Jeramie Bellmay’s Perception Altar
Entering into Bellmay’s abode is an act of translocation. Hinged open fish bone lips; a grey, feral cat-like mummy found in the basement of a castle; a two-headed, baby chick under a dome of glass; a jar of Bellmay’s finger and toenail clippings, which he’s collecting as raw material for a sculpture; a tiny speck of Abraham Lincoln’s hair … the peculiar, antiquated, and organic live in the open space of his artist loft where he dreams beneath a cracked paint ceiling— an indoor, image-filled sky.
Bellmay is an artist in every imaginable sense of the word. Both dance and visual arts have always been at the forefront of his life. He says, “I have always had a compulsion for creation and really my passion exceeds my physical body.” Dancing brought Bellmay to a greater understanding of the possibilities and limitations of his body, space and imagination. The same is true of his other art forms. In 2003, he shifted gears beyond dance and started to work in any medium that he could get his hands on. The visions that he now brings to his audience belong to the liminal, to the furthest vistas he can venture out on in his mind’s eye.
Yet, to call Bellmay a visionary artist only scratches the surface. Working across at least a dozen mediums, from painting to sculpture to dance to face paint, sculptural haircuts, contact juggling, performance art, etc. The threads that connect between these diverse mediums are those of magic and nature. An elf-like creature with a thoughtful and pondering gaze, Bellmay’s character has been influenced by his fascinations as much as his art has. He seems out of place in the modern, industrial world, as if he belongs to a lost Golden Age.
In Bellmay’s world, everything is as still and perfect as an MC Escher orb. In his drawing, Pixelation, you can see the delicate geometry of his work in his dovetailing, pencil-etched fault and contour lines,. In Death and Resurrection, a burnt blood wood burning, he masterully renders the fine line detail of a cubed city stacked inside the mouth of a demon that devours or spills a hexahedron shore.
This balance between math and magic is a dance like the balance between life and art. It’s less that Bellmay makes art but more that he’s in constant conversation with his environment, and this conversation imbues objects with intention and power. He explained to me that Perception Altar www.perceptionaltar.com (his website but also philosophy) “is something that WE infuse with magical power by directing our thoughts or obtaining a memory to project ourselves into another space, but at the base, WE have placed the power within that … magical power, real power, worth is within anything.”
A piece that speaks very directly to real worth and power is Bellmay’s installation Facing Fiat: a six-legged, baby dragon named Rozuna intricately scaled in bamboo leaves who stands on a bed of shredded dollars, facing the Masonic Seal encased in a crystal ball. This sculpture originated from Bellmay’s old friend, Luna, sending him a full head of dreadlocks at the same time as someone else sent him doll parts. These curios spurred his curiosity and spawned his baby dragon. After Bellmay had made his creature, he came across shredded money, which even he will admit was an odd found object. “Once I started to work, I was intrigued, so intrigued. How could I get shredded money? This just doesn’t make any sense. I started to come across more information how when the currency lost value in other cultures, people began to transform the currency. They would use it to catch grease on their stove or patchtheir walls— whatever they could do to utilize the bills physically because the currency was no longer something that had value, but it was just the piece of paper. Once I saw that, I realized how relevant it was to how our economic system is in flux and collapsing right now. I realized that the dollar transformed is the ultimate symbol of the distrust within the dollar … extending that (idea), if we allow ourselves to see something differently, we can transform that into something else, and put the worth back to what is worth something. In this strange, esoteric way, the medium communicated this to me. I didn’t necessarily set forth within this piece to say I’m going to make this subliminal statement about money.”
Bellmay’s awareness of how arbitrarily value is assigned inspires work that breaks down cultural conceptions of wealth and power. His transmutations show that these are simply constructs. In the realm of art, there are eternal possibilities for what a world might look like were its major cultural constructs to be transformed. Bellmay has created one possibility to remind of us the magic of perception, and the power humans possess to remake their world.
From winter to spring, acorn to oak, chrysalis to sky, nature transforms herself in Earth’s revolution, maturation, and bursts of freedom. Bellmay looks to the natural world for inspiration, drawing ideas from how wind and water sculpt rocks, and from how patterns occur organically. One of his newest pieces, The Empress, is the cross slab of a tree trunk. Bellmay feels that there was “a genuine communication of me and the wood, and I was there to illuminate it and to see it.” Bellmay examined and expressed the images which were already present in the wood grain, rather than trying to force it to become something else. He explains that, “What you’re actually seeing as the finished piece was already there. All of it going up into the owl ... The serpent’s head … the toad at the top, its eye was all there. This piece feels way more esoteric in that I did not set forth a concept.”
The Empress is an illumination in the purest sense of the word and an intimate viewing experience where the illustration in the wood is not immediately noticeable. It’s only when who you stand close to the piece that the human touch alighted along the grain rises to the surface. Like many of Bellmay’s pieces, the Empress aligns itself beside nature, showcasing an intimate dialogue between the artist and the work itelf, and the intimate awareness an artist must possess to become a vessel.
Another piece that spoke very directly to Bellmay is To be, or not to bee. It began with Bellmay discovering dead bees directly outside his door in the artist warehouse he lives in. He began collecting as many as one hundred at a time. Bellmay kept the bees for months before he found a lens from an x-ray machine and a piece of cherry wood, which he then crafted into a walking stick. When sitting on its wall mount, the lens in the walking stick reveals a gold cast bee, set directly centered behind the lens.
When I asked Bellmay about the bees, he explained to me that everything happening that is a detriment to us and future generations is implanting itself in his work. He is guided by the overwhelming sense that much of what’s happening in the world is pushing it further out of alignment. How is it that when he lives miles away from a farm in the city is he finding dead bees within the warehouse that he lives in? Does this mean contamination is spreading, as he speculates? How far has nature been pushed off kilter and how does this affect our own alignment? Bellmay explained to me how walking sticks are used to bring balance. In our world that has gone off balance, the bee— crucial to crop fertility around the planet, becomes a reminder that we need to realign ourselves with nature.
From the living fertile world to the cosmic undulations of celestial spheres colliding, Will she offer you her garden? is a boundary breaking piece with an internal, lunar landscape spilling a waterfall onto the floor in parallel ripples of time. The viewer is you, and the viewer is the subject within the piece, who is bound by the vanishing point and gravity, as we’re bound, beckoned into the piece by the cosmic play of forces and water lapping at our feet.
This painting may be Bellmay’s most literal embodiment of the Perception Altar, a portal that offers a view into a vibrational reality. It reveals that the solid landscape we perceive and operate within is actually part of a fluid, unlimited and interconnected cosmos. Like an altar to the universe, we’re drawn into the center gravity. And, as To be, or not to bee, offers a balancing and realignment with the physical and natural world, Will she offer you her garden? opens a window of space to an internal and cosmic location. Art can be a gateway to unclose experiences between worlds.
Belmay’s vision is a shared with his partner and co-conspirator, the magician David London. Their story begins with meeting in the middle of the woods in Ohio at a trance festival, where Bellmay was working at the Magic Hookah Lounge, and London was presenting the Imagine Device. Bellmay and London both say that they were glued by the cosmic adhesive. And all the projects that they imagined together that first day, they accomplished within a year, meeting and surpassing every vision. “It takes a lot of equal passion, power and play to keep it together,” Bellmay says, “Artistically, we just kept inspiring each other and kept wanting to help in what the other was doing and then we began to morph together. We had to see that we together have these separate components that are not on opposing scales but very necessary to even be able to do one thing. So, we started to hone in on all those things … to understand what our strengths and weaknesses are, so we could balance each other better, and this is just how we work at this point. Every moment is a chance for collaboration.”
Bellmay and London’s collaborations take many forms including large-scale projects that they have recently embarked on, most notably 2012’s Winter Festival of Wonders http://wfow.info/ and debuting this winter, The Circus of Wonders Variety Show www.circusofwonders.com. The Circus of Wonders is the next evolution of the monthly Sunday Circus, which the duo ran for two years out of the Fridge in D.C. Their mission is to usher in a new era of Circus, to let go of the nostalgia for something in the past and open up to something new that is rich and bold and has real meaning behind it. Bellmay says, “Entertainment needs to come back in a live way. People come out to experience this who would normally sit home and watch Netflix. And they’re so happy that they came.” Their audience gets to experience live performances and not just individualized, mass-produced entertainment. “The Circus of Wonders is a pursuit of spreading wonder magic and play across the universe at its base,” Bellmay declares with a tone of steadfast certainty.
And, comprised of a magician, sword swallower, comedian, belly dancer, professional lunatic, contortionist, poi spinner, bubble fairy, balloon artist, stilt walker, flea circus etc, the Circus reaches wide and far, spanning disciplines of phantasmagoria while bridging to the present in the activated imagination of the audience.
The Circus is comprised of a magician, a sword swallower, a comedian, a belly dancer, a professional lunatic, a contortionist, a poi spinner, a bubble fairy, a balloon artist, a stilt walker, and a flea circus. It ecompasses many different disciplines, and brings artists together. Bellmay says, “I think everyone in the universe has a missing component, and if we don’t actually come together, we’ll never get that missing piece from the other.” So it is that magic belongs to the realm of community, and the sum can sometimes be greater than the part. The truth is we need each other to recognize our greatest gifts, and we sometimes discover our wholeness in the presence of others.
I had the privilege of attending Bellmay’s recent opening at Mr. Rain’s Fun House at the American Visionary Art Museum the other week. The restaurant in the museum was mobbed. They were a lot of hugs and laughter, a deep sense of community congregated together to share in an experience and open themselves to the visions transmitted through Bellmay’s art. Friends were even sporting Bellmay’s work with their sculptural haircuts shaved into the sides of their hair. As an artist, Bellmay finds many a way to engage his craft. If you’re curious, come to Baltimore to experience Bellmay’s show that’s on exhibit until March 7th or contact him for a sculptural haircut.
From dance to wood burning to painting to circuses and well beyond, wonder and play are native languages to Bellmay that are ways of simple being and interacting in the world; every action and interaction contains the potential for magic.
Leaving the interview, I walk down the steel plated stairs, worn from years of feet curving them finally in crescents of smooth indentation. Outside, carved into the red stone of the warehouse is a mischievous nature god with swirling undulations of leaves framing his face. The sky is a blank white against the still urban grind of the city. The salt on the pavement crunches beneath my boots. I sense the magic born into everything. From the city’s decay, new life, which is old life with new sight, is in all things. The Perception Altar reveals itself to me.
Photography by Philip Laubner