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How Is Alchemy
Like Art?


Excerpted from
Guide to Lost Wonder No.10

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In this tenth excerpt from the Guide to Lost Wonder, the transformative steps involved in the artist’s creative process are paralleled with the alchemist’s metamorphosis of philosophical ideas into concrete reality.

Like art, alchemy manipulates raw materials to express their inner nature. The two methods differ in that alchemists mirror the changes they make in the natural world with comparable transformations in their inner world. Alchemists take base materials and transform them, step by step, into a pure state. This process of refinement is reflected by purifications of the alchemists own ego or soul. Frivolous aspects of the ego are cast away in favor of a clearer vision of the unity of life, a treasure worth more than any gold produced by a Philosophers Stone. Alchemy is an intuitive art, not a rigid practice of prescribed formulas like we find in science. But like a scientist, the alchemist works in a laboratory. This laboratory doesnt just contain a mere “lab,” a place for work, but also an “oratory,” a place for meditation. In this way it serves as the perfect place for the twin transformations of matter and spirit.

To better understand the alchemists revolving, evolving refinement process, lets look at the artist’s similar cycle of Ideas, Ideas,and Idols.

An artist starts with an inspired IDEA, usually by mixing a current perception with a past experience or tradition. The artist finds meaning in his or her excitement to make something new from these two elements.

The initial inspired IDEA is a very fuzzy image, even if it’s from a still life object right in front of you. The IDEA can only be realized by giving it form through a proper choice of materials and techniques that will best convey the original vision. At this point, the artist’s understanding of the nature of the chosen materials mixes with, and starts to change, the perception of the original IDEA. So even before the artist starts to transform matter, the materials start to transform what really matters—the internal nature of the artist. At this point the original IDEA is altered, but starts to become more tangible through the evolving vision of its manifestation in matter.

We’ll call this modified vision of the original IDEA the “IDEAL.” The IDEAL is a mix of the artist’s vision with their passion for the materials. It’s a combination of both the essential nature of the artist and the materials.

The struggle of transformation begins! As any artist (or alchemist) will tell you, the materials always have a mind of their own. They will, or will not, allow you to do certain things to them according to their specific properties—or inner nature. As the artist works, the strengths and weaknesses of the materials begin to take over, further changing the IDEALized version. One might think that it's simply a matter of skill that controls the materials, making them fall into step with the original vision. But it can’t be that simple, because the artist is trying to express a new IDEA, something never seen before. If the artist wanted to merely replicate something else, something without any original idea behind it, it wouldn’t be art.

If the intended work is really meant to be art, the artist’s passion, his or her psyche or soul, becomes more involved in the work. When this happens, the artist experiences one or more “crisis points” as the material and the artist are both transformed. Each crisis point occurs when the newly transformed material, or IDOL, no longer matches the initial IDEA. The IDOL now replaces the source of the originating thought and becomes the primary inspiration.

At this point some artists give up, they think they have failed to live up to their first IDEA. Their only failure, really, is in not letting the materials play their part in the process of creation. Alchemists have said that their materials “talk” to them while they meditate, whispering secrets about their true nature, their strengths and weaknesses. If artists listen, they’ll hear the same secret mutterings urging them on. This is where the magic happens in both art and alchemy, because it allows both the art and the artist to change and grow, to transform themselves.

After a number of crisis points the artist will consent to what he or she and the materials have done and call the project finished. Of course, the completed piece will not be a copy of the artist’s original experience or initial vision of what it could become. It will be a shared compromise between the nature of the materials and the artist's inner nature—a combination of both their hopes, wishes, and dreams.

What? Are we really to believe that materials such as clay, paint, lines of poetry, or the vibration of a musical string have hopes and dreams? An artist would say these things have a will of their own, an intent. An alchemist would add that they had the same wishes and desires as we do—to evolve or become better. This is a very mysterious notion, but if you believe there is a reason and purpose for the world that we have yet to understand, then it might not seem so strange after all. Is there a difference between mind and matter? Alchemists see no distinction between the two, and a growing number of quantum physicists agree. The difference between mind and matter, they say, is just an illusion. It’s all a matter of perspective.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

—Albert Einstein

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Guide to Lost Wonder

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