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The Book

Dreamed October 1989 by SAO (Shawn Allen O'Neal)


Even though, as a visual artist, I've used subjects directly from dreams a number of times and even created large installation works and multimedia performance pieces dealing with dream subject matter, I saw the initial idea of a "dream gallery" as an enormous challenge.

My thinking was that the memorable dreams which I would most like to depict were simply far too complex to approach in two-dimensional static media. In fact it seemed no other subject matter I could think of could leave me feeling so utterly bereft of feasible artistic skills. Certainly the desire to make images of my dreams is quite common to me--in fact often when I'm describing a particularly fantastic dream to someone they will even say "that sounds like something you should paint!"--but I usually feel overwhelmed at the prospect.

Aside from the occasional diagrams, symbols, sketches or odd bits of things which inhabit my notes, this is just not something I'm in the habit of doing. In fact, since I've trained myself to journal religiously, I've focused more on the power of description, the development of my own 'private language'--a way of describing things to myself whether anyone else could make sense of it or no--and a fairly reliable photographic memory to remember and retain these images. I can write for a few minutes or half an hour at the most and create a document whereby I can remind myself years later of the most mind-bogglingly complex scenes, but I know from experience that lending these images any kind of painterly integrity could take weeks, even months or more of design and hard work. In addition, it seems I'm always 'carrying around' a backlog of images from dreams which I feel certainly deserve such focused work, but there are only so many hours in a day and one must make a living.

Of course not all of my dreams are crammed with complicated imagery but when I thought about depicting my dreams I was automatically drawn first to those which were. Indeed, as I began to review my dream journals for prospects, I began to feel more sure than ever before that a number of these dreams would become major works at some point. But I also found some other unexpected dreams automatically stood out as far as lending themselves to more or less simple depictions of objects and situations, and seemingly had a deeply resonant quality because of their very simplicity. This category of objects also seemed to lend itself to more or less quick digital representations; I could immediately see making simplified renderings of them fairly easily in Photoshop.

Thus, because of inherently limited artistic abilities in the face of so much complicated imagery, a sort of distillation process naturally developed and I began to realize a number of dream objects I had encountered were imbued with a certain 'emblematic' quality. These "easier things to depict" seemed to veer closer to 'language' in an odd way; they seemed to relate to one another in a particular context, similar to the way certain sounds become meaningful while other sounds do not. They simply had a certain indescribable "ping."

Nothing could illustrate this better, perhaps, than the very first object that I decided to illustrate: a very minimal image with markedly linguistic elements, visually very clear and simple but of course almost incomprehensibly strange to me at the time (and still) -- an image that's sort of haunted me for nearly a decade:


I was sleeping in a loft at the time, an open balcony on the second floor. I became aware that I wasn't in my bed anymore, but was below, on the first floor in a more or less horizontal position, floating face up. And I was rising; a very slow and steady ascent, like I was being lifted by a very slow elevator. I could not otherwise move.

I began to get an odd sense that I was in 'a different time' and as I got closer to the place above where I knew my body was sleeping I began to feel more and more like 'the me' who was sleeping there was a 'future me.' The closer I got to my physical body the more certain I was of this feeling.

As I 'passed myself' on the way to the ceiling and beyond, I did indeed see a 'strange me' there, sleeping in clothes and surrounded by objects I didn't own--an almost unrecognizable me--a me I probably wouldn't have recognized except of course I simply knew it was me. I passed very close, and 'that me' was lying on his stomach with his face turned away, a book near his head. It's my habit to read often before sleep, and I had done so that night, and there was a in fact real book by my real head. But this book was not the same.

It was definitely my ability to clearly read the title of the book that made this dream so memorable. In tall block letters across the front and on the spine it read:

Digital painting of a dream image by SAO (Shawn Allen O'Neal): a book titled 'Holometabolous Paranoumenon'
I should qualify though, when I say 'clearly'--the middle part of the first word seemed to 'refuse to remain itself.' (I'm sure most dreamers know all about this phenomenon, the ability to read or not to read in dreams being a popular subject of discussion) In my original notes I state that the "middle of the word seemed to be in Russian,"--and I remember looking very intently at it, measuring it, if you will, trying to determine if it was some common word with a few flourishes of strange lettering making it initially unrecognizable, or something else.

It was only later, after pouring through dictionaries that I became convinced that the word was, in fact, "HOLOMETABOLOUS." I didn't know holometabolous was a word at the time much less what it meant, but when I saw it later I knew that had to be the word I was seeing--at least the closest candidate in English. In the dream I did know the word "NOUMENON" and that it meant, roughly, "mind," and I grasped, loosely, the implications of "PARANOUMENON" even though I had never seen it with the prefix before.

Nevertheless "HOLO-something-something-OUS PARANOUMENON" was virtually burned into my memory because of the oddness and relative clarity.

I also noticed the symbol on the front of the book, and that it contained a sort of hidden six-pointed star. Though I didn't know it then, this would have further significance.

For the next few nights, I had in mind 'getting a better look' at this odd book and concentrated on this goal. I felt a totally unaccountable affinity for it, and having discussed it with a friend had entertained the idea that since I felt I was seeing a 'future me,' that perhaps it was a book I had written--although not yet--a book I would write in the future. Regardless of whether or not this could be true, the obvious symbolism occured to me, that basically this book might have represented 'things my dreaming self knew'--perhaps even 'secret things about the nature of reality,' if I wanted to wax all mystical.

As absurd as it might seem, I really felt like this book was a real, solid object that existed somewhere--as if I had seen an actual thing and not just a dreamy apparition, and I really wanted to see what was inside it.

But having looked up the words and turned them round and round in my mind, I had only the vaguest conception of what they could possibly mean. It conjured up all kinds of possibilities, but I couldn't really sink my intellectual teeth into it.

("Holometabolous" is a name for certain kinds of insects, particularly butterflies, which have two distinct stages of physical existence, such as in the case of a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly. "Paranoumenon" would mean roughly "around" or "beyond" mind.)

At any rate, a few days later I had a dream and I had found the book and was carrying it around with me through various more or less typical dream adventures. Even though I was in possession of it, I wasn't paying as much attention to it as I had wished I would when I imagined ever seeing it again. And it seemed to be changing anyway. It wasn't 'fixed.'

At a point during the dream I did eventually remind myself to pay attention to the book, and as soon as I did I realized there were no words on the cover now but I was amazed by the area of the small emblem on the cover. It was silvery and very deeply three-dimensional, 'animated' like a hologram or weird multi-dimensional television, and full of moving refracted spectra. I touched it briefly to 'check out the three-d illusion' and found that instead my hand did seem to penetrate into the space of it.

As I watched this little area of silvery energy became a series of gleaming cubes standing about six inches or so above the book. This object rotated randomly, drifting in different directions on a central axis, this way and that, sometimes slowly, sometimes very rapidly. It hummed slightly and it seemed I could feel its rotation moving small currents in the air.

Digital painting of a dream image by SAO (Shawn Allen O'Neal): seven interlocking rainbow-tinted cubes
Now I seemed to be getting a flood of information about this configuration of cubes, almost as if I were at a lecture which was being illustrated by this holographic display. I understood, and saw, that there were six cubes all joined together--one extending from every face of the inner cube--although the inner cube wasn't really there at all--but virtual. As I pondered this, as well as pondering why I should be getting such information in the first place, it occurred to me that this was a most strikingly perfect way to describe or define "virtual"--which can be a kind of slippery concept. At the time I found it rather profound in my dream state that this inner cube could be so... formal... yet not actually exist as the other cubes did.

In the weeks which followed I began to draw this configuration of cubes and pondered ways to build or illustrate it (in fact in the process of attempting to build it I ended up creating some other interesting works loosely related to it) meanings to apply to it, possible uses for it, numerological significances, etc.

I immediately found it was very hard to render as a two-dimensional image. From most angles there were simply too many or too few lines to tell what was actually going on, much less the problem of rendering the inner cube as a virtual entity. In the 'exploded' image above, where the cubes are not actually tangent to one another, it becomes a bit easier to depict--but I never actually saw it like this--they were always touching--a single object with the middle cube only implied.

Line drawing of a dream image by SAO (Shawn Allen O'Neal): interlocking cubes seen at an angle creating a hexagonal starlike design.
I tried any number of methods, drawing it over and over. Finally I took some graph paper and tried drawing it from different perspectives.

I was startled, finally, when I drew this:

Line drawing of a dream image by SAO (Shawn Allen O'Neal): interlocking cubes at an angle creating a hexagonal starlike design
...which was the exact image I had originally seen, with the 'hidden star', on the cover of the book.

I still, when thinking of this dream object, feel there is much to be learned from it, but I can never quite put my finger on exactly what it is telling me. I still get certain fragmented information 'from' it though I've never encountered it in dreams again--and I still hold out the possibility that perhaps I've seen something from the future, something I myself have yet to create.


In his introduction SAO describes a dream-artist's dilemma I've also struggled with: a backlog of vivid, urgent images that I lack the time or skill to render. I've always been puzzled by artists who need "inspiration"--the spirit is always flooding in! The problem is to do any of the images justice--even a fraction of what's crying out to manifest.

The visual riddle posed by the nested cubes at the end of the dream: that virtual or "ghost" cube defined by a cage or nest of solid cubes around it, feels to me like an image of SAO's mind or spirit itself; his physical body and brain define the contours of one more element, the central element, implied yet not directly reachable--if you tear away the outer shapes to get at the inner one, it's gone--the nest that surrounded it and held you off, shaped it. Without that nest, emptiness. A wonderful image of our elusive consciousness.

--Chris Wayan

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