I have been enamored of petals and blossoms and flowering things far longer than my love of ghost stories and scary things. It goes further back even than my obsession with magic and fairy tales, or pretty dresses, perfumes, and glittering gems and jewelry. Before I could turn the pages of the books that I love, before I could slice or stir or simmer or in the kitchen, before I even learned how to lose myself in daydreams…there were flowers.
(These are all of the things that make up my heart, both the shadowed corners and the illuminated spaces. But flowers were there first.)
When I first saw the lustrous blooms and kindred glooms of Alyssa of Forest Noir’s midnight floriography, my heart skipped a strange beat and breathed a soft, fluttery sigh, recognizing pieces of itself in this photographer’s exquisite arrangements. Evocative of tenebrous twilights and somber echoes of the past, as well brimming with lavish, luxuriant regeneration and reawakenings, it encompasses all of the beautiful, terrible contradictions and certainties and even the liminal gateways between life and death. Lensed through Alyssa’s dreamy, thoughtful eye, flowers are all of these things. As my own heart always instinctively knew.
I am so thrilled that Alyssa agreed to an interview and you will find our chat below, wherein we discuss the secrets and storytelling of the still life photograph, art as a powerful, jeweled sword of rebellion, and working with what you’ve got, where you are, to create things of indescribable beauty and connection.
To keep this 31 Days of Horror-related, I pressed Alyssa for a few favorite horror movies. Her response? Though she confesses she does not especially care for Rob Zombie (ha! sometimes I don’t, either!) she shares that she is a huge Wes Craven fan, with her favorite of his films being Scream. A “real sucker for good cinematography and a haunting score,” she loves The Vvitch and It Follows. But she also loves Sam Raimi’s silliness!
What is it about the still-life as a realm of artistic expression that appeals to you?
I recently spent a lot of time writing an artist statement for my current body of work, and thinking about my “why” – I don’t think I can say it any better than I did in the statement, so I will put it below:
“Still life – Meanings hidden, shown, and yet to be discovered. I want to show that an entire world can lie in a bowl of fruit, or even a vase of flowers. I hold still life sacred. It serves as a means to truly shape an image, rather than simply take a picture of what already exists. I do not just document, I conduct. I orchestrate small universes, existing among the petals and juice of spilled fruits. I find the cosmos in a single flower. I heal my wounds with dirt-caked hands, using tiny symbols as small as an apple seed. Melding parts into a whole, I create an ephemeral waypoint before the items depart to my dinner table, shelves, or back to the earth. Classical vanitas, memento mori, floral still lives – all within the dark world of my table.
With simple tools and familiar objects, I spin tales of how death has touched my life, share stories of where I come from, echo songs taught to me by the forests and hills of the land. I create from myths, folktales, and literature. I create beauty for beauty’s sake – to escape out of reality into a lush and vibrant place, bursting with life, possibility, and love. Birthing art into a cold and hard world, with no other motivation than to show beauty and connection to lost souls, is an act of rebellion. Women have been historically scorned for lack of substance when creating conventionally beautiful work. I reject this notion and weaponize it. Beauty is power. It can cut through monotony like a jeweled sword – and I intend to wield it as long as I can.”
Some of your arrangements and creations recall classical vanitas paintings, works of memento mori–can you speak to these influences in your practice?
Yes! These are all incredibly important influences in my work. A little background – I have been photographing since I was 15, so about 18 years now. I began making still life work in college, where I was a photography major and art history minor. I went to The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as well as Massachusetts College of Art and Design. I was incredibly lucky as a student to be at these schools, especially as I was a poor kid on grants and loans. Both were on the fenway in Boston, and being a student, I was allowed free entry into all the museums. My first school was actually next door to the Boston MFA itself, and I was a short walk away from the magical, irreplaceable Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I spent lunch breaks and days off wandering the halls of museums, staring at statues, Vermeers, and Van Eycks.
I soon specialized my art history classes and research on the Dutch masters and other great still-life artists. The sheer amount of history and the volume of work to look at drew me in and held me there. Still lives seemed magical to me, and still do. The symbolism, the luxurious colors, the dreamy, liminal qualities they all seem to share. Every still life has secrets and layers to uncover. I especially felt drawn to memento mori and vanitas. Both serve as reminders or allegories of death. My life has been colored by death and grief in so many ways from a very young age, so it’s important to me to represent this in my work. I hope history echoes a little in my pieces. I only started showing my still life about 2 years ago. For the longest time, I thought no one would like them, or even care about such traditional work, when the landscape of current popular photography is so portrait-focused. But I was wrong! I didn’t gain any type of audience online until I started posting my still life and writing.
What other influences and inspiration do you draw from in your daily art practice?
Film. Cinematography and lighting, color grading. I took a lot of elective film studies in college and I will never be able to get enough. I think my work is as reflective of this as it is of traditional painting. I learned how to use color from film. I have seen In the Mood for Love about 80 times just to study the lighting. I also really draw on seasons and the local landscape. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so the ability to forage for my work is not something I take for granted. Of course, I am heavily influenced by painting, so I look at some form of painting daily. My favorite book I have is a hefty tome, with every painting in The Vatican. It’s a lovely thing to flip through while I have my morning coffee. It might surprise you to know I avoid looking at photography altogether, and almost all the photographers I follow online are friends. I think there is enough to inform my work out there that is not related to photography at all.
When I look at your art, brimming with petals and blooms in varying stages of blossom and decay, I think of the symbolism and language of flowers, of how, for example, in the Victorian era, flowers were primarily used to deliver messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud. I also find myself contemplating the various magical properties of the various buds and leaves within your compositions and wonder if you’re not gathering the ingredients to do a bit of spellwork. I am curious as to whether there are elements of either floriography or flowerwitchery in your creations or is my imagination running away with me?
I love floriography and in most cases, my choice of flower is deliberate. I have a small collection of books on Victorian Floriography and I refer to them often. Choices are always made, whether for a traditional meaning, a color-coded to a feeling, or a secret meaning I have devised. Almost all of my work is posted alongside a lengthy artist statement where I detail my choices for the viewer to demystify the work a tiny bit, and I often talk about the flowers, or other symbols, and their meanings to me. I think this is an essential part of the work for me, imbuing these objects and blooms with new meaning.
As for spellwork, I am not the least bit involved in actual witchcraft! I am terribly sensible and not very magical at all. I am deeply fascinated by various occult practices, but unfortunately, I am just a plain old atheist and the magical properties of any of the pieces I use is quite lost on me. For me, the magic is in the storytelling I do with these materials.
Ok after that monstrously long question, a far simpler one (maybe?) What is your favorite flower, and why?
Roses! Which sounds so mundane, but I grew up outside Portland, Oregon – the City of Roses. The famous rose gardens there are one of my favorite places to be. They remind me of home, of the gardens, of my grandmother’s face powder – it was called Ombre Rose, and I used to sneak into her bathroom to smell it as a child. There are seemingly infinite variations of rose, which fascinates me to no end. The smell, the thorns, the velvet petals. Easily my favorite to look at and to work with. My daughter’s middle name is Rose for this very reason. Beauty, nostalgia, and a cure for my homesickness.
Do you keep a flower garden as part of your artistry? Do you grow any of the gorgeous posies that find their way in front of your lens?
I have not a single plant in my home, nor a garden, just a revolving collection of cut florals. I live in a tiny 895 sq ft apartment with my partner, child, and rabbit, so there is a bit of a space issue. In the future, when we find our forever house, I would absolutely love to (and plan to) have a garden to work out of. My love affair with flowers began way before my beginning with still life. I grew up gardening with my grandmother and kept my own flowers as a small child. I spent a lot of time outside and in the forest, so I have held onto a deep attachment to trees, flowers, and plants of all kinds. Much of my very early, awkward teenage photography consisted of black and whites of the neighborhood gardens, printed in the void of my high school darkroom. For now, I source flowers from local farms and markets, as well as responsible foraging in our area.
What is your space like where you compose and shoot these lovely arrangements? And with regard to space in general, I’m wondering if we peeked in your home, would we find a house-sized version of one of your photos, or is your interior decor style totally different from your work? I’m sorry if that’s an obnoxious question, I’m really nosy!
This answer is for some reason, very astounding to most people. I guess most expect me to have some kind of gigantic studio or fancy lighting setup. As I mentioned above, my apartment is miniscule, so I actually shoot all my still life on a very small end table with a backdrop, next to my living room sliding glass door. I do not use studio lighting by choice, but there is plenty of sun there and I can shape the light however I want using many pieces of $2 black poster board from Staples. It is very utilitarian and not romantic at all as far as space goes. It’s next to my couch and my rabbit is always lurking under the table, hoping I will drop a rose petal for him to eat.
I am actually really proud of this weird little space in my apartment, and that I can churn out my best work from my living room end table with nothing but my subject, a camera, and some poster board. I post a lot of reels of my process with this decidedly boring area on full display, because I really want the young photographers or people just starting to know that you can create ANYWHERE, and with anything. You do not need expensive equipment or an aesthetically pleasing studio to make high-quality work. Art is for everyone, not just people with money. It’s really a mission of mine to spread that message because of the recent influx of aesthetic obsession on social media. It’s easy to think everyone has it better or easier than you, you know?
As for my decor, it’s not too nosy! I love decor. I am very proud of my work, but I am just not compelled to hang my own art. 98% of the work in my house is in my bedroom/office space, and it is almost all prints of classical work. I have a lot of still life paintings, transportive landscapes from the Hudson River School, any painting of rabbits I can find, and my all-time favorite portrait – Sargent’s Madame X. All my modern art, and pieces from friends and other independent contemporaries, is in the kitchen.
Do you have any rituals or practices that accompany the act of creation? And conversely, I suppose, what inspires you when you find yourself blocked or in a rut?
I do a lot of planning, so pieces may be conceived months before they appear on my page. With all pieces, I spend a really long time getting to know the flowers or food before I use them. I need to know how something will bend, flow, move. Will it snap or break? Does it need supports? Can I pin it? This is ritualistic in nature I suppose, as I go into deep, almost meditative thinking when I spend time with my subjects. It can become trancelike, and my partner has to shout at me if he needs something! haha.
When I am in a rut, that only signals to me I need a break. I simply take time off making work if I can allow it with commitments and such. I work two jobs and have a small child running around, so it’s easy to get burnt out. Taking a small break from creation allows my brain and heart a rest. It offers a slow-down, and lets the stream of ideas begin to flow again.
This final photo, as you can tell from the change in quality and arrangement, and well, everything, was one that I took last night. Of a cocktail that I created in celebration of this interview and inspired by Alyssa’s work, “Flowers from the Underworld.” We both agree that despite some contemporary reframing by poets and writers, the myth of Persephone’s captivity in the underworld is very much not a love story. It’s gross and it’s terribly, profoundly sad. In “Flowers from the Underworld” Alyssa does not discount or dismiss the tragedy, but instead, imbues it with a sense of hope, and of healing. Capturing and conveying the sentiment of how even in the midst of hell, roses may grow. I love that.
And I will admit, “Flowers from the Underworld” is a better name for this cocktail than my original name, which was “Poisoning that fucker, Hades!” I don’t have measurements, just use your pre-booze eyeballs and good sense.
Ingredients and loose recipe
-gin (1 oz? 2?)
-unsweetened pomegranate juice, fresh or bottled (2 tbsp?)
-half a lime, juiced (but lemon is okay in a pinch)
-a bit of orgeat (2 tsp? a drizzle?)
-spicy ginger beer
Shake pomegranate juice, citrus, gin, and orgeat with ice in a shaker until well chilled. Strain into coupe glass (or whatever you want). Top with the spicy fizzes of your favorite ginger beer. Heal your wounds, love yourself, and grow some roses.
This interview has been a long time coming! I initially met the Century Guild gang way back in July of 2019 –in a visit to Los Angeles detailed here over at Haute Macabre– when I traveled out west to hang out at that summer’s Oddities Market. Among a teeming throng of dark-hearted weirdos crammed together in a subterranean goth disco chamber (it wasn’t really, but that’s how it looks in my memory!) and an incredibly mind-boggling array of artisans and vendors, I somehow found myself making my way back to the beautiful oasis of the Century Guild booth, adorned and embellished with gorgeous Nouveau and Symbolist works, and which felt like a balm to my senses in the midst of a midnight maelstrom.
We had the loveliest chat, I purchased a gorgeously ominous Syphilis print, and promises were made on my part to feature them in an interview, as I was so absolutely fascinated by what this gallery/museum/archive is doing with the artwork they share through the books and prints they offer.
…and to sum up, two years later, here we are! Better late than never, right? I think so, anyway. See our Q&A below wherein we chat, about the contemporary relevance of 19th-century aesthetics and ideals, becoming more sensitive to the world around us through the myriad feelings that art arouses in us, and the importance of art in our quest for spiritual connection in a universe so vast, ageless, and unknowable.
Who/what is Century Guild and what is your aim? As part of that, your mission references creating “a bridge of understanding between the aesthetics and ideals of the late 19th century and the present.” Can you elaborate on that for those of us who may not be familiar with those aesthetics/ideals, and can you speak to their contemporary relevance?
Century Guild was founded in 1999 as an art gallery specializing in works from 1880-1920, with a focus on Art Nouveau, Symbolist Art and German Expressionism, and over the last 20 years we have expanded into a museum, archive, and publishing company. We began publishing books as a way to share the artworks in our collection with a wider audience and to foster an understanding of how the aesthetics and ideals from that time period are reflected in our society today. For example, every part of the contemporary art world has been influenced by the work of Alphonse Mucha, and we want to show our audience how and why that happened. Art Nouveau was based on the idea that Nature provides a powerful inspiration for aesthetics, and Symbolist and Expressionist Art were based on an idea that I think is well articulated in a quote from The Little Prince, “what is essential is invisible to the eye”. As it relates to these art movements, it’s the idea that suggesting something through dreamlike or nightmarish visuals is more powerful than a perfectly accurate representation.
What draws you to the particular style of art that Century Guild resurrects/represents in terms of Art Nouveau and Symbolist artworks? What is it that you hope people will learn or take away from these works?
For me, the artworks act as a doorway into awareness about ideas larger than the world I inhabit on a daily basis, especially the idea of being connected to Nature and to History: that people a thousand or a hundred years ago felt and thought very much, if not exactly, the same things that we do today. My hope is that by sharing these works we help others walk through that doorway. When people become sensitive to art that reflects an internal landscape, they look at other people and animals and recognize that they experience joy and suffering just as we do, and recognize how important it is to connect with society in a meaningful way.
I love how (in a 2012 interview) you compare the manifesto for the Art Nouveau movement to a treatment for 1999 Wachowski movie The Matrix; I think contemporary cultural examples like that really bring concepts into such sharp relief for people who are just realizing their initial interest in a style of art. I’m curious if, in the ensuing years since you made that comparison, there are any other moments in modern cinema that have the same feel/appeal for you?
That quote is referring to the inception of the Art Nouveau movement- artists at the time were certain that the manifestation of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century meant that humanity was doomed to be completely disconnected from Nature, all because of something as seemingly innocuous today as a factory that was built on the outskirts of their small town, or something equally marginal when compared to today’s technological overlap. They were limited in the scope of their vision by the time period and had no idea how far it would go. Other modern creations that have the same sort of impact on me have been more forward-looking; the Invisibles graphic novels by Grant Morrison stand out as one example, and I think that the Wachowskis adaptation of Cloud Atlas did the same- they remind us that our understanding of humanity and Nature is even larger than we comprehend, and that we’re constantly on the precipice of some form of larger understanding. Which of course hearkens back to other schools of thought adjacent to the Art Nouveau movement; nothing is new, but just a spiral that moves upward and outward.
You currently work with contemporary artists such as Gail Potocki. What drew you to her work? What do you look for in such collaborations with living artists, or is this an unusual circumstance?
I met Gail back in the days before social media, on a bulletin board called ArtMagick. She would always reply if someone posted a question about Symbolist artists, and when we started chatting we discovered that we lived just a few miles from each other! Gail had mentioned that she was a painter, and when she showed me her work I was floored. Gail was the first artist I had met whose paintings could stand up in the environment created by the fantastic turn of the century artworks in the gallery, in fact, it actually eclipsed everything else in the room! The only other artist who I’ve had that specific experience with is Dave McKean. I love when an artist’s work connects with me in the manner of these earlier movements but takes the ideologies into a modern place. For example, later this year we’re stretching our aesthetic boundaries into more Modern and Folk territories with a book of contemporary art that I’m very excited about, titled Temple of Medusa.
I believe Century Guild’s most recent project/release was Le Pater, a series of mystical illustrations exploring occult themes; images about which the artist, Alphonse Mucha, described to a New York reporter as “the thing I have put my soul into.” This sounds like an incredibly heady viewing experience! Is there anything you might like to share about the project?
(And to backtrack, what is it about the manifesto for the Art Nouveau movement, this connection between art and nature and spirituality, that appeals to you on a personal level? And what is for you, a prime example of this manifesto and connection reflected in a piece of art?)
What appeals to me is the eternal quest of understanding what our larger spiritual universe is and how we fit into it, and a powerful example of this connection is explored in Alphonse Mucha’s Le Pater.
The hardcover that was published in 2019 is a massive tome; I designed it specifically to look like a book you’d see in an archaic library. The book presents Mucha’s Le Pater in its entirety and gives an introduction to mysticism and an overview of magickal ideas in aesthetic form. It examines occult thinking in art from Albrecht Dürer through the Salon de la Rose+Croix, and provides information that allows the reader to decipher the complicated symbolism in Mucha’s Le Pater artworks. Mucha was a devout Mason and student of mystical thinking, and his Le Pater artworks present a very modern, androgynous depiction of God that was celebrated in some quarters and censored in others. The complete artworks in Le Pater were impossible to see outside of museums before we published our book in 2019, so we’re really excited about the Kickstarter project we have going right now to publish the expanded paperback edition. Le Pater is one of the most important artworks of any era, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone with an interest in beautiful art or the occult.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: this question was originally posed in the beginning months of the pandemic]
I’m almost afraid to ask this question of anyone right now, considering the global pandemic we’ve all been experiencing, but is there anything coming up that we can look forward to from Century Guild? Any ideas percolating for future releases on the horizon, perhaps, when the world rights itself?
The expanded paperback edition of Le Pater: Alphonse Mucha’s Symbolist Masterpiece and the Lineage of Mysticism is the most important thing that we are doing in 2021- we all agreed that as the world rights itself there is nothing more important we can do as an institution than put artwork and ideas out into the world that foster communication and connectedness. The Century Guild motto is “Think and Read”, which is based on an emblem that Mucha created for the back cover of Le Pater. If people do those two things, the first fervently and the second meaningfully, the world can’t help but be a better place.
In August of 2017, I am pretty sure that Kjersti Faret of Cat Coven and I were within 5 feet of each other at the Salem Night Market… but I was too shy to introduce myself. I had been an admirer of Kjersti’s weird feminist magics in the form of art prints, decor, and soft, drapey tee shirts for some time, and I would loved to have told her how happy her witchy, whimsical, sometimes medieval-inspired creatures make my heart feel whenever I peek in at her new work. There’s always an element of fierce, feral joyousness to her illustrations that turns any spooky, serious, goth expectations you might have of this kind of art right on its head. It’s delightfully surprising while at the same time exploring fascinating facets of art history, queerness, and the occult, resulting in such a unique blend of tender oddball darkness and wonder.
Needless to say, I love Kjersti’s art and perspective and am delighted that she has answered a few questions for us at Unquiet Things today. See below for our Q&A where we ruminate on art-witchery and exploring the unknown parts of one’s self, the urge to create delicious weirdness measured against the bitter pill of capitalism, and the magic of setting aside time for one’s self amidst a hectic hustle.
Your imagery focuses greatly on your heritage, your queer perspective, the occult, art history, feminism, and of course–cats! How do these ideas and attitudes and points of view meet in your art?
I’m struggling to answer this question because I don’t really know. They just are such a strong part of me that I automatically include them. As I accept my queerness more, it flows into the work. If I’m reading more fairytales or mythology, they’ll seep into my work as well. Whatever I’m currently meditating on in the back of my mind is what goes onto the paper. I suppose because I use a lot of my personal work to explore unknown sides of myself, it just naturally comes out and drifts into my commercial work as well.
You describe yourself as an “art witch”–which I LOVE. If it is something you are comfortable speaking on (as I realize practice can be a very private thing!) do you consider your art and the creation of it to be your main magical practice or do you do magical workings outside of your artistic practice? Is it all very much tied together for you, or are they separate things, with their own corresponding rituals and such?
Yes, they are very tied together. I do some things separate from art-making, but it’s like 90% art-making. It’s either very meditative or very frenzied, depending on the day. Creating art in a frenzied way means I sort of set up my “safe space” (like opening a circle, if you will) and free myself up mentally. I put on specific music and go into a trance-like state and let the mediums – whether it’s graphite, gouache, ink or whatever – do the talking for me.
A lot of times I don’t know exactly what I will create, and it comes out spontaneously. Like I mentioned previously, I like exploring the depths of my mind to find hidden gems I may not have known before. Other times, I have a clear image of what I want to make that just “pops” into my head and it’s trial and error until I have replicated it in the real world. After meditating a bit this usually happens. I’ve been doing a lot more guided meditations lately and I get very strong visualizations for new projects after doing this. Sometimes I will start creating right away, other times I let it sit for a few days and make sure it’s worth pursuing.
I have a tendency to get very excited by a new idea and then run out of steam halfway through. I’m learning patience and that I have a limited time to pursue projects, so I can only complete those which demand to be made. It feels like performing a ritual to set an intention. That’s how I treat certain artworks I do. I am taking this intangible thing and giving it physical form. The process of making the piece also helps me internalize the concepts and/or process uncomfortable emotions.
Speaking of rituals, do you have any–either magical or mundane– that you engage in to set the mood for creating?
I have to listen to very specific playlists to get in the right state of mind. I am trying to get my consciousness to hit that sweet spot between intentional yet open to spontaneity and chance. Right now it’s movie/TV show soundtracks, which can range from Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, How to Train your Dragon to Outlander (basically fantasy music is perfect for setting the vibe, or anything by Bear McCreary). Or it’s a playlist I made filled with nostalgic pop songs circa 2012, because that was a very significant year for me. Also working at night is a special time for creating. I don’t get to do it very often because I like to sleep, but I will push myself every now and then to stay awake and create sometime, from like 12 – 2 AM, because somehow the world is quieter and more magical then.
This is a very specific question, I hope you don’t mind! You recently(ish) shared a little papercut goddess over on Instagram, which I believe you made for yourself. First, I love to see when artists keep their own work …I mean, maybe that happens more often than I realize, and just no one talks about it! I read somewhere recently, an artist on TikTok I think, how they asserted that artists have NO obligation to sell their work to anyone, and I think that’s a powerful statement and also something that doesn’t get discussed often.
But that’s not even the point of my question, I am getting sidetracked! You mentioned that this personal piece was not one goddess in particular, but rather an amalgamation of several favorites. I’d love to hear about your favorite goddesses/deities and how they inform and inspire your creative practice and even your life, in general…!
Oof, okay. Loaded question! I’ve always made art for myself. I think that’s how we all start, us artists, we love drawing in our childhood and if it gets encouraged, then you either pursue it professionally because you want a “job you love” or you do it on the side, eventually lose time because life happens and you stop creating. If you chose the “job you love” path, then you either focus so much on hustling commercial work that there is creative burnout for other work, or your “personal work” gets mixed up into your commercial work, and you are selling every bit of yourself to scrape by.
Can you tell I’m bitter about capitalism? Anyway, yes, this is all related to your question because I feel a split between my “professional” work over at Cat Coven and my “personal” artwork, which is that goddess piece. I love constantly growing and experimenting, but that is not encouraged when doing product work because you want to establish a recognizable brand. And while I do have fun drawing the things I do for Cat Coven, it is not necessarily what I would spend my time making if I didn’t have bills. I’d probably make a hell of a lot more weird inaccessible, existential art that would get maybe 10 likes on instagram.
The past few years I’ve really tried to get back into having separate personal work that feels fulfilling in my soul. I’ve dedicated my life to art because it is the language through which I can express myself best and understand the world around me. The only way I could practice it every day was by incorporating it into my job. When I draw things for Cat Coven, I am always tweaking and learning my style and getting better at drawing skeletons, cats, etc, which I can then use in my Important Work.
That being said, I am also in the process of rebranding Cat Coven to align more with who I am now and what I enjoy now as a 28-year-old, since I feel like a very different person than when I was in college and began my business.
Anyway, the goddesses! My “gateway goddess” was Freyja. I made one or two artworks years ago that were about her. I was drawn to her first because of my Norwegian heritage. Recently I’ve been drawn to Inanna and Ishtar. I don’t remember how they first captured my interest, but here I am. The “goddess” piece you referenced was mainly inspired by her. There’s a bit of Lilith in there too. I suppose it’s not just goddesses, because I was also thinking of Medusa (hence the snake hair), but any mythological archetype really.
While of course, I am always interested to hear about the work of your art and why you do what you do, I am also keen to hear about your rituals of rest and relaxation. How do you replenish your creativity and feed your soul when you’re not working on Cat Coven projects? It should be noted that this question is inspired by the joyful Renfaire photos of you and your wife that you sometimes share on social media, back when we could do such things 🙂
Haha, I’m glad you think I relax! Just kidding, I do and I am definitely getting better at it. It’s something that’s been a long time in the making. I used to have terrible work/life boundaries, just sitting on my bed in my first apartment after college, sewing tiny embroideries until midnight to put on Etsy. The past few years I began to align myself with my wife’s working hours, who works a “normal” scheduled job, which makes it easier to say “ok it’s time to stop working, go do a hobby or cook dinner or spend time with her.”
I’m also trying to take longer “European” lunch breaks. I call them European lunch breaks because the idea really got in my head after I did a residency in France a few years ago. Lunch was two hours, usually with a bottle of wine or time for a little nap. I don’t do the wine obviously, but I am trying to take time to read or go outside after lunch and enjoy the present moment. Also leaving NYC recently has made me feel calmer, as there is no rush of the city to make me feel pressured to keep going and going. That was part of our reason to move, as my wife and I both realized we are being worn down by the hustle of city life.
And yes, we enjoy the Ren Faire, or really any excuse to get dressed up in costume. Another benefit of being out of the city is that I finally have the space (garage and driveway) to do DIY house projects like sanding and painting a big bookshelf, so I am enjoying relaxing while I do other handicrafts I never had access to before. Also I can take BATHS!!! (We only had a shower in our previous apartment). Baths have changed my life (Shout out to Witch Baby Soaps).
What are some of your biggest inspirations currently that are finding their way into your art and practice?
I’ve really fallen for the Surrealists recently, something I think I was resisting for a long time because the famous ones can feel a bit cliché (like Dali) or overly churned into products (like Kahlo, which makes me sad). But I do really love Kahlo, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington. Tove Jansson is my number one always, not just because of her art but also because of how she lived her life. She is my queer icon I look up to the most. Because of my Norwegian heritage, I have a very nostalgic attachment to anything Scandinavian, and these artists always warm my heart: Nikolai Astrup, Edvard Munch, Elsa Beskow and Theodore Kittlesen. Medieval art is always a favorite. Also, woodcuts in general, because the linework that the medium produces is so raw and overwhelmingly human (specifically when Kathe Kollwitz uses it and other expressionists).
I just learned that you have a Patreon! Can you tell us about what goes on over there?
Yes! It is mostly behind-the-scenes work or first looks for both Cat Coven and personal work. Also sometimes ramblings on different themes that are present in my art. I’ll also be sharing my new studio space there soon – it feels very vulnerable to share, so I don’t feel comfortable posting it publicly on social media. Some tiers also have download and print color pages, calendar pages and discount codes for CatCoven.com 🙂
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t obsessed with jewelry. Draped in my grandmother’s beads and baubles, I’d swan around the house, feeling fancy and beautiful, the queen of my daydreams and imaginary domain. My fantasies involved ornate treasure chests overflowing with glittering gems and gleaming jewels and I swore that one day, I would have one of my own.
I wish I still had a photo of it, but my favorite piece of “jewelry” was built from these colorful interlocking plastic blocks and spheres …I’m not sure if it was meant to be worn or just played with for hand-eye coordination type stuff, but I luxuriously delighted in imagining them as massive rubies and sapphires and emeralds…
Here’s another photo, instead. You get the idea!
When I first laid eyes upon the creations of Eternal Craft Designs, I was immediately transported back to a time when I dreamed in the lustrous language and scintillating brilliance of precious stones, a faceted and radiant light that set the landscape of my own strange and lonely little worlds aglow. I purchased for myself a strand of beads from their Poisons collection, and in its green glimmering reality, the flash of its colors and gorgeous tumbling heft, I held all of my childhood dreams in my hands.
It is pictured here in the disarray of my vanity in the lower right, artfully spilling out of a small Anna Sui container. And in the photo below that, entwined around my neck! The little-Sarah that still lives in my heart is utterly screaming with joy.
I recently chatted with Eternal Craft Designs about their unique, one-of-a-kind pieces, the stories and inspirations that go into the creations of these jewels, and the process of finding one’s voice through a maximalist aesthetic and the perpetually haunted aspects of one’s nature.
Tell me about the kind of jewelry that you create and who it is you envision wearing it.
Mostly I craft One of a kind beaded strands of various semi-precious stones and crystal beads. Some of them include vintage glass beads that I have collected over decades to adorn my dragon’s lair. (I’m convinced I was a crow in a previous life) I also make solid sterling silver tombstone keepsake pendants.
The type of person I envision wearing my jewelry loves to shimmer and sparkle in darkness. That person might be a little witchy, they might be a bit earthy, they might be into holistic and healing energies. Each strand is as unique as the individual who wears them. They’re hefty and have a good deal of texture and weight to them and I try to make them as sturdy as possible so that they will last through the centuries.
There’s a certain androgyny to some of the pieces, wearable by people on any level of the gender spectrum, particularly the tombstone pendants, which were originally designed as a commitment between lovers.
I get the sense that you love jewels and baubles as much or if not more than I do…I would love to learn what led you in the direction of making jewelry as opposed to draping yourself in it fabulously? (Which is also my move, by the way, hee!)
Oh, I drape myself in jewels and baubles! TRUST ME! One can ALWAYS count on me to show up at the holiday party with more shine than the Christmas tree!
Instead of removing one piece of jewelry before I leave the house, I add one.
I used to make little elastic bracelets for friends and include them with the wrappings of a prezzie. Then they would break or were promptly lost. I had a dear friend who was so creative and talented at everything, including making jewelry. She was trying to encourage me and help me find my crafty jewelry voice, and unfortunately passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly some years ago. The night before we were supposed to get together to play with jewelry) I inherited some tools and materials from her but couldn’t really do anything with a lot of it for a very long time. In a way, I feel like I finally figured out what I needed to be doing with all of the things she gave me.
I look at your work and how you talk about it and it makes me think of the idea of jewelry as story-telling. What are the stories that haunt you and inspire your creativity when making a new piece of jewelry? What else do you count among your inspirations and influences?
I have a lifetime of things that inspire me; music, literature, art. Let’s get the obvious influence out of the way; our beloved Bloodmilk Jewels. When their Mourning Beads and Ritual Strands launched, my vision became clear, and I was able to focus. Of course, I had no intention to copy them. I’m not a professional jewelry maker first of all, so it wouldn’t be possible. Secondly, BMJ fans are fiercely loyal, and I’d never want to provoke the ire of their followers. Jen and Jess and so lovely and so kind, I could never….
With the first BMJ strand I purchased, Bookstore Cat, I was blown away at how delicate and tiny and perfect it was! I felt more comfortable that what I had in mind was something quite different and that may or may not appeal to the same person.
I decided one thing that could impart into my jewelry was my vast music knowledge. I always have a song in my head & sometimes I can connect that with a strand of beads. I have a great catalog of music to draw from; thousands of CDs, and records that I have collected while working as a radio/club dj, then retail, and finally establishing myself as an inventory manager and buyer for some of the largest record stores in the country. (Remember Record Stores?)
I am perpetually haunted. The biggest flaw in my character is that I find it difficult to move on. I tend to hold on to the darkness in my life for far too long.
I try to use the ritual of cleansing the crystals and stones once I have completed a strand so that whatever darkness I may be enveloped in does not pass on, if that makes sense. I’m also no purist. I pick and choose elements that satisfy my visual aesthetic. I’m a novice when it comes to these fabulous crystal powers and don’t ever claim to be anything more. I’m sure there are experts out there that could quibble and cringe at how I write about or arrange things, but the powers and energies that can be drawn are entirely second to the sparkle and shine for me. These pretty shiny things are only here to make you feel pretty and shiny. My intentions are my own, get out of it what you want.
As far as “storytelling” goes…Thank you, but I dunno….I don’t consider myself much of a writer – it’s a struggle for me, and a lot of times I find myself paraphrasing and re-wording what I have come across in research through various mediums. The research itself becomes inspiring and I find I am learning a lot just by digging around some of my dusty old books and clicking through links. I always have a few completed pieces sitting around that I haven’t posted because I can’t quite find the story to go along with them.
What are your favorite materials to use and can you share what it is about them that speaks to you?
Everything is grounded and anchored in black; onyx, tourmaline, obsidian, etc…these stones are said to attract, envelope, deflect negativity. Almost every piece features flashy rainbow moonstone and/or labradorite, which nearly makes me fall over. Using scarabs from vintage bracelets as connectors sets my pieces apart. Infinity has been a consistent symbol in my life for a very long time, so I use infinity connectors often as well. Going back to Bloodmilk for inspiration, I think it’s how they utilize the connector as focal points, one never has to worry or bother with the clasp getting facing front. I like that a lot and I’m trying to include that feature in my own way.
What are you doing when you are not making these beautiful beaded strands? I’m always interested in the interests of the people who interest me!
Obsessing over my cats, ravens, crows and praying mantids in my garden. After leaving the music business in 2015, I dabbled around trying to figure out what to do with myself. I managed pre-recorded music inventory (CDs) on a national and international scale, handled multi-million-dollar budgets, coordinated high-profile media events, and more.
When I left music, it was the precise moment where ageism and sexism left me fighting to get back into the workforce. I found that my particular skill set could be quite useful to my life partner’s business in make-up fx. I work with him on film projects both on and off-set and handle a lot of the administrative work; scheduling, maintaining supplies, (I love a good excel spreadsheet), acting as a liaison with production, and so on. Covid has completely changed how films are made, there is a lot more admin work to be done by any Head of Department. My goal is to help free his time up to focus more on creative design, direction, and application. It’s a lot of fun and nowhere near as stressful as dealing with Amazon as a client! No one asks where I hope to be in 5 years, what my plans are with the company and they don’t care that I’m female and an adult! Everyone is working on one project to completion and everyone has the same immediate goals. (It’s kind of refreshing, really).
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.
That I have any friends at all is something that constantly surprises me, and sometimes when I think I’ve missed an opportunity at friendship, that deeply saddens me.
I met G.A. Alexanderbriefly on a side-trip to Seattle, a branching-off from a trip to Portland, that I took a few years ago, in order to spend some time with friends. G.A. Alexander was the partner of one of these friends (a human whom you are all very familiar with, poet and writer Sonya Vatomsky, whom I have interviewed previously!) and I maybe said two words to him at the time. I met him again on a trip back to Seattle and was deeply privileged see him and Sonya get married…and again maybe only spoke a handful of words to him. I am very shy and I did my best!
As I know we share similar enthusiams–a love for the horror genre, and what I broadly think of as “goth musics”– I have kinda low-key, stalkery been following his projects with great interest over the last four years or so. As a musician and writer, G.A. Alexander has played in the bands Golden Gardens, The Vera Violets and Push Button Press, and is the writer of Kickstarter comics success Keepsakes, along with short stories published by Eerie River Publishing and Nocturnal Sirens Publishing. His new project, OBSO/LETE, is over on Kickstarter right now, and I am very much looking forward to these dystopian tales of terror.
In the meantime, I thought it might be fun to ask him a few questions about this forthcoming effort, and his inspirations/enduring influences, as well as wrangling some recommendations from him to share with all of you!
See below for our chat on all things horror from the grimy and lo-fi, the the elevated and possibly “too beautiful” and be sure to check out OBSO/LETE on Kickstarter!
Unquiet Things: I’ve written previously about how much I thoroughly enjoyed your first comic, Keepsakes. It had that sort of retro-anthology vibe, with stylized imagery recounting horrific yarns, that took me back to the feeling of reading copies of Eerie and Creepy magazine when I was way too young to understand them. And maybe, too, my more recent memory of watching Tales From The Crypt and wishing I had seen it when I was younger! Your new project, OBSO/LETE, which I understand to be cyberpunk body horror set in a collapsing future, sees a very different direction and vision! Can you tell us what OBSO/LETE is about? What should readers know prior to diving in?
G.A. Alexander: Thanks for noticing that about Keepsakes! A lot of people brought up the Tales from the Crypt similarities, but I was also a fan of things like Creepy, Eerie, House of Mystery and other horror books that were either active or were enjoying a period of extensive reprinting when I was a kid.
OBSO/LETE is definitely a different beast altogether from Keepsakes. The book is set in an alternate future where technology (especially anything using networking) was severely restricted for the average person by the American government from the 1990s-onward. In the meantime, however, development for things such as medical research and the military have experienced no hindrance at all. Due to the stunted development of technology and the way society developed, the power grids in the large MegaCities that have sprung up have become overburdened to the point of near-collapse, and so different districts have started experiencing rolling blackouts which have come to be known by the population as “Cold Spots”.
The first issue of the book tells the story of Sandra and Juliette, two bartenders working in District 4, an extremely blue-collar part of a large, un-named MegaCity. As their neighborhood is hit by Cold Spot after Cold Spot, they begin to notice that things may not quite be what they seem: the constant power fluctuations in the city seem to have ignited something buried deep below the city. Things that appear to be neither completely human, nor machine are now lurking in the shadows of the city, waiting for their opportunity to strike.
Could you share where the idea for OBSO/LETE came from, and what inspired you to tell this type of story? And what ‘type’ of story would you say this is?
OBSO/LETE’s main influences came from a few different sources: I noticed a lot of modern cyberpunk media had adopted a sort of “neon palm tree” sort of aesthetic, which eventually became a bit too ubiquitous to be fun for me, and so I really wanted to make something that could be considered “Cyberpunk” under its original idea of “high tech, low life”, but could be dirtier, nastier and grimier. Aside from that, a lot of the inspiration came from the movies Tetsuo The Iron Man and Hardware, the comic books Akira and BLAME! and the box art and aesthetic of 90’s FMV computer games like Under a Killing Moon and Phantasmagoria 2 along with 90’s cable television shows like The Hunger, Max Headroom and Highlander.
The story’s genesis came from mis-remembering a scene from Hellraiser III. After re-watching it and quickly realizing my memory had distorted it into something else entirely, that then turned into the inciting incident in OBSO/LETE (and which you can read on the Kickstarter campaign). From there, pieces started falling into place. The rolling blackout concept was something I had been thinking about for a few years after reading about how certain countries had actually implemented it.
The premise of technology being hampered for regular people but completely unhindered by any restriction for the military came from living through Y2K while also working in an office park directly next door to a military contractor.
I’ve got a fair amount of techo-skepticism in me and some very distinct worries about the growing alienation we’re experiencing due to social media and other technological things that past few decades have inserted into our lives, but I’m also very well-aware of how these things have absolutely improved certain peoples’ lives and how much of a net-benefit they can be. I wanted to tell a story that explored what the world would (possibly?) be like without some of these things. I didn’t want to come into that story with a pre-conceived black-or-white “Technology Bad/Technology Good” perspective at all, but I really wanted to think about and depict how I believe human interaction and the world may develop without mass-media communication as we currently know it.
Also, I wanted to take that world and put monsters in it.
You’ve got some stories on the popular horror r/nosleep subreddit and you’re a musician/songwriter(?) as well. As a writer of all sorts of interesting things, I’m curious as to who you consider your biggest writing influences?
I’ve come to writing very late in life, having done most of my creative work as a musician and songwriter. I’m very influenced by who I grew up reading, including people like Billy Martin (who wrote under the name Poppy Z. Brite), Clive Barker, Stephen King, Brad Meltzer, William Gibson, Caitlin Kiernan, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and many others.
The writers who really “clicked” for me as an adult, and who kinda pushed me into a mode where I not only felt “I can do this” but also “I need to do this because they’re so good and I have to catch up!” are Thomas Ligotti, Nicole Cushing, Kathe Koja and Matthew M. Bartlett. I would recommend anyone with a taste for left-of-center horror with a VERY distinct sense of setting (which is a thing I find really appeals to me) check out any and all of those authors.
And in terms of horror cinema, if you had to narrow a list down to two or three films that shaped your view/appreciation of the genre, or that you recall as particularly profound, what would they be? (and why, if you’re feeling expansive!) Is there anything going on with horror right now that you find inspiring?
A lot of the horror movies over the last two or three years that have been connecting with me have been somewhat low-budget affairs. On the micro-budget end, Nigel Bach’s Bad Ben series has been an absolute delight to watch, as you get to see a filmmaker find his voice and his “style” as he goes. I really enjoyed Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor, as well, which utilized a ton of practical makeup effects, which I REALLY enjoy.
Historically speaking, my favorite horror movies would have to be Hellraiser, Halloween and The Thing. These are obviously fairly pedestrian takes, but I struggle to think of stronger and scarier works. I’m a big fan of Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On The Grudge, as well, and I think it’s an unfairly overlooked classic.
I feel a lot of modern horror can be sabotaged by how modern technology had granted us access to beautiful cinematography. The modern “elevated horror” subgenre has put out SO many great movies, but most of them have failed to connect with me and on reflection, I think it’s because so many of them are TOO beautiful to look at. Having been raised in the VHS era, I think there’s something with film grain and tracking static that my brain associates with “scary”.
You and your wife and cat just made an international move during a pandemic! Well done! I know that was challenging to say the least, and that whole process almost seems like a horror story in and of itself. I’m always interested in how one’s geography shapes one’s fears and inspirations in that vein. Can you speak to how aspects of place and environment, and perhaps even culture, find their way into your writing?
That’s an interesting question, and one that I think I’m just starting to grapple with. Having grown up and spent most of my life in the USA, how does or should my writing change now that I’m, for all intents and purposes, a British Writer?
A lot of my previous stories are set in and around North East Pennsylvania, which I only spent a couple of years living, in my 20s, but left a very specific impression on me. How long can I go on writing about America, while not living there, and have my stories feel grounded in reality? How long should I immerse myself in the UK’s culture and places and idiosyncrasies before I can safely write a British Horror story? It’s odd because on one hand, I have these very specific experiences and memories and on the other hand, I worry about how long those will feel “Valid”.
For example, in Keepsakes, there’s a short story “An Open Letter to Blue American Petroleum”. That’s directly inspired by actual experiences I had moving cross-country in the United States, filling up at little gas stations in little towns off the highway. I don’t think the same sort of experiences happen here.
While that’s the case, every place has its own strange culture and unique features. The city I live in now has an extensive canal system and you have the ability to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood through tunnels underneath bridges and by the side of long stretches of water. I can see this, and many other features of where I now live sneaking into my work soon.
Keepsakes felt very North Eastern USA to me. Keepsakes 2 (which will be a standalone story, tangentially connected to the original collection) will be Pacific Northwestern. OBSO/LETE’s setting feels Chicago to me, while its characters feel very St. Petersburg, Florida. I always seem to want to write about places after I leave them more than when I’m there.
I’m extremely fascinated by the personal routines of creators. Do you have a particular process you use when entering into your work? What gets you in the mood to write? Any rituals or practices?
I wish I had a better or more structured routine. A lot of my process feels like “stealing time” from other things. I recently bought a couple of notebooks and a fountain pen to try and make my writing process feel a little less tethered to a keyboard, but I’ve found that the notebook is its own tether.
Some of my favorite work has been typed into my phone at 11:30pm at night while laying in bed, dealing with insomnia.
I only just realized that you stream on Twitch! Horror games, is that right? I am not very good at these things, but I recently just tried my hand at World of Horror, an H.P. Lovecraft/Junji Ito-inspired RPG horror game set in a quiet Japanese town filled with eldritch beings, wild-eyed cultists, and impossibly twisted human forms. I died a lot! Have you played anything lately that you really enjoyed and that you might recommend?
I tried out World of Horror on-stream a few months back!
I died a lot too. I think my issue is that I have exactly zero history with RPGs. My game of choice was always point-and-click adventure games.
The Twitch stream, Welcome to Frankenstein House, came as a result of wanting to fill time when the pandemic hit. Initially the idea was to do comic book reviews but that quickly evolved into abandoning the review format about 10 minutes into each stream and them proceeding to goof around about whatever we wanted (usually complaints about the Stuart Townsend depiction of Lestat in the Queen of the Damned movie, or how Alfred from Batman is in fact an interdimensional sex god) for 2-3 hours every week.
After that, we started adding in horror gaming streams, which then took over the whole thing. We’ve been on pause for a couple of months due to the movie and the time difference but we’re planning on restarting soon and we’re probably going to be switching to more of a variety show format.
The games I’ve really enjoyed playing lately are:
Detention: Scary point-and-click adventure game set in a haunted school during the White Terror in Taiwan
Love, Sam: I dubbed this a “Reading Simulator” on the stream as a joke, but it was REALLY scary. You play an unidentified character, reading a school friend’s diary in their tiny apartment. As you read, things in the apartment being to move and change. Doors appear, taking you to different places. You realize that the diary may have opened the door for something to haunt you.
Stories Untold: Sort of a puzzle/adventure game. It’s 4 different games that each tell a story in different ways. The first game, The House Abandon, is a retro text adventure and each of the others keep the sme spirit if not the same mechanics. It has a great early 80’s style aesthetic to it.
The Glass Staircase: Made by Puppet Combo, one of the more interesting “auteur” game creators out there right now. This is effectively a take on the Resident Evil or Clocktower style survival horror gameplay, but in an Italo-horror environment. It’s really cool, but really difficult.
Speaking of recommendations! I am normally constantly on the hunt for, and learning about new music–although in 2020 my interest in this has regrettably waned quite a bit. I have to imagine that as a musian you’re constantly finding and listening to new things! I’d love to know your favorites from 2020.
The most recent I Like Trains album Kompromat was fantastic, a really great return for a band I was half-sure was done. It’s odd post-punk, extremely politically outspoken, dark and upsetting.
This question is a bit silly, but I hope you’ll indulge me! Your wife Sonya sometimes shares your thoughts on the perfumes that they’re sampling, and I know I’m not the only one who loves to read about them! Unquiet Things readers are fragrance fiends as well, and I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’d love to know what perfume of theirs you’ve smelled recently…that you might base a horror story around! Tell us everything about this aromatic atrocity, please!
Oh god. So, the problem with writing a horror story about Perfume is you don’t want it to be derivative of the Patrick Suskind book!
So for anyone unfamiliar with Sonya’s “My Husband Smells” posts, Sonya collects all these samples from various boutique perfume companies and has me smell them and say what I feel they smell link.
The gimmick is that I have no idea what I’m talking about. I have no frame of reference for what traditional perfumes or colognes are “supposed” to smell like. This is only compounded due to the fact that I have bad sinuses which affect my sense of smell.
Ultimately, you’ll end up with a $400 bottle of expensive perfume and a review from me that just says “Smells like Dracula makeup?” because some chemical in it smelled sort of like Halloween makeup I put on as a kid and it triggered a sense memory.
My perfume horror story would be based around us receiving a number of samples from some company that Sonya couldn’t remember ordering from, and that doesn’t have a website.
Rather than triggering sense memories, the perfumes would cause us to relive entire moments in our lives. As we went down the series of samples, the memories would get more and more recent, and we would find ourselves unable to stop sniffing each of the samples.
The story would end with us testing the last of the samples, in a jet black, unlabeled nebulizer. As we each breathed it in, we would feel the air disappear from our lungs, the lights disappear and the walls close around us – we wouldn’t be in a memory from the past, we would be trapped in a memory of something that hasn’t happened yet.
We would be “remembering” being dead and being interred in a grave, unable to breathe or speak or escape.
Back to OBSO/LETE as we wrap up! Is there anything else you want to share about this project or what we can expect? I’m really looking forward to it!
We have about 7 days left on the campaign and we’ve just debuted our second of two t-shirt designs.
It’s really been a labor of love, and I’ve gotten the opportunity to make some new friends in the industry, Justin M. Ryan (penciller and inker) is also an accomplished writer on his own and has a fantastic graphic novel he put out a while back called Tresspasser. Todd Rayner (colorist) has an awesome comic book he does called Icepick.
In addition to OBSO/LETE, I also have a scifi-horror story called “Flickering” which just came out in an anthology from Eerie River Press called “It Calls From The Sky”.
A poet, essayist, and editor living in New York City, Lisa Marie Basile is the founder and creative director of Luna Luna Magazine, an editor at Ingram’s poetry site Little Infinite, and co-host for the podcast, AstroLushes, which intersects astrology, literature, wellness, and culture. Her website Ritual Poetica is a space for sacred self-exploration at the intersection of writing, ritual, and healing, and she has just recently launched her Write Well Patreon, with holistic resources & advice for nourishing a creative life that is physically, emotionally, & spiritually fulfilling.
So many of the subjects that Lisa regularly creates dialogue about and touches on in her writing –intentionality and ritual, creativity, poetry, foster care, addiction, family trauma, and chronic illness– are topics that are close to my heart, and, no doubt, close to the hearts of many of her readers, as well. This spirit of sharing both the beautiful and the ugly, with regard to the body, the world, the universe, is the shining core, and the secret-but-not-so-secret-really, to what makes her work so dynamic and relateable and what always, every single time, thrills me so profoundly when I see that she has posted something on Instagram, or tweeted about over on the twitters. If Lisa has taken the time to ponder a thought or a concern, word-witch it into existence, and share it with us, then it is a rare gem worth seeking out.
Of the elements that deeply spoke to me in Lisa’s first book, it was the rituals and exercises that involved writing I found myself most psyched about. As a bit of a word witch myself, I find that written language is the realm I am most comfortable exploring and creating in. As you can imagine then, when she announced her second book The Magical Writing Grimoire: Use the Word as Your Wand for Magic, Manifestation & Ritual(released this past April), I was over the moon!
Part guided journaling practice, part magical grimoire, The Magical Writing Grimoire explores the transformative power of writing. Each chapter contains writing prompts, writing rituals, meditations, and poetic wisdom. You’ll find shadow work, bibliomancy, automatic writing practices, incantatory poetry, and more. I don’t think I need to tell you, this is a freaking amazing resource– and Lisa Marie Basile was kind enough to field a few of our questions about The Magical Writing Grimoire, below.
Haute Macabre: A question that I might typically ask is where the inspiration for this book originated–a question which you have handily answered in the introduction! You recount how your grandfather spent a day teaching you calligraphy, and how as a child you could begin to understand how writing could become a tool to sort out life’s complexities. I love stories like this, a wisdom passed from a beloved elder to a younger you, wherein formative magics take hold and burrow under your skin, mapping an internal pathway, directing and guiding you from there on out. I don’t know how much time you spend with calligraphy nowadays, but what sort of activity would you sit with a younger person (a child the age that you were in that memory, or bb witch, or a young writer-in-training) and slowly teach them with over the course of an afternoon?
Lisa Marie Basile: First, can I tell you amazing I think this question is? So thoughtful and magical. It’s true that these memories, these seemingly forgettable flashes in our lives — how could my dying grandfather even imagine that this thing he did with his grandchild would stick? So often things tumble through our memories, until their just flashes — change us. Perhaps it’s not calligraphy that stuck, because in truth, I do not partake of calligraphy these days. I am sure I would if I had the chance, but it’s not the act of calligraphy that matters. It was the intention, the focus, and the use of language.
It was this idea that through writing we can make memories — that the word itself is a sacred, eternal thing
I suppose if I were with a child or new witch or someone young who wanted to begin writing, I’d have them write a letter to themselves; what they write would depend on their deepest need. Maybe it’s a letter of support or forgiveness or simply a letter that asked one’s future self to pave the way for something. When we write to ourselves, we usually transmit something into and from the shadowy self (even children have shadow selves), and this is important because all transformative acts require a willingness for the depths. Imagine the total freedom of talking to yourself without censorship or judgement or approval?
You note that one of the most important things you’ve learned is that doing something (ie writing a book, casting a spell, etc.) is a process of both “work” and “the occult”. Can you and define and maybe give an example of what you mean by the two of them in that sense, and why it is that this is an important differentiation to you?
I have always viewed writing (or, as you said, anything) as this sort of hybrid thing. Half of the act is occult; it comes from some channeling or transmuting. It is connected to the divine, or the higher self. Sometimes when I write it feels like I am connected to something electric, something cosmic. It pours into me and I take the tabula rasa and make it into something. I know so many creators feel this way. The other aspect is the Work or Craft. You take what you get from the unknown, and you chisel into a shape. You apply knowledge or years of training to the raw thing you made.
You have to work with the gift or the magic. I believe — and maybe this is just me, it’s possible — but you have to combine an intention with actionable energy. You have to speak an incantation and do the work to make space for something to manifest.
But in the end, I believe both are necessary. You can feel when something doesn’t have a soul, when it’s all math or function. And you can see when something is so raw and so in need of time and space and craft.
“Write when you don’t feel like working on yourself. Write when you do. The grand ritual is returning to those sacred moments.” I’d love it if you could share what this process looks like for you when you just aren’t feeling it? And how to maybe turn an “ughhh I don’t wanna do this today” into a sacred act?
I think there are certainly days when you need rest. As someone with a chronic illness, it’s important to just lay in bed, to daydream, to sleep, to read poems with the window open. I don’t really mean this literally, as in every single time. I do mean if you find yourself again and again coming up against some resistance to write or self-explore, it’s probably a good reason to do just that. In life. But yeah, if I’m feeling particularly exhausted, drained, emptied, or uninspired, I turn to water. For me, a shower is always sacred — and I try not to rush it. I envision the energy that is being cleansed and renewed under the water. I think of the drain as a physical symbol of what I’m letting go. I think of water as luminous and electric and giving me what I need.
Maybe I’ll turn bedtime or just being in bed as a sacred thing: Herbal tea, a good ASMR video, some essential oils in the diffuser, a few candles. I love the idea that luxuriating and resting can be a sacred thing; it’s rest, yes, but it’s also a recharge, and a healing process.
I don’t believe sacredness or magic always has a big a-ha shift; I believe that it’s found in the things that keep us going, keep us feeling alive.
You make this distinction between a practice that is “process-oriented” vs. “results-oriented.” Can you talk about this as it applies to your magical writing practice?
Ah, this sort of touches on the question above. For me, results-oriented magic is of course beneficial. A spell for this. A recipe for that. But I’ve found that (and this is likely a personal thing, or some sort of hyperintense Scorpio thing) that the long-game works better for me. A process is something I return to again and again — whether it’s a ritual I perform monthly or a meditative state I get back into regularly in order to write and sort of self-question. Almost all of this returning – to without immediate results leads to a massive shift in my life — in terms of joy, health, abundance, etc. That said, of course I do “xyz spell for zyz result” in the short term!
Like, yes, I’ll do a writing spell to manifest something I want immediately — a response in the affirmative, a sense of clarity when I wake up in the morning, a release of toxicity. But I will also return to the page for The Great Work — of healing old traumas, identifying patterns or getting in touch with an archetype or ancestral wisdom. That takes returning-to.
You speak to receptivity or conjuring the muse, as well as generative energy (being able to translate those musing energies) and that writing is a ritual of give and take between the two. I wonder if in your practice those energies shift or lean heavier to one side or another? How do you tempt an elusive muse? How do you interpret garbled transmissions? How do you get those synergies to sync, and what do you do when they are out of whack?
For me, the most important thing to do is give it space and to let garbled mess be. More often than not, the shit that comes out somehow ends up revealing a pattern — or even getting to the point where I realize I’m preventing myself from being receptive for some specific reason. It’s okay to write a few words, to incorrectly interpret, and to let there be times when things are unclear and messy. Usually, there’s a message there. It might mean you have some work you have to do outside of the ritual setting (for me at least).
Because so much of my magical life is informed by my writing life, I feel a need to think as a writer in both ways. Sometimes it’s better to get anything onto the page than to abandon ship because you feel the muse isn’t there. I tend to turn to rituals of beauty and creativity (cinema, music, movement, scent) to trigger/tap something in me that gets the flow going — and I do this with magic and with writing (I mean, it’s all one!).
Reading your passing mention of the Egyptian goddess Seshat was pretty uncanny. Literally, the day just before, Seshat came up in conversation with a friend and I was floored, never having heard this divine scribe and celestial librarian. I am curious as to whether or not there is a particular deity that you feel a connection with in your personal magical writing practice? And has that changed over the years with the changing of your own life’s story?
I love that. I believe that these synchronicities happen for a reason, so maybe Seshat wants to commune with you in some way? I don’t typically work closely with deities, gods, goddesses, etc, in an ongoing way — I take a more secular approach and see deities more as lesson-offering archetypes or representations as parts of myself — but I have always felt a deep kinship with Hecate.
I think growing up in foster care and watching addiction, imprisonment and homelessness happen in my immediate family made me yearn for a figure that stood for strength even in dark times. I wasn’t drawn to figures who didn’t have an intense understanding of darkness, the underworld, that dank underbelly of human pain. Hecate not only is that, she bears a torch to light the way. Today, I’m connected to Parthenope — a siren who lives in the water off of Naples. She’s been following me around, and she found me in Sorrento in Italy, in her waters. She is a symbol of love and vulnerability and water and the ancient world.
Writing is a form of reclamation, taking ownership of your pain, that there is power in your vulnerability– I love this idea…in theory…but what advice do you have for someone who is afraid of their own voice?
The voice blooms at its own pace.
Sometimes you don’t even realize that you are releasing it, that what you’re writing is the deepest truth. It’s okay if it doesn’t come natural or if it is frightening. I would suggest lovingly for everyone to lean into the discomfort and to know that your practice can be private and be entirely controlled by yourself. Create a beautiful and safe writing area to write; follow with self-care. Return to it weekly or under each new moon. Ask yourself what the fear is about and be willing to hear the answer. Is it ego? Is it that you were once punished for it? Is it fear of your own power and autonomy? Not fearing your voice is probably not going to happen in one cinematic moment; it will be gradual for some. But not resisting is key.
Resist the linear! You decry. Why? But also: I wish I could! I am so tied to my structures and my routine, and I fear they are a bit of a crutch. I am curious as to what a non-linear day of writing or, just a non-linear day in your life might look like and what you might suggest for someone mired in the habitual and familiar.
If linear works for you, who am I to argue?! But I stress this because we all communicate and create differently. Perhaps you want to write a poem one day and a formal incantation, complete with rhyme scheme, the next? Maybe you want to journal here and there but can’t bring yourself to complete an entire ritual. I think it’s okay to do what feels right and what you can.
For me, I’ll write a poem, and only poetry for a while. I’ll write poem-spells and little lines and I’ll put them on my altar and I’ll hide them in my purse. Sometimes I’ll read them for a dose of magic. Then maybe I’ll write an essay or lists or whatever. I let my intuition guide me
I would say if what you do is working, don’t change it. But if you feel like structure is a crutch, maybe examine why? What does it feel like to let yourself be out at sea? If it’s scary, is it the sea — or is something you’re doing in the water? Thank you for your time and your beautiful, thoughtful, deep questions.
Images courtesy Lisa Marie Basile except forthe mermaid blanket photo via Emily X.R. Pan
Many thanks to my dear friend Sonya, for it was through them that I originally learned about Lisa’s work a few years ago, and it was also through them that this interview coalesced and came into being. Thank you, thank you, dearest bean of my heart!
For what feels like forever now, I have been in swoons and raptures over the misty, half-lit elegance of analog photographer Helena Aguilar Mayans’ stunning storybook landscapes and transportive, time-traveling portraits. I am very happy that, like in some wondrous, enchanting tale from a bygone era, the stars mystically aligned for us and I can finally share our interview–at least two years in the making!– with you today.
See below for our Q&A wherein Helena shares her passions and inspirations, her reverence for mystery and the passage of time, and of course, a gallery of her incredible works. Helena–thank you for your patience and perseverance, your kindness and candor, and for working with me on this and long as we have!
“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” is the quote used in your instagram bio. Can you talk about that philosophy as it relates to your art?
This is a quote by Junichiro Tanizaki, from his book “In Praise for Shadows”. It’s a very beautiful and poetic book and I always found it very inspiring. I had the chance to visit Japan lately and I could relate to everything he points on the book. It’s a book written in 1933 but I think it’s still very contemporary.
The book explores some concepts and ideas that usually in the occidental world have been understood in a very different way or not really appreciated.
I feel that in traditional Japanese culture time is understood differently and beauty is seen in many things, even in the most ordinary. The space they have for contemplation, ritual, and beauty is something that I love and I feel is not well valued in other cultures.
We are used to having everything immediately and I always felt against that, I think we should understand time in a very different way. I’ve been learning Urushi (Japanese traditional lacquer) and Kintsugi (ceramic repair with Urushi and metal dust) for 3 years now and it’s all about time and patience! It’s not only about the technique itself, but you also learn about other things. It really helps me to balance and to focus on my new photographic projects! I have a photoshoot in mind inspired by a passage of “In Praise of Shadows” and I cannot wait for it!
I also love the Japanese concept of “mono no aware” (sympathy for things) and the idea of patina, showing the time passing by, the texture, it’s somehow what I find in old and abandoned buildings and also in old garments. I love to see the time passing by all over these spaces and objects, for me it has a very special charm.
Tanizaki also speaks about the strange calm, darkness or shadows, can bring and the mystery they hold. I think a must for me is trying to get some mystery in my pictures, sometimes more subtle and sometimes more direct, but I think mystery needs to be there. Related to this I also love this quote by Einstein:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
I always feel an overwhelming sense of solitude when gazing upon the lone models in the shadowy environs in your photos. But not in a terribly melancholic way–I get the feeling that these characters are content to be lost in their own worlds, and there is no place they’d rather be. Can you speak to that?
I always pictured women being alone, either between wild landscapes or in abandoned environments, it has been something very inner, it happens very naturally it has been the way I have always seen my pictures. But I wouldn’t say these women are feeling lonely, I think they are just lost in their worlds, daydreaming or looking for a shelter, away from the modern world. It’s also how I feel about the world many times. It’s probably a bit about being an outsider. The idea of trying to live in a different way, out of what’s it’s considered standard.
These women are where they are because they want, they want to be out or explore. I always included the lone female character in my pictures and when I discovered the novels of the Brontës I could feel so related to it. The Brontës had been a very important influence for that. I’ve been very very inspired by the works and lives of them during the last years and something that I really like from them is the idea that they made some revolutionary heroines just by the fact that they went out walking.
I’m stealing a quote from an interview you did with one of my favorite writers and appreciators of art, Jantine Zantbergen; you said that you view photography as “…a medium one can use in order to make fantasies more real.” Can you tell about the sort of fantasies you try to bring to life?
I always had a deep fascination for bygone eras and past artistic movements. Usually those the “fantasies” I try to recreate, I imagine characters from the Brontë novels or paintings by the symbolists, the decadents, the pre-raphaelites and I try to make these visions live through photography.
Trying to recreate all this through photography it’s a kind of way of making everything more real. It’s also the best way I know to evade myself and connect with these bygone eras and art movements that I am so fond of. The moment just before pressing the shooter, when I am in front of the scene and everything looks like I imagined I really feel transported, it feels like time works in a very different way.
I also sense complex stories in your photography; each frame could be a chapter in a beautiful fairy tale. Can you talk about art as story-telling, the particular stories you are trying to tell, and where you draw your inspirations from?
Yes, I think photography it’s a strong medium for story telling, usually I go with an idea about what could be the story of the character I’m imagining and then during the photoshoot it just seems to appear in my head. I like the idea that with photography you hold the mystery and leave the story more open to the viewer rather than cinema. I like this, that with just a shot or a short series you are opening the door to a world, a period, an atmosphere, you give some details, some tricks, but the rest has to be imagined. I can take inspiration from many things, but usually, it comes from painting, literature, cinema or music.
Some constant inspirations are the decadents, the symbolists, the Pre-Raphaelites. and the aesthetic movement. I am currently being very very inspired by all the 1900s art and the “Fin de Siècle” concept. Powerful women and decadentism are my current vibes, along with Catalan “Modernistes” (Art Nouveau) painters too.
The landscape in your photography is always so stunning, whether you have shot your models against the backdrop of a foggy half-lit meadow or the ominous face of a rocky cliff. Are all of these locations local to you? Can you tell us about the role that nature and these natural spaces play in your art?
I had the chance to grew up and live in Olot, a village that’s inside a Natural Park; it’s a volcanic area that makes the landscape surrounding me very unique. This is something that has always been related to my work. I wouldn’t do the pictures I do if I were living in Barcelona, for example.
The landscape here, it’s singular but also quite varied, from basalt cliffs to English countryside-looking meadows to faerie tale forests.
So most of the places that I picture on my work are nearby locations, sometimes there are also places I visited while traveling. Searching for the place it’s always an important step before a shoot takes place.
If I work on abandoned places I then usually travel around Europe for the locations. It can take months to locate the places but it’s always worth it. I love to explore such places and being able to use them as scenarios before they are gone forever. They really transport me and I can feel the past and history of them, it’s a very special feeling.
I will be always grateful for all these collaborations!
Working with Mathyld its always a dream, she puts all her heart in all her creations and you can sense that. She’s the sweetest and it’s always wonderful to work with her. We are hoping to do something together again soon! 🙂
I also cherish the collab I did for Hvnter Gvtherer, I think Laura’s work it’s very genuine and I did have a great time doing a photoshoot for her!
I think it’s a very nice way to support independent artists this way.
I’m also very nosy when it comes to what is currently inspiring my favorite artists! Is there anything you’ve listened to, read, watched, or become aware of recently that’s sparking your creative flow?