In Joan’s time, tranquility, prosperity and contentment were as newly abundant as the ocean while kindness and compassion were as commonplace as air. Still, Joan dreamt over and over of a tormented woman staring through hazy torchlight into the sanctuary of a cave held deep inside a mountain. Painted horses raced around the walls, unchained from the stone, while Paleolithic dancers circled round and round an altar in the center, their heels pounding grooves into the stone floor.
The woman stood apart from them and wept, her hands covering her face, holding herself back from running into the realm of the ecstatic celebrants. Finally, the woman faded into nonexistence, the horses leapt back onto the wall, and the people’s dance unwound until they, too, dissipated. As the last dancer dissolved into invisibility, she revealed someone else in the cave, a woman shaman who was just finishing a painting of a female figure whose radiant eyes knew the beginning of human time. When the cave was empty, Joan awoke.
Joan knew from the standing woman’s clothing that she was from the dreaded, revered, almost mythical 21st century and she shared her consciousness, as one sometimes does in a dream. When the woman’s adrenaline spiked in Joan’s veins, Joan understood that the woman’s distress was not simply a momentary anomaly, as it most often was in her own time, but rather was a constant layered state of being suffered by everyone all the time in that era of the past. Violence, repression, environmental disaster, disease, and hunger were always only a few steps away in the woman’s everyday life, so present that she was usually not aware of her constant anxiety. The woman did not yet know that her generations’ vision and courage had won the people of Joan’s century a lifetime of waking up each morning knowing that today everyone would be safe, fed, sheltered, and free.
Joan also recognized the face of the figure in the cave painting that had appeared in the dream’s last moments. Joan was the founder of a women’s art history museum and she had witnessed the same face in a hundred-year-old portrait titled “I Am” that had recently been donated by the artist’s great-granddaughter.
The portrait was, at first glance, an incredibly detailed but otherwise unremarkable watercolor of the head and shoulders of a woman staring behind the artist. The subject wore a white summer dress with a red scarf against a background of rich black. Most visitors to the museum only glanced at it as they walked by, but then came back to stare at it for as long as they could bear before wandering off silently. People murmured to each other that if you looked at the portrait long enough the eyes shifted to gaze not past the viewer, but with a naked intensity straight into the soul. A shimmer in the corner of the eyes betrayed that the woman in the painting was pleased with what she had found in those who came to see her.
Joan knew that the face in the portrait could not really be the same as on the cave wall. No cave paintings yet discovered have identifiable faces. The only finely drawn feature in the cave painting was the eyes, yet these were so unique and alive that they were enough to mark any human woman who shared them. However much Joan’s mind knew that the cave painting and “I Am” portrait had no connection, she also had no doubt it was the same woman depicted in each.
“I have no idea how my great-grandmother knew about a painting on a cave wall that was closed by a landslide until 75 years after she died,” said Alice, the great-granddaughter of the portrait’s artist. Joan had looked her up in the portrait’s files, closed the museum and drove five hours to the artist’s home where Alice still lived. “My grandmother was not some genius artist or mystic. She was completely ordinary. She lived all her life in the same small town. She married and had two daughters and spent her entire career running a florist shop that closed after she died in her early 60s.”
“Did she collect ancient art of any kind? Maybe the face was symbolic and on other works,” Joan asked, though she had studied thousands of pieces of art that centered on female spirituality and knew of no such piece with the same face.
“She did have all kinds of old statues,” Alice replied. “I still have them here in an old trunk in the attic.” She led Joan upstairs and together they sorted through replicas of bird goddesses, the snake goddess of Crete, plump figures about to give birth, sleeping priestesses, women wearing ornate dresses and headdresses, half-women-half-animals, and fish goddesses. Joan and the granddaughter placed the statues in a half-circle and looked at the array of ways humans had envisioned female divinity across continents and millennia, each so different, but each with deep, living eyes that were so the same.
For a time out of time, they sat dwelling in the statues till Alice turned to Joan. “Why are you here? And who are you?”
“Don’t you remember meeting me when you brought in the portrait? I’m the curator of the Women’s Art History Museum,” Joan said. “All the contemporary work seemed so blank and lifeless, perhaps made in a world that is too secure and content to arouse the kind of passion that genius requires. So, I sent out a call for work from the 21st century or before and you brought in the portrait.”
“I know all that,” Alice said. “What I meant was, what is going on? Why do you look just like the portrait and the cave painting?”
When Joan returned to the museum, she analyzed every detail of the portrait, truly looking at it as if for the first time, and then moved to a reproduction of the cave painting. She could not deny that “I Am” precisely captured her face or that the eyes in both were the same. “I have never really seen myself before. This is who I really am,” she said to herself.
That night in Joan’s dream she shared consciousness with the shaman who had painted the cave figure. When the shaman had crawled into the cave that morning, she had felt embraced by that which was both herself and beyond the place where her spirit went when she stared up into the sky. She had never thought much about how she had come to exist or what she would do after her death. She only knew that when she saw a pregnant deer cross her path or the full moon hang heavy in the sky, she overflowed with the knowledge that she was a part of the deer, and the moon, and something even greater that was unseen and was female, just like her.
She had come to the cave to paint horses in her role as shaman, but she was also a mother and as she ground the ochre, she thought of her children, and realized that they would have children, and on through many generations, and perhaps they would come to this cave. Maybe if she painted herself they would look into the painting’s eyes and see what she knew. A pool of water had gathered in the cave. She looked at her reflection and began to paint.
When the last line had been finished, the 21st century woman, still standing aside, uncovered her face to gaze at the figure painted on the cave wall. Joan recognized the 21st century woman from a photo she had seen in Alice’s house. It was the artist who had made “I Am.” In her hand she clutched one of the statues that Joan had seen that same afternoon. She raised her head from contemplating the cave painting and smiled at Joan. Joan awoke and she knew how “I Am” had come to be.
“Messages, they are all messages,” Joan said as she wandered the halls of the ancient section of the museum. The time had finally come in the 20th century for all the statues and paintings to begin to emerge from the earth into the spades and screens of the archeologists. By the 22nd century, the images and symbols were reproduced everywhere and seen by everyone a hundred times a day. While the women depicted in the early art did not have Joan’s face, the eyes were the same, not staring accusingly, but blinking joyfully in the light that the long wait was finally over.
Joan lay down in the gallery and went back to sleep, asking to be returned to the cave. When the cave appeared around her, she came closer to the fire so that her own face could be seen. The horses again began to run faster and the people danced more ecstatically. They had waited for her and the 21st century portrait painter, not wanting them to stand distant. If they were not ready to join in, they would wait for them. Joan and the portrait’s artist were both honored guests, each with her own generation’s vision to add to that begun by the shaman’s painting. As Joan looked back at where she had been standing, she became aware of row upon row of women from all times and places, all believing that they had no place at the fire, yet each a beloved daughter who was being welcomed home.
That night Joan began work on another exhibit. It was a single room with reproductions of the cave paintings all around the walls and with the ancient statues in niches, just as the original caves had had niches with sacred objects. Next she placed on the walls, as if they were paintings in the caves, pictures from the 21st century and more 21st century statues in cave niches. Finally, she unpacked the contemporary, 22nd century, women’s art that she had put away in boxes in disgust so many years ago. She looked at them, really saw them, and realized that she had been wrong. She had been looking at them with the eyes of an art historian, but when she looked at them anew, as if she had never seen art before, as if she were that Paleolithic painter in the cave, she saw that they were illuminated with a brilliance far beyond the 21st century art or the art before, even in the caves. This was art that was as fresh in its own way, as much a birth, as any that had ever been created.
The exhibit opened the very next day under a banner proclaiming “Remember Who You Really Are.”