“Music is a ghost.” This is a fascinating thought Jill Tracy shares with me as our interview concludes. And she’s onto something. It’s an intangible thing, you can’t touch it, you have to record it to prove it was ever there. It’s a valid point, and the haunting sort of phrase that becomes ensnared in one’s thoughts, to turn over and over in the mind’s web at night, pondering it’s aptness and worth, nibbling to the core of its meaning.
The end of an interview might seem an unusual place to begin. But then again, perhaps not, considering our subject– otherworldly composer, chanteuse, and sonic archeologist, Jill Tracy. After spending an evening in the company of this San Francisco-based singer/pianist and storyteller, and thrilling to her curious passions and strange tales, time-traveling through the delightful highlights of our insightful chat doesn’t seem like a peculiar way to sort it out, after all.
Her darkly erotic, melancholy songs have garnered critical acclaim, and have been featured on Showtime’s Dexter, CBS-TV Navy NCIS, and several feature films. But in recent years, Jill Tracy is also known for traveling to unusual locales to research and compose spontaneous music. This has included a grant project from Philadelphia’s famed Mütter Museum to compose alone amidst glass cases of skeletons and specimens; as well as abandoned buildings in San Francisco’s historical Presidio, a 1700s military base, purported as one of the most haunted locations in the country.
And it is with regard to one of these extraordinary locales that we narrow the focus of our interview.
Jill Tracy reveals another unprecedented project—The Secret Music of Lily Dale, a musical excavation of the mysterious, private town of mediums and Spiritualists in upstate New York. She recorded her singular piano music, channeled at night inside the original 1883 Lily Dale auditorium, site of séances and spirit communication services for over a century. She has captured field recordings from the mystical Leolyn Woods and chilling nighttime rainstorms to create an authentic, never-before-heard sonic journey into this strange, little town that talks to the dead.
It is my extreme pleasure to share her eerie Lily Dale adventures and uncanny musical insights.
Are there ghosts to be found here, of the musical sort, or otherwise?
Read on to find out…
SE: Finding beauty and inspiration in the dark corners of history, you’ve composed in the Mütter Museum, and conjured music in all sorts of fantastical haunts—decrepit gardens, cemeteries, murderous mansions, abandoned asylums, ancient redwoods, and haunted castles. Tell me the inspiration behind your Sonic Séance work?
JT: It really began as part of my live concert. Performing my songs is always such an emotional experience with the crowd to begin with, I thought it would be profound (and challenging) to create a piece of music right before their eyes, have them be a true part of it. They would give me the energy and I would give it right back to them musically.
A composition just for us, never existing again outside of that show. It was an intense, moving experience— people would cry, hug me, and say the music transported them to a place “they never realized existed, but needed to go.”
For me, it was revitalizing— the opposite of songwriting, or even film scoring. There was no set intention, structure, rules, limits. It was all about abandon. Being fully alive in a moment. And sadly, how rare this feeling is today in most people’s daily lives. I wanted to be a gatekeeper to that hidden place deep within.
I began conducting entire spontaneous shows, inviting the audience to unusual locations, where the work was created on the spot, never to be heard again. I call these performances “Sonic Séances.” It’s a gorgeous retaliation to today’s incessant pressure to archive everything— at the expense of living it. Why don’t we create a beautiful secret together just for us? Let’s have a solely interior experience! People were thrilled to put away their phones and simply be.
From there, I began to travel alone to unusual locations to research, immerse myself completely, and utilize the particular sonic energy of the space to unearth this secret, spontaneous music.These travel projects would be documented. I refer to them as “musical” or “sonic excavations.”
How did the idea to record in Lily Dale germinate?
For years I had been fascinated by Lily Dale, and hoped someday to visit. Through my Sonic Séance work, I became friends with Brandon Hodge, a renowned collector and expert of antique spirit communication devices. His specialty is planchettes; he lives in Austin and operates the great website MysteriousPlanchette.com.
When I was touring in Texas back in 2014 or so, we met and spent hours talking, surrounded by his lavish collection of planchettes, rapping hands, and spirit trumpets— we began talking about Lily Dale. Brandon put me in touch with Robert Murch, who is a Ouija board historian and collector.
We ended up all being interviewed together that year by Collectors Weekly for a fantastic article by Lisa Hix “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead.”
Shortly after that, Lily Dale reached out to have the three of us come and lecture. In phone meetings with Lily Dale’s great librarian Mandi Shepp (Marion H. Skidmore Library,) I found out she was already a fan of my music (had all my albums!) and really loved what I was doing with my musical excavation projects. She invited me to visit as a guest off-season. (Lily Dale fully opens its doors to the public only a few weeks in summer.)
When I asked, “you don’t happen to have a piano there do you?” she unexpectedly replied, “Oh, there’s a grand piano in the old 1883 auditorium…” It was like (excitedly) “ding ding ding!” Jackpot! I knew what Fate wanted me to do…
I was officially invited by the Lily Dale Town Assembly to begin the project that year (2017.) I pretty much booked a plane ticket and traveled there days later!
I had no idea what to expect, but I wanted to experience Lily Dale off-season, with no one around except the mediums and Spiritualists who live there. I had to be totally self-sufficient— just me and the gear I needed. I felt like I was living in my own private little ghost town. My first trip was in early May, NOTHING was open. There was not even a place to buy groceries. I did not have a car. I had to hoard up on food and supplies in Buffalo, on my way in from the airport. I stayed in a medium’s home by the lake. Spent many hours in the woods. It was an extremely solitary and introspective time. Very befitting to begin this work..
I feel one must completely tune out to truly tune in.
You said something in an interview with TOR from 2009 that particularly struck me: “Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters….” and that “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.”
In the spirit of “honoring the mystery”, how did you mentally/emotionally/spiritually prepare for approach this sonic excavation of Lily Dale?
I love that you picked those quotes! And that particular interview! Thank you. Two of my constant mottoes.
My life’s work has always been about “honoring the mystery,”— the forgotten, those stories and places lost through time …it’s vital to preserve a sense of marvel and wonder now in a world trying its best to destroy, mock, or debunk it. I feel it’s my duty to be a beacon, a tether to these places. And the greatest thing I can do is to transport my audience there with me— just by listening.
Everything around us is vibrating at a particular frequency, A human’s hearing range is approx 20hz to 20,000hz. That’s a really small bit— we’re missing so much!
We’ve all been in a room with a dog. and the dog is going nuts and you know something intense is happening, but we can’t hear it! And you think about everything we’re missing, and what is that dog missing outside of its range? It’s frightening to think of experiencing ALL frequencies that are actually happening around us. Does it go beyond time and space? Is there constant inaudible communication from unknown sources? Could we tune in, if only for a second?
There are studies about 18.9-19 hz, that’s just below the range of hearing– sometimes called the “frequency of fear.” We can’t hear it as tonal information, but we sense it. And it affects us secretly.
I am obsessed with Infrasound. These are sounds which occur right below the threshold of human hearing. We don’t register that we hear them, but we are affected internally. There are interesting studies from the UK, regarding people who were all terrified in a particular building, claiming it to be haunted. They measured some machinery down in the basement of the building, and I don’t know if it was from fans or generators, but all the machinery was vibrating just below 19hz. So, are these people really seeing ghosts or are they just reacting to this “frequency of fear”? This frequency is also where the human eyeball vibrates, so could this account for people seeing spirits out of the corner of their eye?
And certainly with musical notes, there are specific notes, certain scales, melodies— and universally, people will say “oh, that sounds scary!” or, “that’s a joyous piece of music!” But these are just frequencies. Music is merely a selection of frequencies played in a pattern. What gives it such power to evoke different emotions? It’s magical, It really is.
When I begin a musical excavation in a new locale, I first like to discover the resonant tones, or close to it. I will go in and explore on the piano to see where I’m getting some kind of activity. And it could just be to my own ears, something that conveys a sudden emotion… does it make something in the room vibrate when I get to a certain place in the keys…does the building make a sound or seem to react? You can find it pretty quickly, where this response is coming from, and then I’ll start to hone in and play in that tonal space to begin. It’s the way in. Think of it like tuning in a radio, connecting with the signal.
The compositions I create in these kinds of projects, are all Instrumental spontaneous music. It’s just me, reacting authentically. I can’t prepare anything. It’s not like I sit there with paper, and try to write a piece. That just blocks you, really. I stood in my own way for years with this, because my brain was full of useless noise. I thought— “this is crazy, what am I going to play? I’d better do all this research, sketch it out, have a plan, bring tons of notes,”—and you know what? That’s the worst thing you can do. You’ve already removed yourself from the moment. You’re nowhere near anything real if you clutter your thoughts like that.
You must turn your mind off and become the antennae. Melodies do begin to reveal themselves. They are fragile, living things. Almost like stream of consciousness or automatic writing.
These pieces become talismans of actual moments in Time and Place.
I’ve never been to Lily Dale (although in central FL, we do have Cassadaga, a spiritualist community that is somewhat related to Lily Dale and where I make an annual pilgrimage). I’d love to hear your impressions of the place.
The two are related. Lily Dale, NY is on Cassadaga Lake. Spiritualists settled here in the 1800s because it was so picturesque and inspiring. Like a storybook. Woods, lake, even a tiny beach. There are indigenous mute white swans on the lake. I would drink coffee and watch the swans swim outside my window.
But if you just arrived to the tiny town, you might say “This is all there is? This little place??” For me, the power of Lily Dale was what I discovered delving deeper— lurking between the cracks and the quiet. The unseen. it made me tap into a part of myself I wasn’t sure existed before.
On the surface, the town has a very home-spun “Mayberry” quality. For example, the gentleman who runs the museum, Ron Nagy, was kind enough to unlock and open the museum for a private visit, so I could research there off-season. Ron called me and said, “Where are you? I’ll come and pick you up in the truck!” And I replied “ I can probably walk there.” (The entire town is just a few small blocks.) And he said “no, no I’ll come and pick you up.” OK, so then here comes this truck and I’m thinking well, who knows, maybe he’s going to take me outside the grounds or something… but I get in, and he drives to the end of the block, and he says, “…here we are!” I could have walked there quicker than waiting for him, it was so funny.
All the residents were very gracious and welcoming to me. Even as the outsider musician alone in a town of Spiritualists and mediums. The mediums really respected and were fascinated with what I was doing. They would constantly tell me I had mediumistic power, and I learned much in turn from them.
One thing that took me a couple of days to get used to—It was awkward, but then I started to love it— was the idea of “Spirit.” The fact that they believe in an ever-present Spirit, and are constantly getting messages from “the other side.” Spirit is used as plural. You or I might probably say the “Spirit World” or “Spirit Realm”, but Spirit, to the residents of Lily Dale, is akin to the all-knowing power of the Universe.
When I first arrived, the medium I was staying with said, “Oh, Spirit told me you would probably love to stay in THIS room.” I thought to myself, “…ok?” And I replied jokingly, “Well, Spirit has good taste!” But then you realize quickly to them this isn’t funny, this is just daily life as a Spiritualist. Those “on the other side” were constantly with us, even blamed for unlocking doors and leaving dimes on the living room carpet. I began to find it enchanting. Much like when you were a child and had an invisible friend who was always with you.
And then there’s the architecture. The eccentric, charming clapboard houses, very Victorian, they look like dollhouses! The proportions are quite strange. They’re small, and often the windows appear too big for the house. The history is that Lily Dale began as a camp with tents, these Spiritualists and free-thinkers wanted to meet and share ideas. But then there was a desire to settle and create an actual town— and it wasn’t like they were able to bring renowned architects in there. So it was essentially the local folks and craftsman building these homes. They would borrow trends of the time— some have Roman columns, and some very classical or Greek looking facades, and then others very Victorian in appearance. So the proportions are all very strange and whimsical.
There are no sidewalks or curbs. So it feels like a movie-set. Everything is all inclusive, open, and connects to everything else. Even without knowing these facts, you subconsciously get a peculiar sense of connection, whether via otherworldly forces or otherwise.
What can you share about the energy in Lily Dale and how it shaped the music you created?
How did you begin the process?
When I first walked into the empty 1883 auditorium. I felt enveloped by this energy, like a welcoming fog. Imagine the particles of memory in this place—the site of historical spiritualist gatherings, séances, lectures, for over 100 years!
I don’t believe energy ever truly leaves a place, it all becomes collective. Time is non-existent.
Susan B. Anthony spoke here, as Lily Dale was very supportive of the Suffragettes and the Women’s Movement. Harry Houdini supposedly walked these grounds in his ongoing hunt for fraudulent mediums. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a devout Spiritualist— the home I stayed in was actually one of his favorites on his beloved trips to Lily Dale. And now I was here too…
The grand piano sat on the stage — a very old, rare instrument made locally in Buffalo, NY by C. Kurtzmann Company. I was told it was the only piano on record being purchased for the auditorium. I Think of all the people who had touched this piano, and sat on this very stage summoning spirits for over a century. I was altering the very dynamic of the place now, adding my imprint just by being there.
I would spend my days doing research and exploring, and then enter the auditorium alone, just before sunset. I had a key, and would lock myself in. I would rarely turn the lights on.
I loved playing the piano as the last shards of sunlight cut through the vast room (with about 300 empty seats and massive angular ceiling.) I felt like I was performing for an invisible audience, which slowly faded into complete darkness.
At first I began setting up the microphones as I would do in a professional recording studio, attempting to get a clean, close sound from the piano.
But as I began to listen back to the tracks, I became more and more enamoured of the tremendous watery echo of the room itself, the hollow sounds of the building, and the birds outside.
In fact, I went completely against my original idea, and began setting up mics all over the auditorium, so the piano was set into the scene— instead of trying to disguise or hide the background noises. These textures were so compelling to me, they began to drive the actual work. The environmental and unidentified sounds are as much the orchestration as the music. As you listen, it’s like you’re there WITH me as it happens.
At dusk, the birds would always go crazy, and gather around me in the auditorium— in almost an Alfred Hitchcock-like fashion. It got to where I would sometimes play a melody, and then a BIRD would sing it right back to me! I couldn’t believe it. So there are lovely moments of compositions featuring call-and-response from native Lily Dale birds.
I like to surround myself with significant objects that hold the story of the location. I was given an antique spirit trumpet and also an actual piece of stone from the cottage of the legendary Fox Sisters. (The remains of the cottage, which burned down in 1955, are in Lily Dale.) I kept them with me on the piano.
Lily Dale dislikes paranormal investigation and does not welcome it on the grounds. As Spiritualists, they believe spirits are everywhere, communicating with the dead is part of daily life— so why disturb our tranquil, private community with noisy crews and electronic gadgets? It seems invasive and pointless to them.
Mine is a more parapsychological approach. It’s not about chasing or “hunting a ghost,” but rather to bask, and gently immerse in the collected energy of the place—be part of it. Allow it to mingle with me as it chooses.
My piano is the portal.
I’m fascinated with what I call “sonic residue,” echoes, and impressions that remain in environments, buildings, and objects. For me, uncovering the hidden music within these spaces is the closest thing to time travel or channeling. It’s it own ghost.
I would say every night aloud— as I sat alone inside the auditorium: “ I am going to play some music now. Any spirits here, are welcome to join. Any spirits here, are welcome to make their presence known.”
And things do happen.
One night I became very frightened; there was this odd melody appearing in my head— constantly, as I walked the narrow Lily Dale streets, and in the woods. When I was in the auditorium later that night, my mind found it again and automatically started to play it on the piano—a key I’ve never played in— and the building just started to—react. I’ve never gotten scared doing these projects, but I suddenly became terrified— but forced myself to keep going. And it was not an evil-type of feeling, but just pure magic. I knew I had discovered something powerful. Like I had crossed a bridge between worlds. The building wanted this melody to exist. And it was to become part of it.
As the melody progressed, I heard a thunderous crack, thuds, steps, whispering, and I mean— this is late at night, 1am, there is no one around. You’re next to the woods, there’s just nothing. And I had locked myself in. My heart pounded. I kept playing in the dark. I wanted to flee, but I realized as I played the music that this was everything I ever wished would happen. This was absolutely, undeniably real.
You will hear this in the recording. As I listened back days later, I heard things I never recalled experiencing that night. I became unnerved even listening.
“The Secret Music of Lily Dale” pretty much manifested itself into being. I did not expect to create an entire album during my time there. But it’s the kind of album I’ve always wanted to do. Like Erik Satie, Brian Eno, or Harold Budd— it’s got that sort of graceful, eerie ambience. But also this dark classical, cinematic feel, a bit of Pink Floyd, Bernard Herrmann, akin to instrumental pieces I’ve released previously. But— these are all spontaneous!
A sonic souvenir of my nights alone inside that mysterious town beyond the veil.
How do other elements of Lily Dale come across in these pieces?
I did various field recordings. I spent a lot of time in the Leolyn Woods surrounding Lily Dale. There is a gigantic tree that was struck by lightning in the 1800s– and it’s purported to be the most powerful location of energy in Lily Dale. They call it Inspiration Stump. People from all over the world gather at the stump to receive messages from Spirit. I decided to record at that exact spot, capture that experience to tape. What is it like to be all alone, standing at Inspiration Stump— or at night in the woods when there’s absolutely nobody around?
One afternoon, the weather forecast called for a thunderstorm. I went into the old auditorium, and underneath that vast roof, could hear the elegant tinkling of the rain. I got all the mics set up, I heard the first thunder clap—and started recording. I had to be super quiet— so I just ended up lying on my back in the dark, in the middle of the 1883 Lily Dale Spiritualist auditorium, dozing on a little blanket, gazing up at the ceiling, listening to the rain. It was just the most beautiful thing, being alone in this renowned auditorium with over a century’s worth of spirits and seances— all of this history and its echoes enveloping me.
I also recorded Lily Dale’s legendary bell that rings throughout the town to beckon people to the Spiritualist service— and receive messages from the other side.
Do you believe in spirits? The ability to communicate with them?
Were you changed by your time in Lily Dale?
I approach this project as neither a believer nor non-believer, but expanding my mind to possibility. I do believe in other realms, phenomena, and collective energies far beyond human comprehension. There is so much we don’t know, we can’t even begin to fathom.
Lily Dale certainly transformed me. I experienced many things I can honestly never explain. A medium took me into the woods late at night and taught me to find orbs and fairies. There are the most utterly chilling photos of me at the piano— surrounded by glowing blue orbs, or in the woods, with floating white spirits surrounding me. I stood in the woods late at night, in pitch darkness, and sang different frequencies aloud, which supposedly the fairies are drawn to—and a group of us began to see glowing winged creatures (with our own eyes) emerge from deep in the trees. We all saw them. And were stunned. These were not fireflies or insects. I will never be able to explain these moments, but they were real, and brought me to tears.
Music and sound has always been my bridge between hidden worlds. They are both strangely similar.
Music in itself is a ghost. It’s completely intangible. Once a note is played, it vanishes into the air, never to be heard again. I find that simultaneously chilling, inspiring and heart-breaking. The only way we can even hold onto music is to have an archive of it, a recorded version. But the real thing is only played once— and disappears. Where does it go?
The most beautiful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers.
(This interview first appeared on Haute Macabre and UnQuiet Things.)
The Secret Music of Lily Dale (music album + companion book) is now available in both hardback and digital versions HERE.
Juliane has previously reviewed both The Art of Darkness and The Art of the Occult, and it was a real pleasure to share a bit about the process that went into these writings and the curation of the art included in the books, as well as having the opportunity to articulate why I even want to write about–or look at!–these things in the first place!
This interview was originally published at Haute Macabre on February 19, 2018
Maude Nibelungen is a textile artist with a passion for knitting unique, wearable objects of desire–evocative, avant garde knits full of elegant contradictions, which are equally lovely as sultry loungewear in the boudoir or as unexpected, expressive streetwear–and which are also equally encouraged for all types of people and all of their wonderful bodies.
In our interview, below, Maude stressed to me that her knitting designs are for absolutely everyone. Everyone! Including you! With your unruly human curves and planes, gorgeous angles and hollows, beautiful bumps and lumps and bits. If the sizes listed on her site don’t match up to what you may need, she will work with your individual measurements to create a customized treasure that fits like a glove. She wants everyone to feel special in her designs, to feel like a precious piece of art, to evolve into their fabulous selves alongside and inside her pieces.
Read further for more insights on Maude’s inclusive vision, her desire to express her feelings and exorcise her demons through her craft, and the special bond she creates between her knitted intimacies and those who would wear them.
Maude! There are so many things that I want to talk with you about. But first, one thing that I want to comment on right away, is how often I see you modeling your own pieces–and I love that. One, because I always want to see the creator of the things I love adorning themselves with the things they have created– instead of modeling them on impossible fantasy humans. And two, because it’s always refreshing and exciting to see someone comfortable in their own skin, showing a little skin. Can you speak to these observations?
I’m glad to hear because honestly, I’m always afraid that people will be annoyed with seeing me! I was modeling my pieces before I really started my brand. When I launched my first collection, I worked with “real” models because I wanted everything to look as professional as possible, and I still do! I didn’t really model my pieces for a few years after that. But I started again in 2014. It was a big year for me. I had an on-and-off phase as I was pregnant and then had some issues accepting my postpartum body. But I’m trying to see/ do things differently these days! I think everybody is beautiful and I am trying to show that to whoever wants to read/ see.
In that vein, you recently wrote a fantastic piece for Lingerie Addict on how to wear underwear as outerwear – how empowering it is to take your “unmentionables” out and let them see the light of day! It was a fairly comprehensive guide, but I’d love to know the impetus for this article, which pieces of yours you might choose for this purpose, and do you have any tips for the timid, in getting started with this trend?
Thank you! It was exciting putting this piece together for them. Well, first I think it’s important to say that lingerie as outerwear isn’t necessarily something that others will notice; one can easily create a simple/ casual look. For the more timid, the Alice crop top can be a very nice way to ornament the skin under a v-neck or any other open neckline. The Audrey socks are perfect to add some texture to a skirt/dress ensemble or also under shorter pants/ shorts. I would also suggest layering the Marlene dress over any plain black dress for instant glamour. For anyone more daring, well I’d say any piece could be worked into an outfit, haha; but my favorites would be the Anais Bodysuit, Denise Dress, Lola Chemise, Jean Step-Ins, and Georgia Capelet.
I read somewhere that you “turn your demons into knitwear” and I am curious about this concept, though, as a knitter myself, I think I know, after a fashion, how you mean that in a general sense. Tell me how you came to knit, how your demons became entangled into your stitches…and how row by row, piece by piece, these exorcised demons transformed knitted lingerie?
That’s… the story of my whole life haha! But basically, I always dabbled in some type of art form, migrating from one to another as I nothing felt quite right; I had to find an artistic medium in which I could create something unique. I just felt like I could play piano, make jewelry, but nothing… different enough. Eventually, I started knitting more (I started when I was 5 but wasn’t doing it every day). In a particularly rough time in my life, I had a flash where it became clear that knitting was what I had to do. It just felt right. I finally was able to process and express all the feelings and thoughts that were locked up inside of me, in an artistic/ unique manner. I had found my voice… As for the lingerie, it was at first kind of a joke (an inside joke, that’s what happens when you spend hours and days and weeks knitting alone). When I started modeling my pieces again, in 2014, I was feeling the need to express myself differently. That, combined with the fact that for a while, I felt like I had to prove to people that knitting wasn’t a thing that only grandmothers did . It seems silly now, but not that long ago, and you must remember this, knitting wasn’t trendy. SO, I started modeling my sweaters but with only knickers on, or in more provocative angles. Knits make me feel good and that’s something I wanted to show and share. I started using the hashtag “knits are sexy”. One night, I was joking with some friends and said: I should just go all in and make a lingerie collection… that was in 2015, I have since put out 3 (and a half) lingerie/ loungewear collections. That’s also what I sell the most of these days. too!
You’ve described your designs as “Matter and anti-matter dancing on the skin”-that’s a beautiful sentiment, can you elaborate on that?
Yes! It’s somewhat like the demons we were just talking about. I play a lot with the gauge (the tightness) of the knits I create. I design for people, with them in mind. I like to play with their skin too, create pretty patterns, make them feel like they are part of a piece of art.
And until I see my designs on someone else, I feel like that they are fully complete/ alive.
Texture is everything to me. That’s actually the sentiment behind my permanent collection, “Peau de Chagrin“; the pieces are all black, but I tried to recreate prints (floral, plaid, polka dots, stripes etc).
How would you describe your personal style? How does that inspire and influence the designs you create? And where else do you find your inspiration for your collections/individual pieces? I saw mention in a previous interview that patterns in music inspire you, which I find very intriguing, and I would really love to hear more about that, as well.
It’s a bit of everything; I wear a lot of black but also love certain florals, reds and pinks. I’m actually finding more ways to wear colors lately without “betraying” my style. I often go for very structured/form fitting, femme fatale-type outfits, but I also love wearing power suits, and going for a more androgynous look with leggings and oversized tops and big sneakers. I love Japanese fashion and I think it does inspire my style to an extent. What I wear influences my work, as I am always trying to make thing I want to wear everyday. I love staying home and being cozy, but I care about how I look, so I’m perpetually trying to mix those two things together. Otherwise, my inspiration mostly come from feelings, seasons, things around me. I think of the way certain things smell, and I long for them. I remember how the sun feels in a certain season, how it affects the colors of the trees and the sky. I feel the vibe of things around me; sometimes it’s the city, sometimes it’s the country, very often it’s a place that only exists in my head. As for the music (patterns), I think it can create a lot of these feelings/ vibes I just mentioned. You can just close your eyes, listen to music and travel to somewhere unique. That’s what inspires me.
As a further to that, tell me about the type of people that you envision wearing your pieces.
Everyone! I think that a lot of my pieces can be incorporated to a lot of different styles/ looks. If a person can appreciate the organic process behind my knits, I think they will find a way to wear them. I am talking about organic, because all my pieces are handmade and I like creating little irregularities. No one will ever own the same piece from me. It’s a special bond between me and my customers.
Can you share any thoughts or give us any peeks as to what we might expect from your forthcoming collections?
I am in the process of moving to the USA for March! So I am expecting to work with a lot of new people (email me if you want to work with me! NYC/ NJ/ Philly!) I am currently working on a ready-to-wear a lingerie line for a collaboration with another company (but that’s all I can say for now). I’m also torturing myself with the thoughts of a whole new unisex collection I would like to launch this summer. I say torturing myself, because between the orders, the move and the family, I have to wait a few weeks before I can actually start designing and sampling. Right now it’s all marinating in my head. Oh, and I also just started a Patreon to support and share my endeavors!
This interview was originally published at Dirge on January 16, 2016.
When I began knitting in the winter of 2005 as a means of keeping both warm and sane during a weird and terrible time in my life, I never dreamed I would come into contact with and eventually become part of such a diverse community. As I knit and purled away the hours, and eventually the years–in what I now refer to as “the shitty black abyss of Central New Jersey”–I was soothed by the slow magic of softly slipping each stitch from one needle to the next.
I came to think of this wooly sorcery, this stitchy witchcraft, as “yarnomancy.” It provided a connectedness, sometimes quite literally, that I was sorely lacking in my life at that time. As I gave form to each new knit I crafted–connecting each stitch, one at a time–I tapped into a creative drive I didn’t know existed within me, and in my growing confidence, I connected with a community of like-minded people. These knitters, along with their craft, saved me.
One such knitter who believes in this ritual connectedness is Portland, Oregon-based designer Angela Thornton, of Morph Knitwear.
Designed for individuals who want to feel “powerful, mystical, and like a total bad ass,” Angela Thornton’s Morph Knitwear is an intensely personal endeavor melding artistry and utilitarianism to create handmade garments that challenge the traditional perception of knitwear, while retaining classic virtues of durability and timeless elegance. Her pieces are fashioned from a single strand of fiber, the process of creation “giving a unique connectedness to the fabric of each piece, a connectedness which allows the knit to give form to the emotional processes and explorations of its maker. “
We recently caught up with Angela after her completion of Morph Knitwear’s Sand and Storm collection and its corresponding editorial. Read on to learn more of this bad ass knitter’s unique vision and the magic that she weaves into each of her creations.
As a fellow knitter, I can’t help but to be immediately interested in how you came to knit in the first place. I think I read somewhere that you began knitting in 2010 or so, is that correct? And what prompted the desire to learn?
Angela Thornton: I actually began knitting as a little kid. I can’t recall who it was who taught me, but all of my grandmothers knit, as well as my mother, so it’s safe to say it was one of them. My earliest solid recollection of knitting a real project is with my grandmother–we would visit her in Minnesota in the summers and she would set us kids up with a ball of cotton each and some old plastic needles to have us knit dishcloths for her kitchen. I loved that kind of project when I was younger: fast, and satisfying. I casually knit through high school (especially after I had seen Rodarte’s knit tights from their F/W ’08 collection), but then didn’t touch a pair of needles again until I was living in Germany in the summer of 2010. Through that summer and fall I re-learned the basics and then that winter I got bored with what everyone else was knitting and began designing my own patterns.
What was the catalyst behind launching Morph knitwear? What was/is your vision for the brand? How would you describe your brand, the essence of Morph Knitwear?
The catalyst behind launching Morph Knitwear was really experimental, and a direct result of beginning to design my own patterns. I decided as a personal challenge to try to create pieces that were cohesive, and as I did so I also thought, “hey, fuck it, why don’t I try to sell this online?” I was actually really surprised when things sold! I took that, coupled with my immense creative satisfaction as signs to keep at it, and I think I’ve essentially kept it very true to me, and to what I see the brand to be–evolutionary, textural, and created with integrity of design, method of production, and ethics. My vision for Morph Knitwear is and has been essentially the same since my experimental launch: to create clothing that I want to wear, made using ancestral techniques in a non-exploitative manner. Morph Knitwear has definitely become more refined as I have honed in on my own personal style and simultaneously grown in my technical ability, but essentially it is born of the same concept-to create because I cannot fathom not creating, and in doing so, bringing awareness back to mindless material consumption.
I have read your remark that the things you make are really just an extension of yourself. How would you describe your personal style? How does that inspire and influence the designs you create? As a further to that, tell me about the type of people that you envision wearing your pieces.
They really are! Not only because I make each piece by hand, so while in the process the pieces are physically extending from my body, but in a more liminal sense as well. Everything I make comes from somewhere in my head, from the need of somehow being able to express myself. I’ve always used what I wear as a direct method of self-expression, so naturally I feel the need to create things that can be worn as such. My own personal style has evolved and solidified over the years, and at this point is basically an armor of black. I value tactile quality and timeless shape in the clothing I wear, as well as integrity in its method of creation. I envision people who are self defined, strong willed, tender, and unique as the wearers of my creations.
Do you wear your own knits? What are some key pieces that you can’t live without?
I do wear my own pieces, though not as many as one would expect! That being said I absolutely can’t go without my merino wool vest or the newer pieces I’ve designed for Sisters of the Black Moon (the Haze sweater in particular) once the temperatures drop. I also wear a lot of my lighter weight dresses in summer, so perhaps upon reflection I do wear more of my work than I think!
How long does it take you to design a knit? And how often is one of your creations knit by hand, as opposed to a knitting machine? I’m assuming that there is an entirely different kind of pattern for hand-knit vs. machine knit? Do you have a team, or are you a one-woman operation?
The length of time it takes to design something is completely arbitrary. Sometimes I won’t even make a sketch of a piece, I’ll have such a clear vision of what I want it to be that I just get working and bust it out. Sometimes, though, a piece can take me weeks to make and remake in order for it to be right. That process holds true for both machine and hand knitting, though the actual pattern writing process is different between the two. For each collection I usually do about 60% of the pieces on the machines, and 40% handknit, though it really just depends on the end product I want to make–handknitting is ideal for some, and machine knitting for others. At this moment I have one amazing intern who helps with production, but other than that Morph Knitwear is a one-woman operation!
That brings me to my next question; I know you have made a few of your patterns available for intrepid knitters who may want to bring one of your creations to life for themselves, with their own hands. How do you choose which patterns to release for this purpose? Many knitwear designers eventually release a book of patterns–is this something that interests you at all?
The patterns I’ve chosen to release are generally archived pieces that I am no longer producing, though honestly several of them have been popular designs that I just got sick of knitting myself! (Re)writing patterns to be readable to the general public is such a time-consuming job for me that I don’t see myself releasing a book of them anytime soon, but I think if I ever have the spare moments I will try to release several more of my archived pieces to Ravelry. And who knows the future? A book might happen sometime!
Your previous collections–Infinite Abyss; Behemoth; Blood, Ash and Bone–these all conjure wonderfully dark, gritty, fierce, primal imagery. Can you talk a bit about the inspirations for these collections, and what we might expect from future collections?
I think the inspiration for the collection names (as well as the collections themselves) all come from a place of wanting to imbue my creations with those aspects. I want to create pieces that express a deep, dark, primal ferocity, a connection to the old while being a clean slate for the new. I want the people who wear my pieces to feel the fierce, animal beauty and power of natural fibers, the human magic and intent woven into each piece. I want the clothing I create to simultaneously be a shield and a proclamation of self. The places I find myself most shielded and most myself are in shadows and mystery and the cycle of light from darkness. I simply try to create worlds reflective of these feelings through each of my collections.
This interview was originally published at Haute Macabre on April 10, 2020
Not to sound tone-deaf–I realize we are all experiencing these strange times quite differently, and we are coping with them in our own ways–but for me, at least, I am finding that diving headfirst into my obsessions is alleviating at least some of my anxiety, as well as that vexing tendency toward distraction, and lack of focus that occurs when I am feeling freaked out about something beyond my control.
Anyone who knows me probably can guess where I am going with this. KNITTING. In the past month or so I have become a knitting fiend, even more than I was already. I have knit two sweaters! And I live in Florida! Where am I even going to wear these heavy woolen things? Who cares? It’s keeping my hands busy and my attention on tricksy stitches, and I haven’t yet had a complete nervous breakdown, so here we are.
Another thing that helps quell the horrors, of course, is learning more about those brilliant folks who share in an interest I have…but through creativity, talent, and a much more driven nature than I possess, have put their singular spin on that mutual obsession, and who have elevated these passions to an extraordinarily beautiful art form. April Carter of Our Widow is one such individual, and I am utterly obsessed with her gorgeous knit and crocheted creations.
Using skills she developed as a child, and others acquired along life’s path, April is a fiber artist who aims to honor age-old handcrafted traditions, while also seeking to imbue her work with a distinctive unconventional quality. She believes that fashion should seek to complement the individual wearer, while also existing in a realm free from boundaries, expectations, and criticism.
I am thrilled to share with you our recent interview, below, where we discuss her splendidly heart-warming familial influences, the joy and inspiration found in breaking free from tiresome rules and dated constraints and taking a good, hard look at what it means when you realize that your passion–or its practices, or people involved in the community built around it–has become problematic, and what you, as an individual, can do to change that and do better.
And April, thanks again, from the bottom of my heart, for taking the time to answer my questions and share of yourself during what I know is a strange and scary time for you, for me, for everyone.
Haute Macabre: You hail from a long line of creative women–seamstresses, painters, fiber artists, and “one chain-smoking, black coffee guzzling grammy with a passion for ceramics.” I’m curious as to who it is in this marvelous line-up you may have been inspired by in your own craft and does how does their influence inform your practice?
Our Widow: Every one of those marvelous ladies has inspired me in some shape or form, personally and in my craft, but I am most indebted to my mom for passing onto me the skills that helped guide me to where I am now. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of her crocheting, sewing and embroidering. She was constantly creating things for us kids, I had crocheted afghans, embroidered pillowcases with my nickname (Pumpkin), rag dolls, dresses with lace collars and pinafores, custom Halloween costumes, punch needle rugs, clothing for my stuffed animals, and even couches for my Barbies. It all looked like such fun, and not only did she let me peek over her shoulder and watch her work, but she also encouraged me to learn, taught me as best she could, and kept her patience with my clumsy kid fingers.
It was only when I was older that I realized the reason she did so much was due in large part to our financial situation, or lack of finances. Even then though, the things she created were never drab or dull, and although they were made on a budget, they always looked splendid; she loved using vibrant colors throughout her work, cute prints, pretty lace, ribbons, ruffles, and oodles of flowers. Not only did she enjoy her finished creations, but she also delighted in seeing our eyes light up with glee at each new masterpiece we were presented with. Through her I learned to be proficient in different mediums, take pride in my work, be true to myself, and to have fun with design; it also seems apparent now that I’m writing this, that I too have quite an affection for lace, ribbons, and ruffles, so I can confidently say that her influence has indeed endured long past my childhood.
You consider yourself more of a “fiber artist” than a “knitwear designer”–can you share more about that distinction and what it means to you, both personally and in terms of your business?
The distinction is not important to me on a personal level, they’re just words, and have no impact on my creative process, professionally though, they exist purely in an attempt to be direct about how I run my business. My online presence has grown quite a bit since I started focusing mainly on knitting, in that time, I have received an abundance of messages inquiring if the written patterns for my pieces are available for purchase. The short answer to this question is “Thank you for asking, but no they are not.” The long answer is a rambling list of all the reasons why it’s probably never going to happen – I’m erratic and unorganized, I hate taking notes, I rarely plan ahead, choosing instead to wing it roughly 96% of the time, I often mix mediums, I’m a perpetual procrastinator, I haven’t the faintest concept of how to write a proper pattern, and I do not swatch, ever.
Knitwear designer sounds so polished and professional, I see many pattern writers using it to describe their occupation, and aptly so, but it is far removed from where I am as a maker. I am not a fan of labels, but the word “artist” carries with it certain stereotypes that allow those labeled as such a pass when it comes to existing on the fringes. I had hoped characterizing myself as a fiber artist would allow me the freedom to create without expectations, and possibly clear up any confusion as to what individuals who stumble across my website, or social media accounts could hope to find within.
You urge your fellow creatives to “learn the rules, then break them all”–what broken rules can one expect to see in the fiber arts of Our Widow?
In this instance, the word “rules” to me encompasses that which can be thought of as traditional, or every day. Knitting, crocheting, and similar fiber-based art forms have generally been looked upon for generations as “homemaker” crafts. When I was a teenager, my contemporaries would poke fun at me for crocheting, sewing your own clothes meant you were poor, and in media, knitting was something only grannies did, while rocking away in their wooden chairs. These stereotypes persisted throughout my 20’s, and into my early 30’s, with fiber arts only becoming trendy within the last decade. I’m thrilled with the rise in popularity of my favorite pastimes but feel like bits and pieces of that tired old mentality still exist, which is why it’s important to me as an artist to continually push the boundaries. By “breaking” the rules, I’m encouraging my fellow creatives to not be constrained by what is routinely expected from a knitted design, a crocheted piece, a sewn garment, or any other discipline.
In my work, I prefer to utilize techniques that I feel are oftentimes overlooked. Mixing mediums, such as working a crochet edging onto a knit cape, adding fabric trim to a knit collar, or sewing chiffon bell sleeves to a crochet top, has been one of my favorite approaches for constructing fresh styles. I enjoy using unconventional shaping methods, like those which help to create the long defined points on my neckpieces. I like unusual designs with bold details, like the loops on my Tentacle Cowl, or my collars made with highly contrasting colors.
I refuse to chase trends, will make chunky knits in the summer, delicate cobweb knits in the winter, and am not bothered when things get a little off-kilter, or look a bit strange once blocked out, it’s not important to me that every seam line up, or that my stitches be perfect, I have more fun just rolling with it, and embracing the imperfections. I also have a tendency to shy away from traditional knits such as sweaters and afghans, choosing instead to focus on pieces that are not typically made from yarn. One of my personal favorite designs has been a cabled piece that resembles a knight’s gorget collar; I am more than just a little obsessed with it, and desperately want to make more knitted armor.
Your tagline is “Unorthodox Pieces for Peculiar Souls”– aside from family lineage, I’d love to hear about some of your other unorthodox and peculiar inspirations.
I grew up in an isolated area of West Texas, far away from any cultural centers, so early exposure to the arts was limited. I have since branched out and could say so and so designer inspires me, or this painter is where it’s at, but honestly I’m very much a product of my youth. I was born in 1980, and cut my teeth in an amazingly weird and wonderful decade, I spent my days playing Atari and Legos, riding bikes, shooting BB guns, jumping off houses, and beating up trees. Being an 80’s kid had many perks, but undoubtedly the best part was binging on bizarre TV shows, and fantastically dark movies, of which there were many to choose from. I was obsessed with The Dark Crystal, The Last Unicorn, and The Secret of NIMH, asked Santa to bring me my own Falkor for Christmas, cried when ET almost died, sang (terribly) along with the Chipmunks, and screamed my head off when someone said the word of the day on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
I grew up feasting on the brainchildren of former acid popping hippies turned producers, writers, and children’s entertainers, and I could not be more grateful. The sheer creativity and wackiness of it all, the gorgeous (trippy) visuals, and the absolute detachment from reality that could be found in these creations was a haven for me; early on I realized that imagination was a sacred and powerful thing, with no limits to its depths. I still hold true to this spirit, spending my days immersed in my own fantastical creations, watching cartoons, reading comic books, playing Legos, and casually tossing out 80’s catchphrases to my very unimpressed teenager daughter.
Can you share anything about the pieces you are working on right now?
Since COVID-19 began spreading, it’s been difficult to find any sort of inspiration or direction, the world at large is in complete upheaval, and I’m not going to kid myself by saying what I do is essential in any way. I have never felt quite so insignificant, and motivation has been scarce. I usually have several projects going at one time that I can jump around and work on, but for weeks, I had nothing on my needles. I have busy hands though, and started to go a bit mad without anything to keep them occupied.
Fortunately, spring comes early in the south, and the fields around my house began bursting with wildflowers. They’ve been a beautiful oasis in an otherwise ugly world, and although it took a little time, I eventually found myself digging through my yarn stash looking for skeins that mimicked the poppies, bluebonnets, and larkspur outside. I usually stick to a moodier color palette, but working with these lively shades has helped uplift my spirits. I also recently purchased a collection of lovely Japanese crochet books online that have some gorgeous edging patterns; I’m very excited to tweak those for use in my collars and cuffs. Also pink, I never thought it would happen, but I made something pink; these are strange days indeed.
As someone only recently again paying attention to knitting blogs and knitters of note, I became aware, sometime in 2019 I guess, of various platforms opening up the conversation on knitting and inclusivity and reckoning with instances of racism, prejudice, privilege, and whitewashing in the knitting community. That’s tough to reconcile with a hobby or a career that you love–and that maybe you, or I, might be part of the problem, even inadvertently– but it’s also a conversation that can’t be ignored. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I was also not a very active participant in the knitting community when this subject really started gaining attention in the media, so it was only after Ravelry (an online knitting community and pattern database) sent out an email stating hate speech would no longer be tolerated on their platform, that I educated myself on what could have pushed them to that point. While what I found was alarming, it was not at all surprising– intolerance has an uncanny yet incessant way of seeping into every foundation of society. Initially though, upon realizing the scope and scale of the situation, I did not feel as if I was a part of the problem. I kept mostly to myself, stayed far away from the forums and Facebook, and, as I stated, rarely interacted with the knitting community, but after more consideration, I realized that my lack of awareness was a very clear sign of my privilege.
It is easy for me to roll my eyes and say “Are you kidding me??” at the absurdity of those who would try to spoil something as seemingly wholesome as knitting, because those same individuals would not scorn me, but instead, likely support my business. I have yet to face a situation where I was denied recognition for my work, or been unjustly criticized for my individual style, nor have I ever received a derogatory comment on my public accounts based on my sexual preferences, or the color of my skin. The same cannot be said for many others in the knitting community, those who have suffered through the discrimination, and encountered a lack of visibility, continued harassment, and probable loss of business, as a result of pages and groups specifically created to identify minorities, POC, and LGBTQ designers, with the sole intent of shunning them, and sabotaging their livelihoods.
I should not have realized all of this after the fact, it should not have taken an email to enlighten me, I should have known it was happening all along. These issues have existed for ages, and go well beyond knitting, spanning across all art forms and disciplines. Each and every one of us benefits from taking the time to inform ourselves as to what is happening within our own little worlds and beyond, be willing to accept a level of responsibility for the unpleasant things we might discover therein, and decide individually how to proceed from that point. For me, that means engaging more with my fellow yarnies in the knitting community, becoming more cognizant and compassionate concerning the struggles of my fellow creatives, and increasing my efforts to support artists of all colors, genders, faiths, and cultures.
Note: this interview with Han of Handsome Devils Puppets was a collaboration between Maika and I for Haute Macabre, a few years back. I love writing with Maika, they are the most thoughtful and imaginative partner-in-crime to work alongside, and I know this interview was a dream come true for both of us. Unfortunately, the Haute Macabre blog is gone and it broke our hearts to think that no one would read Han’s marvelous insights or get to peer inside her big, weird, beautiful heart again. So, we fixed that. And so now you can find it here, at Unquiet Things, eternally. We love you, Han.
Speaking from a writer’s perspective, interviews are funny things. Although this introduction is what you’re reading first, it was the very last thing written. It was also, somehow, the hardest part for me to write. Sarah and I had a wonderful time composing questions for Han. The hard work, as far as I’m concerned, was for Han herself, answering all our queries, which she did so thoroughly and thoughtfully, with grace and humor, with beautiful frankness and vulnerability. Sarah and I were both a mess of tears while reading her answers. (Consider yourself forewarned: have the tissues handy.) All I’m supposed to do here is get you from the top of the screen to those Qs and As. But I have such deep, intense feelings about the work of Handsome Devils Puppets. I’m so ensorcelled by Han’s every creation and performance, and I’ve been fortunate to grow to count her as a dear friend, that I don’t know how to verbalize any of those things.
Thank goodness you’re not here to listen to me rhapsodize about how much I love Han and everything she does. You don’t actually need to know that I first began interacting with Han when I contacted her in hopes of commissioning Eve and Adam from Only Lovers Left Alive.
Or about how last year I sat down and lost myself in the process of describing a piece of my heart to her and how she has since created an exquisite vessel for it.
You also don’t need to know that I finally got to see Han perform here in Portland during her 2018 West Coast tour. Or how my cats met Pips. Okay, maybe you do need to know that. My cats met Pips! Mutual nose sniffing took place. Who am I kidding? I met Pips! And I got to give Han hugs, which I want to do pretty much every time I exchange messages with her.
I hope you enjoy reading Han’s interview as much as I did. It might seem straightforward and simple, but I find there’s something magical about coming up with questions for another person – someone you consider extraordinary – and having them answer those questions and trust you with their answers. Sarah and I so enjoyed this co-interviewing process that we’re hoping Handsome Devils Puppets marks the first in an ongoing series of cooperative interviews with singular people who endlessly inspire us.
S. Elizabeth:Do you recall your first knowledge of the existence of puppets? I sure do. It was lady Elaine, the eccentric and (to my three-year-old brain) oddly glamorous old broad who ran the Museum Go Round in Mister Roger’s neighborhood. I was both captivated and vaguely disturbed by the stillness of her ruddy wooden features and unblinking blue eyes fixed in an eternal semi-squint, as contrasted by the scratchy, but lively, and very human voice asking the silly questions and posing ridiculous solutions that came out of her inanimate scarlet smirk.
This initial awareness of these uncanny vessels that we can bring to life by manipulation and mastery of their tiny movements has led to a life-long…not quite fascination…but a sort of hushed reverence, stupefied awe, really, for puppets, and puppetry, and the artists who create and control them. The idea that we can give voice to our thoughts through the mouth of a completely separate entity, even and especially when our thoughts aren’t actually very nice, seems to me like a fantastical catharsis, and is partially what brought about the idea to commission Han, whose Handsome Devils Puppet work I had quietly admired for ever so long, for a mini marionette version of Sei Shonagon.
Shonagon was a brilliant diarist, poet, and courtier, but also a bit of a Heian-era mean girl and guru of gossip, rumor, and scandal. I have long loved her writings: her elegant lists, her acerbic observations, her beautifully intimate and wonderfully catty diaries; these strangely random and tangential stories have informed and inspired my own writings for many, many years now, but if I am being honest, it is this mean streak that appears throughout her beautiful, clever writings that fascinates me endlessly.
Now, though, this marvelous vessel that Han created from the wisp of an idea and from what beautiful bones and scraps I could scarcely guess, I have an exorcist for my unkind scrutinies, my snarky opinions and observations, and my highly critical notions. Little Sei Shonagon with her clever brush and invisible ink coaxes my ugliness into the ether and leaves no trace of its unflattering existence. From her perpetually suppressed smile, I almost believe that she derives no small amusement from the expulsion of my cranky demons, and, while indulging myself in daydreams, I often recall the long-ago Lady Elaine’s tiny sneer and I am quite certain these two would either be great friends, or great rivals, or both!
But back to the business at hand. As Maika mentions above, we had such great fun in our back and forth brainstorming and bouncing ideas off of each other for this Handsome Devils Puppets interview. It was terribly daunting but so massively thrilling to put together these questions for Han about her inspirations and processes and great loves and wonderments– and for me, who has not yet had the opportunity to meet this incredible artist in person yet, it was an extraordinary look into a dazzling mind and a heart so big, there seems no end to the pieces of it you’ll find in her remarkable creations.
Prepare to be thoroughly enchanted and to have your heart broken and humbled and reformed anew as we take an intimate, emotional, and powerfully human peek at the lives of Han of Handsome Devil Puppets and her sentiment of spirits. I hope you will take as much pleasure in reading the following interview as we have in dreaming it, creating it, and sharing it with you.
M+S: Why puppets? You’ve spoken about how making and performing with puppets came to you during a particularly dark period of your life. Without prying into what was going on in your life at the time, why do you think it was through puppetry that you found your voice, as opposed to another creative outlet or form of performance?
HDP: I actually fell upon puppets quite by accident while accompanying a friend to a craigslist audition to be her ‘muscle’ (because what screams ‘murder’ louder than a puppet show audition in a warehouse?). I was recovering, floundering, alone, reclusive and without a voice in a city that was far bigger than anything I’d ever experienced. Life seemed a fanged, gaping mouth and I a mere scrap in its teeth. The audition ended not with murder but with an offer to help build the upcoming show. I wasn’t an actor, I had previously wept my way through a failed semester of 2D art, quit ballet after 6 years, piano after 10. I had so much to say, so much to feel and suddenly there was clay in my hands aching to sing and dance, to do everything and say everything I thought I couldn’t. There were no rules here. It was salvaged components and salvaged people weaving the silliest, saddest stories. It was all so heavy and so light.
Do you find yourself expressing things through your puppets that you’d never say otherwise? Not even necessarily things you’d dare not say, but simply things that wouldn’t have occurred to you until the puppet brought them forth. Conversely, do you ever find yourself saying things to puppets that you wouldn’t say to a human?
This is one of my first and favorite things I learned about puppets. Being a ragtag group of starving, drinking artists, how we were going to get people to listen to us? The city was full of us, how do you make them listen? One beautiful example of our solution came when we performed a piece based on the Tom Waits song “Georgia Lee.” It tells the true story of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses who disappeared in ’97. She had a troubled home life, she was poor, she was African American, she was not reported missing, there was no front-page news story and no rallying cry. Georgia’s body was found under a tree next to the highway far too late and her killer has yet to be found. How do you address that? How do you bring people together and force them to care, force them to listen to this sickening, heartbreaking example of a much greater problem? Our solution was puppets, a little girl made of sticks, buried in the earth who emerged to dance with the moon before her twigs shattered and she returned to the earth. How could we have accomplished that ourselves? How else would we have made people face this darkness?
(And now a shorter answer if you prefer! I often will not address certain darkness in me until suddenly it’s coming to life in my hands, or until it’s being written in song. You become so accustomed to your own particular melancholy that you sometimes fail to feel its subtle shifts. I trust no one, connect with few, but I have poured forth every shadowed corner of my Self to a puppet on many a night.)
Why do you think it is that puppets appear to connect with people differently than humans connect with each other?
Puppets cannot lie! What you say, they say. What you do, they do. They are honest little vessels. They look like us, but stranger. They are us, but innocent. They are both cosmic and primitive. We want to believe in their magic. It may not make any sense right now, but I spent most of my life screaming into an abyss of faces and never truly felt heard until those screams were screamed by a puppet.
I had so much to say, so much to feel, and suddenly there was clay in my hands aching to sing and dance, to do everything and say everything I thought I couldn’t. There were no rules here. It was salvaged components and salvaged people weaving the silliest, saddest stories. It was all so heavy and so light.
Have you ever found a puppet? Something you didn’t make with your own two hands, perhaps something that one wouldn’t necessarily even recognize as a puppet, but you knew it for what it truly was when you saw it.
Are we counting Pedro, The Man Stuck in a Coffee bag? (….it was my child-hand…in a coffee bag…a riveting living room dramatic performance). Every single day. Everything is a puppet, I say this at all of my shows. If you feel powerless, pick up the nearest thing to you and literally have power over it. Make it fly, make it scream, make it dance. There is actually a form of performance very similar to puppetry call Object Theatre in which everyday, found objects are manipulated to tell the story. In a way it’s very therapeutic, to imagine how this plastic bottle would ‘breathe,’ watching the rise and fall of your own chest to and mirroring it in your little plastic pantomimist. In a different way, I also have a crippling need to puppet when I people-watch. There are some people who would make the most incredible puppets! (I was reprimanded at a job long ago for telling a woman that her “baby has good shapes.” …In my defense that baby was round and adorable and cartoonish and was just begging to be a puppet. Y’all, I haven’t an ounce of social grace…)
You have previously observed that, “The power of the puppet is vast, but it is little without the power of your person.” What, in your opinion, is the role of the puppeteer?
Just be honest. Above all things be honest, be human. You are bringing something to life, there cannot be any insincerity, there cannot be any pretense. I am just up there crying and sweating and manically jiggling a puppet around and there is truth in that, there is vulnerability despite me being in ‘control’ of them. It’s not about power in terms of skill, it’s about your willingness to pour your soul into this little vessel.
In your experience, do you find that puppets have a will of their own? Do your puppets develop opinions about each other? Do some prefer each other’s company or need to be kept apart?
Ooooh this is such a shameful bit of me. Maybe it’s a symptom of being a recluse, maybe I’m just unhinged but yes, yes and yes. With the increase in film and book characters in my work the strangest friendships are forged between puppets who share time on my table. Frida Kahlo mingled with Vincent Price. Tom Hiddleston chatted with a conjoined sheep.
If you feel powerless, pick up the nearest thing to you and literally have power over it. Make it fly, make it scream, make it dance.
In a 2017 interview, you shared that you started making puppets when you felt you didn’t have a voice, and that you “…sculpted powerful, magical women to dance and sing and cry and give me that voice.” This lends to a curious question on our part regarding that voice and how it factors into the genesis of each new creation. Do you start with that small soul’s voice, and give it form? Or create a vessel for it to take root? Further to that question (or perhaps to ask it another way?) at what point in the creation of a puppet do they come to life/wake up for you? Or are they alive from the moment you conceive of them?
It honestly happens in each of these ways, depending on the puppet. Sometimes while idly fiddling with clay it will take form and begin telling its own stories. Sometimes I sculpt from dreams. Sometimes I will experience something unbearable and the only way I can process it is by creating a puppet capable of doing so. In those instances the intention and the emotion are so potent it feels the puppet is crying out from the moment the mouth is carved. Now that I’m working with original songs more it has happened that a melody came first, the melody searches for the right voice to embrace it, and a character takes shape. It honestly can take some time for that spark of life, sometimes longer than I’d like. But oh when that spark catches tinder, I just cradle that little soul and let forth a litany of coos, cries, praises, affirmations, and REALLY embarrassing giggles.
Tell us about Grannie Good-Witch’s jewelry box! I believe this is a box of heirlooms that you incorporate into your various creations as are working on them, even to the point that you travel with it and it accompanies you on the road. We’d love to hear more about these precious pieces of your family history and are interested to know how/where/why you decide to parcel them out.
(I am coincidentally typing this on Granny’s birthday!) My Granny was an absolute bat. She had her faults, she had her lows, she was forgiven, she was accepted, a pattern for our gene pool. She would take my sister and I on adventures across the state in her car, “Pokey,” made of cigarette smoke and dog hair (or so it seemed to be to me) and tell us stories of her childhood adventures in China. Fortunately for me, grannie was a hoarder and I inherited many a box of her trinkets from jewelry to small toys. I, on the other hand, move around far too much to amass very much, so when I first needed puppet accessories I pulled from this magical tiny wooden chest. Since then my collection has grown to include other boxes of the baubles of a few other powerful, magical, misunderstood women who have left this plane. Some pieces I can’t bear to part with (great-grandma’s itty-bitty miniature pink hand-fan) but others are so special they beg to be shared. A fingernail-sized bird to perch on the edge of a victorian infant’s coffin, a tiny silver cross on a commissioned memorial piece, a snippet of her hospital bracelet in a Plague Doctor’s pouch, an onyx earring post becomes a brooch. The possibilities are as vast as the depths of her strangeness.
Most of your work is individually commission-based, but every once in a while we’re delighted to see a HDP small collection of roses, skellingtons, animals, or wee babies. What sparks the ideas/motivations for a limited release of these coteries of clay creatures?
There’s a technical, business reason behind them as well as emotional. I try to have a few releases a year to give people who cannot afford a marionette a chance to welcome a puppet into their home. It is so important to me to drown the world in puppets and I don’t want anyone to feel excluded due to finances. Once I feel it has come time for a release I keep a little portion of my brain open to receiving little whispers of what it should be, but you can’t rush it. They have to be simple but effective. They have to be puppetable. They have to tell a story. I think of themes or visuals that are accessible to people who are taking baby steps into strangeness but that are also of meaning to me. Often times you can catch a glimpse at where my life was by the collections i was releasing at the time. Conjoined animals when I longed for closeness. Post mortem victorian infants when I was coming to terms with my unpromising body. Little Roses that blow kisses when I decided to scoot the gloom aside for a moment.
What is your favorite thing about making and/or working with puppets? Between painstakingly creating these creatures, vs. animating, storytelling, performing with the pieces–which do you prefer? What do you get out of performing for an audience that you can’t from creating your puppets and working with them solo?
I know it’s cheating but I could never choose! They are such different beasts. When sculpting I get to be alone, crawl into myself and create and it is heaven, soothing. I learn so much about myself while creating. I learn so much about the world while researching for them. By all accounts I should hate performing. People everywhere, looking at me. Me making an absolute dingus of myself, spilling my guts, singing through stage-fright tremors, the opposite of the solitude of creating. But despite all of the terror, stress, anxiety, and vulnerability that comes with a show, I am addicted to it. The shows are a humbling chance to keep sacred the sorrows and needs of strangers. Yes, it is wonderful to get to sink into my own world, but there is a whole world of people out there just as human as me. And if just one of them leaves my show feeling heard, feeling healed, feeling something, then it is worth it and I will never stop. I will always come out of hiding for it.
Some puppeteers are actors more than puppeteers – their puppets serving as props more than anything else – but the puppets of other performers seem to either be living individuals or extensions of their puppeteers. How do you view your own method of performing?
I have seen some incredibly effective shows where the puppeteer is fully shrouded and the illusion of a sentient being is achieved, or where the puppeteer acts as their own character opposite the puppet. Both are effective and respected by me, but I make it no secret that I prefer to treat them as an extension. I believe in the magic of the illusion, but I don’t want that to become a distraction. You know it’s a puppet, you know I’m back here moving it, let’s focus on the story as opposed to the trick. These puppets are small and they can only emote so much so I make sure I’ve got a big ol’ face chock full of feelings. I feel their pain because it is my own, I celebrate their joys because they are my own, if I make a mistake, they make a mistake. It’s a far far cry from performing, it’s really just a conversation. That being said I (being the consummate professional) sometimes catch myself congratulating a puppet during a song for completing a move well, or console them if they look especially sad. It’s accidental (and embarrassing) but it helps me be easier on myself. If I can have empathy and love for these little creatures while they tell my story, shouldn’t I be able to love myself? Basically shows are my therapy and I am the most undeserving dirt-person to be able to do them for a living.
It’s not about power in terms of skill, it’s about your willingness to pour your soul into this little vessel.
During your live performances, you don’t use particular voices for your puppets, rather you serve as their respective voices. It’s as though you’re a puppet medium, a channeler. That represents a great deal of trust between you and the puppets. And there is clearly a great deal of affection between you and most of your puppets. But you also speak directly to them during your shows – do they speak back? We won’t ask you to divulge any of their secrets, but is there a language we cannot hear, that only you can?
The puppets are true professionals, I’m up there drinking and crying and talking, but I’ve never seen one break character. Even though I perform the same songs on each show of a tour, every show is different. Audiences respond differently to different songs, to different puppets. If I see certain faces reacting more I feed off of it and in turn the puppet does. The puppet becomes tasked with gaining that person’s trust, carrying them through to the end. I often find myself comforting a puppet when a piece is over or congratulating them. They pick up pieces of every person who connects with them. It’s a blessing and a burden and their little clay shoulders must carry it with grace night after night. Yikes, I’ve never sounded crazier than I do when I talk about puppets. With friends like these who needs hallucinogens?
Have you always performed solo? Or perhaps you’ve previously performed as part of a troupe/ensemble? Have you done other sorts of performances besides puppetry?
I never performed with that troupe I started out with, I only built. Used to having absolutely no organized idea of what I’m doing, I stuck to solo performing once I made my own company. I attempted theatre in high school (we don’t talk about it) and spent a good deal of time on stage during my ballet years (we can talk about half of those) but really my shows the past couple of years are my first attempts at singing/puppeting in public.
I spent most of my life screaming into an abyss of faces and never truly felt heard until those screams were screamed by a puppet.
Your live performances are very small and intimate. Do you see yourself ever performing in larger venues or is small and intimate your preference for the foreseeable future?
Every once and I while there will be a flash of that fantasy, a vague little pipe-dream of something bigger. But I really don’t think it suits me right now. The puppets would have to be larger and in turn I would likely have to recruit company members, something I am strongly opposed to doing. I’m too stubborn and horrible and intimately attached to this to subject innocent humans to the complete disaster that is my methods/life.
What do you hope your audience members get out of your performances?
HDP: Anything, any little thing. A glimmer of hope, a moment of levity, an assurance of their power. Hell even if it just brings them joy to see me making an ass of myself, I’ll take it. I’m genuinely floored each time anybody chooses to leave their house for what, on paper, sounds like an evening of watching that crazy old man on the street corner rave at you except he’s holding puppets and you have to sit on the floor. I open each show with a song I heard at a time in my life when I needed it most. It seemed to be written just for me, it calmed me, it gave me strength, I held it close until I didn’t need it anymore and now I have to believe that somewhere in some city is somebody who needs it as I did. I am humbled by the stories people bring to me after shows, completely reduced to rubble by their ability to so beautifully and purely be a part of this bizarre little journey.
If it’s alright with you, Han, we’d like to switch things up for a moment and ask a few questions of Pips and any other members of your menagerie who’d like to participate in the conversation.
How did you feel the moment you first opened your eyes, and what was the first thing you saw?
P: “Familiar. They say I had closed them for such a long time, but this same familiar face pressed close to mine. There was that same familiar feeling of being the only two creatures in the world. I saw my legs in a pile, my patient body waiting, I saw tears in two familiar eyes, two unfamiliar cats, curtains of lace. I felt real.”
Do you consider yourself a puppet?
P: “I do but it isn’t a bad thing. I’ve spent a longer time on this earth as a puppet than I did as a deer so, in a way, to be a puppet is to be more alive than ever before.”
In your opinion, what is the role of the puppet?
HDP: From a box in a corner comes a chorus of dusty voices, “Yes, tell us, Han! When comes our role?!” From atop a makeshift stage a wearied woman cries, “To mourn when the human heart can no longer bear to.” A ball of clay with the suggestion of a face mumbles through carved lips, “She had a recurring dream that plagued her, I’m here to understand it.” Pips glares, irritated at being interrupted, but softens to say “To tell a story, whatever that story may be”.
What have you learned from Han?
P: “I helped her survive. And my story could help others do the same. It seems like quite a task for a wee fawn that creaks and crumbles but I am powerful. Oh also, you can get out of a traffic ticket if I’m riding shotgun.”
What’s your favorite thing about working with Han/performing?
P: “The post-show chin-scratches from the audience! But mostly the post-show nighttime campsite/stranger’s house/cheap motel/truck stop cuddle times. I don’t want to embarrass Han but…she might have more successful relationships if we didn’t spoon so much…”
Now back to you, Han, what have you learned from your puppets?
I am powerful. I am incapable of sculpting ears but I am powerful. I am a great writhing, unstable mass of flesh and boiling blood who really didn’t need another excuse to stay inside and talk to herself but I found one and it made me powerful.
HM: Can you share any puppetry-specific influences? For those who don’t know much about puppetry, who else should we check out?
So many! Kevin McTurk and his company The Spirit Cabinet are creating the most truly breathtaking puppet films. I learned of them when I was just starting out on this journey and I remember thinking “Welp, I’d better just give up now cause I’ll never be this good and the real world will never be as perfect as the one he’s created.” Bruce Schwartz created and manipulated some of the most achingly beautiful puppets in the most poignant pieces. When I first learned of him my heart leapt to see a puppeteer whose methods were so similar to my own, from his decision to show his hands to his desire to force folks to feel. Watch his performance in The Double Life of Veronique and his bunraku feature on The Muppet Show and get ready to see what makes me cry. Ilka Schonbein will show you her viscera and make you like it. Handspring Puppet Company will make you question reality. Ugh, puppets are great.
Knowing that you’re a self-taught puppet-maker and puppeteer, do you have any advice for someone looking to get into puppetry themselves?
There is no wrong way to puppet. That’s the whole point of puppetry, it’s limitlessness. Learn from those who came before you, those you admire, but always count yourself among your muses. If what they did doesn’t work for you, do it your own way. Keep your eyes more open than ever before to the world around you, to muscles, to movements, to faces, to moments; you will then become your greatest resource.
Any tours or other big projects planned at this point?
A million things planned but nothing on paper! A North/Northeast tour or two for sure. A west coast return for sure. Writing more music, some longer pieces. Hoping to gather up the courage/abandon my stubbornness and record audio of some of my songs (but no promises). Hopefully some music video work (fingers crossed). Other than that, everything in the world. I want to do everything.
I spoke with Suzanne LaGrande for The Shaman’s Notebook podcast over the summer and it slipped my mind that our chat was published last week! This was a fun conversation, and as always I was awkward as hell and said some weird things, but c’est moi I guess.
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 Thorne’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 🙂