Feather by Jude Hill/ Heart by Arlee Barr

Personal Symbolism: Ceci n’est pas une pipe | Mixed Media

Arteries - exploring embroidered expressions with Arlee Barr

The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a  relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform.”  Charles Baudelaire

Symbols are more than a peace sign, a swastika, a logo or a geek way of communicating. Some are universal, some are iconographic: 100 and some years ago, most would have recognized these:

archetypal symbols

But not these:

Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media
modern icons

Symbols in general are emblematic designs that transmit ideas between people sharing a common culture. Historically and globally, each society has evolved symbol systems that illustrate specific cultural dynamics; and every symbolism functions to communicate information between members of that culture in a more subtle way than written or spoken language. An icon is a sign as a word or a graphic whose form suggests its meaning and is more sub-culturally specific.

In art though, whether visual, written, or performed, personal symbols are intensely ego-centric, with private meaning, often obscure and can be very ambiguous references. Obversely, they can also be recognizable in the sense the feather is a feather, an anatomically correct heart is an anatomically correct heart, but the deeper meaning could be something entirely different to the artist.

Do certain symbols speak to you? Are there images in your work created both consciously and unconsciously that constantly appear? Can you use these symbols to give more meaning through your art to you and to your “audience”? Most importantly, do the meanings have to be obvious, explained or shared?

Stumped? Not sure if you have any? If you do think it’s important, or will add a certain cachet or facet to your work that may not have been there before, then appropriate some. There is nothing wrong with “copying” in this sense–you will be inspired by different elements than what you are used to, some may resonate deeply, some will be personalized as you study and use them. Sketches, samples, games, try ’em out. You may incorporate them down the road, or never.

How about weather symbols? Runes? Spirograph designs? Mayan Codex? Oriental rugs?

Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media
weather symbols
Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media
Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media
Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media
mayan codex symbols

Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media

And if they are not primary to your expression, don’t worry about them at all–your work may be recognizable by a certain line of colour, a conceptual approach or a specific material/medium.

Personally, i used to agonize over symbolism, until a respected friend mentor asked if there was any joy left in making the art: searching out and pontificating about all the “statements” it was making surely took the fun out! Use your own symbols, but don’t worry if they’re not apparent even a 10th of the time; if a symbol is supposed to be, it will be.

And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Or not a pipe.

Personal Symbolism: Ceci n'est pas une pipe | Mixed Media
Magritte’s “Pipe” : “This is not a pipe.”


Arlee Barr is a Canadian artist, working primarily with textiles. She describes herself as “curious, eccentric and just a little opinionated“. Surrealist in thought, Fauvist at heart, Arlee likes the eclectic, explorative and absurd. Sprinkled around the interwebs, she can be found hanging around her fantastic blog and shop.

Jamie "Mr X Stitch" Chalmers

Hi, I’m Jamie “MrXStitch” Chalmers and since 2008 I’ve been on a mission to change the way the world thinks about needlecraft.

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