The story of how the work of Pam Grossman and her fantastic Phantasmaphile blog came to my attention quite predictably reeks of divine witchery. Despite being a practicing Occultist for 7 years, I somehow remained completely oblivious to the fact that one of the premier Occult book conventions in the world had been going down right beneath my nose in my hometown for four years. When I finally got hip, I remembered, then forgot, then remembered again at the last minute. Unfortunately, by that point I’d accidentally scheduled some family shit on the first day of the conference that I couldn’t easily duck out of. So I only caught day 2. It started at like 10 in the morning and I had to bus down, so I actually planned on skipping the first presentation as I’d stayed up late the night before. Through the course of that night, in some secret state of deranged hypnagogia, a voice came through the ether proclaiming: “they fucked up the order.”
I didn’t honestly know what this meant, but I woke up early the next morning at complete random. I was just lying there awake, so I decided to get up and head down. Didn’t have anything else exciting going on. The first presenter just so happened to be the rather enchanting Pam Grossman, who was by far the coolest thing I saw all day. To be fair, she was talking about the connection between the visual arts and the Occult, which means we’re treading on similar ground, with me being far more music focused. Truth be told, I admittedly don’t know dick about the visual arts scene, which is why chatting with someone like Pam proved so intriguing. Oh, and she also helps run The Observatory in Brooklyn, which is a hyper-rad Occult themed art space where she teaches things like real deal witchcraft. And she now helps edit the Abraxas journal of the Occult Arts. So yeah, she owns and was kind enough to chat with me via e-mail about these rad things that she does and other fun shit like who’s cooler, Grant Morrison or Alan Moore. You should totally read this whole thing. This witch destroys!
Thad: If you had to pick a weirdest or most ontologically jarring experience you’ve had since starting your occult practice, what would it be? When would you say you began practicing witchcraft or became a witch if you had to pinpoint it?
Pam: Honestly, at this point, nothing shocks me. I don’t pretend to understand exactly How This All Works, but I do know that it does for me, or, frankly, I wouldn’t waste my time. That said, things were definitely a bit jarring when I started more consciously exploring magic, in middle school. I grew up in the suburbs of NJ, so most of the spell books I could find were paperbacks from Waldenbooks at the mall, or else new age shops in towns a solid 45 minute drive away. I started doing lots of experimenting using those mass market spells, but I quickly realized that things were much more effective for me when I worked from a more instinctual angle. So I’d incorporate some elements from those books, but then add my own touches, or swap out stuff I didn’t have for ingredients I found in the kitchen cabinet. I remember taking baths, and filling the tub with sea shells and stones and gems because it just felt like I was getting this more holy charge from them that way – not knowing anything about Yemaya or any specific path. It was about association and feeling and cultivating the right mood – and I think the most powerful magic comes from that place. I teach classes in ritual and spell crafting, and one of the main things I emphasize is for people to figure out their own correspondences, and to trust what feels meaningful for them personally.
Most of the spells I did as a kid were what you’d expect from a 12 year old: love spells, of course, and occasionally those of the “I Hate That Chick So Much” variety – the latter of which I am not proud. But I was a creative, sensitive kid who was a bit of an oddball, surrounded by what I perceived to be some really vapid jerks, so what can I say, there were a lot of chicks for me to hate back then! Anyhow, it’s a little embarrassing to talk about this because I am adamantly against those kinds of workings now, but I one night I did a particularly potent-feeling spell, directed toward a girl whom I felt to be particularly obnoxious. The next day, she came to school covered in boils from head to toe, because she had fallen asleep outside tanning in the sun for too long. Whether or not the spell actually “caused” that to happen, or it was just a bizarre coincidence, is beside the point. As much as I disliked this girl, the incident made me feel really bad for her, and it also freaked me out. I didn’t actually want to hurt anyone; I now realize I was just feeling stuck and alone and disempowered, like lots of girls do at that age, but projecting it outwards like that felt really unhealthy and unkind. So I pretty quickly turned away from any sort of left-handed / negative magic after that.
Another more positive memory that’s coming to me happened a few year later, when I was in high school. My best friend at the time was hanging out with a boy she liked one night, and so I did a spell to help her out, so to speak. I did some chanting and got into this deep trancespace, when suddenly there was a clap of thunder! When she called me later to tell me how the date went, it turns out their first kiss happened right around when that spell peaked. Again, “coincidence” or not, it was meaningful for me, and felt true in a way that is difficult to articulate.
Now, it’s important for me to say that these obvious and frankly uncanny occurrences don’t always happen when I’m doing a spell. But oftentimes there are interesting coincidences or outcomes that let me know that the spell was somehow effective. Sometimes it’s really clear: I’ll try and help someone find romance or a new job, and BAM, they’ll tell me some amazing story about how they met someone special immediately thereafter, or got a phone call from a new client the next day. It would be nice if that happened all the time! But usually it’s much more subtle: a random phrase I’ll overhear someone say on the train, or coming across an object that’s incongruous and yet completely perfect in the context of the spell. And most of the workings I do are for myself: to ask for guidance or new opportunities or growth, or to give thanks. I’m a big believer in paying attention to synchronicities and following cosmic clues, and I find I encounter them more frequently after I’ve hung out in that other zone for a while. It feels like I’m taking part in some sort of larger dialog with, I don’t know, Spirit, or whatever word you prefer. Words are really limiting when attempting to talk about this stuff, but you get the idea I hope.
I’m never quite sure to answer the “when did you become a witch” question, because my response seems like a dodge. It’s just something I always knew about myself, way before I decided to take ownership of that word. In middle school I found those books I mentioned above, but before then as a child, I naturally did rituals and inhabited a liminal, imaginative space really easily and often. I was obsessed with fairy tales and myths and loved mermaids and wizards and all that, from a very young age. As I’ve grown up, I certainly have more experience, study, and historical context under my belt to be sure. But while I now have loads more “techniques,” I suppose you could call them, that I’ve learned or added along the way, they’re really just enhancements to a foundation that was always there.
Thad: Any otherworldly dreams lately, psychic experiences?
Pam: Most recent that I’ll share is a synchronicity train I rode recently. Long story short, a few days ago, I put up a post on my blog about how 2013 is the Year of the Witch. It’s a piece of writing that’s been brewing inside me (pun intended, *groan*) since early last year, and which has gotten a positive response online, so seems to have touched a nerve. Anyhow, immediately after publishing it, I noticed the person sitting next to me was looking at a series of photos of three women posed in a cluster that she was editing on her computer screen, and it just felt like the triple goddess was giving me a wink. Then a few minutes later, I overheard someone else saying that he just learned that only female cats can be tri-colored – which also struck me as a very witchy image. And then a few minutes after that, I looked back at my blog and realized that the Year of the Witch was my #1300th post! Which was completely gobsmacking and delightful. So it was 3 signs in quick succession, that together felt like a bit of a high-five from the universe. A nice affirmation.
Thad: You declared 2013 the year of the witch on Phantasmaphile and I picked up on that because I’m personally not entirely sold on the idea that a gradual shift in consciousness didn’t in fact initiate around 2012. With technology, my life is now a combination of constant “dream within a dream” inward freakout experiences, but I know how slow this change would take if it did initiate. Probably at least a hundred years or so I’d imagine, which is nothing in the grand scheme of things. And I think this would have a lot to do with a shift toward more feminine thinking as our culture’s obviously a man show with our constant war mongering. I’ve been told by the fifth-dimensional time space perceptional entities (spirits) that women have greater psychic abilities than men and that’s how this shift must happen. Men are only seen as superior when we live in a culture based on materialism. So, that’s why the year of the witch thing resonated. Was there a question there? Oh yeah, I have to admit to myself that the majority of my heroes both musically and from a writing and spiritual stand point are men, which I find sort of embarrassing. Seriously. Guitar players, nearly all dudes. Metaphysical writers, mostly dudes. We’re talking people like Terrence McKenna, Grant Morrison, Robert Anton Wilson, Alan Moore, Robert Monroe, Carlos Castenada, etc. And then I’m like, where are the women there? That’s probably a big part of the problem with our societal views regarding spirituality. Neuroscience is actually now showing us that women think with parts of their brains that men barely use. Educate me as to who I should be paying attention to on the bad ass witch front.
Pam: Gladly! First I want to acknowledge what you said about your mystic heroes being mostly dudes. I actually address that in my post, the idea that men have been socialized to not fully empathize with female characters. My husband is one of the most feminist, loveliest, most evolved humans I know, but I still razz him from time to time about how relatively few female writers he reads or musicians he listens to. I think it’s entirely learned behavior, beginning when one is too young to even remember. And I think one of the biggest steps in our collective evolution isn’t just about teaching that “girls can be just as good as the boys.” It’s about giving boys permission to relate to female protagonists and leaders and artists and archetypes, the same way girls are taught to do so with males. We need to be able to fluidly cross between male and female energies. That doesn’t mean men and women are the same, because they certainly have inherent differences. But it does mean that all of us can consciously draw from both pools. I believe learning how to do so is the great work of the current age in which we’re living. We’re all figuring out how to be more balanced, more whole, and that means everyone being comfortable honoring both sides of the masculine/feminine dichotomy.
And I actually don’t buy the “women are more intuitive” bag – much as it feeds my Lady Ego. I know plenty of highly sensitive, intuitive, magical men. I just think they’ve somehow gotten (or given themselves) the permission to explore that side of who they are. I think it’s about what’s taught, what’s encouraged. But it can definitely be arrived at, consciously in adulthood, by any dude who cares to explore that in himself. And I’m banking on the fact that more men are starting to, and will continue to do so.
As for females “on the bad ass witch front,” a lot of the women who were my earliest Matron Saints so to speak, are actually musicians. I was really lucky that I went through my adolescence smack in the 90s, when there were loads of powerful, wonderfully strange women making music. Growing up, my personal trifecta was Tori Amos/Björk/PJ Harvey. It’s a shame Tori gets trivialized in some circles, because she genuinely meant the world to me, and broke through so many dusty old barriers. She was her own storyteller, a genius composer, and an unapologetic feminist. I remember the first time I heard her music, I was about 11, and it just plain scared me. It sounded so visceral and intense compared to C&C Music Factory or whatever the hell else I was listening to at the time. She was incredibly sexual, too, grinding on her piano bench with her flaming red hair, looking like Babalon – but it was a sexuality she had agency over, which I think was really off-putting for a lot of people. She struck me as exhilarating and a bit scandalous and totally alluring and brave. She yowled and writhed and was beautiful but not in a quiet, pretty way. She gave voice to so many subjects that were considered too shameful to discuss publicly (masturbation, rape, female libido) especially by a woman. As I got older, I realized her songs basically lived in the realm of myth, that she was super-Jungian, and that she was all about raising the divine feminine. And she was literally the first person I heard talking openly about how sexist a lot of our Judeo-Christian religious stories and dogmas are. I used to collect bootlegs of her concerts and b-sides, and her stage banter was amazing. These hilarious and wise lectures about patriarchy and religion and sex and spirituality. Totally eye-opening for me in my youth, and completely fortifying.
And Björk and PJ were splashing around in that same sea. Loads of witchy imagery in their music: celestial and chthonic, alternatively. And both had so much imagination and style. They were phenomenal role models for a hyper-imaginative teenage girl in the suburbs, who felt pretty different. I drew a lot of strength from them, and their music and personas served as both inspiration and armor for me.
From there, I got really into Rasputina, Patti Smith, Mazzy Star, the Breeders, Helium, and so on. And of course, there’s loads of witchy musicians who have come up in the last few years. Bat for Lashes, Chelsea Wolfe, Beach House, Family Band…on and on, all of whom I dig. I consider Larkin Grimm to be a true ecstatic poet of our age, and some of her songs I almost can’t listen to too much, because they feel so sacred to me. I admit it wasn’t until I got older that I got into Stevie and Siouxie and Kate Bush and other what I guess you could call proto-witch-music, but I certainly love them as well.
My other biggest witchy heroines are the female surrealist painters. Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington in particular have waterfront real estate in my heart. They were playing with images of alchemy and myth, infusing their work with occult meanings, and making masterpieces. They were also incredibly independent and vivacious and were creating work and living on their own terms when very few women were. Such deeply magical human beings. One of our cats is named Remedios Varo (we call her “Remy” for short), so that should give you a sense of how much she means to me. And I was gifted a cutting from a plant that grew in Leonora’s garden in Mexico City. It’s been flourishing like mad since I potted it, and is one of my greatest treasures. I give the two of those women a lot of airtime in my “Occult in Modern Art 101” lecture, alongside Leonor Fini and Ithell Colquhoun, because they’re so important and potent, yet still so under-sung.
Re: writers, there’s obviously loads of brilliant women with pagan leanings like Dion Fortune and Starhawk and Margot Adler and Merlin Stone. My teacher, Robin Rose Bennett, is also a very gifted wordsmith, who has taught me so much, both as a mentor, and through her book Healing Magic. Clarissa Pinkola Estes is another bright light, particularly her book about the wild woman archetype, Women Who Run with the Wolves. But I confess it’s often the realm of fiction and poetry that has the deepest resonance for me. Diane di Prima’s Loba will knock you on your ass with beauty. Monica Furlong’s Wise Child trilogy & Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel, Lolly Willowes, are precious to me. And Leonora Carrington was actually also a phenomenal author. Her novella, The Hearing Trumpet, is big touchstone for me. Each of these writers approach witches from different angles and with varying styles, but it’s all facets of the same crystal, and I love them equally.
Thad: Reading about the Observatory in Brooklyn really makes me want to visit the Observatory in Brooklyn. Tell me about your involvement there and if any severely odd psychic shit is going down.
Pam: Observatory was the brainchild of my friend, Joanna Ebenstein, who runs the Morbid Anatomy Library and blog. A studio opened up in the building where her library is housed, and she thought it would be exciting to use it as a a space to hold offbeat but scholarly events. Proteus Gowanus is our umbrella organization, and they’ve taken Morbid Anatomy Library, Observatory, and a few other projects-in-residence under their wing, so we’re all part of the same arts complex. Anyhow, Joanna invited a few folks whose blogs or projects she admired and felt a kinship with to start this new space, and I was lucky enough to be one of that founding group. We founded Observatory in February of 2009, and since then have had lectures, classes, events, and art shows on topics ranging from medical museums to women in Freemasonry to zombies to Mexican death cults. We’re looking to elevate the obscure and shine a bit of light on the underworld in an intelligent way, while still maintaining their romance.
I suppose the oddest “psychic shit” that’s happened recently is that the space had a bunch of bad luck in 2012. A fire in our building caused the sprinkler system to go off, waterlogging a lot of the Morbid Anatomy Library’s collection, as well as parts of Observatory and Proteus Gowanus. And a few months later, Sandy caused the Gowanus Canal to flood, and filled our building’s basement with 6 feet of water, and ruined the electricity infrastructure. We’ve since recovered, and our recent Resurrection party & current art show are celebrating our rise from the water & ash.
Thad: How about Abraxas? I have the second issue and dug it. Thought the music disc could be better (I’m a harsh critic) and maybe y’all could go a little less dark, but very cool. I learned a lot from that actually.
Pam: I actually joined Abraxas after that 2nd issue, so I can’t take any credit for the content or design of the first two issues. I think they’re thoroughly beautiful, and Fulgur Press does such a incredible job crafting them. The production value is not to be believed, with all sorts of opulent inserts and lavish papers and inks. Robert Ansell who runs Fulgur and is the Abraxas Editor-in-Chief has been adamant about creating what he calls “talismanic books,” and I think it’s clear that the journal is something special, both content-wise and as a charged object. Our upcoming issues will feel even more eclectic, I think. While we’ll continue to have serious scholars and fine artists, we’ll also be including things like a comic strip Ron Rege, Jr created for us. Not all esoterica is painted with the same dark brush, and it will be exciting to expand the spectrum a bit.
Anyhow, Robert and our other editor, Christina Oakley Harrington, invited me to join them after our paths kept crossing in the esoteric world. I’d invited Christina (who also owns the legendary Treadwell’s occult bookshop in London), to come speak at Observatory about British Bohemian Occulture, and we really clicked. We followed her talk up with dinner a few days later, and we manically discussed magic and art and women and such as though we had known each other for years. So Robert subsequently invited me to join Abraxas, largely on the recommendation of both Christina and the artist David Chaim Smith whom I’ve worked with and whose work Robert publishes. I was beside myself with joy, because I knew not only that the journal was splendid, but that I’d be working under two exceptional and truly kind people.
Thad: Your work at Phantasmaphile heavily involves the association between arts and the occult which is pretty much the same place I’m coming from. I just watched the movie The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, which I thought was a bit telling as it seemed like a plea for Genesis to appeal to the mainstream visual arts scene, and wouldn’t you know, the Occult or drugs weren’t mentioned in the entirety of the movie. I bring this up, because it’s exactly the sort of thing you were talking about in the talk I saw at the Esoteric Book Festival last year. You want to talk about the Occult whitewash in the arts a bit? It’s peculiar, because in the music world, a lot of people who aren’t into the Occult at all (especially metal bands) pretend to be as a marketing gimmick. In the visual arts it seems like you really have to disassociate with that part of your work a bit if you want it to sell.
Pam: I think it’s one of the great tragedies of humanities history, actually: the cognitive dissonance between spiritual intent and scholarly analysis. One of the reasons I put my “Occult in Modern Art 101” talk together in the first place was that there are relatively few places that explore the connections between art and the mystic experience, even though it’s obvious that so many of our most lauded artists were consciously working in an occult vein. Kandinsky spells it out blatantly in his book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art:” he was deeply influenced by Blavatsky and Besant and Leadbeater and the Theosophical movement at large. His paintings look like Thought-Forms for godssake! But to this day, when you see his work at MoMA or the Guggenheim or wherever, they’ll make at most a passing reference to his mystic interests, if any. These institutions trivialize the spiritual, because it can’t be quantified, or explained in a strictly cerebral way. They want to be “taken seriously,” and I think they perceive that talking about the occult undermines that. The subjective has very little place in a critical world. And it’s such a shame, because what Kandinsky (and the Suprematists, and the Surrealists, and the Abstract Expressionists, and on and on and on) were trying to do was to enter a transcendent, universal space, and then translate that experience through their art, so that we, the viewer, can have that sense of magic and mystery and timelessness in turn. It’s an energy transference, in other words. Their paintings are spells. They’re to be communed with, not just looked at or thought about.
And you enter a very different relationship when you approach the work in that way. One of the things I love to do is take people to visit Barnett Newman’s giant Vir, Heroicus, Sublimis at MoMa. Because if you just glance at it for a few seconds, it’s easy to dismiss it as just this very simple, big band of red with a few streaks on it, of the “my kid could do that” variety (a sentiment I have little patience for anyway). But if you stand up very close to it, as Newman intended, and let it entirely fill your field of vision, and then just let go of yourself as he’d hoped, I guarantee you will feel something, and be transported somewhere else. And that’s something I think we all do naturally as children: to let ourselves feel things, to trust in the sentient. We unlearn it as we get older, but it’s something I’m trying to help course-correct in my own small way.
In my fantasy world, we’d be encouraged to engage with works of art the same way we do with so-called religious buildings and monuments. One of the most holy places I know of is inside Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation, right near my apartment, in the Brooklyn Museum. It’s this quiet, darkened room, filled with a large, triangular table with 39 (3 multiples of 13) place settings for mythologically and historically significant females through the ages. It is an utterly resplendent, transporting temple, and I wish I could just sit inside that room all day and contemplate and meditate. I long to leave flowers there, burn a candle, make an offering. I adore museums, and am very grateful we have them, but so often they’re set up in such a way that the visitor is supposed to take in as much work as she can, in the quickest time possible, and then move along. I’d love to see more opportunities for people to comfortably spend real time with the works that speak to them.
That said, there are many artists today who are openly and unapologetically working with occult imagery and techniques: Jesse Bransford, Fredrik Söderberg, Carrie Ann Baade, Frank Haines, Adela Leibowitz, to name just a few. I’ve been fortunate to be able to show some of their pieces in my own exhibitions that I’ve curated over the years at Observatory and elsewhere. But I do think the bigger institutions are slowly but surely starting to embrace this work. PS1 had a Kenneth Anger retrospective recently, and there have been several big exhibitions in Europe about witches and secret societies and such over the past few years. There are shows on Austin Osman Spare and Ithell Colquhoun coming up later this year, and right now in Chelsea there at least 3 occult or occult-leaning artists who have shows up I need to see. So it’s an exciting time, and it will be fascinating to watch it continue to unfold.
Thad: Who’s cooler, Grant Morrison or Alan Moore? I love them both, and I’m not going to lead you as to who’s my favorite, but who’s yours and why?
Pam: Easily Alan Moore. One word: Promethea. That comics series is hands down one of the most excellent treatises on magic ever created (and credit must be given to JH Williams III, John Coulthart, and the other artists who helped make it look as striking as Moore’s words merited.) It’s an illuminated manuscript. Though we’ve never met, I consider Moore to be one of my most important teachers. Both through his writing, and via his interviews, – the one he did in Arthur 10 years back is a favorite – he so clearly and wonderfully articulates what is, to me, one of the most important tenants of living: that art and magic are essentially the same thing. And that imagination is the ultimate vehicle for creating a new world.
Also, he just cracks me the hell up. I don’t tend to trust people who take themselves too seriously, or try to sell the guru brand. A big lesson I’ve learned, and keep learning, is that the deepest wisdom often grows out of the mercurial soil of the trickster. If someone can make me laugh while sneaking sacred truths in between punchlines, then I’m riveted. Kerouac liked the “mad ones.” I much prefer the playful.