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Petro Novo Primitive:
Art or Graffiti?

Art & Article
by Jorge Conesa-Sevilla


renard the fox
Madame Renard the Fox




koko and deer


Fox Walk
Fox Walk


Fox and Moon
Fox and (upper left) Moon


Koko and Deer
"Koko" and Deer


by Jorge Conesa-Sevilla

In the past, I have enjoyed doing temporary nature art meant to disappear with the lick of an ocean wave or the kiss of the wind. This series is different. Before I began, I had to think carefully about the eco-ethical consequences of making an enduring mark on an otherwise natural landscape. Even if the "blemish" happens to be art, it could change the semiotic coda (it does) and the overall experience of that PLACE for somebody else who may not appreciate seeing man-made rock engravings, however meaningful or pleasing these might be for ME.

My son and daughter even asked me to ponder the "G" word: graffiti. "Papa, are you sure this is not your own type of graffiti? Aren't you merely rationalizing it as art?" Yes, that is the way they talk. Tough job being their parents...made us sharper. I argued weakly that some "graffiti" was ART. But at the core of my better argument was that it was the INTENTION that defined the object, the product.

Yes, I can "deface" any surface with frustration, anger, or mischief. Equally, I can "glorify" not only myself but also my environment—natural or synthetic—when my intentions are noble, when my emotions are in harmony, and when my thoughts are subdued. And there are also the ironies; historical and primitive art show both. In the castle of Valangin, near where I live, there is graffiti engraved on its ancient walls, even cursing words. But the cursing words and sexual meanings are kept alongside the boring paintings of stuffy Swiss Neuchâtel nobility. History can glorify anything, even portly middle-aged men who held slaves. I recently met a British man who believes he is nobility, is portly, plays golf, and thinks money is art. But that is another story.

Perhaps, I argued back, prehistoric cave art was an act of defiant defacing and graffiti. The Cro-Magnon elders repeatedly told the youngsters: "It is forbidden, taboo, to represent an animal or a person, inside a cave, while under the effects of hallucinogens." And teenagers, being teenagers even then, typical of a developmental phase of intense self-consciousness and the search for identity, got high, penetrated the cave's deepest recesses, and represented animals and their own hunting exploits with soot and ochre. Who knows for sure? My children laugh a nervous laugh. "I am winning my argument," I think.

"Is Christo defacing bridges, parks, and hills?" I ask them. "Who is Christo?" They asked. "Ha! They don't know."

I am not a photographer. I adore by touching and feeling, caressing and smelling. I adore my mountain and its lonely woods. I adore its wildlife. I adore my walking in their space, now my PLACE, and participating in their natural history--on my hands and knees like a born-again quadruped. I know where Madame Renard, fox, hides and lives. Last spring, I visited her den and checked how her kits were coming along. I know by studying her scat and the carcasses she leaves behind that she is eating well. I adore her, her life, so I carved her image.

I know where Chevreuils, deer, lay down to sleep at night. I have seen their blood spilled by hunters. Two days ago I tracked blood uphill to a body that a lazy killer did not bother to finish off. I have also visited the bedchambers of Chamois, their fluffy hair sticking out of the snow and ice like frozen velvet. I know what beeches the Sangliers, boars, like to visit in search of beechnuts. I have seen the aftermath of their digging for truffles. So I carved their images as well.

One night, I saw the crescent moon rising from my hammock (an intentionally ambiguous sentence). At the same time, I saw Madam Renard chasing after shadows. So I carved the moon.

I often feel lonely for ecopsychological meaning. So I carved Kokopeli in Switzerland so that it can protect the farmer's crops and keep me company at the same time. I did one self-centered thing: I carved the image of my left hand, like the ancients did and many children still do, because it was fun, yes, but also because I wanted to leave something of me THERE as well.

I will continue doing this kind of subversive petro-novo-primitive art, not because I want to begin an artistic trend but because I adore by touching and feeling and by caressing and smelling. I carve because I adore my mountain and its lonely woods and because I adore its wildlife. I carve because I adore my BEING in this PLACE.


Most of the images you see above are, technically speaking, abrasion petroglyphs, and more specifically, they are Sgraffitos, created by removing (by abrasion with diverse hand tools--e.g., carbide-tipped metal files) the weathered outer layer of calciferous Jurassic age rocks. An abraded intaglio, the actual Sgraffito is a more or less concaving reduction of this outer, weathered rock layer from five to ten millimeters in depth. A second technique I use is bruising or lightly pounding the weathered layer with a sharp tool in order to produce precise and small indentations. In addition to removing the weathered layer of these rocks, bruising often goes deeper into the rock matrix exposing quartz layers and faceting them at the same time. Exposing the quartz in this manner, and when viewed from certain angles, gives the finished petroglyph a natural iridescence. The faceted areas are not anamorphosis.

The rock faces that I select for "communion" are a scallop-shaped older rock matrix that, unlike most of the surrounding and eroded deposits, has endured longer erosive processes (otherwise the scalloped erosion would not be seen).

Thus far, most of the sgraffitos are recognizable astromorphic, anthropomorphic, and zoomorphic motifs (respectively, for example, the moon, Kokopeli, and animals), except for the more abstract serpentine designs abraded on the long ridges of naturally scalloped and eroded rocks. Seeing that the scalloped forms already insinuate a large figurative and natural representation of these bivalves, I use their "shell" ridges, the ones that are least likely to endure further erosion, to create abstract serpentine-dendritic sgraffitos that run the length of these ridges.

I have experimented with several 'rigid,' serpentine patterns. One pattern, mimics a typical alternating orchid flower budding pattern of a zigzag stem. The other is also a zigzag pattern that mimics the same branching phenomena in certain birch trees. I chose a zigzag pattern so that maximum texture-shape contrast could be obtained against the mostly sinuous and soft-curving vertical ridges exhibited by most of these scallop rock formations.

The scalloped rock faces usually follow the grade of this particular mountain, a very steep 40-60 degrees. This suggests that, at an earlier geological time, they might not have been at this angle and that the erosive forces of water, tumbling debris, and other materials shaped them to today's present angle. They are also the strongest rock matrix on that mountain. The non-clastic enduring characteristic of the scalloped formation makes them ideal for Sgraffito art. Every now and then I find unusual protuberances on the same rocks that insinuate a certain bas-relief image, (e.g., the hand-print) or part of a complete form or even a more complete figure. It is fairly easy, then, to accentuate the periphery of the already existing bas-relief with Sgraffito techniques. This dual approach makes the process more sculptural. I imagine that our ancestors were also able to "project" these suggested bas-relief shapes and work toward a finished form. This much has been suggested for the genesis of paintings in some of the Spanish pre-historic cave sites.


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Jorge Contesa-Sevilla PhD, has a triple degree in Biology, Philosophy and Psychology from Humbolt State University in Arcata, California. He currently lives with his wife in Switzerland, and works at the Sleep Laboratory at the University Hospital in Bern. Jorge teaches Ecology, Art & Psychology of Aesthetics classes and workshops and offers a wide range of ecological services in Italy, Switzerland and Spain through his organization, Ecopsychologie.

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