David Johns is an internationally acclaimed painter whose powerful portraits hang in collections all over the world. He was commissioned to paint a 50-foot dome that rises above the sixth floor of an office building in Phoenix. Reminiscent of the classic renaissance tradition, it is the Native American equivalent of the dome of the Sistine Chapel, and an awesome sight.
David is a traditional Navajo man, raised on a remote reservation and faithful to its traditions. A Roadman (spiritual leader in the Native American Church), he is also a Sundancer, in the Lakota tradition. We have sat and sung together, listened to each other’s stories, met as families. I respect him as a man and healer and call him brother.
Among the Navajo, as in most Native American tribes, healers have always been artists. In addition to their medicinal talents, they were also weavers, carvers, musicians and painters. This was the part of themselves that kept them in balance, and that was crucial to doing healing work. In a language of modern psychology, art is a multidimensional representation of the unconscious. The painter or sculptor connects with his or her intuitive soul and channels that vision into being.
I am fortunate to have some of his pieces, but I do not have one of his portraits. After David dropped by to visit last fall, we agreed it was time for me to have one, and I commissioned him to paint a portrait of a Hatathli, a Navajo medicine man, healer. “Not just the face,” I said, “put something around him that represents his healing power.”
Last Sunday, David came by with the painting. We blessed its arrival, sat down and talked about it. David said that when he began the piece, he started with the background, “Those are the colors of the four directions, seasons, winds, and elements. Black, the color of the north, nighttime, and the element air/sky. East is white, the dawn, and the earth. Blue is south, daytime and the element water. West is yellow, twilight and the element fire. The Hatathli’s power comes from all of nature.
“Then I painted his face, look at his eyes, they are not looking at you; they are looking beyond you, he sees things most people cannot. The arrowheads represent the strength of our ancestors, the stone people; the clouds and lightning are the thunder beings who water the earth and ignite her spirit; the flicker feather, small but powerful to carry our prayers. The leaf I put in the last, it’s from a Cottonwood tree, they used to grow in the washes where I grew up. It’s for all the plant people who provide our medicines. Then I added that drop of water, that’s how we mix our herbs; a single drop of pure water is good medicine.”
My eyes were continually drawn to the leaf, “Why did you put the leaf right there in the middle of the neck?” David said it just fit. Then I told him about my thyroid surgery. They took out the left lobe of my thyroid, which included a benign, fluid-filled cyst, exactly where the water drop was painted on the leaf.
My throat is an enormous source of my power as a storyteller and doctor/medicine man/healer. Somehow, through his unconscious channeling, he focused on my neck as the place to put that healing drop of medicine. Every time I look at the Hatathli hanging in my office, I see the power of the healer. A person who accesses his own unconscious can penetrate into the unconscious of his patients and create a healing metaphor that makes visible a way to move beyond their suffering.