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Joyce Tenneson

I found this photo on the cover of Sun Magazine some years ago and fell in love with it. It’s from a book by Joyce Tennyson called Light Warriors, with photographs of 21 women from all over the world. The author writes in her introduction:

I was drawn to photograph the people in these pages because I saw something in them, an inner power or radiance that resonated with my unconscious. . . . By trying to reveal their essence, I want to celebrate the beauty and complexity of what it means to be a spiritual warrior–to offer oneself to the world authentically, to flex the courage muscles, to share what it means to be human.

The woman in this photo is Dasha, from Russia. She told Tennyson about a reoccurring dream in which a bird flew out of her heart. Tennyson had similar dreams herself. She tried to photograph the doves flapping their wings around her heart, but didn’t like the way it looked. Then unexpectedly the birds landed on Dasha’s shoulders and she was able to get one shot before they flew away.

Dasha says of herself: “I don’t know who I am, I’m just trying to figure it out. But for me, being a woman is about bringing warmth, beauty, and love from inside you to the those around you. In the United States, people don’t speak about the soul and the heart the way they do in my country. But they are always talking about the past now in Russia. There is sweetness and sadness and nostalgia all mixed together.”

This photograph, for me, beautifully expresses that warmth, beauty, and love inside her. I also see the courage, and vulnerability. I see her—the way she’s dressed and holds herself, the direct gaze, the doves—as an acolyte or priestess in training. Each photo in the book reveals some feminine archetype or psyche.

Tennyson did not pose the women. Instead she encouraged them to express themselves by providing “a safe place for them to be open, to let down their external shields, and to expose an essence or kernel of their being that is normally secret or hidden.” By doing this they were “holding up a mirror to the viewer’s own inner experiences.”

I was so taken with this photograph I saved it for many years, not knowing why. Perhaps because it did mirror some felt experience. But once I started painting I knew I would have to try to capture her in my artwork.

Recently I had an opportunity to do that for an art class project. While I always imagined doing so in soft pastel, I created the piece below in acrylic, not my best medium. Still I like the way it came out. The woman in my painting bears only a mild resemblance to the lovely Dasha, but for me she does capture the spirit of what I see in her and find so inspirational.


Tennyson writes: “For me photography is a kind of visual diary–it allows me to probe emotions and inner realities that by their nature are invisible but are powerfully present in all of us nonetheless.”

I think that’s what I’m trying to do with my own artwork, my writing as well as my painting, and what I’m drawn to in other’s work.

Maybe we all are holding up mirrors to each other.