Salt Lake City's Subrosa have an diverse range of musical influences describing their sound as “PJ Harvey + Kyuss + Appalachian folk + Coven “. Individually, they also share a similarly eclectic collection of personal interests, ranging from Stregherian Italian witchcraft right through to involvement with Rosicrucian inspired (Sub rosa means literally “under the rose”) orders such as Freemasonry and The Golden Dawn. Obviously, this mirrors my own personal interests and preferred approach to artwork, but guitarist/singer Rebecca Vernon was also set on a very specific narrative – that being the story of “sea waif” Terry Jo Duperault, the unexpected survivor of the ill-fated Bluebelle (wiki link here).
In addition to this, there were many other ideas and concepts suggested for inclusion by drummer Zach Hastis, primarily involving symbolism associated with Thelemic ritual and The Golden Dawn (which conceptually placed this quite closely to my work for Unearthly Trance in certain respects). I often find magickal symbolism to be very dense and overpowering – indeed this is it's very purpose and attraction, but I was keen to avoid swamping the composition with a mass of shapes and symbol. This provided an interesting challenge in many respects – that being to create an image that referenced both the magickal interests (and aesthetic) of the band together with the tragic story of a little girl left adrift on the ocean, surrounded by sharks.
(i) My first task was to explore all the concepts that had been suggested to me. This always involves extensive reading and note-taking from both my personal library and sources on the internet. Although I usually have a basic visual concept in my head at the outset, I personally find this approach more useful in refining my idea than sketching at the early stages. Only once do I feel I've immersed myself enough in the “idea” do I start actual drawing. I find it's easy to become overwhelmed with this type of symbolic thinking – one idea often spirals out into another but the Bluebelle story kept me focused and so I was able to hone the concept, editing ideas out where necessary; condensing and overlapping symbolism where possible.
(ii) The band were keen to have some sort of sigil representing the album title, so this seemed a good place to kick start the actual design work. In this case, I took the sentence “No Help For The Mighty Ones”, removing any repeated letters, and combining the remaining letterforms into an intuitive and easily remembered shape. This sigil then provided the “balancing scales” (Yesod) framework with which I framed the central figure - this tied in directly with the band suggested concept regarding the union & balancing of male and female energies. (As the Bluebelle was sailing in the Carribean at the time of the tragedy, I also checked out visual motifs and symbols associated with Obeah traditions, and this also influenced the final layout of symbols and sigil).
Whilst the initial brief was to depict a girl on a raft, floating adrift on the ocean I had also received various other suggestions for this ; the girl standing on water wreathed in flame, or posed in a specific “Set Fighting” gesture (representing 'Earth'). I was finding it difficult to realise these compositions – either being too literal or potentially convoluted. I decided to concentrate instead on what I personally felt was at the core of the story and concepts described – a depiction of stillness and reflection in the face of great danger. An inititation into the greater mysteries if you will.
I was drawn to the tarot archetype of The Empress, sometimes referred to as “Daughter” of “The Mighty Ones” alluded to in the album title. There were many correspondences that made sense to draw from this symbol. Whilst traditional representations of The Empress tend to have her gazing straight at the viewer, I decided to have her gazing downwards, self contained in a state of reflection (though she is still in danger...her foot hangs precariously off the edge). Instead of a crown of 12 stars, only one hangs above her. The wings sometimes hinted at in earlier versions of the card are now present, but are not necessarily fully grown or capable of flight.
But other clues as to her identity are present. In The Book Of Thoth, the Empress is seen as being representative of Salt, one of the 3 alchemical principles associated with the “Great Work”. The main composition – a circular area bisected by the horizon - references the alchemical symbol for salt. She acts as a a catalyst between the fiery male and tidal female forces of Hod & Netzach...Sulfur & Mercury; the balancing scales of Yesod once again. (During the creation of the artwork, I totally forgot that the band were based in Salt Lake City...though I became very preoccupied with salt symbolism at an early stage of the design process – definitely my subconscious mind shouting at me!)
(iii) Triangle of Manifestation.
(iv) "According to many scattered fragments extant, man's lower nature was symbolized by a tremendous, awkward creature resembling a great sea serpent, or dragon, called leviathan. All symbols having serpentine form or motion signify the solar energy in one of its many forms. This great creature of the sea therefore represents the solar life force imprisoned in water and also the divine energy coursing through the body of man, where, until transmuted, it manifests itself as a writhing, twisting monster - man's greeds, passions, and lusts". Excerpt from The Secret Teachings Of All Ages by Manly P. Hall.
Ultimately, the final artwork is an abstraction of the original brief, but I feel it captures the diverse concepts of the band more successfully than had I embarked on a "literal" interpretation of the ideas provided. For me the process of research - and then re-interpretation - is key in creating an image that resonates.
Interestingly, upon seeing the final artwork, band member Rebecca was struck by the similarity between my illustration and an old painting she owns of her grandmother when young. Although not identical, there are definitely similarities in posture and perhaps even the background texture. I sometimes worry that my preparatory processes – often centred around reading rather than sketching – are counter intuitive, so I find it kind of reassuring when these kind of “coincidences” occur!
“No Help For The Mighty Ones” is released on CD by Profound Lore Records on March 1st, 2011.