The Symbols You Choose to Use

Today let’s talk about symbols, “images that stand for something else,” or images that mean something deeper than just, say, a shape or a figure.


For some people, it’s a no-brainer. Their life is all about fish, or they’ve studied astronomy or biology and chemistry, or they create mandalas. For them, choosing symbols to use in their art isn’t so much a choice as it is inevitable: they love what they love, so they use it. Fish shapes, constellations, detailed structures of plants or skeletons. These mean something to them, something more than they do to the person viewing the work.


For others, though, finding a personal iconography for their art isn’t quite so easy. Sometimes it takes some deep thinking: what is meaningful to me? What symbols speak to me? For others, it’s about what’s popular and what sells. It’s not so much about deep symbols as it is about popular images, and if that’s your main concern, that’s fine: birds this year, then maybe owls. Wings. Skulls. It’s not so much about deep thinking as it is about keeping your finger on the trends.


For the most part, the symbols you choose to use in your work mean more to you than they do to others. People bring their own ideas to art, and stars and fish bones may mean something completely different to them than they do to you. They may just be stars and fish bones, or maybe they’re just pleasing arrangements of shape and color. There are some symbols, however, that are so loaded with cultural significance that there’s no ignoring their meaning and, by using them, you take on a responsibility. Understanding that is important if you plan to show and/or sell your work and want to avoid offending your public.

Take religious symbols, for example. For some artists, the art they make is inextricable from their personal faith, and the symbols of their religion are as much a part of their art as is their palette. Some people will be turned off, and others will be attracted, just as with anything. The problem arises when an artist known for creating expressions of religious faith turns out to be, well, something of a jerk. Maybe they’re rude to people who come into their booth at shows, or maybe they harangue students in their workshops. Maybe their business dealings are a little shady, or maybe they’re known on Facebook for their snarky comments and tendency to flame. When the entire body of work someone creates is diametrically opposed to who they actually are, people assume, usually with cause, that the body of work stems not from deeply held beliefs about faith and kindness and compassion but from a desire to jump in on a known market.


Then there is the appropriation of cultural symbols by artists whose only knowledge of those is what they found on Wikipedia. This is a particular problem for Native American symbols, and it’s become a real issue on Etsy, where so many artists claimed their work was “Native American” that there was a backlash. Someone may adore everything about the work of the indigenous peoples of North America, but if you’ve lived in Chicago your entire life and all your relatives came over from Scotland, sewing seed beads onto pouches you created from deer hide you ordered online from Tandy Leather and claiming it’s a Hopi pouch? No. No matter how finely skilled your work, people will find it deeply offensive, and rightly so. Make what you make, but don’t attempt to appropriate a culture that isn’t yours. There’s a lot of argument here, with people saying, “If I love the symbols and use them respectfully, why is that a problem?”


Ah. That’s where it gets tough. Theoretically, you can use any image you wish. Any group of symbolic images. But rather than adopting them wholesale, stop and do some thinking. Why do these symbols speak to you? What about them is compelling? Maybe it’s the colors, or maybe it’s the traditional animals, or maybe it’s the symbols on the ancient rock paintings.  Work with these, write about what comes up. Maybe you’ll discover that the reason you love Kokopelli is because you want to work with trickster figures, or fertility figures. Maybe it turns out it’s more about dancing figures, or music makers. Then you can begin to create your own images and meaningful symbols. If you work deeply with the question, you may be delighted with the path on which you find yourself, creating art that means something important to you.


Apter_Pulse_CoverFor more conversations about artist’s and their work, check out The Pulse of Mixed Media by Seth Apter.




Ricë is the author of Living the Creative Life, Creative Time and Space, and Destination Creativity. She also blogs at The Voodoo Cafe.


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