This interview was initially published at Haute Macabre in September of 2016.
The discovery of Darla Teagarden’s mixed media photography and conceptual self-portraiture was a thoroughly unexpected pleasure and a bit of a revelation to me when I initially became introduced to her work a few years back.
First, I suppose, because the image I chanced upon was a portrait of a friend, Angeliska Polachek–small world!–and secondly, although I knew my friend to be quite beautiful, Darla had transformed her into an otherworldly enchantress, a shimmering, splendid, utterly sublime creature. I’m not even the slightest bit embarrassed to admit that this was the very same way I pictured her, when I conjured the lovely Angeliska’s reflection in the mirror of my imagination!
As a fantasist who doesn’t quite always see things as they are, I view our world through a splinter of glass in my eye, a feverish vision of of circumstances and scenarios, slightly distorted and different. Darla Teagarden’s surreal photographic narratives, which walk that delicate line between fable and reality, resonated very deeply with this dreamer in me.
For the richly detailed imagery that comprises the highly atmospheric vignettes that she photographs, Darla draws on an intriguingly varied background consisting of experiences as a stylist, model, production designer, vintage clothes buyer and cabaret dancer. Through these myriad lenses, her projects are deeply imbued with fragile secrets and intense emotion, and I’ll confess, I have been following her subsequent work quite closely since the beauty of that first tremulous photo captured my heart.
Read further for this extraordinary artist’s insights and inspirations regarding her creations, as shared with Haute Macabre.
Haute Macabre: You provide the viewer with a narrative through photography; it shares a story, tells a tale. While I understand that you don’t wish to convey utter reality, I would also hesitate to call your work fiction or fable. Would you say that your photos then inhabit the space in between? And why do you think that space is such fertile ground for your work? We all sort of live between fable and reality, anyway. There’s that side of us which walks into a misty forest, let’s say, and in an instant we make the moment richer in relation to our own experience. Connecting our inner lives to day-to-day situations is a way we can better understand ourselves. Cinema has allowed us new emotional access, and photography is related. I guess what I’m saying is, photography helps me understand myself and my issues.
…and as a visual story-teller, what are the kinds of stories you like best to share? I love sharing symbolic insight and abstraction. I’ve always maintained that when I go into a concept it has to be succinct, like a poem. I love the challenge of being succinct while conveying something that could, if given the opportunity, fill a an entire film. I guess I like stories about survival most. We are all going to die, yet we still have to make choices.
I have enjoyed reading about your perspective on failure. Fail big and often, you seem to say–don’t be a giant, fragile weenie, just go out there and do the thing! I’d love to hear about your inspirations and influences in terms of Doers of Things and Fabulous Failures. I have always surrounded myself with people who seemed to care less about the perceived consequences of failure and more about the need ‘to do’. The need to do should outweigh fear or else you’re going to be paralyzed. Of course, this is a goal and not always the case, but I try to accept possibility either way before I try something new. When I first began doing my photo projects, I knew I would suck. I did, and the proof is floating forever in the ethers of the web. However, I knew I had something to say. I knew I had to do something that made me less miserable, something that could alleviate injury… and, If i get better at it along the way, great. My inspirations have always been friends who need, not want, to express themselves because, I need it too. I guess it’s a tribe.
“Altars” was a collection of self portraits about living with mental illness, inspired both by your own life as well as the lives of friends and family members. Was your intent to educate or advocate, or perhaps to confront and work through some of your own struggles? I would like to say my intention was to educate and advocate, but in the end, it was really just therapy for me. Yet, by coming from a singular place, it becomes broad and easily shared. It feels good when someone says, oh! I know this ! It’s a feeling of unity.
Mr. Goff, Guru of Grief, is a series that appears to be dealing with themes of mourning and loss. Can you speak to how this series came about, and who Mr. Goff is to you? That series was in two parts, Mr. Goff and The Lamentation of Mrs. Fly. ( one of him alone and one with both of us).Mr. Goff is among the very few people I’d known in my youth, which is a big deal for me because I’ve lost so many friends to drugs, suicide, AIDS, mental illness, and the pure need to distance myself for survival. Anyway, he and I share the love and experience of one person named Nick Bohn- a visionary young man who died from a drug overdose after years of severe, poorly treated schizophrenia. He got me to move to New York were he was working with Kembra Pfahler, Little Annie and other like New York artists as a filmmaker. His life was frightening and chaotic but amazing, and inspired me to grab my own piece of New York. Mr. Goff and I reconnected recently and I felt to need to be with him in a piece of art to mourn Nick, but to also celebrate our survival in a simple visual poem. It’s in the shape of a fable but it’s all about mourning people who are gone , people who shaped you. Friendship.
And most recently, your Noble Creatures series, can you tell about that? Noble creatures is about being misunderstood. For whatever reason I find it difficult to express what I’m about and what I need from people in real life. I just suck at it, but I keep trying nevertheless. These creatures are saying, “give me a chance or leave me alone.” It’s just a simple nod to people doing their best to be who they are without beating themselves up to fit somebody else’s ideas. I don’t mean to be precious–I am saying with a certain amount of humor, I’m pretty OK with myself these days, “Here’s my wings, here’s my many eyes, here’s my shell, my burdens, my dangerous bits… deal.”
Much of your work, though certainly abstract and surreal, is considered self portraiture. I’m curious as to where you see such your art as it relates to the “selfie society” that we’re thought of as living in today? It’s the same in that the ‘selfie generation” is merely looking back at themselves to see themselves and hope others see them too. I am here! See me! But, there are rather significant differences in self portraiture, generally. Conceptual self portraitures are deliberate stories in relation to space that may or may not require the focus to be on the performer. My body and those of my collaborators are catalysts for story telling. I don’t require my ‘image’ to be the story but that of the environment created around the body. Selfies say, ”see me, I’m REAL !” Conceptual portraiture says, ”Feel this ghost”.
Any fantastical ideas percolating that may manifest soon? Any future projects on the horizon? I want to explore the idea of being saved. We’ve all been saved and maybe even saved somebody. I like the idea that we have the capacity to save someone, from death, from despair, from going down the wrong path, from being blind, loneliness, obscurity, from illness, others, from ourselves. I like how vulnerable we really are. I love that, even with all the casual cynicism, we are still unreasonable romantics.
Thank you kindly, Darla, for giving your time to answer our questions.
See more of Darla Teagarden’s work on her website or follow her on Instagram for news and updates.
[EDIT: This article was originally written in 2016. I have noticed a large amount of traffic pointing to it and realized it was all directed from the same blog post. Please allow me to point out that art is dark as often as it is light, and not all of the subjects that artists tackle are positive, beautiful, or full of happy thoughts. Artists often paint their own trials and traumas onto the canvas, and their palettes frequently reflect the very real horrors in this world. That does not make these works “evil” or “satanic” or promoting “depraved illuminati Luciferian practices” Critical thinking, people. It’s a thing. And shame on that blogger for using art to promote her ridiculous agenda.]
Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska creates some of your most brutal nightmares: those savage, dreadful dreams that set a deep sleeper to screaming, and where upon waking, you can only gibber incoherent nonsense regarding your nocturnal horrors and why you were moved to wet the bed in terror last night.
Unfortunate events abound, and a trail of carnage, both physical and psychological, is an underlying theme that streaks gore-soaked and deep through Waliszewska’s paintings. Whether random or ritualistic, the violence runs rampant, with characters either coming to brutal ends or who are depicted perpetrating and engaging in the brutality themselves. Sometimes it is unclear as to who is the victim and who is the villain, and yet, even those who would seem blood-splattered prey possess malignant, nearly obscene expressions. Even the animals in Wasilewska’s depraved visions sport sly, wicked countenances.
Beasts of every variety, as well as children–creatures one normally associates with innocence and purity–are in on the mayhem as well, participating in malicious behaviors and gruesome, perverse deeds. Whether against the backdrop of a well-lit classroom, a shadowy forest landscape, or the viscera-strewn confines of a dusty cave, madness, magic, and mythology cavort in hand in bloody hand.
And yet we can’t look away, can we? Waliszewska is flaying the face of the mundane and peeling back the layers to give us a peek at what lies beneath–attraction and repulsion and the multilayered shitshow strata that is the human condition.
When it comes to the the symbolism and meaning one might be inclined to seek in the jarring imagery and morbid figures she creates, one gets the sense from previous interviews and commentary from the artist herself that Waliszewska is more interested in form and emotion than imbuing her works with a deeper forethought and “over-intellectualizing” such things. An artist of few words, when asked what it is that draws people to her work, she notes laconically, “…I can only deduce it has something to do with a fascination with sex and violence.” (source)
A graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and recipient of scholarships awarded by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Aleksandra Waliszewska has had more than 20 solo exhibitions in Poland and abroad over the past decade, and has her work published in collections by My Dance The Skull, United Dead Artists, Les Editions Du 57, Drippy Bone Books, and Editions Kaugummi.
All images owned by Aleksandra Waliszewska. Her work can be found on her tumblr, her flickr and her Facebook page.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
Just kidding. There will never be a new black! This is evidenced by the 666 (approx.) black tee shirts we have in our wardrobe. Leather harnesses, tulle skirts, and velvet cloaks look marvelous and are great fun for a night out (or hell, grocery shopping or a trip to the post office if you like to give the normies a show) but let’s face it–at the end of the day we just want to be comfortable. And there is nothing, I mean nothing, more comfortable than a black tee shirt. Yes, black tee shirts are more cozy. There’s science to back that up, somewhere.
We also know that we, and no doubt you, too, need to give our pile of ratty old black tees a thorough going-through because man, that shit’s old and nasty. Pilled, worn threadbare, curry-stained and eternally covered with cat fur—mein Gott, we’re gross.
Maybe, and this is just a suggestion, but give it some thought: these loyal wardrobe staples have given you their all and it’s time to let them die with dignity. Gather them up into the charity pile. Or cut ’em up and use ’em for crafts or home improvement projects or light bondage with a consensual partner (make sure they’re your tees on this last point; tossing out someone else’s stuff is likely not to result in sexytimes.)
…wait, wait! Put that middle finger away. You don’t think we’d make you go through such an agonizing exercise without some recommendations as to replacements for your beloved black scraps of comfort, do you? See below for some wicked black tee suggestions that are anything but basic.
“Matsuyama Miyabi,” a Chinese artist assuming a Japanese moniker, defines her artistic style as “Neo-Ukiyo-e.”
Juxtaposing the feminine beauty of traditional Edo-era floating world imagery with themes of death and fate and a gorgeously gloomy atmosphere, she conjures shadowy, unsettling truths and reveals the darkness of unspeakable fears.
“WHAT GOOD IS THE WORLD IF THERE IS ONLY BRIGHTNESS AND HAPPINESS?” inquires the thoughtful artist.
Picking up a small amount of internet fame for her Addams Family In Kimonos, (or perhaps she would have, if the internet wasn’t full of shameless turds who share and pin and reblog things without context or credit), Matsuyama Miyabi candidly shares that although she had fun with it as an interesting creative exercise, she doesn’t even like that particular piece very much!
Matsuyama Miyabi’s obsessions and inspirations range from horror films and suspenseful thrillers to the grotesque manga art of Junji Ito, and she acknowledges a fondness for the twisted postures encouraged in fashion photography (it reminds her of the dancing figures in the Noh Plays of Japan), and the unique charm of weirdly attractive haute couture fashion models.
“All kinds of beauty are connected,” she adds with finality.
This was originally written for and posted at After Dark In the Playing Fields on Halloween in 2010, by my partner in the enterprise at that time, to whom we at Unquiet Things refer to, with much love, as a “Kindred Spirit”.
However, I can’t think of a better time to indulge in a chilling tale than during summer’s infernal furnace when the promise of autumn’s cooling glooms are still a dreadfully long way off. And so, you can thank a feverish August heatwave for the re-sharing of this this delightfully spooky list.
Some of the listed items below are complete books, whereas others are shorter stories. I have attempted to include links to read for free on the web, where possible;otherwise, the links will lead you to amazon where the books/stories can be purchased.
1. “The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft. The shrieking and whining of desperate viols…defending against…what exactly?
2. The Tenant by Roland Topor. The most disturbing novel I have ever read, a nauseating crescendo of paranoia and sinister characters.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Evocative, eerie and I first read it in one sitting.
5. “The White People” by Arthur Machen. “And if the roses in your garden sang a weird song, you would go mad. And suppose the stones in the road began to swell and grow before your eyes, and if the pebble that you noticed at night had shot out stony blossoms in the morning?”
6. “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood. Two campers encounter a place where the veil between the worlds has grown thin…an alien world, a world tenanted by willows only and the souls of willows.
7. “A Haunted Island” by Algernon Blackwood. Chilling terror and remniscent of the Adirondacks island camp I stay at in the summers. (Blackwood makes this list twice, because he is truly the master of the unsettling tale.)
8. The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson. A found manuscript, swine creatures and the swift passing of the universe…is the narrator sane or not?
9. “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers. Mysterious suicides take place in the same apartment, seemingly without cause.
13. The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons. A singular tale, and from what I can tell the author’s lone foray into the genre. A unique take on the haunted house story – is the evil housed within in the structure of the dwelling, or is it the wickedness of the inhabitants that drive the horrors that occur within? The chills are so subtly sinister and so elegantly written that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why the book is so frightening; I imagine the shudders provoked by these pages will be very different for each reader.
Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments!
Sometimes you just want to get away from it all. You’ve got ten vacation days that are burning a hole in your pocket, but lakeside cabins and sandy retreats aren’t as nice as they were when you were a kid and your weird grandparents were still alive, you haven’t got the money for your dream trip to that amazing Japanese Cat Island, and no way are you spending a week with your sister in Hoboken this summer. Never again, I don’t care how crazy-great those New Jersey bagels are.
These ho-hum, humdrum getaways are becoming tiresome year after year, and you’re feeling antsy. You want to go to a far off, far-out place where not only does everyone not know your name, but you can’t even tell if you’re all on the same planet or astral plane anymore. Are those even human people? Some sort of enlightened beings, perhaps? Are they talking in colors? Are their faces melting off? Or is it your own eyeballs melting? Are you all hopped up on hallucinogenic whoseywhatsits? What the hell is going on, even?
Ah–now we’re talking. These are the places we’ve barely dared dream of: the super-saturated, psychedelic escapism and day-glo, swirling surrealism of Oliver Hibert’s fantastical cosmic beyond.
Born in Seattle but currently a resident of Scottsdale AZ, self-taught Hibert’s bright, eye-dazzling style with prevailing themes of powerful feminine mysticism led to his debut in galleries by the age of sixteen, and shortly thereafter, his bold palette and magical scenes caught the attention of MTV for a music video at the age of eighteen.
Hibert notes in a prior interview with the Phoenix New Times that art “….gets me up every day and gives me one of the most powerful reasons to be alive and stay alive. I literally have to create art and get it out of me. I don’t know what I would do without it” — and there is no clearer evidence of Hibert’s wild passion than in the vivid intensity of the boundary-destroying art that he creates.
Not content to merely gaze upon the audacious neon madness? You’d prefer a more supersensory, hands-on experience with Hibert’s kaleidoscopic, mind-bending creations?
You’re in luck, for over at Von Zos, you can purchase the Oliver Hibert Tarot deck. The release consists of a pack of 78 tarot cards designed by Oliver Hibert together with a book featuring an introductory essay by Oliver Hibert and a substantial essay by the British writer and lecturer Caroline Wise.
Dazed, as if waking from a trance, I closed my copy of What Is A Witch and allowed it to rest gently on my lap. I slowly exhaled and noted that the sun had gone down, my small reading room now awash in shadows. So enrapt was I that the afternoon had slipped into evening without my notice. Time had stilled, as it does oftentimes for readers engrossed in wondrous wor(l)ds, and I had been suspended in a moment between breaths. All had gone silent, solitary, and strange.
I roused and stretched, shook out my limbs, thrilled in the memory of the magics I had glimpsed in those pages and the subtle but unmistakable shift inside from absorbing all that I had read. And I despaired.
“How,” I asked myself, “how on earth am I going to talk to people about this? How am I going to write of the enchantment and wonder that I have just experienced?”
I worried, fretting that I would not find the words, I would not know where to begin looking, and even if I did string a few coherent sentences together, I came to the conclusion that these words will be inadequate; they won’t convey the magic, mystery, mischief, and bright, silver-tipped revelations contained within this book. They might likely mean nothing to anyone at all.
What Is A Witch is an extraordinary elucidation, an imaginative exploration, and an incandescent creation that one must experience firsthand, for one’s self. An individual must hold this book in their own hands, study the images by candlelight, trace their fingers along the words, speak aloud the lines in a darkened room.
But I’m afraid I’m getting ahead of myself.
What Is A Witch is the collaborative conjuring of Pam Grossman, a writer, curator, and teacher of magical practice and history, and Tin Can Forest–Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek, Canadian artists based in Toronto, Ontario, and it is a lovingly-crafted celebration of the world’s most magical icon:
CONJURE AN IMAGE OF A WITCH IN YOUR MIND’S EYE, AND YOU’LL FIND S/HE CAN TAKE MANY DIFFERENT SHAPES. EVIL, BEAUTIFUL, HIDEOUS, HOLY, A SINNER WHO JUST MIGHT SAVE US ALL – THIS MULTIFACETED ARCHETYPE IS A DARK LAYER-CAKE OF LEGENDS AND ASSOCIATIONS.
Equal parts storybook, grimoire, comic book, and illuminated manuscript, What Is A Witch explores the many guises and archetypes of the witch–that ultimate icon of feminine power.
Illustrated in Tin Can Forest’s distinctive style, drawing inspiration from the forests of Canada, Slavic art, and occult folklore, the mood is one of fantastical half-lit glooms populated by witches and their surreal familiars, as well as their uncanny sistren who guide us along and narrate our journey. Each page is a multi-layered marvel, interwoven with secretive symbolism, esoteric emblems, and magical motifs.
“I know that you have heard of my kind,” a grey owl sagely informs as we begin to read. Trompe-l’œil, night-cloaked witches roam solemnly through the trees, entering a darkened home.
“They call us witches,” we learn next, via a pointy witch hat-crowned speech bubble, formed from the lips of a female silhouette whose shadow is cast by every woman you’ve ever known.”….bitches, hags and whores. Harpies, vixens, sluts and more”.
“THEY TRY TO BURN ME, DROWN ME, WEIGH ME DOWN. STAKE ME, BREAK ME, TAKE MY CROWN.”
What Is A Witch‘s lyrical language of night-song and half-rhymes, when given voice, becomes a wild, witty, wondrous invocation, threaded throughout with fanciful visions, whimsical allegory, and magical truths. Calling upon the the wisdom of roots, the romance of plants, the four elements, the five senses, all of those iconic witch-women who came before–who wielded a wand, a brush, a pen, or word–and who paved the path for us that we now tread, these words, once uttered, will transport you, transform you.
“The archetype of the witch is long overdue for celebration,” Grossman noted in 2013. “Daughters, mothers, queens, virgins, wives, et al. derive meaning from their relation to another person. Witches, on the other hand, have power on their own terms.” She has also observed that, while the witch draws power from nature, her power comes mainly from within, not from an outside source, and that is precisely how I felt while reading this book. I engaged with its mesmerizing imagery and the poetic spell it cast, and immediately it awoke something within me. I felt it rise within myself, something fierce and surprising and nearly frightening in its power. Though the book may have been catalyst, I know that what it called forth was always there, and is mine alone.
Don’t be alarmed if you are moved to strangeness in the reading of What Is A Witch. I found myself furiously scribbling, illegibly filling the margins of a tangle of neon pink post-its without even realizing it. I thought that I was making notes for myself but in reading them now they are most certainly not of my hand–not that I recognize, anyway–and I am not sure that I could tell you what any of it means. They’re my secrets, I think. And I will hang onto them for now, hold them dear.
If you feel yourself similarly compelled, don’t fight it. Go where this book takes you. See what you draw forth from yourself. Don’t be alarmed. Let it change you. This is magic, after all, and we are witches.
You knew all of this once. You have always known. You will remember what you have forgotten, these dark trembling parts of you, and the torch in your core. You will believe what you read in What Is A Witch, and in believing, you will become.
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)
Amongst my acquaintances it would seem that we all appear to have a similar predicament with regard to the printed word: that is to say, an intense, almost obsessive acquisition of books. Whether for pleasure, research, or keeping up our nerdy/witchy Instagram appearances, we acquire stacks and piles of bound, printed matter much faster than we actually read through them.
No doubt if I were to quiz one of these friends at random they will admit, with a strange sort of embarrassed pride, that they have shelves upon shelves of unread novels–and yet there is an Amazon Prime parcel on their doorstep, a small press delivery on the way, and their virtual cart is brimming with another order ready to be placed. Oh, and they’ve just come back from a stroll through the musty, dim-lit shelves of a local used bookstore, and hey look, what a surprise–here’s a few more books.
What if I told you that you could use these mountains of books as more than doorstops and spider-squashers? What if I revealed to you a use for that collection of charming, old-timey ghost stories that has been gathering dust and cobwebs on your nightstand? Yes, yes, I know–you are going to read it eventually, and I do appreciate that sentiment: I’ve got the same book next to my bed that I’ve been too sleepy or too busy looking at my Twitter feed to actually pick up and peruse.
You are no doubt familiar with the practice of divination, or, the seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means. One can foretell the future through cards, clouds, drops of mercury, even a pile of steaming entrails. Today, however, we are hitting the books for our divinatory purposes! Divination from books or verse is an ancient process known as bibliomancy and is sometimes used synonymously with the terms stichomancy (divination from lines) or rhapsodomancy (divination through a random passage of a poem).
There are, of course, different schools of thought as to how bibliomancy works. Originally, it was a means of seeking divine answers, and the most popular book used for this practice was American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (just kidding! It’s the Bible)–though this is not the only text that’s been used for this purpose. Other popular texts included the Aeneid of Virgil, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and The I Ching has also been used in a similar manner. Seekers of illumination would meditate upon their questions and blindly select a passage in the book, which supposedly would impart to them the divine wisdom they needed for the solution to their problem. In this theory, it is believed that one is led deliberately to their answers by some sort of higher power, or perhaps an angel, spirit guide, or aliens.
Other folks see it as more of a psychological enterprise—a means of communicating with your own damn higher self. Meaning, we most likely already contain the answers to our problems, we just can’t always easily tap into them due to all of the “mental filters” that we have built up through our lives and experiences, clouding our ability to see the issues clearly. By this ideology, it’s not really the book that contains any special or wondrous answers; you already know the solutions you seek, and the chosen passage just acts as a tool to help you access them.
But back to the books– you mustn’t feel compelled to use one of those “sacred” texts to practice bibliomancy. All that’s required is a book that speaks to you at that moment. This could be from the library, a new book you’ve purchased for this inaugural divinatory occasion, or something from your own bogged-down shelves. It could be a spiritual book, fiction, nonfiction, that smutty romance novel that sits on the back of your toilet, or even your beloved, dog-eared, 30-year-old stolen library copy of Harriet The Spy. The books you adore will have had an enormous influence on who you are and your beliefs. These beloved writings will have caused you to examine your own depths, encourage you to think in new ways, and eventually become part of who you are, which is why they are great vehicles for shedding light on the questions to which you are seeking answers.
Let’s get started, shall we? In preparation for a bibliomantic ritual, give some thought as to the kind of question you want to ask: are you seeking romantic resolution or perhaps repairing a relationship? Or maybe you’re all like,”Love? Fuck that horseshit! Where did my great-great-grandpa bury that hidden treasure?” Perhaps you just want guidance on what to make for dinner tonight, but somehow opening an actual cookbook seems too mundane. Words taken out of their larger context could trigger something deeper than you imagine is possible. This could be the most amazing Monday night supper you’ve ever made!
Focus your question and find your book. Trail your fingertips along the spines of those lonely, mostly unread books (again, no judgment) and see what calls to you. The titles themselves can often reflect how you are feeling, or coincide with a situation you have been dealing with. Maybe the embossed detailing tickles your fancy. Maybe the cracked, faded lettering on your dear copy of The Complete Grimoire of Pope Honorius makes your innards go all cozy and it just feels right. Go with it!
Sit with your chosen book in a quiet space and close your eyes. Clear your mind and try to not focus overly much on the emotions attached to the question you need help in answering. What you are aiming for is a state of “calm expectation.” When you feel comfortable, relaxed, and emotionally and spiritually in a good place, ask your question– out loud if you don’t feel too weird about it, or quietly in your mind, if you prefer. Take a few seconds to allow your question to be heard and absorbed. Then pick up the book.
Close your eyes and let your fingers meander through the book’s pages, lingering over the paper wherever you may feel compelled. At some point while doing so, you will intuitively feel the “right” place to stop (or your finger will get tired, that’s a good place to stop, too.) Place your finger on the spot you are drawn to.
Read from where you finger is resting, be it for a few words, a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire passage if you’re into it. At first glance, the words may have no bearing on your question. “What the fuck is this nonsense?” you may wonder, “I asked if my girlfriend is cheating on me and this asshole is talking about cherry blossoms. Thanks a lot, Basho!” Give it some time. Look at the words you are reading: what do they have to tell you about your situation? Do they offer any guidance or inspiration? Do you connect emotionally with what you have just read–did it leave you gleeful, frightened, peevish? Repeat the passage aloud or write it down by hand–your higher mind has deliberately selected these words to help you in some way and eventually you will understand their importance and meaning.
Some mystics suggest for this exercise that if you’re left even more confused than when you started and you require more clarity, try it again from the start. Pick a book that seems to fit your question, and then merge your chosen answer with the last passage. It is said that sooner or later you will be able to see what the words are trying to get through to you. Or you’ll go crazy. Because I’ll be honest, at this point I am thinking of a freaky Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel scenario involving infinite permutations of all these passages mashed together and it’s sort of creeping me out.
There you have it, bookworms! Since you’re clearly not ever going to read anything from those dangerously teetering, towering book stacks, why not harness the power and the magic of those beautiful, potent words contained within to get some questions answered and get your shit together?
Okay, okay, I poke fun, but I get it. I am one of you, truly! I just checked out eight books from the library but I’m still plowing through a pile of books I bought two years ago. And yet, somehow I just purchased four more books for Summer Reading 2019? How does this even happen? It’s a sickness.
So let’s do this for a start. Read through the above thoroughly, and as your first foray into the arcane art of bibliomancy, I want you to think long and hard on this question. Meditate, roll it around in your mind, choose your title from your shelf and ask aloud of the angels, aliens, your intuitive brain-meats, and who/whatever else…
(This was originally written for and posted at After Dark In the Playing Fields in 2010, by my partner in the enterprise at that time, who shall henceforth be known as A Kindred Spirit)
Remember friend as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now you will surely be
Prepare thyself to follow me.
–Common epitaph from the nineteenth century.
I have always been fascinated by cemeteries and graveyards–not out of any real morbid sense, but often an aesthetic and even scientific curiosity. The town I grew up in seemed to have more dead than living. Wandering around the edges of farmer’s fields turned up long-forgotten family graveyards. The iron fences had been sold off in a WWII scrap drive, and cows now wandered freely among the graves. If it weren’t for the names chiseled on stone, those people would be long forgotten–anyone who remembered where they lay was was now themselves, dead.
In graveyards, we find deliberately chosen monuments to everyday people who have gone before: reflective of the period of history they were wrought in and the values of those who erected them, with an elaborate symbolic language all their own. Of course, humans have been custodians of their dead ever at least since the first Neanderthal tossed a flower in a long ago burial, but with historical cemeteries, we have it all laid out for our perusal: names, exact dates and the amazing realization that tombstone art, like anything else, is susceptible to fads.
Until well into the nineteenth century, where individual expression started to become more prevalent, gravestones in American cemeteries generally follow one of a few types designs that had a fairly strict progression through time.
The earliest gravestones were populated by grim reminders of the inevitability of death: skulls and crossbones, winged hourglasses. These reflected a heavy Puritan influence: life was nasty, brutish and short and only a select few would make it to heaven. Everyone else was a sinner in the hands of an angry God. Often, stones with this type of motif mention something blunt like “Here lies the body”–there was no softening of the blow of death. Puritans were wary of succumbing to idolatry so the grim reminder of death was the only acceptable form of grave decoration.
As America accepted more and more settlers of varied backgrounds, the Puritans gradually lost their stranglehold on gravestone iconography, and by the end of the seventeenth century, the stark and disturbing skeletal renderings gradually lost their edge by the addition of wings.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the winged death’s heads had gradually phased into a regular human face, with wings (as seen above). This too reflects the sentiments of the time–there was hope of some kind of afterlife for the deceased and mentions of corrupted bodies gradually gave way to the gentler concept of “mortal remains”.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the main motif underwent a another adjustment. The vacant and slightly distressed looking human face gradually gave way to a winged cherub, effectively removing the sting from death. During this time period, burials had begun to move from the dank and overcrowded churchyard settings into a more rural, garden-like atmosphere with the introduction of the cemetery park in the 1830’s. Even the linguistic shift from “graveyard” to “cemetery” indicates the focus was now less on the rotting body and more on memorializing the departed soul. The language on these stones now says something like “In Memory of” or “Sacred to the Memory of”.
Also popular at this time was a completely new motif: the weeping willow and urn (above). The association with weeping is certainly appropriate for a funereal setting, but the willow also symbolized the gospel, since no matter how many branches are cut off, the tree remains whole, reflecting the kinder, gentler form of Christianity that had come to replace the dour hellfire and damnation of the Puritans a few generations back. The above example is somewhat transitional between the two types, as later willow and urn stones would have a square shoulder instead of the rounded one seen until now. One significant reason for the change in style was that many of these willow and urn graves were actually cenotaphs, empty graves for someone lost far from home; at sea or in a war, but gradually the style came to be favored over the others.
Of course these stylistic attributes are best seen in the longest settled-areas in America, especially New England, but almost any cemetery of a decent age will probably show willow and urn designs marking the oldest graves. In another installment, I will describe the iconographic changes taking place in the Victorian period and what the various symbols you can find in a typical cemetery represent about their permanent inhabitants.
All Must Submit to the King of Terrors, But That Is No Reason to Look So Grave, Part II.
And they die An equal death,—the idler and the man Of mighty deeds.
Homer—Iliad. Bk. IX. L. 396.
In our previous installment, gravestone motifs had just shifted to emphasizing the memory of the departed love one as opposed to focusing on the stark reality of mortal remains. Skeletons became winged heads, which became cherubs and ultimately the graceful forms of willow and urn, so prevalent in early ninteenth century burials. By the 1830’s, even more new forms of expression were appearing as carvers turned to using more versatile granite and marble mediums instead of the more brittle shale commonly used on older gravestones.
The Victorians were well known for euphemizing all aspects of society. Graveyards moved away from attachment to a particular church or village and became housed in the more park-like cemeteries. Gravestones became monuments. Even the burial containers themselves changed from the rather austere body-shaped six-sided coffin to an elaborate satin-lined “casket”.
As the Victorian era progressed, grave monuments began to take on a more individualistic iconographic language which often gave clues to the life of the deceased, their occupation or even how they passed away. Cemeteries from this time period show much more variety in their forms and choices of decoration, celebrating the life or status of the individual dead or the grief of the survivors.
As expected, images of Christianity became very popular with crosses, the Virgin Mary, angels and doves all very common motifs. Allegorical figures, such as Temperance, Charity, Justice and Hope and Faith are also commonly found. A single hand pointing upward signified the hoped for destination of the deceased.
For the first time, children’s graves were given their own specific symbols: carvings of lambs, cherubs, broken buds and daises were all used. Another common symbol is a vacant chair–often there will be a tiny sculpted pair of shoes next to such a monument.
Obelisks, symbolizing a ray of light, became a very popular shape for tombstones, beginning in the Victorian area. Part of this was related to the fascination with anything Egyptian, especially after Napoleon’s 1798-99 campaign and subsequent archaeological discoveries. Obelisks were also less expensive than a sculpted monument of a similar size, and each face could be used for an inscription, making them suitable for family markers and persons of great social status. Their height allowed them to tower over other markers and be easily located in a cemetery.
Another peculiar motif often seen in cemeteries from this time are treestones: The Victorians had a fascination with anything rustic looking. These were most popular from about 1880 to 1905 and could also be ordered from Sears and Roebuck, making them common in the Midwest, which had more catalog shoppers. Treestones were also favored for their symbolism, which was suitable for a family patriarch (they could be shown as lopped off, showing one had died before their prime, as below) or for anyone in a woodworking profession.
Broken columns served a similar function–often their height will correspond to the age of the person at death, with snapped-off columns representing someone who has died before their prime and a complete column showing someone has lived a full life. These were most popular around the mid-nineteenth century.
Another curious material for tombstones is zinc or “white bronze”, as it was termed by the manufacturer, the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. These monuments are hollow cast metal and were extremely inexpensive to purchase, but have a similar appearance to carved stone. They can also be easily spotted in any cemetery, because they are in perfect shape, having held up amazingly well compared to their more weathered marble and granite counterparts. They were only produced from 1874 to 1914, when the supply of zinc metal was needed for World War I.
Perhaps this autumn one might need to take an atmospheric walk in the local cemetery and pay particular attention to the details of each monument. The choices were deliberately made, influenced by fads, economics and personal preference. I always find it amazing what can be learned from simply observing the quiet gestures of the dead.
(Image at top: Virgin Mary statue in Woodland Cemetery, Burlington, Ontario by Kevin. Religious iconography became popular in the Victorian era and the use of new materials such as granite and marble allowed for more elaborate sculpted forms.)