Photograph by Holly Wilmeth
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“Elk Horns” Manning, Oregon. April 2013 “The elk symbolizes stamina, how best to use our energy. The elk teaches us not to take on more than we are capable of and to endure our chosen path until we have reached our desired goal.”
Photograph by Holly Wilmeth

Musings: Holly Wilmeth’s Divine Nature

“This project is a series of images that represents the crossroad where woman meets the divine spirit of nature in the form of animals, and where she embraces it. There’s a long history in shamanic traditions and ancient cultures where humans have imbued themselves with the special qualities that animals have and their relationship to the world. Eating a part of the animal, or wearing a part of the animal, or using the animal as a totem deeply permeates us with their special powers. We want to come back to that state of grace where we are aligned with nature as animals are in the right relationship with their environment.”—Holly Wilmeth

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“Olive Ridley Turtle Shell” Mazunte, Oaxaca, Mexico. February 2013 “The turtle symbolizes Mother Earth as well as being well-centered and well-grounded in life.”

Serendipity is there if you are open to it. There is a brief period of three to four days every year when over one hundred thousand sea turtles come ashore to nest along the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico, Holly Wilmeth tells me. She knows this because it was at this time last year that she was there as well, taking a couple of months to breathe after a busy year of assignment work. As someone attuned to the natural world—she grew up on a farm in Guatemala—Wilmeth’s need to feel grounded in nature is a deep one. Walking along the beach, she came across so many of these turtles she began asking herself, “What does this mean? What am I supposed to do?”

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“Two Ducks” Portland, Oregon. June 2013 “The duck represents and teaches us how to maneuver through the waters of life with grace and comfort.”
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“Albino Boa Constrictor” Portland, Oregon. June 2013 “Snakes symbolizes transformation; shedding of the old and embracing of the new.”

Her answer came when she found a dead olive ridley turtle. She learned how to clean its bones and began doing research on animal symbolism. She found that the turtle symbolizes Mother Earth as well as being centered and well-grounded in life—a perfect starting point for a personal project exploring the spiritual connection between humans and animals.

Not long after, she was driving through the small Oaxacan town of Mazunte thinking about the kind of model she would want to pair with this shell—someone with a shaved head so that you could see the curve of her neck—when the young woman appeared. “I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this but I am looking for you,’” Wilmeth recalls of their meeting. “She was super, super thrilled and excited.”

Divine Nature was born.

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“The Benevolent Dragon or Iguana” Oaxaca, Mexico. March 2013 “Iguanas symbolize and teach the importance of respecting and remembering our dreams, facing our fears, and moving in the underworld. Their power lies in the ability to save itself from danger by leaving a part of itself behind.”
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“Queen of the Ocean-Yemanja-Fish” Ashland, Oregon. May 2013 “The fish symbolizes independence, potential, adaptation. She is the ocean, the essence of motherhood, a fierce protector of children, the feminine principle of creation and the spirit of moonlight.”

Traveling with a simple backdrop and using natural light, Wilmeth opened herself to more of these connections while going about her life, visiting old friends and meeting new ones.

Elk antlers discovered in a funky store while on a road trip along the coast of the Pacific Northwest are transformed into butterfly wings on a young woman’s back. Baby iguanas with sharp claws at an animal rehabilitation center in Oaxaca become a headdress for one very zen model. “She was humming to herself,” Wilmeth remembers. Pet ducks turn out to be the perfect symbol for a young woman facing change. Deer antlers fit best on the daughter of close friends. A 120-pound skirt of fish strung together on metal wire is a toning exercise for an acrobat. A snake is the only animal one belly dancer could ever imagine being photographed with.

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“Deer-Gentleness” Manzanita, Oregon. May 2013 Deer represent unconditional love; love to ourselves and to others.

Wilmeth plans to wrap up the project this year, with a show planned in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in July. “It’s just a delight working with people who love animals,” Wilmeth says. “I’ve photographed people. I’ve never photographed animals. It’s a whole new change.”

View more of Holly Wilmeth’s work on her website.