Hilton Head Island artist Mary Kelly first became interested in the art of ancient goddesses decades ago when she saw patterns of the deities woven into fabric. Since then, she's become an expert on the subject, writing academic texts and frequently speaking on the matter.
She always wondered why people committed themselves to creating art of the women they worshipped. Now, she's found herself spending a good portion of her life doing the same.
Kelly's paintings of goddesses from around the world are on exhibit at the Bluffton library. She'll hold two lectures on her work this month.
"There's something universal about this subject," she said. "There are so many connections between the cultures that I find fascinating."
Kelly, at that time a college art professor from New York, participated in a faculty exchange program that sent her to Moscow State University more than 20 years ago. She studied ancient embroideries and found many of the pieces served as a tribute to goddesses. She began to wonder, "Why would anyone embroider so many goddesses?"
Her research led her back centuries, often to pre-Christian agricultural societies, as many goddesses came to symbolize fertility. Her first book, "Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe," was published in 1989. She followed it with two similar works: one focused on Greek and Balkan islands, the other on Scandinavia and other northland cultures. She'd find eerie similarities, common symbols used by cultures separated by thousands of miles. A square symbol for fertility, for example, often associated with a goddess was found in art from cultures in Peru and Ukraine.
"All these different places you'd find similar images," she said. "How could have that happened? It was astonishing."
All the while, she was painting. She estimates she'd painted upward of 25 goddesses over the decades. She's shown the collection at galleries here and in New York. Inspired by the embroideries, she'd paint symbol-laden images of Swedish goddess of light Lucina, the Hungarian harvest goddess Dordona, the Russian sun maiden Solnitza, among others. Her paintings are individualized for each goddess but with reoccurring themes, such as the spherical shape in the background of most that represents an other-worldliness of the subject.
She recently published another text on ritual embroideries called "Goddess, Women, Cloth." In it she acknowledges that folk art such as embroideries may be threatened as technologies advance but that many of the symbols can and should live on.
"The language of symbol, form the time before words, lies deep in the subconscious, just as DNA lies in our genes," she writes. "We need only to use it."