in Yorkville (Toronto, Canada) this spring was a unique sensory experience. Upon entering a pitch black room after crossing through an underground parking lot, we were stripped of those characteristics which make us social beings. We found ourselves alone, isolated by the blackness, like disembodied souls in the universe, almost immaterial. We have been emptied of the ideas which we brought in with us and now we are prepared to witness a small miracle: thirteen figures seated in a perfect circle, all of them in a yoga position of reverence and prayer, which is almost melancholy. Each of them vaguely lit by an inner light. they float in the blackness like a strange constellation.... The effect is powerful. We might be looking at spirits suspended in mid-blackness. The image hypnotizes like an incantation.... We are in the company of primeval forces...." Michel has since sold this piece to collectors and did another installation of the same cast. She still has the cast.

Formal Analysis

The illusion of the piece is dynamic a circle of diagonally bent heads. There is a feeling of stability due to each figure sitting straight upright, but without the rigidity of a lotus position. Without the shadow or a reflective surface for reference, the dark center makes the figures seem to float in air unanchored.

The form from all sides is balanced. The circle and each individual form of the circle is balanced as well. The symmetry adds to the sense of peace. There is rhythm in the repetition of the 13 female forms. Even the folds of cloth create rhythm and a sense of aliveness. The effect would be much different if the artist had a smooth statue-like form rather than fabric. The slow pulsing light would also be a different form of visual rhythm. The only lines are created by the outlines edges of the forms and the folds of the cloth highlighted by the lights. The circle line is suggested by the positioning of the figures knee to knee.

The texture is the actual satin drape. The drape does not have the curved look of dry soft cloth but the sharper look of wet creased fabric. Although very delicate, the realness of the figures make them appear to have more mass than they actually have, although the appearance of weightlessness from the blackness around them make the illusion of weight seem a contradiction. It is the effect like heavy planets floating in space. The size is full human size, the room is about 35 feet square and so the circle of figures are about 20 feet across. The negative space is as important as the filled space in the piece. The circle of the empty center also adds to the message of the piece due to all the figures focusing toward it. The arms overlap the body, and legs overlap each other and the fabric appears to overlap invisible bodies and does overlap in the creases. Since the forms were cast from a real woman all the shapes and sizes are actual. The video shows that the piece can be viewed from different perspectives. I would like to experience standing or even lying down in the center of the circle. I would like to see an aerial perspective. Any horizon line disappears in the darkness.

The folds of cloth and the light shining through it create highlighting. The placement of the light at the lowest chakra are intentional. The creative center is therefore highlighted with actual light. The dramatic contrast of light and dark is a chiaroscuro effect. The colors are warm golden tones due to the light. The warmth adds to the realness of the figures. The color makes the shapes look like these are ancient beings. The cloth is all white. I count the blackness as a color here too. Since the color is the same throughout they are balanced.


Michel insisted that I borrow her yellowed-with-age book "A Dictionary of Symbols" by Tom Chetwynd (1982, a book designed to help interpret dreams) in order to understand her work better. I looked up the parts of the piece. First I search for the circle, since the name of the piece is the "Inner Circle" but the book opens to "the cosmos" (page 105) and I find that the structure of consciousness is three concentric circles and oddly enough there is no listing for "circle" except under elements as a symbol for water or unconscious or emotions which augments this paradigm.

This represents the three levels of consciousness. Michel's piece invites us to look at this model. The Inner Circle our individual psyche is that which we seek to know through inner awareness and obliquely we also see the vast universe outside ourselves. The arrangement of a circle was of course inspired by her trip to Stonehenge.

White/Black Consciousness/Unconsciousness (page 92) Darkness like "St. John's Dark Night of the Soul" which we must endure before attaining enlightenment "new insight, the white light of ecstasy". White is also the "feminine realm", the moon and "man's anima within the psyche".

People are archetypal symbols depending on the context and often projections of our own inner selves that are not expressible other than by reflection in others. Michel told me that the pose of the figures was to create a sense of meditation, fulfillment and peacefulness.


1. Gottlieb, Tom. "Toronto" ARTPOST Fall 1987: 32-33.

2. Chetwynd, Tom. "A Dictionary of Symbols", London: Paladin Grafton Books, 1982.

3. "Inner Circle, C.A. Michel 1987" Videocassette (No audio). C.A. Michel. 2/19/88 2 minutes

4. Luther, Lynn. Personal Interviews with C.A. Michel. 1 September 2004 to 21 February 2006

5. Snyderman/Works Gallery - C.A. MICHEL. Dancing Spirit. Wool, linen core, feathers www.snyderman-works.com/snyderman/artists/fiber/michel/michel.html - 5k -

6. Thirteen Moons Gallery is at the forefront of innovation and exploration in Fiber Arts...
C.A. Michel. Untitled IV. 9.5" x 4"
...www.thirteenmoonsgallery.com/sagemoon/artists/CAMichele/IV.html - 6k -

7. Home & Garden Television. Duvall Show camera crew visits Artist C.A. Michel makes feather baskets following the techniques of the Pomo Native Americans. www.hgtv.com/hgtv/cr_artists/article/0,1789,HGTV_3228_1389652,00.html - 28k - C. A. Michel. Dancing Spirit ...www.americanartco.com/artist_full.cfm?aid=245 - 6k

8. Shuttle Spindle & Dyepot Beadwrangler Magazine Review. Winter 1999/2000.... C.A Michel: The Circle of Life." Using feathers and basket techniques, Michel creates wonderful forms...www.beadwrangler.com/mag-shuttle.htm - 28k -

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