Moonset, AI generated view

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

Self-Portraits: AI Meets Alchemy

(It's Alive!)


15 Nov 2023. It was October. I was learning AI [artificial intelligence] art. I got a laugh from posting my spooky self-portraits throughout the month on Facebook.

Why self-portraits? AI—whether it's Midjourney or Adobe Firefly—tends to produce the same bland brochure-ready faces, young women with big eyes, pert noses, and pouty lips. Boring. Also, at 75, I need to own my old face.

Subscribe to get my newsletterAm I a witch? My friends' assumed that I was portraying a witch. Probably because of the ravens. But witches are not me. By definition, the classic witch consorts with the devil. Not a game I care to play. Flirting with evil has consequences.

But I'm fascinated with alchemy. Why is that? For me, the portal to power is my intellect. I have to study like mad. Maybe I equate alchemists with mad scientists. Laboratories! Fevered diagrams! Ancient reference books full of cryptic symbols and mysterious languages! What could be more fun than that?

I decided to make a show of my eight images. A series, let's call it. I was going to blab on about alchemy but realized I was quite ignorant about it. Mad scientists thinking they could turn base metals into gold? There had to be more to the story.

So I have been reading The Forge and the Crucible: The Origins and Structures of Alchemy by religion historian Mircea Eliade. I'm not finished but two things strike me so far. One, that alchemy had its most ancient roots worldwide in the origins of mining, smelting, and smithing. A prominent school of thought assumed metal was a living thing extracted from the womb of the Earth-Mother. Ores were embryos. If left alone, they would eventually grow into their maturity—gold. It was a sacred activity, with many rites and rituals. This was especially true as specialized skill sets evolved and trade secrets became a thing.

Eliade argues that, as long as man believed in the living Earth-Mother and the vitality of ores and metals, their crafts had a spiritual element.

This was carried into the alchemists' practice. Their practical challenge was to speed up the natural transmutation of base metals into the perfection of gold. But spiritually, they sought their own perfection. That's an idea I can get behind!

The Gallery

All images were done with a combination of Midjourney or Dall-E 3 generative AI apps, with Insight Face Swap to make them look like me, plus refinement and compositing in Photoshop.

#1 Portrait of the Alchemist [Image above].

#2 The Raven Loves a Bubble

#3 Concentration

#4 After a Long and Frustrating Day My alchemist always has her glass of "elixir" handy.

#5 Magic in the Lab

#6 If Not Gold, then Life? In alchemy drawings, you may see a homunculus in a jar—don't ask me about that. I was inspired by Dr. Praetorius, the mad scientist who created miniature humans he kept in jars (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935). Adding the women in the bell jar as an afterthought was a Photoshop challenge.

#7 Obsessed. Creating life in jars is madness.

#8 Mad Miniature Villages Under Glass. Another Photoshop challenge: compositing village globes into an image generated elsewhere.


While reading up on the history of alchemy, I came across this article in The New Yorker: "Needful Things" (or "The Real Cost of Plundering the Planet’s Resources") by Elizabeth Kolbert. She reviews Ed Conway's Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization (Knopf) and Chip Colwell's So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything (Chicago).

The upshot: Earth-Mother is no longer respected. The extractive industries have no sacred rituals. They need to deliver "lifeless" minerals as aggressively as possible to a consumerist world that needs more and more and more. I love my toys and my conveniences as much as my neighbors do. But it's sobering to reflect on the loss of sacred relationships with the natural world. And especially sobering to realize the current path is unsustainable.

Let's bring back a little of the old magic. And a lot of the old respect.


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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.