“The Best Surfers in the World”: The Art of Christian Riese Lassen

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Mystic Orcas © Christian Riese Lassen

Previous posts have referenced the typical representations of dolphins in New Age art, but today we’re going to delve into the ouvre of one specific artist whose paintings are some of the most influential depictions of dolphins and whales ever created. You may not know his name, but you’ve probably seen his art. Born in California and raised in Lahaina on Maui, “the art capital of the Pacific Rim”, Christian Riese Lassen combines his two passions of painting and surfing to create art that expresses his deep connection to the ocean. His signature hyper-realistic rendering of marine life paired with highly saturated dreamlike colours have become one of the defining motifs of New Age poster art. But is Christian himself a New Age artist? In this post, we’ll explore themes in the cetacean art of one of the world’s most famous marine artists.

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In Search of Sulemani’s Seal

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Swahili boy with model boat on a beach in Lamu, Kenya © Eric Lafforgue

Today’s tale of cetaceans in world folklore comes to us from the Swahili people of Africa’s east coast. Occupying modern-day Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, the Swahili have been predominantly Muslim since the early Middle Ages. While the influence of the Qur’an can be felt everywhere throughout their culture, local versions of internationally popular Islamic stories take on a character distinctive to this coastal people. One such story uses a legend of the mighty King Sulemani (the Swahili name for Solomon) to explain the origins of the dolphins that frolic in the Indian Ocean.

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Late 16th century illuminated manuscript by the Persian Master depicting Solomon presiding over a court of djinn and animals

Sulemani is one of the most popular characters in Swahili folklore. While King Solomon is an important figure in all Abrahamaic religions, his veneration in Islam has some unique characteristics. The Bible’s Solomon turns to idolatry under the influence of his hundreds of foreign wives, building temples and statues dedicated to the pagan gods of their homelands. He remains a figure of great wisdom and, in Judaism, an important political figure as the last king of a united Israel, but his overall portrayal is rather ambivalent. By contrast, Islam maintains a more positive outlook on Solomon throughout his reign. As one of Allah’s prophets, he is gifted with special supernatural powers. He rules over all spirits, people and beasts, and can even understand the language of animals. His power is contained in a special signet ring Allah gave him which bears “the seal of Solomon”. Solomon’s decline into idolatry is blamed on a djinn who stole the ring and impersonated the great king.

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New Music Week

MusicPlanetHello everyone! Things have been quiet on the blog front recently because I’ve been writing about whales and dolphins for my job! I work as coordinator of Music Planet, an initiative at the University of St Andrews which brings together musicians, scientists and other researchers to explore the relationship between humans and their environment through the performing arts. The goal is to engage new audiences with environmental research and get people to connect to climate change the way they connect to art and music.

The past month and a half I’ve been working to prepare for New Music Week, an annual celebration of innovative new compositions. For two of the events, I’ve been lucky enough to work with the research of leading marine mammal biologists who work at the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St Andrews. The featured composer this year at New Music Week is a Canadian woman called Emily Doolittle who describes herself as a zoomusicologist. She’s fascinated by animal sounds and how humans perceive them as music. Two of her pieces are being performed as part of New Music Week – Social Sounds of Whales at Night, which is named after the label on a St Andrews researcher’s recording of sperm whale clicks, and Conversation, a new piece which has been commissioned specially for New Music Week. Conversation was inspired by research Doolittle undertook with marine biologists in St Andrews about the haunting howls of grey seals when they’re hauled out on the beach. I haven’t heard either piece yet, but you can listen to one of Doolittle’s other pieces on Youtube here – the imitation of birds, whales, and other seaside sounds is really uncanny!

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Mushrooms in his Mustache: The Miracle Whale and the Tsar

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Pyotr Pavlovich Ershov, portrait painted by Nikolay Madzhi (late 1850s)

As cold descends upon much of the Northern Hemisphere, we travel today to the wintry world of Russian fairy tales. It is in the frozen heart of Siberia that we find today’s cetacean story – the tale of a miracle whale whose command over the ocean bears more than a passing resemblance to the power of the mighty tsar. In 1815, a century before the fall of Imperial Russia, a boy called Pyotr Pavlovich Ershov was born in Siberia. Young Pyotr was exposed as a child to the folk tales of Siberian peasants, and their stories stayed with him throughout his life. His early interest in Russian folklore was nurtured by the atmosphere of romanticism sweeping across Europe in the 19th century. The belief that the essential character of a nation could be found in the unlearned stories of its peasant folk seized the imagination of Russian writers during the country’s “Golden Age” of literature. A student of philosophy at Saint Petersburg University, Ershov was only 19 years old when he composed his masterpiece, the epic poem Konyok-Gorbunok, or The Humpbacked Horse. Chronicling the life of folk hero Ivan, whose talking humpbacked horse helps him overcome the tsar’s impossible tasks and win the heart of a fairy princess, the poem was an enormous success as soon as it was published in 1834. Alexander Pushkin, often considered the father of Russian literature, declared that he would never write fairy tales again after reading The Humpbacked Horse because Ershov had already perfected the medium, commanding Russian verse “as fully as a landowner commands his serfs”.

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Magical Mermaids and Dolphins

51kA3Z7pN9LMerry Christmas, everyone! To celebrate the holiday I’m going to write about a present I received, the Magical Mermaids and Dolphins oracle card deck. Like last month’s Larimar the Dolphin Crystal, this post delves into New Age beliefs about dolphins. I’ve been wanting to write about New Age art for a while now, so this deck and its collection of New Age artists really excites me. Future posts will look at a few of the cards and their artists in detail, but in this entry I’ll start by introducing the deck, situating it within the history of tarot, and examining how it embodies a fascinating intersection between New Thought, New Age, and the occult – and, of course, how dolphins fit into all of this!

Published by Hay House in 2003, the Magical Mermaids and Dolphins deck is one of dozens designed by Doreen Virtue. Until very recently, Virtue was the leading designer of New Age oracle card decks. Known as “the Angel Lady”, she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, published prolifically on New Age topics, and offered online courses in angel therapy. While most of her card decks and books focused on angels and the protection they offer, mermaids formed a significant subsection of her interests. In January 2017, however, Virtue’s spiritual journey took a sharp turn after she experienced an encounter with Jesus that spurred a rapid baptism and scriptural study. She has since published her first oracle deck centred around Jesus Christ, and while her emphasis on angels endures, she has renounced her New Age decks and seeks to pull as many of them off the shelves as she can. That is why I was so eager to get my hands on the Magical Mermaids and Dolphins deck before it became scarce!

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Larimar the Dolphin Crystal

New Age beliefs about dolphins are widely held but little studied. From psychedelic art to charming necklaces, dolphins have become ingrained as one of the key iconographic symbols of the New Age movement. I have so many New Age topics I’d like to explore in this blog, though they present a research challenge because most of the information about them online comes from either committed believers or committed skeptics. Very little that has been written about New Age beliefs about dolphins is from a neutral historical approach, which is typical for such a new religion, and it is difficult to trace the evolution of ideas within the movement. As a result, I’m experimenting with a more casual format for these entries, so let me know what you think!

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Larimar stone

Today I’ll start with beliefs about larimar, or “the dolphin crystal”. I first encountered larimar when I was in St Maarten. I was immediately drawn to the stone because it looks just like the sea. Later I learned that this is where the stone gets its name: one of the men attributed with the discovery of larimar in 1974 named it after his daughter Larissa and el mar, the sea whose appearance it mimicked. The stone’s possible existence had been recorded in 1916 when a priest was denied permission to search for it, as the Ministry of Mining had never heard of the stone. However, it’s not clear that any of these men really “discovered” larimar; apparently, it was known as la piedra azul (the blue stone) by the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic, who believed that it came from the sea. Volcanic activity is largely responsible for the generation of larimar, but the sea did have a role to play in its creation – it was the motion of sediment from the mountains to the sea along the Bahoruco River that gave larimar its distinctive polish. The crystal only appears in the Barahona region of the Dominican Republic but is sold around the world today.

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The Slide-Rock Bolter

Autumn is upon us, and so today we turn to the colourful forests of North America for our story of cetacean folklore. Land-locked Colorado is not the first place you think of when it comes to marine mammals. But in the early 20th century, American lumberjacks told all sorts of stories about “fearsome critters”, and one of them was the Slide-Rock Bolter, a terrifying mountain whale.

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Colorado in the autumn

The tale of the Slide-Rock Bolter comes to us from William Thomas Cox, the State Forester of Minnesota who in 1910 published Fearsome Critters of the Lumberwoods, with a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts. In this collection of lumberjack tales from all over the United States, Cox detailed the various creatures that workers in the logging industry imagined late at night in their shanties. The Slide-Rock Bolter’s story is set in southwestern Colorado. Cox worked with forester Coert du Bois, who drew the illustrations, and botanist George Bishop Sudworth, whose Latin taxonomical names for the creatures added to the work’s tongue-in-cheek imitation of a field guide. Of the Slide-Rock Bolter, Cox writes:

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