In April 2021, The Art of the Occult was six magical, mystical months old! I didn’t get too excited about it though, because a whole gaggle of shipments had gotten lost in the astral plane and I didn’t have any gorgeous books on hand at the time to wave around in front of your faces…but LOOK what has finally appeared on my doorstep!
And now HEY LOOK AT THAT! I havea PayPal link on my blog now, where, if you are in the US, you can buy a signed copy of The Art of the Occult Now we don’t have to conduct covert deals through clandestine DMs! I am a professional! Alas, friends abroad who would like to buy a signed copy of The Art of the Occult from me, we must still resort to cloak-and-dagger communiqués. I have limited quantities at the moment, but I hopefully should be stocked up again soon, so please feel free to order bunches of books and make me a rich weirdo!
Reminder! Did you know that, in celebration of The Art of the Occult, the aromatic adepts at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab summoned forth a rare opulence of fragrances inspired by a handful of arcane masterpieces within its pages?
The Ars Inspiratio collection is comprised of five artful scents corresponding to five mystical artworks; these pairings serve as anointed access points to all manner of fabulous occult inspiration– perfumed pathways to unknown realms for extraordinary seekers and dreamers and magic-makers. If you’re curious about these fantastical fragrances but would like to know more about them first, you are in luck! I have reviewed them over on Haute Macabre and Tom and Galen reviewed them as well, over on the Lab’s 15 Minutes of ‘Fume youtube channel.
And a final mention, I have rounded up all of the interviews I have done thus with artists whose works appear in The Art of the Occult. …and allow me to again express how deeply thankful I am to the artists, who, over the years, have taken the time to answer my questions and share their insights with me. I am so grateful for all of the creators who have spared a moment or two to discuss their works and practices with me. It’s always humbling and gratifying to have an artist that you admire take your queries seriously and share thoughtful, candid responses with you–so many, many thanks to the artists listed below, as well as every creator who has given me the time of day over the past decade! I am grateful for all that you do and share with the world, and I thank you for allowing me to be part of it sometimes!
April’s installment of eyeball fodder is brimming with beauteous botanicals, a gallery of fabulous, fantastical florals to thrill and delight! Both art and flowers are forever a balm for my soul, and to this end, I have gathered a splendid bouquet of blooms and blossoms to admire and inspire, below.
I can’t immediately seem to find a great deal of information on Baroque period painter of moody floral still-life masterpieces, Juan de Arellano… other than he painted flowers because he wasn’t so great at painting figures, and also the flower paintings paid more. Seems to have lived pragmatically, if nothing else can be said!
So rather than make a whole bunch of stuff up to meet some arbitrary word count, we’ll leave it at that. The guy painted some gorgeous ghost-haunted flowers (or that’s what I see, anyway) and that’s good enough for me! Below are some of my favorites from amongst his œuvre.
When I was conducting image research for The Art of the Occult, I quite by accident stumbled upon the sumptuous, spectacular still-life botanical drama of Gatya Kelly’s oil paintings. And if there’s anything I love to rest my gaze upon more than artworks infused with mystical, magical imagery …it’s a painterly depiction of a beautiful flower!
Perusing this artist’s lush, gorgeous portfolio of blooms and blossoms was such a balm for my eyes when they needed a quiet rest during that period of time, but as luck and wily circumstance would have it, I soon fell upon an imaginative series of her works incorporating and exploring alchemical themes, and, A-HA! Epiphanies were had, connections were made, and, as it turns out, such discoveries were meant to be…and if you have peeked inside the pages of The Art of the Occult, you will no doubt recognize the featured image of this post as painted by none other than Gatya Kelly, herself.
I could not let the opportunity pass to nose about and ask some questions, and so in the following interview, artist Gatya Kelly and I chat about the personal nature of her work, the influence and thrilling inspiration of light and color on canvas, and how every flower is beauty, sex, and death, all furled up into one perfumed package.
S. Elizabeth: You remark in your artist statement that, “What I try to do is to explore myself in terms of paint. It’s personal.” I LOVE THAT. “It’s personal.” There’s just something so thrilling about an artist you admire coming right out of the gate, making no bones about it, stating that as an absolute. And because your art is so personal, I don’t want to put words in your mouth. To get us started, how would you describe your style?
Gatya Kelly: It’s my natural style – it’s the way the paint comes off the brush when I don’t think about it. I have painted all my life, although there have been gaps of decades when I haven’t picked up a tube of paint. Part of the reason it took me a long while to get serious about my art is that I have been so resistant to painting this way – because representational art is uncool and still life is really a bit embarrassing. I tried experimenting with all sorts of other techniques and approaches, searching for a way to override my natural tendencies. In other words, trying to paint like someone else. I had to get over that to be able to put the work out there.
Many people think my style is photographic or hyper-realist because they only ever see the images on social media. But most of the works are quite large and if you get up close you will see the brushwork is loose. Get really close and it’s practically abstract. Still, part of my personal struggle is to reign myself in, to keep the marks fresh and not get lost in the minutiae.
What influences and inspiration do you draw from in your daily art practice? What, if anything, do you consider to be your greatest source of inspiration?
My practice is influenced by my circumstances. I travel and move house a lot. My studio space might be the corner of a dark room or the whole floor of a disused butter factory. Right now I am in lockdown on Corfu Greece painting in a bedroom. Parts of the studio setup are cobbled together with fishing line, driftwood, and smooth round stones from the beach. Sounds romantic, doesn’t it?
Still life works for me because wherever I am there will be something to relate to and use in a composition. Out walking, a flower or rock or seed will catch my eye and I’ll bring it back to the workspace. It won’t necessarily become a painting but it might spark an enquiry. This happened with weeds when Covid began in the UK. They were so delicate and lovely in the fields, yet they seemed to reflect the uneasy uncertainty of the times.
The light is an influence too, and that is reflected in the painting. In Australia, the light is quite harsh and bright. In Europe, especially in winter, it’s softer and the colours are more subtle. So the work will have a flavour of a place. I guess my greatest source of inspiration is always what’s right in front of me and the way I’m feeling about it. I try to follow my intuition and not analyse the situation too closely.
Much of your work features vivid florals and fruits. I’ve read your statement that you’re not literally painting those objects, but rather, “the emotions they create … balance, truth, serenity.” I suppose my question then becomes, what is it about blooms and blossoms and fruiting things that are so compelling, that evoke these feelings in you?
Not just in me, in everybody. I think an attraction to the natural world is hardwired into our DNA and it has been a fascinating part of the still life journey to observe this through viewers’ reactions. Before the mind kicks in with judgments about whether it’s good or bad, whether you like it or not and so on, there’s this primitive, uncontrollable response of Yum or Ahh. That’s the response I am interested in working with, seeing how far I can push it. We seem to have a universal deep-rooted attraction to certain things, regardless of our gender, age or background. That’s really fascinating because it demonstrates our basic common human connection.
Maybe this is a silly question, but I would love to know! Is gardening a part of your artistry? Do you grow the beautiful peonies and other flowers in your still life painting?
There are no silly questions! I used to garden, mainly fruit and veg, but not at the moment. One day. Mostly I pick blooms from friends’ gardens, sometimes I nick them from over a fence or knock on a stranger’s door, and very very rarely I buy them from a florist, but I don’t much like doing that because it feels a bit impersonal. And I need lots to choose from to get the right shapes and sizes in the compositions.
I just read the most fascinating essay about floral motifs in art in which the author posits, “…what is stunning about the flowers is that, though they are not us, there is something about them that we recognize in us.” I’m curious as to your thoughts on this, what is there of the flower that you recognize in yourself? Here is a link to the essay, if you would like to read it! http://www.cerisepress.com/04/10/the-flower-artist/view-all
A beautiful essay with so many rich ideas. I think this relates back to what I said earlier about the hardwiring and the connectedness of living things. There’s no escaping or denying it no matter how many layers we build around ourselves. What do I recognise personally? It always comes back to the same thing, mortality. This is the allure of the vanitas genre of paintings too. In a flower there is youth, beauty, fragility, vulnerability, sexuality and death all contained in one scented package. It’s the ephemeral nature of flowers that I find irresistible, almost tragic.
I believe that you paint predominantly in oils; have you worked in other mediums besides oil? If so, why have you chosen oil to be your primary medium?
I have dabbled in other mediums but for me it can only be oil. I did my first oil painting when I was 10 years old and fell in love. The smell, the texture, the slow drying times, the history, the pigments, I adore it all. I think it’s the romance with the paint itself that excites me every morning I walk into the studio. Just looking at the tubes is heavenly.
As someone who is just now starting to appreciate colors again (I had a 25 year-long “all black everything” phase!) I am struck by the luminous hues on your canvas. I think your use of color is absolutely breathtaking. Do you have a favorite shade to work with or a color palette to work within?
Colour is so important and I give it a lot of attention. It drives me crazy sometimes. Just the slightest shift in one area can change the way a whole painting looks. And of course the colours look different under different lighting, which can be frustrating. I try to work under controlled artificial daylight to keep some consistency whenever I’m at the easel but it’s not always possible.
I tend to plan the colour palette out before I start and try to keep the colours in a fairly limited range as far as possible. The luminous quality is one I particularly want to achieve. It’s not brightness or high chroma. I don’t really know what it is, but I know it’s there when the painting has presence. One minute it’s all a bit flat and uninteresting and then suddenly it’s as if a being has inhabited the canvas. Thrilling. Also I want the painting to still look good in very low light levels, say in a darkened room. It should glow in the gloom. I’ve had a longish affair with red and play with blue contrasts. I do like neutrals though and I can’t stand green, which is why you see so many dead leaves from me.
Your paintings, full of beautiful objects paying tribute to the natural world, are, you share, “an invitation to step back and reconnect with who we are.” In “Alchemy Alchemia” which you graciously permitted use of in The Art of the Occult, we observe a still-life tableaux, glowing with otherworldly incandescence and which evokes a mysterious branch of philosophy. This mystical/metaphysical setting and series seems a bit of a departure from the more earthly/terrestrial tone of your other works, and I am wondering what it was that you yourself connected/reconnected with when creating these beautiful, alchemically-inspired paintings?
The Alchemy works emerged after a month-long artist residency in an Australian gold rush ghost town. In the 1800s the area was thriving but today the population is around 70. I had a month to myself in an old house that once belonged to a famous artist and really started to feel the history of the place – the hopes and aspirations, the pain and failure, the relentless searching for the mysterious, immutable material that is gold. I got quite lost in this contemplative realm of the imagination.
On my daily walks I found objects to use in the compositions. Kangaroo skulls, fragments of ceramics, various vessels. The bottle in Alchemia is an old ink bottle I found half-buried at the back of the house, still with dried-out chunks of ink inside. I felt a sense of lineage to the old artist when I dug it up, and back to the gold miners too. I think it’s very valuable to take yourself away from your known environment and to look with fresh perspectives. I would like to continue exploring the metaphysical theme. It’s a bottomless pool of inspiration that resonates with me.
Today at Unquiet Things, a gallery of art that has lately captured my imagination. I initially began sharing this “eyeball fodder” in my Instagram stories as a daily practice, a ritualof art therapy for myself, back in 2019 or so. From there, I gathered these collections into a weekly series that I shared on the haute macabre blog, though we all know it was never actually a weekly occurrence. And I thank you for never calling me out on that! I just couldn’t think of a better name for it.
Going forward, these galleries of visual phantasmagoria and fantastical ocular flotsam can be seen on my personal blog, and with the more fitting honest title. Whether for you art is a source of fascination and inspiration, or therapy and healing, or any combination of modes of self-expression and self-awareness, I hope you’ll be surprised and delighted anew each time you peek in on Intermittent Eyeball Fodder .
Sometime in 2020, I came to the realization that I wanted more color in my life. This could have been a pandemic-prompted compulsion, or maybe the middle-aged yearnings of an individual recalling some beloved jewel-toned fairy tale illustrations of their childhood, but whatever it was, I was feeling done with my #allblackeverything phase (although I reserve the right to step right back into it whenever the urge strikes me!)
I spied the lovely luminous work of jeweler Alexis Berger at just the right time, then! Don’t you love these cosmic winks from the universe? Beautifully crafted, translucent beads with finishes reminiscent of Art Nouveau and the Belle Epoch, Alexis’ work is utterly imbued with her unique creative vision and I am so thrilled that she has agreed to answer some of my nosy questions. See below wherein Alexis shares all about her love affair with hot glass and her “sparkly glowing fire-melty” life’s dreams of working with this most sumptuous material.
As someone with enthusiasm for the arts but with a marked lack of talent or skill in that area, I am always interested in how my favorite artists got started. When did you know that this was what you wanted to do with your life? How did you know what medium was the one you were interested in working in? Do you dabble in other mediums? Where did it all begin, and when did “your art” coalesce for you?
I came from a very artistic family, both sides of my family were involved in architecture, design, and craftsmanship. My father is an architect. My mother is a craftswoman and worked as a professional seamstress for quite a few years, now she enjoys restoring antique sewing machines.
My paternal grandfather was a painter, musician, and photographer and my grandmother was a professional dancer. My maternal grandfather was also an architect and my maternal grandmother was also a fantastic craftswoman.
I was introduced to drawing and handicraft from a very early age, and from the minute I figured out how to make my hands do what I wanted, I used arts and crafts as an escape, I had a hard time in school so I felt like I wanted to escape a lot. When I announced that I wanted to go to art-school and around age 6? it was met with the hearty joy of parents excited that their kid is going into the family business. I was aware, very early on, that if I wanted to be a SERIOUS artist I needed to learn to draw from life so I was very focused on keeping a sketchbook and drawing ALL the time, that was me being a serious art-school wannabe, but I always did crafts for fun on the side. I loved embroidery, basketry ceramics, and of course making jewelry out of everything I could get my hands on. It was also at this time that I started collecting beads, or rather more accurately, adding to the collection that my mom started and I stole from. But because that was so much “FUN” I didn’t take it seriously, also I didn’t think I could put it into a portfolio to get into a SERIOUS art school.
This is a story of how I mistook my calling as a hobby for years, always learning other skills but coming back to jewelry.
I eventually got into an art magnet high school (Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of The Arts) which was great for me. They are very rigorous about training you to get into a good art-college and you’re around other artsy-fartsy kids who you learn as much from as the teachers. They helped me put a portfolio together which got me into RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and there I decided to major in Industrial Design (ID) which is designing everything you interact with that gets produced: toys, toothbrushes, cell phones… I still at this point thought, “I need to go get a JOB” and this would major would be good to teach me how to be a serious DESIGNER! Even though that’s not where I ended up, ID was a great thing to major in because it taught me how to think about things in 3D and how to use lots of different materials. I learned about metals and welding as well as woodworking and plastics.
Ironically I never learned how to use glass while I was at RISD, glass was in a whole different department and location on campus and was notoriously difficult to get access to, so I never touched it there. I actually learned about glass for the first time while I was teaching weaving at an arts-camp called Buck’s Rock. They had a world-class glass blowing facility there and that’s where I first saw glass beads being made. I didn’t know anything about how to work with hot-glass and I was transfixed. It was like falling in love, all I wanted to do was make BEADS! I used basically every scrap of time off I had that summer to practice making them at the facilities there and when that summer ended I was completely seduced, from that point on, I was melting glass every chance I got.
When I went back to school at RISD in the fall. I got into trouble for using the metal shop soldering torches for lampworking and over the next summer, I made sparkly sharp messes in my grandparents’ back yard as I melted broken Heineken bottles and Bombay sapphire gin bottles. (which makes excellent blue glass with red copper streaks if you’re interested). My family was very forgiving… but to be fair, I never burned anybody’s house down, just toasted my own fingers a fair amount.
Glass was all I could think about, I had sparkly glowing fire-melty dreams at night and all I wanted to do was Lampwork all day, but I still didn’t quite have the confidence that I could be a glass-artist. I was still on track to become an industrial designer, but I was quickly falling out of love with the slicker-than-snot-super-hyper-masculine look that the department seemed to be pushing and that so many products in the industry seemed to have. Think: tennis shoes, gillette razors, cars, and even air fresheners.
Everyone wanted to make products that looked fast and angry and maybe wanted to lay eggs in your brain. I also began to look at the kind of life I would have as an industrial designer if I started working at a company…
-I would start as computer-monkey fiddling in a 3D modeling program
-taking direction from a senior designer
-I would be in an office
-I wouldn’t be using my hands to make anything much
-and worst of all I wouldn’t get to be in charge of the designs I worked on…at least not until I had worked my way up to being a senior designer which could take years.
…and ultimately, I didn’t get the tight little shiver of pleasure from looking at a well-designed toothbrush that some of my fellow students seemed to.
But a beautiful pair of earrings? ohhhhh!
Finally, in my senior year, I got to have a chat with one of the teachers and I asked, “Do I have to go work for Bic Pens or Clorox or Hasbro when I graduate?…OR can I go into business for myself? Is that something I can even do?”
And she answered like she was letting me in on a secret. “YES” that one conversation was the permission I needed to begin scheming on how to eventually make jewelry full time.
For those who may not know (me, for one) what exactly is lampwork glass? (And is that the same thing as “flamework”? I think I have seen your work referred to as both?) And what are the rewards and challenges of working with lampwork glass?
That’s right, flamework and lampwork are interchangeable terms. The “lamp” in lampwork refers to the fact that the heat source for this type of craft used to be done on oil lamps that would be stoked with a bellows blowing fresh air across the flame to heat it up enough to melt glass.
The process is melting rods of different colored glass in a torch (much like a bunsen burner) and manipulating the molten glass with different tools and techniques to create different shapes. Layering different colors will give you lots of different patterns and effects but you’d be amazed what you can do with just using gravity and an old ex-ato knife.
The rewards of working with glass are numerous but at the top of the list I’d say it’s immediacy. It takes years to make things perfectly (one of glass’ drawbacks is that it’s HARD and takes lots of practice) but when you sit down to work, you sculpt the piece all in one sitting, and it’s essentially finished. It will need to cool in the kiln but when it comes out it’s all shiny and bright and if you’re lucky, it’s just how you imagined it. If you’re casting something there are so many steps involved in producing and finishing your work. But lampworked glass is created in its final material and form and all the colors and shapes are right there for you to dig into.
While lampworking, it’s very easy to be seduced into covering everything you produce with detail rather than letting the material speak for itself, it’s a balance between showing off virtuoso technique and actually allowing the natural beauty of the glass to shine. There is a temptation to show skill rather than beauty. Metal and gem jewelry is all about using the color and optical qualities of the stone with the metals acting as structure and a “canvas” for the gems. I try to use that sensibility with my work, contrasting optic and reflective components with structural supporting ones. Glass is such an inherently beautiful material that working with it becomes a game to allow somebody to see that beauty in all its aspects without being distracted by too much sensory input all at once. I think this objective is true for many craftspeople who are working with sumptuous materials.
You’ve mentioned that glass as a material, allows you to “paint with light and color in three dimensions, which is critical to making the natural motifs that inspire my art”. Can you share a bit about those natural motifs and why they speak to you?
Nature is the best teacher when it comes to making a design that works, for lots of my work I try to make something that looks like it could have been plucked off a tree or picked up on the beach. Or imitates human anatomy, there is something so thrilling about capturing lifelike qualities in art.
Other than hot glass, what are your favorite materials to work with and why?
As I mentioned before I LOVE fiber-arts and I still incorporate a bit of that into some of my jewelry, I make crochet silk necklaces for many of my pendants. I especially love crochet and embroidery. I’ve been enjoying crocheting lace on my clothes during the pandemic. It’s so soothing and repetitive, you can let yourself go into a trance while binge-watching Star Trek.
You seem to have a thing for EYES! As I mentioned to you in a previous conversation, I shared on my Tumblr page (haha, yes, I still use Tumblr!) a photograph that you had posted to your Instagram of your weeping eye brooches, and that Tumblr post is now at 14K likes/reblogs and growing– obviously, this is a symbol that speaks to other folks as well! Whether it’s the symbolic tears of the mourning eye or an apotropaic talisman to ward off evil, the eye is a powerful and enduring emblem. I’d love to hear about its personal meaning for you.
Yes! Thanks, I’ve been thinking about that for a while, it’s really striking to me how many people are feeling a connection to weeping eyes right now. I think about the last time jewelry with a weeping eye motif was really popular and that was around the Georgian and Victorian era, death and mourning were so present in people’s daily lives and that’s where we are again. We as a society are going through a huge mass-death event and are feeling the appalling consequences of living under a government that couldn’t be bothered to help us. There is so much loss to feel and process, as well as joy and relief as hope sprouts back up to meet us. All of this emotion makes crying eyes feel like the right motif for the moment. I know it did for me.
Part of the job of art is to help us process our feelings and express ourselves, and wearing jewelry is a very potent act of self-expression. Wearing a weeping eye is unmistakable in its message, there is pain here, there is beauty here, and I’m here to feel it.
What does a typical day in your studio look like?
What a fun question!
I get to my studio at the crack of noon most days (I’m not an early bird) and the first order of business is to go open the kiln from the day before. It’s like Christmas every time, I pull out the treasures and turn the kiln on to heat up,(it goes to about 1000 degrees) while this is happening I go make myself a HUGE pot of tea which I will chug continuously throughout the day, I usually spend a few minutes photographing the stuff I made the day before (while the light is still good) then it’s time to light the torch and melt that glass!
I believe I read that you also have a love for music? And cooking! Tell me more! Who are some of your favorite musicians right now? Do you have an all-time favorite album? What is a meal that you’ve cooked lately that you were particularly excited about? Or a favorite go-to comfort meal? If you can’t tell, music and food are two subjects very dear to my heart 🙂
I take after my Grandmother in that I love dancing, before the pandemic I loved ballroom and partner dancing of all kinds, I miss the music I would listen to then, blues, and zydeco music would be what I would hear live most often. But music to listen to while I work is a totally different game. Right now I’d recommend the album Deluge by Anura, it came out recently and it absolutely put my head in the right space to make good stuff. You can get it on Bandcamp from the label “Already Dead Tapes” Highly recommended. It’s a perfect relaxing but invigorating get-work-done album.
As for FOOD! Well, I am a lucky girl indeed because although I’m an OK cook I married a Genius Chef. My husband is an amazing cook who is always inventing and teaching himself how to make new things, he has made sourdough from scratch, pickles, pizza oh boy! But I think the thing he made that’s my favorite as well as being really creative was he made spiced fried chicken with a “breading” made from almond-flour and sesame seeds which just about knocked my socks off.
This is all to say, do I have a passion for cooking? Yes! It just happens to be my husband’s cooking.
Is there a particular bead and/or jewelry artist you admire or who you consider a role model? And/or if you were to draw attention to a favorite designer or artist, who would it be and why?
I am constantly amazed and inspired by my dear friend Anandamyi Arnold who makes incredible floral/fruit sculptures and surprise balls out of crepe paper, they are often so life-like that they are confused about the real thing if you’re interested, I’d check out her Instagram page under the handle @lynxandtelescope
She was definitely a role model for me as she has been making sculptures full-time professionally for years and was a fantastic example to me of how to “make it” and set up your life to work as a full-time artist in the Bay Area.
Is there anything else that you might like Unquiet Things readers to know about your work?
I’d say that I would want people to know that I’m so grateful I get to do what I love for a living and part of why that’s possible is people like you who have made it their passion to curate and proselytize about things that move you and others around you.
So thank you, and thank you to all the people who have read this, I hope you got something out of it. Perhaps you feel inspired to pick up that craft project you’ve been thinking about doing, that would make me very happy to think somebody might go make something because they read this. 😀
Some distressing news: The Art of the Occulthas been somewhat hard to find since about mid-December, when a shipment of books was lost at sea. Ok, maybe that’s not totally accurate, but it sounds more romantic and mysterious than “storm-damaged.” I just received word from my publisher that there won’t be more copies available until 3/29 at the earliest. Until then, please enjoy my favorite page of the book.
“Giovanni Domenico Valentino (1630–1708) was an Italian painter of the late-Baroque period who specialized in a mix of genre and still life painting. In this particular alchemical scene, we are so focused on the jumble of shining copper laboratory instruments and implements, that it would be easy to miss the alchemists busy at work in the background. At the forefront, a cat perches atop an indistinct object, both alert and idle, as only cats can be. ‘Fuck this thing in particular,’ it seems to say, regarding the toppled container at its feet.”
Hungry for more peeps inside The Art of the Occult? Perhaps these links will tide you over, or else whet your appetite!
And finally, a look at the art of Rosaleen Norton, who, sadly, is one of the artists not featured in The Art of the Occult. There are many reasons that a piece of art that you might expect to see in a publication celebrating occult works of art was not included, and for the most part, I can assure you, it’s not because they were overlooked.
There are so many steps involved with a book like this that you might not have thought about! I never did, until I had to do it myself. Gathering ideas of the art, getting the publisher to agree with the art you’ve chosen, tracking down and finding, and then introductions and communication with the artists (or galleries, or estates,) securing permissions for the work, and jumping through all of the hoops that entails, and finally, obtaining viable images that are actually appropriate for a print medium. Something could break down at any point in that checklist! And frequently did. There’s a lot of things that authors have no control over–especially first-time authors, such as myself.
So before you complain that your favorite artist was forgotten, please know that it’s entirely possible that they were not–either the author presented the artist and the publisher was like, “nah,” or they tried to get ahold of the artist and the artist never responded, or if they did respond, they may have declined, or if they worked with a very amenable artist who was happy to be included, but oops, a file was corrupted, and they don’t actually even have that piece of work anymore! Before you complain about a book cover, please know that the artist may not have had anything to do with it, the cover might have been chosen and set in stone before the author was even brought on board! Before you knock off a couple of stars on your review because the book was “too short”, please remember that authors have word count parameters that they have to work within.
Ok, with that tirade, I think I hit on all the dumb things people tweeted @ me on Twitter or the reviews on Amazon that irked me. Not that there is/was not a lot of that sort of thing! But you know how it is. Even one or two instances of people being shitty and snarky, it stings!
Next up in this very informal series of interviews with the contemporary artists whose work I was generously allowed to include in The Art of the Occult is Gina Litherland.
Active in the visual arts since the mid-1970s, exploring photography, performance, drawing, and painting, Gina Litherland studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her paintings, drawings, and articles have been published worldwide in journals and periodicals. Her essay on the connections between creative activity and the natural world, “Imagination & Wilderness,” appears in Surrealist Women: An International Anthology (University of Texas Press).
Enthralled with folktales, myths, and literature since childhood, these themes have served as an important source of inspiration in her work. Children’s games, old theater forms such as puppetry and opera, traditional British folk ballads, divination, superstitions, the human/animal boundary, and the natural world wherein the mundane commingles with the magical to coalesce into the richly detailed visions, fables, and dreams on her canvas.
I am so pleased to share with you my recent interview with this generous-hearted, delightful artist, wherein we chat about tea and divination, fairytales and curious women, and the endless and fantastical inspiration to be found in nature
In “Tea Leaf Reading”, the painting that you kindly allowed inclusion of in The Art of the Occult, we are treated to the divinatory dramatics of a session of tasseomancy wherein two figures contemplate the portents in a teacup, while various animals look on in interest, or flit overhead, perhaps in alarm! Can you tell us about your own interest in/history with/or practice of various divinatory techniques and rituals? And while we’re spilling the tea, what’s your favorite brew to have on hand–either while working on your art, or just relaxing with a cuppa?
My interest in divination started when I was in high school and bought my first tarot deck. I went to our local bookstore in Gary, a tiny place called “The Book Nook” and bought the Swiss Tarot, the only one they carried. If you’re familiar with that deck it’s an old design and many of the images have a dark, foreboding quality. I really like it, but the Devil card in that deck is absolutely terrifying. I dabbled with it a bit, got a little spooked by it, and put it aside. I hadn’t really studied the Tarot, I was just fooling around with it.
Some years later I picked up my first I Ching, which interested me greatly and I’ve used that consistently over the years. I also began studying the Tarot more deeply and occasionally did readings for other people. The images intrigued me. I was also very interested in astrology and studied that, and did charts for people. I got a reading around that time from an astrologer who told me that art would be the central focus of my life and that it was imperative that I use my creativity. I already sort of knew this, but at the time it was a great encouragement to me. She also said that my painting would take the place of the tarot for me. That was interesting, because I never fully connected with the imagery of any of the tarot decks that I found. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to create my own. I started one about 5 years ago and I’m hoping to finish it in another 5 years or so. I want to do all 78 cards so the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana are illustrated and that’s a lot of work! Beyond that I think all sorts of divination methods are interesting, like palmistry, bird augury, tea leaf reading, etc.
My favorite tea? I drink tea all day and I love black tea, green tea, mint tea, and there’s also a tangerine/orange tea with rose hips that I drink every day. I have lemon balm growing completely out of control in back of the house, and I can pick it fresh in the summer and blend it with mint. It’s wonderful, especially when it’s fresh like that. Lemon balm is excellent for lifting the spirits, too, and Nicholas Culpepper wrote that it made the mind “happy and bright!”
I’ve seen mention of a handful of your favorite artists–Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Hilma af Klint, and Vali Myers, to name a few. Can you tell me what it is about these artist’s work or vision that speaks to you so profoundly? Is there a common thread that you find particularly compelling?
Leonora Carrington’s work has an airy luminosity to it, and references to Celtic mythology and magic which fascinate me. Remedios Varo’s work is also magical and hermetic. Both of these artists obviously studied early Renaissance painting, something I’m also inspired by, and used it in a very personal way. Vali’s work feels very Intimate, like looking in someone’s diary. Hilma af Klint’s work has an elegant, glowing balance. What they all share is working from their inner vision and being wholly committed to it. That is always the kind of work that interests me.
You speak of how in every myth and folktale, there is a pivotal scene in which an encounter occurs, pushing the hero/heroine into an unknown world in which they have to learn to navigate. What are some of your most beloved fairy tales, mythic stories, poems, or parables, in which such a shift occurs? Can you speak to how you may have interpreted that scene or characters through the strokes of your paintbrush?
One of my favorites is Little Red Riding Hood. It’s so basic and perfect and the image of the little girl facing the wolf is an iconographic image that’s understood universally. It’s also what I call one of the “anti-curiosity stories”, the warning being “don’t stray from the path”. Like Bluebeard’s bride being warned not to open that one door, or Pandora being told not to open the box, it’s the old warning to women not to be curious. They are all basic rehashings of Eve in the garden speaking to the serpent and eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. I find it all fascinating. The encounter leads to a revelation of some sort, maybe terrible, maybe wonderful. Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast are also two of my favorite fairy tales because they involve a human female encountering an animal.
A recurring theme in my work is penetrating the wall that separates humans from other animals. Part of what the myth of the Garden of Eden is about to me is that our fall occurred when we recognized that we were different from animals, we felt the shame of being naked. That’s when we lost paradise and why we have this longing to repair the rift between humanity and nature, but we struggle against it, too. We want to be superior and we’re not.
When I depict these scenes I’m showing them through a lens of female experience. A woman or girl is having this moment of discovery that will lead her to some new understanding. This discovery is sensory, imaginative, and psychic. It is not interested in control but in learning from the encounter.
…And as we often see ourselves in the stories we are most drawn to, I am curious as to how much of yourself do you see emerging forth on the canvas as you share these stories through your personal lens and the medium of your art?
From the time I started reading these stories when I was little, I related them to my own experience completely. I loved the thought of Little Red Riding Hood bravely straying from that path in the woods, in the way that I loved to explore the wooded areas near the house I grew up in. It felt mysterious and dangerous. And now, when I’m painting these scenes the situations still feel fresh to me, that feeling of awe and discovery that I feel when I’m walking through the woods or when I’m painting.
I did a painting called The Unknown Room that shows a woman about to open a door with a key. I had a dream that I was at the door of my old house from my childhood. The door in the dream looked just like the one in the painting, like a weathered, medieval door with a wonderful texture. When I opened it, I entered a beautiful room of glass filled with glittering bottles. That moment at the door, when I was deciding to go in, reminded me of the Bluebeard story. When Bluebeard warns his wife not to open that door, and then she does as soon as he leaves, that moment at the door is the most suspenseful in all of literature! She opens it and sees all of the murdered wives that came before her, the most ghastly sight. The discovery, as horrid as it was, saved her life. The discovery can be wonderful or horrific. Often these encounter stories have multiple levels of meaning for me, the original meaning layered with my own experience. The fact that they take a long time for me to paint, usually a few months, gives me lots of time to think about the meaning.
I see the term “Midwest surrealism” used in many descriptions of your work; though I suppose I could conjure for myself some imagery of what that might mean, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it for folks who may not be familiar.
There was a group of wonderful artists working in Wisconsin and Chicago, starting in the 1940s, who were strongly influenced by the European Surrealists. Some of them were Gertrude Abercrombie, Sylvia Fein, Marshall Glasier, Dudley Huppler, Karl Priebe, Julia Thecla, and John Wilde. If you looked at their work and compared it to the European Surrealists, there’s nothing particularly Midwestern about it. It’s a category created by art historians and critics because they like to label things. If you are an artist and stay in the Midwest, the tag of regionalism always follows you around. I personally love the Midwest and feel fiercely loyal to my Midwestern roots, so it’s fine with me.
Ok, so I don’t want to embarrass you, but on Facebook you shared a drawing you had created when you were four years old and it was so much fun to see that colorful little relic from your formative years! Obviously a great deal has changed and evolved over time since that artistic offering from toddler-you… but maybe not everything…! To my eye, you seem to work in a very similar color palette today! Those deep, rich, beautifully earthy shades can still be seen to great effect in your current work (I actually see so many of them in Tea Leaf Reading!) Can you speak to the use of color in your work?
That’s funny, because I recently found that early drawing that I did and one of the reasons I posted it was that I did really think that it was unmistakably my work. I think your observation about the colors is great. What I noticed was that I made sure each hand had five fingers, the clothes were kind of detailed and fancy, and I still love that sort of detail. One of the things I love about drawing and painting is that the personal stamp is so unavoidable. That brain-to-hand communication, the kind of line a person uses, for example, are as unique and personal as a fingerprint or a signature. I love the pure tactility of painting. And yes, I do gravitate toward earth colors and jewel tones. I also like to layer color, which oil paint does so beautifully, and use glazes so one color shows through another.
You sometimes use a “decalcomania” technique by stamping various colors onto the panel and letting the textural forms suggest images, through which a narrative forms. You have noted that this can be a very satisfying way to work, and often the most revelatory– with a world emerging out of nowhere. In this time of isolation and COVID, we haven’t been seeing much of the world at all over the course of the past year. I’d love to live vicariously through the worlds you are creating! Can you tell us please about the worlds you’ve been most excited to have seen revealed to you on your canvas of late?
When the pandemic first hit, honestly, I was stunned. I spent a lot of time staring out the window and watching the birds at the feeders. I kept a notebook and mostly drew funny cartoons of myself having no energy and watching the busy, industrious little birds and squirrels outside. Then I started thinking about one of my favorite writers, Shirley Jackson, and her book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s been one of my favorite books for a long time. One day, my husband, Hal, said to me, “I would have chosen different library books if I knew this was going to happen.” It reminded me of an almost identical line at the beginning of Castle that comes from Merricat about their own library books, chosen right before she and her sister, Constance, completely sequester themselves from the world. I decided this would be a good time to pay tribute to that novel.
So I did my Portrait of Mary Katherine Blackwood, for Shirley Jackson. Merricat stands in the middle of a wooded area with her cat, Jonas, neatly folded into her arms safely tucked into her own feral, magical world. Around this time I also did a cooking painting, with two women making a big harvest stew with a variety of animals assisting them in the kitchen. I’ve become obsessed with cooking during the pandemic, and enjoy figuring out what to cook next. Now I’m working on a painting of harpies and another one of a woman standing in an incandescent garden at night. These two paintings were just begun very recently and I think they both radiate a kind of eerie light in the darkness. Now that we’re coming into 2021, I’m trying to be hopeful in the midst of all of the chaos of the world.
Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to create? Any rituals or practices?
I always start my day by feeding the birds and squirrels. After breakfast, I have a cup of coffee or tea, then I light some incense, and put some music on before I begin. I do this without fail every morning.
You have an essay in the collection Surrealist Women, titled “Imagination and Wilderness” stating that “The imagination is a wilderness — liberating, ecstatic, waiting to grow and fly and howl.” I’m still trying to track down a copy of the book because it sounds absolutely marvelous! And my own imagination is set wonderfully alight/aflight by your words in this vein as I consider this impact of the natural world on the human psyche and creativity. Can you tell us a bit more about that statement and perhaps also about the influence of the natural world upon your own work?
One of the ideas that I was trying to get across in that essay is that our psyches need wild spaces and wild life in very deep complex ways. Nature is endlessly creative and fantastic. It’s an imaginative entity in itself, and everybody needs it, not just the animals that live in these spaces. Nothing stimulates the imagination like sitting in nature, looking at the way a bird’s nest is made, or the intricate symmetry of flowers.
I was also thinking about the similarity between taking a walk in the woods, looking at the forest floor, noticing little things like plant debris, lichen, small animals hiding here and there; the similarity between that and painting, dabbing paint on a panel and seeing forms, having textures suggest other forms, the associations that come into the mind if you can be receptive to these suggestions. Nature is constantly creating and extinguishing life forms in the same way that unconscious thoughts rise and vanish in our minds. Being receptive to passing unconscious thoughts are what the surrealists meant by pure psychic automatism.
Civilization has treated nature like a commodity, and by doing this, we’re not only creating a very unhealthy environment, we’re killing off a part of our minds and turning ourselves into automatons. Human beings are much too arrogant and lacking in respect for wilderness. If you turn to wilderness with an attitude of receptivity and respect, if always gives something precious back to you. I love the myth of the Norns, the three women who took care of the tree, Yggdrasil, from the Poetic Edda. Yggdrasil was the tree of the world, the center of the universe, and the Norns were three wise women that nurtured the tree, watered it, and tended it. I find that incredibly beautiful, the idea that just tending to a tree and nurturing it can have an effect on the universe. I think it’s true.
Have you ever realized that you “knew” someone before you, well, actually knew them? Such was the case for me with artist Carrie Ann Baade, whose work “Artemis” (above) I was wonderfully privileged to include in the “Higher Beings” chapter of The Art of the Occult...and I own a stunning, real-life print of the same work perching, propped up against a bookcase, while we find the perfect space for it on our walls.
Though I was vaguely familiar with the artist’s work from seeing it over the years, perhaps posted on Tumblr or Pinterest–perhaps I’d even posted it on Tumblr or Pinterest!–and I became intimately familiar with it while doing research for the book…I only realized much, much later and after becoming friendly with Carrie Ann Baade herself…that I’d actually shared her work in the form of a portrait of Pam Grossman on my own blog here at Unquiet Things! Somehow I hadn’t connected the art with the artist, which makes me feel profoundly silly, and yet it was a sort of wonderfully electrifying jolt from the universe when I finally put two and two together. Listen, no one ever accused me of being the smartest in the room, okay?
Carrie Ann Baade is a contemporary painter whose work quotes from, interacts with, and deeply relates to art history. Linking the power of historical masterworks with her own experience as a contemporary artist, she is a reverent scavenger salvaging lost aesthetics in an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and piece together the sublime.
See below for our interview wherein we chat about the origins of her Dr. Frankensteinian technique, the mythic energies that she is compelled to “hyper-incarnate”, and how we can heal and grow and create profoundly intimate relationships with ourselves through art.
…and can I just say how deeply thankful that I am to the artists over the years who have taken the time to answer my questions and share their insights with me? In reading this interview over again, I was moved to tears and I am so grateful for all of the creators who have spared a moment or two to discuss their works and practices with me.
…aaaaand speaking of artists sharing their works with me, the artwork featured immediately below, “Dominions”, is a brand new piece from Carrie Ann Baade, an astonishing vision that Unquiet Things readers can get a first, ecstatic glimpse at.
Unquiet Things: I love the densely layered aspect of your work, how it contains this surreal stratum of personal biography and allegory and history. Moreover, you’ve stated in the past that you think of yourself as a kind of “Dr. Frankenstein attempting to piece together the sublime.” What a fabulous notion of these interconnected many-layered puzzles pieces of myth and meaning! I’d be very interested to hear about not just the process itself, but where along the way of your artistic journey did this technique coalesce into an artform that felt somehow, uniquely “you.”
Carrie Ann Baade: In graduate school, I had one of those breakdowns that were indistinguishable from the breakthrough. I got out my scissors, cut up my artbooks and made collages of the paintings. However, figuring out what to do from there was a process. It required lots of trial and error to make this work. Anytime we do something new, it takes time to process what we are doing. Maybe I am still in the process of comprehending what cutting up and making new things means or does. It’s synergistic, it’s mad scientist, it’s conjuring; it’s also a bit like a tarot reading. But also, art is about seeking and making inquiries. If I truly solved or understood anything completely about what I was doing, I would likely quit doing it. The chase is towards mystery and this process allows it.
By allowing chance into my process, it allows the pieces to talk back to me and say things through a message detectable amid the potent symbols. I stoke my container of cut ups images like a fire. What it yields is often untranscendent and then after more play, it will yield a composition for a painting when I need ten. It’s a mystical process for me. With the world of symbols comes meaning and storytelling. The images wish to speak. As much as I want to speak through them, very often they are speaking through me.
I am intuitive and I find the safest place to exercise my gifts is through art. Art can take it. Why? Because although intuition can be irrational in day-to-day life, it is highly functional in art. I do find this process works best when I have a question…like “what happened to female genius” and the answer the images returns shocked me to my core. It’s a radical submission into a process of dialog with the world of symbols that results in my painting.
I believe I read that you were raised in Colorado, you studied in Chicago (and Italy) and now you live in Florida. Many varied locales and landscapes! I am wondering what role, if any, does environment play in your artistic endeavors? I ask this as a Floridian myself–in our sultry, sweltering semi-tropical climate, for 9 months out of the year I don’t even want to move, let alone create anything!
Strangely, I have found where I am informs what I am making. I have painted in Florence, Valencia, Poland, and London… as well as, Florida. I think different places have different energies. Different houses do. The location seeps in. And then the paintings themselves are pretty demanding… I once had painting insist on being put outside in the moonlight for it to absorb. I had another painting that wanted to be left alone to cook in the 100-degree sun. I listen to the work and it tells me all kinds of things.
As a professor, you have read a fair amount and taught art history, so no doubt you have considerable knowledge of mythology, religious symbolism, stories of creation–I’m curious about some of your favorite stories to tell. Or if not “favorite”, perhaps most compelling, or urgent. The myths and narratives that for whatever reason, you return to again, and again?
I am an advocate for serpents; they are present in all creation myths in the form of snakes or dragons. I am curious about these perhaps being conscious wavelengths? Serpents move through symbolic representations of the goddess, genius, Medusa. Perhaps they represent the presence of the archetypes themselves. What is a snake but a wavelength with eyes? All of these have been and continue to be significant for me over the past 25 plus years.
When I align myself with a myth like Medusa, there is usually an act of embodiment, I become an alter ego. This energy through embodiment or hyper-incarnating, as I like to call it, results in a painted image. It allows me a small glimpse into being more or different than I am. The Medusa myth has also allowed me to work through rape, victim shaming, anger, and processing feelings of being abject or monstrous. It’s a way to learn and potentially process experience. Once I work with a myth or narrative for a while, I will shed it and move on, to work to develop another aspect of myself in a new form. Perhaps this is no more than an actor taking on a new role but that too is a way to unlock and explore our human potential and get some breathing room in our identity. I was reading a book on transpersonal psychology last year and the author described research as “soul work”. I like that. I hope that is what I am doing.
Again, referencing that Dr. Frankenstein quote about “piecing together the sublime”, how do you experience the connection between spirituality and creativity?
When I am a making, it starts by doing time. This is sometimes going through the motions. Yet, when the flow state hits, this is what I call going from “fraud to gawd.” Every night I die and every night I am reborn through the creative act and working in the studio. When I start, I am lower than dirt and this never seems to get any easier. After a period of struggle, I am let inside the greater mystery of connection as I make. A feeling that one could assign to ego, or as I believe, that there is a oneness that permits exquisite technical and conceptual acts. For me, I humbly assign the better work to a greater genius or insert your definition of god. I am a decent painter but when I am truly connected it’s more like something moves through me. Whatever it is, it is a natural high that is very addictive. I struggle to get back there and then the process is worthwhile… but man, I would not wish the low on anyone. Who wants to be separate from that sense of creative flow?
As an artist with many years of personal practice and experience, as a teacher who guides and encourages your students, what is a piece of advice you might give to someone, a friend perhaps, who has experienced a life-long artistic itch, a powerful inclination…maybe they feel deeply, they have big ideas…but they don’t know how “to art.” They don’t even know where to start! And I don’t even mean making a living with their art. Just starting something for the fun of it! I just mean…what do you do if you feel like you’ve got art in your blood but you’re afraid to bleed?
By all means! You don’t want to die with the music still in you! Let it out! I think we all need to art in all its multifarious forms. This is how we heal, how we express ourselves, how we learn about ourselves, and how we grow. Set aside designated space in which to make! Give yourself the gift of time! Be detached from the results. No one prepares us for how much self-confidence to do what we love. Give yourself permission!
One should always be learning something new. This is the process of being a life-long learner. Embrace the cultivation of new interests and experiences! A healthy mind is curious and interested.
I am writing a book now and I never wanted to be an author, but somehow I got book pregnant. I have a book bun in the oven. A book requires a dedicated focus but it’s made of micro acts… not on focusing on the whole big final project but on bite sized recollections: by making myself write three pages a day. This and giving myself permission not to be worried about the outcome are letting this happen. Publishing is not the goal at this time …this act is just for me. I need to write about my life and my work in a dedicated and cohesive way. I don’t want to ask permission or care who is alive that it might impact, I just need to let it flow. It’s the most dangerous and wonderful thing I have done in our newfound captivity. I nearly made myself vomit from confessions and realization; I had no idea how visceral this experience would be.
No therapist I could pay could do what I am doing for myself. It’s a gift of time. It’s a reflection on my life that will hopefully yield the fruit of self-understanding. I find this a scary, yet magical experience. I am most turned on to create by author Helene Cixous, who says:
Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement.
In short, we all need to create deeper more intimate relationships with ourselves to be alive and art is a way to do that. I encourage you to move into that feeling of comfortability… learning happens when we get outside of our comfort zone.
Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to create? Any rituals or practices?
It’s not easy to go into the studio every day. But because a studio practice must happen every day to be a professional artist, it’s kinder to flow and not to force this act. It’s best to try to seduce myself.
For this reason, I am a total romantic in the studio. I need to be focused by candles… I ritualistically put on perfume to transport me. I generally only paint at night. Knowing the world being asleep makes me feel like I am alone and undistracted from my work. I desire to in my own world with my paintings. It’s a lovemaking.
In our chats, you mentioned a ladies’ tea that you used to participate in. Why do you think that sense of community for artists/creators is so important? Given the isolated nature of 2020, what, if anything, are you doing to conjure community for yourself right now?
The tea I refer is the Salon de Femme or as I refer to it “the Ladies Surreal Tea Party.” This a group of artists that I founded with Tina Imel in 2007. The founding members include: Lori Field, Pam Grossman, and Madeline Von Foerster. We met annually in New York City until 2014 and then I had a couple with dear friends in Paris. The event was simple, bring a female artist friend to tea and we all hung out and talked shop. Once we invited boys which was fine, but really it was about girl power support and love in the artworld. This resulted in events at Cynthia Von Buhler’s, a private tour of a gallery, an exhibit in Brooklyn, a couple of national curation projects, lots of networking, and lifelong friendships. The motivation was that while we had met online, we wanted to meet in person. Some of our guests included Julie Heffernan and Allison Sommers. I think I was always inviting lesser known artists that I thought could use help. What this did do, is it gave me a mission to meet living artists in person. Studio visit reveal so much and they help inform me as a teacher.
After a long dormancy, I will be hosting a tea again before the holidays. Our inaugural zoom tea will allow us to be all over the world, with some of us living in Europe and the U.S. We need our sisters now more than ever. We need connection, understanding, and support. Art is not just paint and ideas, it is community and belonging. We are constructing culture.