Theosophical Encyclopedia

Theosophy Cultural Perspectives

Kenneth Small and Robert Ray -- USA 

Revisiting Visionary Utopia - Katherine Tingley’s Lomaland

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 Kenneth Small and Robert Ray

Introduction - Kenneth Small

A series of serendipitous connections brought me to collaborate with Robert Ray, head of the Special Collections Library at San Diego State University (retired 2021), which resulted in ongoing exhibits centered on the Lomaland Theosophical Community beginning in 2016 through the spring of 2020. I was introduced to Robert Ray by Prof. Rebecca Moore, then chair of the religious studies department at SDSU in 2015.  This opened a period of collaboration and great creative effort on the part of special collections centered on the Lomaland community. The scope of our Lomaland and theosophical archive focused on the historical period from 1897-1942. Our extensive archival resources on the post 1942 Lomaland history, later theosophical resource materials and correspondence, theosophical and perennialism studies etc were viewed as outside the scope of these initial projects and maintained separately. Robert Ray and I decided to keep as a primary focus the culture of the Lomaland community and its creativity, values and internal culture and community/global influence. The Lomaland community’s events and Katherine Tingley’s more detailed, rather complex specific  history, we felt would come in future exhibits, studies and presentations and outside the scope of these initial cultural overview exhibits and presentations.  During the time period of these two exhibits, we hosted lectures by a variety of scholars, including Massimo Introvigne on Lomaland symbolist/visionary artist Reginald Machell; Dwayne Little, PhD, professor emeritus Point Loma Nazarene College on Katherine Tingley and Lomaland; Riain Ross-Hager on Lomaland resident and Welsh poet, Kenneth Morris; Kenneth Small on Raja Yoga Education, Art, Drama and Literature at Lomaland etc. It is our view that this broader understanding of Lomaland’s daily life, cultural and theosophical core values and ideals, sets the necessary stage for future more detailed examinations and presentations.

Robert Ray on the Lomaland Community Exhibits

Introductory Note: Robert Ray was the director of the Special Collections Library at San Diego State University until his retirement in 2021. He curated two extensive Lomaland exhibits in addition to the Lomaland Theosophical archival collection. In the following question and answer he gives an overview and glimpse into his work on the Lomaland exhibits and collection.

1. What were the Lomaland exhibits historical periods focused on?

The focus was on the Lomaland community – more than a contemplative, intentional community, it was as you have written* (See Revisiting Visionary Utopia: Katherine Tingley’s Lomaland 1897-1942 by Kenneth Small) , “one of the foremost spiritual community endeavors in American history.” Through photographs, original correspondence, works of art, and artifacts, the exhibit sought to display what Theosophical spirituality looked like at Lomaland – mirroring Tingley’s social experiment to make Theosophy “intensely practical.” Through these original sources, the exhibit hoped to show what a community based on Universalist ethics and altruistic ideals was like in practice.

The focus was to bring together the Lomaland educators, artists, dramatists and musicians, scientists, poets and writers that came together during various periods in Lomaland’s history in order to exhibit the uniqueness of the community and what made it a distinctive communal experiment. Overall, the exhibit’s displays combined the various expressions of practical Theosophy to show how Tingley did the same unifying a myriad of forces: “spiritual and humanist, metaphysical and mystical, practical and mundane, progressive and traditional.”

But the exhibit didn’t present (try to teach) Theosophy. Lomaland’s theosophical beliefs were explored visually through the community’s endeavors in education, art, music, dramatic productions, science and literature. The exhibit attempted to reflect what Tingley was doing - the direction that she took – which reflected her activism in applying Theosophical principles in education, drama, art, etc.

2. How were the exhibit materials selected from the overall Lomaland collection?

Selection was based on how well items explored and displayed visually Lomaland’s theosophical beliefs – achieved utilizing photographs and artifacts from the community’s educational endeavors, dramatic productions, art, scientific achievements, music, and literature.

For example, several display cases were devoted to the Raja-Yoga Academy, Tingley’s experiment in early childhood education shaped by theosophical principles:

The child is not an empty vessel to be filled up; the purpose of education is rather to bring out in the child what has always existed. Yes, the child may be asleep – Theosophy awakens. 

The Raja-Yoga educational program emphasized an integration of physical, mental, and spiritual training – items selected for the educational displays were those that together exhibited this integration. And overall, the exhibit contained selections which documented the community’s intention and expectation that all members acquire skills and even expertise in a range of pursuits: dramatic, artistic, scientific, as well as the practical needs of the community such as agriculture, horticulture, etc.

The success of the exhibit required large vertical introductory panels for an impressive visual overview to capture and entice the viewer with engaging, enlarged visuals. Materials selected were based on their visual capacity to communicate the uniqueness of Lomaland and an overview of its extraordinary accomplishments. (see fig. 1 & 2) This use of striking visuals continued when the exhibit expanded into SCUA’s foyer and dept entrance using enlarged photos of the community’s bldgs. to reveal how impressive they were. (see fig. 3 & 4) The expanded area also allowed for two display cases in the foyer that contained photos and original materials documenting the involvement of Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in the life of Lomaland.

The exhibit had further expansions as interest in it increased. For example, we used the large exhibit case at the entrance to the Library Addition to display photographs of Lomaland’s visits to the Pala Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County. When the dept. moved down to the 1st floor of Love Library, the exhibit expanded again to include a large digital display of photos of Lomaland on a wide screen as well as additional Tingley and Blavatsky personal artifacts.

Not all items selected came from the Lomaland collection SDSU. We were fortunate to have been able to borrow significant works of art and artifacts from Lomaland loaned to us by the San Diego History Center. (see fig. 5 & 6)

3. Did the exhibits focus on broad cultural or historical events?

While the exhibit didn’t attempt to teach Theosophy, there was some attention paid to a broad overview of the origins of the Theosophical movement as well as how Tingley was inspired by the ideals found in late 19th century Theosophy and the New England Transcendentalism of her childhood.

A specific focus was made on Tingley’s place in the Greek Revivalist theatre movement of the United States and the development of early 20th century avant-garde drama. This quote (below) was used in one of the display panels devoted to theatre and drama at Lomaland.

Katherine Tingley linked her occult worldview to her theatrical activities. Tingley’s theatre was not only motivated by her religious purposes but also informed by some of the most current theatrical trends of her day. Tingley was, in fact, a pioneer of the Greek Revivalist theatre movement of the United States. In addition, she was aware of the avant-garde European trends in theatre before the Little Theatre Movement began to alert Americans to it in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. As far as theatre history is concerned, one of the most intriguing aspects of Tingley’s story is that she was spoken of positively by respected US theatre critics in the early twentieth century—despite the fact that her work is generally unknown to theatre scholars today.

Edmund Lingran, regarding Tingley’s place in the development of early 20th century avant-garde drama.

Several lectures re: broad cultural or historical events accompanied the exhibit, one by Kenneth Small on Shakespeare and Classical Greek Drama at Lomaland and another presented by Prof. Dwayne Little focusing on the The Life and Times of Katherine Tingley in the Context of the Progressive Movement.

4. Other general comments and significant points?

Below are significant issues you have written about.*

- This is the first exhibit to be curated by a university in the United States on the cultural history of Lomaland and its creative arts. It is also the first time primary source archival material on the history of Theosophy has been made available for study to a United States academic institution. This unique convergence, in the academic setting of the University, offered students, faculty and researchers the opportunity to study a unique cultural phenomenon from San Diego's early history.

- Katherine Tingley’s view of a Universal multi-culturalism at Lomaland was expressed in writings, the Raja Yoga educational system and art expressions. Inspired by Theosophy’s universalist spiritual views and Victorian nature romanticism, the community’s view of Native American culture and spirituality was positive and supportive, contrary to the general prejudice of the time period. Katherine Tingley would name her home at Lomaland ‘Wachere Crest’ and she would often visit the Pala Indian Reservation in northern San Diego County. In 1920, Raja Yoga students gave a concert for the tribe in their Pala school house. Tingley invited and hosted the Pala Chief at Lomaland and gave a sacred invocation there. In the community’s monthly journals - The Theosophical Path and the children’s Raja Yoga Messenger - are frequent writings on and about Native and Meso-American culture, spirituality, art, myth and symbolism.

- Countering the stereotypical views of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Lomaland theosophists outreach to Native Americans included Mayan scholar William Gates’ linguistic and cultural studies, the historical novel of Meso-America The Chalchuite Dragon by Welsh poet and writer Kenneth Morris, and theosophist and Tibet scholar W.Y. Evans-Wentz’ book, Cuchama and Sacred Mountains, as well as five Raja Yoga schools in Cuba where artist Grace Betts would teach for nine years. Other artists and writers significantly influenced by the theosophist’s cultural views with a frequent native American focus, included Frank Waters and San Diego sculptor Donal Hord, whose Aztec sculpture is at San Diego State University.

My opinion of value and significance for today:

- Lomaland’s understanding of human identity has primarily a spiritual dimension – the spirit exists in a mortal body that will die – but the spirit is immortal and will never die.  Today’s discussions of identity have the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. The Lomaland theosophists sought a higher order and understanding of identity that would keep the issues of the flesh under control. For them, human existence is a Universal Brotherhood where all our actions are done in the service of humanity. For them, the soul has existed from creation and is an integral part of the physical makeup of the Cosmos.

- Entering into a time that is not your own can be exhilarating and extremely educational. Discovering that The Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society at Lomaland was one of America’s unique communal experiments is an exhilarating and educational understanding for San Diegans, Californians, Americans, and more. Yet, while little more than a generation ago, few San Diegans today understand or even know of this spiritual community close by that was one of the most distinctive, interesting and culturally alive social experiments in American history – begun and led by a female visionary. Under the guidance of Katherine Tingley, this extraordinary group of writers, artists, scientists, as well as educational and agricultural experts played a major role in the development of the Theosophical movement and the cultural progress of San Diego. The exhibit has provided a great service towards understanding a vital chapter in America’s social history and San Diego’s cultural awakening.

Footnotes

See Revisiting Visionary Utopia: Katherine Tingley’s Lomaland 1897-1942 by Kenneth Small, available from Theosophical History Journal, James Santucci: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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