“I like to put on my war-paint before beginning to draw. It’s always like making love, sweet and ecstatic, or like a battle in the Mongolian style (a sham retreat while fiercely shouting with bow and arrow from the backs of branches) Or just in a good old Viking style, sword in each hand.” – Vali Myers, Collected Diaries 1977
A great artist is as ill-prepared for the world as the world is for the artist. The difference though, is that the world needs artists, whereas artists need only their own souls as sustenance and their internal fires as fortification. The world, to the artistic visionary, is but one of many realms and an expanse of timeless space in infinite directions. Many visionaries see this expanse and sink into the kind of despair that destroys those who know too much. Occasionally, though, a visionary comes into being who finds the core beauty that makes life an exuberant gift worth the suffering—someone who celebrates the darkness as an essential foil to the light.
Today that visionary I celebrate is Vali Myers. A flame-haired shamanic woman whose intricate illustrations seem to be pulled from another time and place. She was a “walker of worlds” traveling ceaselessly from the bohemian streets of Paris to the Chelsea Hotel to the wilds of Italy, but also between dimensions. Even amongst the freaks and artists at the Chelsea she seemed otherworldly with her beloved pet fox and tattooed face. She inspired all whom she met—artists and writers and thinkers from Tennessee Williams to Jean Paul Sartre to Marianne Faithfull who wrote ecstatically of her spirit.
“All partook of the subtle Vali energies, so overwhelmingly powerful was she. She presented herself, her total being, as a complete embodiment of her vision. Her powerful presence has stayed with me always. I can see her and her her whenever I choose to go there in my mind.” – Flame Schon
As we learned from Pixar’s Ratatouille (as we so often do from the simple lessons in children’s stories) “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” In Vali’s case, this “anywhere” was Melbourne, Australia—a city perched on the western edge of a vast and empty continent—yet all this space could not contain her spirit and she set sail for Europe when she was just nineteen. From there she embarked on a life’s journey that would span cities, decades, and continents—she was never in one place for very long—with the notable exception of her monk’s cabin in the wild valley of Il Porto in Italy. It is there that she rooted herself deep into the bones and blood of Mother Earth, and there that she made her love, her art, and her immortal legacy.
“Come away O human child
To the woods and wonders wild,
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping,
Than you can understand.” – Vali Myers, Collected Diaries 1977
A raw and beautiful landscape, Il Porto is a place infused with spiritual energy, in which Vali found a necessary solace and her artistic center. Like Venus on her bed of seafoam and semen, Vali blew in off the mythic Mediterranean and knew immediately that Il Porto would be her Paradise. She had married a Hungarian Gypsy named Rudi and they discovered the hideaway together. Later came Gianni, her other lover, a young man who just “turned up one day,” and a vast menagerie of dogs, ducks, frogs, donkeys, pigs, and her beloved Foxy. Her life in Il Porto was marked by the moon and sung by the seasons—like a Dionysian devotee, she gave herself fully to an ecstatic existence. “It’s funny, with people in the city they get all screwed up and they work on each other with their egos, and call that loving—and then you come in the country and you begin to get the whole rhythm of the moon, the animals, and everything and you really feel it if you let yourself just ease out.”
The drawings which made her famous emerged from somewhere that only a seer like Vali could access. “She even called her paintings ’spirit drawings’ as if pulled from the ether.” (Julia Inglis). Vali would awake from vivid dreams in which she saw “Amazon tribes in Russia. Women on horseback covered in gold shawls riding in the wind,” and spend months, sometimes years, on a single drawing, consumed by an overpowering precision and dedication.
“Am I not good? I am a creator woman, a star woman, a moon woman, a cross woman, a woman of heaven…I am a cloud person, a dew on the grass person. Lonely? One cannot be lonely enough.” – Vali Myers
Her evocative, often vivid, and at times grotesque images of feral, female, and ethereal scenes smack of ancient, otherworldly realms—much closer to Mayan, Navajo, Polynesian, Indian art than anything from the Western world in which she lived.
Central to her drawings are female figures resembling goddesses, queens, earth and spirit mothers—often a red-headed woman who was “me, but not quite me.” Though she never defined herself as a feminist, she would often say to men, “Where do you come from and what do you spend your life trying to get back to?” Moby Dick featured heavily in her work, often stuck full of spears but still leaping violently from the ocean, the ultimate triumph of nature over humanity’s attempts to destroy it. She describes her painting “Death in Port Jackson Hotel” as a death scene that is simultaneously a resurrection—the symbolic moment of going through a dark period and emerging triumphant.
“Over there is Moby Dick, I love the whole story, the big white whale is a beautiful thing. And the little monkey. He’s in nearly every drawing, he’s always there—I don’t know what he means. And see the woman at the top, her earrings are two toads. I don’t know who she is, she looks like a queen doesn’t she?”
As much as Vali loved humans she hated the constructs of humanity. She felt the paradoxical isolation of civilization—the notion of being surrounded by people yet feeling utterly alone. “I am this day in dismay and despair after having spent yesterday amongst people and driving about in cars, which I loathe and detest, and that make me so ill…I am fallen from myself…and am paying for it dearly with the blackest depression, which will make me clean and pure again to call up my Fox-Witching soul from her walkabout and be my love, once more, and fill my Tinker heart with joy.” – Vali Myers
Being around Vali, was akin to being in the presence of the Oracle of Delphi—rare, esoteric, feminine, portentous, divine. The dogs and monkeys, snakes and other animals that live with such vibrancy amongst the human demigods and goddesses in her paintings suggest a certain primal urgency, a call to action, a rallying cry for all of us to return to the natural world, resonate with the frequency that vibrates through all of us. She saw the ribs as the cage of the heart, but rather than a prison she viewed them as a sanctuary, keeping the heart safe from the ravages of the world.
Vali Myers was a woman who peered into and penetrated the spirit world and the infinite universe, dwelled in its darkness, extracted its energies, and created a capacity for joy unlike any who walked before or after her. She did not merely breathe or draw or live or die; she brought all those who knew her to, as Tony Kushner would put it, “the very threshold of revelation.” Those lucky enough to know her, and who were open to her spirit, describe their experience of her as something that irreparably changed their lives.
Communities of artists inspired by Vali’s vision can be found all over the globe. If you are a female artist, writer, or filmmaker interested in joining a community of like-minded women, check out Women Under the Influence, an incredible project to bring female artists together in collaborative projects so that we can tell our stories, inspire people, and set a new precedent for art, movies, literature, and more.