A Woman With Power: Pam Grossman
categories: elsewhere, interviews
Perhaps you know of Pam Grossman because you are a fellow enthusiast of fantastical art and ardently admire her blog, Phantasmaphile wherein she curates incredible esoteric imagery. You may have stumbled across her prescient proclamation that 2013 was “The Year of The Witch” and felt energized and empowered at the long overdue celebration for this powerful feminine archetype. You may have heard her name in relation to the Occult Humanities Conference at NYU, or attended her numinous Language of the Birds show, an exhibition that traced over 100 years of occult art. You may have been utterly entranced by her collaboration with Tin Can Forest, an illuminated manifesto titled What Is A Witch, or resonated with her sagacious writings for the Maiden and Mother issues of Sabat Magazine. Or perhaps you are fortunate enough to call this wise, magic woman a friend.
Or quite possibly you do not know Pam at all and it by quirk of fate that you have stumbled upon our interview with her today. It won’t take you long to become completely in awe of this luminous human, I assure you. Read on for our spirited discussion with this independent curator, writer, and lifelong student of magical practices for her thoughts on witchcraft and the occult as it relates to art, activism, and anger, and what it means to be a woman with power. In addition, we are beyond thrilled that Pam has shared with us her extraordinary “Ritual For The Rebirth Of A Republic”.
Top photo credit: Shannon Taggart
Haute Macabre: You have very recently curated, along with creative cohorts, Janaka Stucky and Peter Bebergal, “Dead of Winter“, a series of magical movies which explore witchcraft and the occult in cinema. For those who were unable to grab their broomsticks and join you at this rare event, I’m wondering if you can share some brief highlights on the films you introduced, and what it was about the stories/characters/cinematic experience that made you think “aha, now this is something I have got to include!”
Pam Grossman: Curating this festival has been a dream come true. Between Janaka, Peter, Ned Hinkle (who heads up the Brattle), and myself, we came up with a towering list of favorite occult films that we felt excited to share. It was important to us that there was a good balance between witchcraft and ceremonial magick films, and that we covered a range of time periods and aesthetic sensibilities. Ned had the none-too-easy task of whittling down our list based first and foremost on logistics (i.e. which prints he could track down in time), and then he organized it into a beautifully cohesive arc, pairing films together that had interesting thematic links or, in some cases, counterpoints.
As to my specific input, most of my contributions explore the icon of the witch, albeit from several different angles. I included recent films like The Witch and The Love Witch, both of which approach the archetype from a decidedly 21st century – and I might argue consciously feminist – point-of-view (despite their stories taking place approximately 400 years apart). Their protagonists each experience a sort self-actualization of a sort, even if their final circumstances end up being somewhat ambiguous. Whereas films like Season of the Witch, Burn Witch Burn, and Bell, Book, and Candle are definite reflections of the social mores of their times. What unifies all of these films is that they each ask questions about what it means to be a female with power. Each of these witch stories has elements of danger and delight, and I think each represents the tension between those two poles in its own unique way.
I was particularly excited to get to see the newly restored 1970s Japanese X-rated animated film, Belladonna of Sadness, on the big screen. It is such a wild and gorgeous phantasmagoria, and it still manages to shock people, 40 years on. It’s based on Michelet’s book, La Sorcière, from 1862, and viewing it it feels like watching a pornographic version of the European witch hunts on psychedelics.
[above photo: Film still from The Love Witch]
You have spoken before on how the witch remains a dynamic archetype with new facets that we are continuing to learn about and explore. In 2017 witches have emerged from the hedges and have taken to the streets; crowds of cloaks and capes were captured in arresting photos from back in January, witches out in full force, post-inauguation, using their power to protect and protest in a very public way. While I am not certain that this is a wholly new aspect of the archetype, can you speak to how it may be different than what we have seen previously, and what we can learn from the witch’s role as activist?
A lot of credit should go to W.I.T.C.H., the 2nd wave feminist activist group from the 1960s and 70s. They were a group of women who would dress up like witches and do public art protests and performance pieces, like hexing the New York Stock Exchange. Their actions were humorous and irreverent, and used the image of the witch to symbolize visible, marginal, powerful women.
I was very heartened to see a lot of witch-themed protest signage at the Women’s Marches, as well as a revival of W.I.T.C.H. springing up in Portland and other cities. Some of these women are using magical tropes in tongue-in-cheek ways, and some are being 100% literal. There are young feminist chicks sending stylized smoke signals, and there are serious pracitioners of Wicca and other Pagan paths who are both using similar language. But whether or not someone with a “Hex the Patriarchy!” sign is going to actually do a Trump binding spell at home is sort of beside the point for me. It’s about reclaiming the “nasty woman” moniker, and embracing alternative versions of femaleness which make space for us to be loud and sovereign and totally free. I think it all matters, and it all makes a difference.
[Photo credit: Laura Desmond]
Pam Grossman’s Ritual For The Rebirth of a Republic
Ritual for the Rebirth of a Republic
You’ll need a candle, and any other sacred objects you wish. I’ve been putting a small copy of the Constitution of my altar lately, next to images of deities who help me feel fortified and inspired, and special objects including jewelry which I’d like charged so I can carry the spell’s energy with me when I need it.
As you speak the following words, it’s all the better if you can face the appropriate direction before you utter each section:
Welcome, Air in the East, direction of new beginnings. Thank you for blessing us as we recommit ourselves to the country, to the planet, and to our highest purpose. Blessed be.
Welcome, Fire in the South, direction of passionate will. Thank you for keeping us steadily fueled, so that our flames stay lit, and do not burn out. Blessed be.
Welcome, Water in the West, direction of dissolution. Thank you for washing away all that is no longer serving us, so that we might flow forward and forge new pathways. Blessed be.
Welcome, Earth in the North, direction of green wisdom. Thank you for teaching us that you are precious, that our bodies are precious, and both are abundant and enough. Blessed be.
Welcome, Ancestors of Below, direction of the sacred depths. Thank you for helping us turn behind and within, so we may learn from the brave freedom fighters who came before us, and so we know that they dwell inside our selves. Blessed be.
Welcome, Guides of Above, direction of infinite possibilities. Thank you for helping us look ahead and outside, so that we may follow your light of hope, and expand our own imaginations to dream up better ways of being. Blessed be.
Welcome, Sacred Center, direction of holy mysteries. Thank you for showing us that in death there is life, that in life there is endless transformation, and that love is the most powerful magick of all. Blessed be.
The circle is cast. We are between worlds.
Light the candle.
I light this candle to Libertas, Goddess of Freedom.
Oh Columbia, oh Marianne, oh Eleutheria, oh Artemis, or any other name of your liking, may you please keep your torch ignited, so that we may find illumination during this dark time.
May you help us lift up our most vulnerable, and shine light in the margins, so that we may not overlook our sisters and brothers who dwell in shadow.
Please help us find our fiercest and most unflagging strength, so that we may neither give up or give in during the long struggle ahead.
Thank you for helping us know that our bodies are sovereign and self-belonging, and that our genders, our sexualities, our physicalities, our skins, are each holy and whole exactly as they are.
Please let those who would seek domination, exploitation, or destruction of others and of our planet awaken swiftly to radical compassion or else to harmless obsolescence.
Thank you for reminding us that no one can save us but ourselves, and that we each have the responsibility of using our unique gifts to help usher in a new age of glory.
And thank you for teaching us that liberty is love, love is liberty, and that the path of kindness, laughter, truth, and empathy will forever be chosen by the just and the good.
Thank you, Libertas, for your guidance and your blessings. May we all be worthy of wearing your crown.
Keep the candle lit for as long as you are able. If you must leave it unattended, simply snuff out (don’t blow), and then relight at another time. Once candle has completely burned down, you may bury the remaining wax underground, or otherwise dispose of in the ritualized manner of your choosing.
When this is complete, reopen the circle of the spell. Simply repeat the call of 7 directions in the opposite order, saying Thank you, instead of Welcome, starting with the Center e.g. “Thank you, Sacred Center…”
Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again.
[Photo credit: Pam Grossman]
Photo credit: Shannon Taggart
I believe it was with regard to the learning and absorption of magical/spiritual studies versus the practical application of that knowledge that you remarked, in an interview in 2013, “…but if you’re not going to try and figure out how to be loving and of service in the day-to-day, I’m not interested”. I love that sentiment. I love how it cuts right through the etherous woo woo mysticism and gets right to the meaty heart of things, where the real work begins. In light of our current political climate and considering the frightening, violent, unstable atmosphere that we find ourselves in right now, what are some of your suggestions for integrating one’s magical practices into the service of the day to day? For keeping one’s self grounded and getting one’s hands dirty?
I know the word “self-care” is being skipped on the pond a lot these days, and it’s a bit of a smooshy word that some have an aversion to. But the concept is crucial. We need service and self-care in equal measure, because you can’t sustain any sort of resistance movement without taking time to recharge your batteries and be rooted in yourself. Spiritual practice is key for me to be able to stay focused on what is actually important, and to center myself – not only within my own mind and body, but within my place in this whole interdependent ecosystem we call home.
So many of us are currently grappling with how to stay engaged while not being completely overwhelmed or paralyzed. The bad news has been relentless. But checking out entirely is not a viable option for anyone who cares about this country or this planet as far as I’m concerned. We must figure out a way to keep ourselves strong and blazing, and then use that energy to take action. Channeling the force of the witch has been extremely fortifying for me in my life – and is now moreso than ever. I light candles on my altar, take salt baths to help me cleanse and ground, connect with my deities who remind me that I, too, am divine and brave. And I ask for help, guidance, protection. I give thanks for the many blessings I have in my life. And I try and touch into that timeless, sacred space that is within us and around us always.
But then I do the bodied work: calling my reps, donating money to causes I care about, marching, educating myself, sharing information I find to be useful for resistance. These spiritual practices help me remember that I have power to make change, right here and now in the material world.
On the other side of that though, we are not all light and sharing and loving kindness and radical empathy all the time, and you’ve mentioned the importance of honoring all of our complexity and shadow and mess–I’d love to hear your thoughts on feeding and self-care of these shadow sides.
Anger is something that we’re not “supposed” to show – especially if we’re female. But I have been really fucking angry, and I think it’s important for us to let ourselves feel that and own that. The key is to not let it burn you from within. You’ve got to use it to illuminate the way forward.
And in my darkest moments I try to link with goddesses like Kali and Tlazolteotl. These are deities whose great gift is their darkness, their destruction, their filth. They turn pain and decay into creation and purity, but it’s a hell of a rough ride during the process. So I hope that what we’re experiencing now is what the alchemists referred to as the “nigredo” – the death that must occur when transmuting something base into gold.
[Illustration from What Is A Witch by Pam Grossman and Tin Can Forest]
When I first found your blog, it was through a series of art-related Google searches, and in perusing the fantastical, esoteric imagery you share via Phantasmaphile, I realized I had not only uncovered a very special corner of the internet for occult visuals and creativity, but I also discovered a wonderful human with a passion for enchantments and word-witchery and all manner of otherworldly beauty. On a personal level, because all of these things delight and nourish my soul as well, can you tell us how art and poetry play a part in your magical practices?
Thank you for saying that. I started Phantasmaphile 11 years ago, because I loved magic and I loved art and culture, but I couldn’t find a place online that celebrated those places where the two rub up against each other and cause a spark. So I decided to create one myself.
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was very little, and I have also always loved to write and make art. At the same time, I’ve always been very attracted to magical ideas. It used to be that if I found that sweet spot where art and magic met, I thought it was this rare overlap that merited celebration. So the female surrealists like Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington were thrilling to encounter as a teen, because they seemed to be fluent in the same symbolic language that I was learning myself.
But the longer I’ve been involved with this material, the more I realize that art and magic may in fact be one and the same. That individual creativity with intention is perhaps the most potent spellcraft we have. It is personal and emotional, it comes from the realm of mystery, it makes the invisible visible, and it causes real transformation for both the viewer and the maker.
[“The Giantess”, Leonora Carrington]
A fantastic example of the sublime magics afoot at the intersection of art and poetry and witchcraft is your collaboration with artists Tin Can Forest, What Is A Witch. Described as an “illuminated incantation, a crystalline invocation, a lovingly-crafted celebration of the world’s most magical icon,” your wild, witty, utterly transformative book engages and enchants a reader like nothing I have ever encountered. Can you tell us how this marvelous manifesto came to be?
Definitely a case of stars aligning. Tin Can Forest (who are Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek, a wife and husband collaborative art duo from Canada) reached out to me because they were fans of my blog, and they sent me some of their comics. I fell head over heels with their work, and posted about them on my blog. And at that point, I’d been doing a lot of writing and presenting about witches, and I felt called to write something that celebrated her many aspects and gifts in a lyrical way. I should also say that I am a huge comics fan, and one of my dreams has been to work in that medium somehow. So short story long, I asked them if they’d be interested in working on something together. And I am still over the moon that they said yes!
We met shortly after that when they were in town for Brooklyn Comic Arts fest in November of 2015, and hit it off. And thank goodness, really, because we had already agreed to do this. But from there on out it was very much a trust exercise. I wrote the text for it and sent it off to them, and luckily they seemed to really connect to it. And then they squirreled themselves away for a few months in Victoria to make the art for it. We had very little input in each other’s processes. But I think it’s safe to say that all three of us couldn’t be happier with the results. I was very overcome when I saw the utterly splendid pictures they put to my words. It exceeded my hopes.
[Cover Art from What Is A Witch by Pam Grossman and Tin Can Forest]
“Brujas and Familiars”, Rebecca Artemesia
Art–whether visual, or music, or the written word–can heal or inspire or spark a raging fire in us, which is very much a kind of magic itself, as you mentioned previously. In this vein, I’d love to hear about the artful magics, the books, or poetry, albums or movies, etc., that have bespelled you lately.
Absolutely. There is so much I could list here, so for the sake of brevity and sanity, I’ll just list a few things which have been enchanting me lately.
- Diane di Prima’s La Loba poems. I’ve loved this book since I was young, but have felt drawn to revisit it to get in touch with my inner she-wolf. Very necessary in these times.
- Janaka Stucky’s early book of poems, The World Will Deny It For You, which he just gifted me with this past weekend. His writing is ecstatic and erotic and harsh and succulent.
- I just reread two of my favorite childhood books, Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. Good reminders that magic and smarts can triumph over evil.
- Pema Chodron’s books offer deep anchoring during trying times, and her book Living Beautifully was a lifeline for me right after the election.
- I read David Mitchell’s first book, Ghostwritten, and it floored me. The chapter about the Holy Mountain in particular is just exquisite.
- And I just finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which is a gorgeous and challenging meditation on love, gender, and creativity.
- Lastly, I am anxiously awaiting all of the Leonora Carrington short story collections coming out later this year, as well a book of Remedios Varo’s writings. It makes me giddy to think of them.
- In addition to the ones I mentioned above, I really loved The Duke of Burgundy
- Embrace of the Serpent
- And I am still crazy for Museum Hours, even though it’s been a while since I first watched it. I think about it all the time though: it’s such a testament to the idea of the museum as a temple or palace for the soul.
- On heavy rotation over the past few months have been Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal’s Musique de la Nuit
- United Bible Studies’ So As To Preserve the Mystery
- Solange’s A Seat at the Table
- Jorge Ben Jor’s A Tabua De Esmeralda
- Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions’ Until the Hunter
- serpentwithfeet’s Blisters EP
- Buffy Saint-Marie’s Illuminations
- Cat’s Eyes’ Treasure House
- And demos by the Pinc Louds
- Oh, and my Such A Nasty Woman mix that I made on Spotify to keep my ladyfire stoked.
There are too many to even begin to list fine art-wise, so I’ll just quickly say Winona Regan, Rebecca Artemisa, Daria Tessler, Andrea Joyce Heimer, and Paula Duró have been really ringing my bell lately. I’m all about unapologetic exuberance, especially lately.
And lastly–do you have any upcoming events or speaking engagements that you would like folks to be aware of, or any further magical projects or writings that we can look forward to?
I keep saying I’m going to stop taking on short-term projects so I can focus on the book that I’m trying to finally write. But then wonderful opportunities like the occult film fest come up, and they’re too good to turn down!
So other than that, I have an essay about the crone archetype in the next issue of Sabat magazine, an introduction essay that I wrote for Taisia Kitaiskaia and Katy Horan’s beauteous Literary Witches book coming out in October, and quite possibly an exhibition that I’ll be co-curating in the fall which I’m hashing out details for now. And then my friend Jesse Bransford and I have to start planning the 3rd Occult Humanities Conference at NYU as well. So lots cooking in the cauldron to be sure.
Find Pam Grossman: Website // Phantasmaphile // Twitter // Instagram