'Ash is an artist whose work revolves around the ritualistic inscription of mandalas on animal skulls. She views her artistic practice as a means of transforming grief and pain into beauty, and as a reminder of both the fragility and indestructibility of life.'
I found myself in this interview struggling to find a word that would act as a container to describe Ash and her work, but to no avail.
A multi-disciplinary artist, archaeologist, diviner, seeker....
Essence might just be the perfect word. In all of the things she creates, the source and the completion of her creations is truly her essence.
Gaia: Hi Ash. We are so excited to get to know you. Please tell us about yourself.
Ash: I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. I was interested in witchcraft, herbalism, and divination from a young age but it was hard to find a lot of material about it at the time. I had an active inner world and often escaped into it. Living on the farm had a wild edge and I loved ripping around on the quad, helping out with seeding and spraying, and spending afternoons in the garden with my mom. There was always plenty to do and we didn’t watch much tv. I experienced depression when I was in high school and that depression deepened in my early 20s. I journeyed through illness and loss and was homeless for a time. I tried to numb pain with opioids and antidepressants, and although I never really enjoyed drinking, I gave that a go too. I couldn’t shake alienation and despair, and I attempted to take my own life a few times, with one serious attempt. After that close call, I made some major shifts and went back to University for Archaeology. The majority of my work experience was at the University. I worked in the Students’ Union, Admissions, as an Analyst and then in the College of Arts & Science as an Academic Coach and Coordinator. I took the leap into my art full time after dealing with illness that took me off of work and I re-examined what I wanted to do with my life. I had my Archaeology degree but had only gone on a couple of overseas digs. I didn’t really feel there was much of a future in the field for me, especially with my health the way it was. I flowed more energy into my art, into wellness and reconnected to spiritual traditions. I also trained as a Death Doula and started volunteering with a local hospice organization. I started living in a completely different way, embracing all the wild and witchy ways that for so long I tried to suppress. So grateful for all the ways my journey shaped me and where I have ended up.
Gaia: You seem like a bit of a Renaissance Woman, with your offerings and talents being so varied. Archaeologist, rune reader, artist, mushroom enthusiast. Why don’t we start with learning more about you, and how you found your way into Norse mythology and rune reading.
Ash: I am a bit all over the place and always have been. My interest in pagan traditions started when I was about 8. I loved to read and my auntie would gift me the most magical books. One of my favourites wove tales of Vikings and Norse gods/goddesses. Soon after, I found out that my mom’s family was Norwegian with ties to Iceland, and I felt a kinship with Norse myths. In my adolescence, I was drawn to many spiritual traditions including Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Christianity. I was isolated growing up on a farm and attending a small town school so most of my discovery came from books. When I was 19, I started tarot reading and while I was still pulled to the runes, I felt intimidated by them. Tarot reading was my first real journey into divination. I lived with my aunt for the first year of University and she taught me a lot about variations of readings and how to connect intuitively with spirits. When I was working at the University of Saskatchewan as the Women's’ Centre coordinator I became friends with a volunteer that was well versed in Asatru. She connected me with books and rituals that shaped my relationship to the runes in a new way. I started carving my own out of wooden slices, casting and painting them into mandalas. In the last few years I finally felt comfortable creating bind runes, staves, giving readings to others, and exploring Seidr trance.
Beautiful, handmade bone runes by Essence of Ash
Gaia: Did your voyage into divination practices conflict with any spiritual or religious beliefs that you grew up with?
Ash: My parents were atheists and the main challenge I faced was gaining permission to work with different spiritual traditions. My stepdad and I would argue over spirituality and my naivety around it. I was motivated to research as many spiritual traditions as possible to see what resonated the most. As part of my exploration, I went to each of the churches in my hometown. I couldn’t find any Buddhist representation at that time. One of my school friends went to a youth group that I ended up attending with them. I found these environments really welcoming but limiting in some of the beliefs. Eventually, I fell out with the church and came back to pagan practices.
Gaia: If you find that you connect to runes more than other divination tools, why do you feel this is?
Ash: I see the runes as ancient beings. They have layers of access and as far as I have experienced, there is no end to their expansion. When I first started working with divination, they were two-dimensional, translated from books alone. I think this is where the intimidation came from; I didn’t feel close enough to them and wasn’t sure how to enter into deeper initiation. I thought there was a process that I could find or someone could teach me. Eventually, runes became part of every experience. On a hike, I would see the shapes in tree branches, lichen on a moss in the shape of Fehu, roots that cross into Tyr, pebbles that formed a stave. They were in my dreams as beings, with bodies and voices, imbued with messages and intentions. I think working with the runes makes me feel closer to my ancestors. I went to Iceland in 2018 and my relationship with the runes transformed on that trip. They moved in a way that was beyond understanding and my love for them deepened. I feel my great great grandparents in them. I feel roots in them. They are incredibly nurturing but also keep me on my toes.
Ash and the Hermetic Tarot
Gaia: Do you experiment with other divination tools? Do you think you would incorporate them into your offerings in the future?
Ash: My first love was tarot, and I often do readings for friends, family and for myself. I took a course from Lindsay Mack called ‘Tarot for the Wild Soul’ and it enlightened me to richer meanings and what they can symbolize. They have become a tool that I rely on daily to help navigate challenges and see rising themes in my life. In the past year, I have taken a step back from offering tarot because I wanted to ground into my runic divination. Another practice that I have explored is using animal skulls as scrying tools. I would use the cranial cavity of a cleaned skull to see what patterns arise and what messages naturally come up. Lupa has a fascinating book on this called Skull Scrying: Animal Skulls in Trance Work. This is something I would like to offer in the future in connection with Seidr magic. I also talk about dreams all the time. My dreams have been incredibly important to me since I was a child and I love interpreting them. I have done ‘Gateway’ training with the Monroe Institute focusing on methods for astral projection and out-of-body experiences. Using methods like binaural beats and meditation before sleep, altered states of consciousness can be entered into. I would like to offer sharing circles or workshops to explore dream interpretation and astral projection methods in the future.
Gaia: How did you get into studying Archaeology?
Ash: First I wanted to be a writer, then an artist, and when I wasn’t encouraged in either of those directions, I sought out the next thing that I was most passionate about, Archaeology. We would find arrowheads, pottery shards, and fossils on the farm and I would collect everything in such awe and appreciation even if I didn’t fully understand what they were. My great grandfather had an impressive knowledge of historical Archaeology sites in the area and he piqued my interest in these subjects. Initially I chose Archaeology because I desired a job where I could be outside as much as possible and handle objects with a story, items that held threads of meaning for someone at some time. Although I currently am not employed as an Archaeologist, my studies and experiences have shaped the methodical way that I work with discoveries. I still spend the majority of my time outside on the hunt for “treasure” or bone fragments in the forest.
Gaia: Does your background in Archaeology influence you or support you in your spiritual studies and your art?
Ash: I think that studying Archaeology created an insatiable curiosity that translated into my spiritual life and art. I try to keep child-like wonder alive and constantly seek out new ways of being fully in the world. My partner and I hike quite a bit and enjoy exploring new places in the Kootenays. Methods of identification and analysis that were part of my schooling help me to stay present when we are adventuring outdoors. I am usually scanning the ground, surveying the trail and pushing off into the trees to see what I can find. I love learning about past cultures' spiritual practices and a lot of my Archaeological papers focused on speculating on the meaning behind those practices. I still spend a great deal of time reading books about how magic has been portrayed over time. I think that my passion for Archaeology weaves seamlessly into my current work.
Lynx Skull art by Essence of Ash
Gaia: Tell us more about your art! What inspired you to make art out of skulls? What other kinds of art do you create?
Ash: I started collecting animal skulls and bones when I was living on our family farm. I took up decorating them after a trip to India in 2012. I was painting mandalas as a form of meditation and a way to deal with my depression. Decorating the skulls in a ritualistic way became an equally healing expression. I felt like I was transforming something mundane into a sacred object, through my eyes anyways. Cleaning skulls, seeing them from gruesome into a whitened canvas felt like a really nourishing process. Honestly, I didn’t think I would be selling animal skulls when I started painting them. It happened naturally and helped me through very dark times. The skulls came from trappers, farmers, friends that found them on trails or on their land and I had to learn about the permits and appropriate paperwork to obtain animal remains legally. I liked the idea of taking care of these remains that would otherwise be discarded. I would create honoring rituals for the animal, a sort of funeral and gratitude blessing for the life that once was before cleaning the skull. My art has since really branched off from the skulls and includes mushrooms, plant medicines, resin, altars, wood carvings and embroidery.
Gaia: How did you get into incorporating mushrooms into your art?
Ash: I really don’t know when my fungi obsession started. I feel like it was love at first sight. These last few years its been a new level of mushroom madness. I started collecting spore prints because the variation of prints were fascinating and sometimes the only way to identify species. The spore prints looked so much like an iris that I created mandalas mimicking the Greek evil eye. Then I experimented with using mushrooms as natural paint and dye for bones. It might sound silly but mushrooms bring me a lot of joy. I love spotting as many different kinds of fungi as possible and learning about mycelial networks (nature’s internet!). Amanita Muscaria has been the queen of my mushroom dreams and a lot of my art is focused around those spore prints. I work closely with plant allies, primarily poison plants and Amanita have been big teachers since I started exploring with the medicine. I don’t consume Amanita. I work primarily with prints and dried specimens. I also work in a similar fashion with Datura, Foxglove, Henbane, Mandrake and Brugmansia.
Mushroom spore print 'Evil eye' art interpretation by Essence of Ash
Gaia: Your art seems to be strong expressions of all your interests combined… is this a natural process? Does it require a lot of thought and consideration? Left or right brain kind of process?
Ash: I am winging it most of the time. It has been a very organic process to bring all interests together and I don’t spend much time thinking about the cohesiveness. This is what feels most natural, I am following my joy through the tools that nourish me the most. I am not highly organized in all areas of my life and business. The reason I chose ‘Essence of Ash’ is to allow that freedom of exploration, to move in many directions following interests that arise and diving into the practices that align. I always want room to grow and change as much as possible.
Mushroom spore print art by Essence of Ash
Gaia: Are there any other personal spiritual practices you have? Do you mind sharing about them?
Ash: I am interested in the tradition of Sineating. Ever since I read the book The Sineater’s Last Confessions: Lost Traditions of Celtic Shamanism, I have been completely intrigued by this form of healing. This tradition explores plant medicine, deciphering omens and communicating with nature spirits. My other spiritual practices come from psychedelic journeys and plants that I work with to help heal my own trauma and depression. I have found it useful to journey with Ayahuasca, DMT, and Psilocybin. In some ways these sacred medicines have saved my life and I continue to integrate my experiences with these teachers daily.
Coyote Skull art with Mandala by Essence of Ash
Gaia: Are there any spiritual philosophies, beliefs or paths you are drawn to that you would like to learn more about?
Ash: I have always been drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and the Vajrayana path. I am especially drawn to the Dakinis in this tradition and how they cut through illusions. My experience is limited with diamond way teachings but I am interested in finding a group to sit with and go deeper into these methods.
Gaia: What is your sun sign and do you feel you relate to it? If you know what your moon and ascendant signs are, do you feel like they reflect in your personality?
Ash: I am Scorpio through and through. My sun and moon signs are both Scorpio and ascendant Sagittarius. I am an Aries North Node. I am not nearly as murky and moody as my chart would claim! I do spend a lot of time in the emotional realm and feeling into the existential abyss. If there is anything that is spot on, it’s the introverted Scorpio narrative. My Sag wants to connect and I can be very energetic and playful but I need a major recharge after being around people. I crave one on one connection always but my anxiety flares up at events. I relate to Baba Yaga's crone energy. My happy place is puttering around in the garden, making concoctions, and planning adventures in the forest. There is definitely an intensity that comes with being a double Scorp that can be exhausting. It means overanalyzing, over-feeling, and seeking out the root to everything. It’s a gift in a lot of ways but I regularly try to shake off the seriousness and be jolly.
Elk Skull art by Essence of Ash
Gaia: How do you think you have grown as a person in the last year?
Ash: Moving to Nelson has brought with it some major changes. I have sustained myself almost completely through my Essence of Ash business and moved a lot of my services online. This wasn’t entirely the plan but I couldn’t find an Archaeology contract position or anything at Selkirk College that fit my job experience. Leaving my community of family and friends in Saskatchewan was difficult and I still do not know many people in the Nelson area. I have always been a kind of recluse but this past year, even more so. I started volunteering with the Kootenay Wildlife Rescue (Little Mittens) and had the opportunity to take care of some wild animals that really warmed my heart. I started taking the BC Real Estate Licensing Course this past Fall and will be writing the exam in June. That has allowed me to grow in a lot of ways and brought me back into study/learning mode which is one of my favourite states. I feel motivated and driven to move outside of my comfort zone. The Spring and Summer were busy months of wildcrafting tinctures, hunting mushrooms, camping and exploring the vast, beautiful Kootenays. We live just outside of Nelson so I have enjoyed living closer to the forest and the water, less noise and more connection to the wise trees. I have felt the wildness returning since we came to the mountains. There is room to expand and play. I have found new interests including embroidery, sewing, and block printing.
Gaia: What is one thing you would like to grow about yourself in 2022?
Ash: I would like to make videos about Norse magic, rune casting and Seidr trance. Most of the sharing has been by writing, instagram posts, photos, or on my website, but I am aiming to create different content that is more interactive including live reels, interviews with other artists, and informative videos. I would love to capture rune casting sessions, reels about the process of making runes, cleaning animal skulls, and mushroom identification (or spore prints). I have an offering coming up on March 23 - April 27th, an Introduction to Norse Magick 6 week course that is delivered through zoom. I am going to be preparing more classes and workshops, this is something I have been working up to for a long time and I am really thrilled about. I am getting some branding work done by a local artist in Nelson called November Wild. This will help grow my business and I can't wait to work with her on a new logo. I also hope to welcome more opportunities for collaboration in the next year.
Cat Memorial Skull Art by Essence of Ash
Gaia: Tell us more about the readings you offer and other products or services you offer?
Ash: The products really vary based on what I am in the mood for creating. I always have skulls available for custom including wolves, lynx, fox, coyote and bear (more available on request). Details on my custom process can be found at www.essenceofash.com. I also offer pet memorial, where I create a ceremony for a pet that is passing, and I can clean pet skulls. I have done pet memorial paintings using ash remains. Information about this can be found on my website. Rune Casting readings include: 3 rune spread (past, present, future), 5 rune spread (based on the elements), ship-burial method rune spread, and a 24 runic year spread. Custom Bind runes, combining runes to create an intentional symbol or talisman, is by far my favourite service to offer. They can be used for tattoos, altars, visions, logos or jewellery. Includes a digital file of the bind rune and write-up on the runes integrated.1:1 Rune Magic Mentorship: these sessions cover an introduction to the Elder Futhark, embodiment practices, daily rituals, bind runes, casting techniques, how to make your own rune set, Seidr Magick basics, and how to use staves. I am doing these sessions primarily online for now. I will be offering Tarot Card readings again in the near future. I am also a trained Death Doula who works with end of life clients. For more information on this, I recommend reaching out so I can explain what the end of life support can look like and what I am able to offer. I have my Jikiden reiki certification and can provide distance reiki sessions. I am always working on bindrunes, staves, spore print art, bone mandalas, and I post this under the ‘for sale’ highlight on my Instagram page @essence.of.ash
Gaia: Where can we find more information about accessing your products and services?
Ash: My instagram @essence.of.ash is the most up to date with offerings, information can also be found on my website www.essenceofash.com. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gaia: What would be in your shopping bag at Gaia Rising?
Ash: Incense, Scandinavian folklore books, Norse pagan books, Tourmaline, Jet, Obsidian, Kyanite, Beeswax candles, mushroom rings, and Tarot cards (there are so many to choose from!!).
Ash and Dannika from Gaia Rising will be doing an Instagram live on March 12th at 1pm! Make sure you attend this very special live event!