“VULNERARY” AND AN ART WITCH
by Laura Mecklenburger
When I try to describe my artwork to others, I often say that I make ritual objects and installation art. But I didn’t set out to make installation art from the beginning, and I certainly didn’t expect, when I decided to make art my career, that it was going to explicitly include magic and ritual. I still blush when I tell people I am an initiated witch. I am faintly surprised at myself that I have made such an intimate part of my life so public. But the path I took to reach this work has felt inevitable and rewarding. As my favorite author, Neil Gaiman, told the graduating class at the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia, “The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside . . . [is] the moment you may be starting to get it right.”
I didn’t plan this either, but after spending two years building a portfolio on my own in Philadelphia, I spent four years in graduate school for fine art, in three different ceramics programs. While making art nearly all day every day for that long, with little privacy, losing sleep, and arguing for my work in critiques and on paper, I realized that my art had to be personally fulfilling, as well as “good,” to give me the energy and courage to continue. Art school can help distill your work into a clear and focused voice, and research and experience can teach you what it takes to “make it” in the art world, but I knew that neither the quality of my art nor the success of a career could make me happy by themselves. One can be famous and brilliant and still miserable.
I believe (and positive psychology research backs me up) that one of the main keys to happiness in life is to find something that comes naturally to you, and then offer it to others who need or want it, and I don’t just mean for its market value. It could be heart surgery, office management, baking really good cupcakes, or union organizing. It doesn’t matter how much it pays, or how much society rewards it, or whether you’re performing in stadiums or raising a single child, as long as you feel like you’re offering something from your deepest self that others need. Okay; easier said than done. “I am making art” is far too vague. What kind of art comes from my deepest self and is rewarding in this way? If art is my life, what kind of a life do I want? It took me years to ask these questions honestly, and to begin to answer them.
I fell in love with art as a very young child, and it is in my childhood that I began to find answers. I’ve always found some of my deepest satisfaction in making things as gifts for those I care about, especially if it was something they were going to use. Also, I’ve always admired artists—including songwriters, authors, and filmmakers—who created and wrote things that deeply resonated with others. I craved art that makes you feel less alone, that works as protective armor or pulls the floor out from under you, art that feels like it has colors you’ve never seen before. Art that opens a door and makes life bigger or richer or stranger, somehow. And often, when my favorite artists make this world-deepening art, it starts to form a community around them, or it is in response to a close community, and community and artist become a kind of symbiotic system. This is something else that positive psychology research considers a vital way to happiness. Even if I’m going to spend much of my time alone in the studio (which I love to do), I want to be connected and reaching out, as well.
Graduate school was a lonely experience for me. True, I had incredible new friends and mentors, and the school communities were vibrant. However, the work and stress made it difficult for me to keep in touch with family and older friends, and the competition and internal turmoil sometimes made me feel isolated and alienated among people who didn’t yet know me well. I had to move too often. I felt uprooted. At the same time, a few of my dearest friends and my family, far away, were going through extremely rough times—with rape, suicide attempts, and cancer—and I felt helpless to support them. I wasn’t able to be home as long as I wished, with my grieving family, as we dealt with the death of my grandfather. I watched the Occupy movement unfold online, wishing desperately that my own personal goals weren’t keeping me from participating on the street. I worried for my friends who were Occupying as activists and medics, some of them transwomen and people of color who were especially vulnerable to police attack or harassment. I felt a fierce tenderness and empathy for the struggles going on around me, and fury at the structures that caused them.
In response, I started making my art more and more about relationships and community. I made an alchemy-inspired piece to help people going through difficult personal transformations, based on an imagined ritual using the human digestive system. I built shrines dedicated to the protection of loved ones and vulnerable communities, especially relating to queer and trans issues and survivors of assault, using the forms of butterfly chrysalises and insect larvae. I made porcelain armor to shield people from emotional attack. I made ceramic and mixed media amulets and ritual vessels designed for specific people I knew. Finally, I turned the gallery into a temple with a shrine dedicated to everything that viewers/participants wanted to protect and nurture, and defense against harm. I called the shrine “Vulnerary,” an old medical term meaning anything that soothes and aids in healing, such as aloe vera.
“Vulnerary” was a culmination of nearly everything I learned in graduate school and in Philadelphia. In several ways, it was a blueprint for how I want my work to continue. “Vulnerary” was a ten foot long, four foot tall, over 700-pound terracotta shrine in the form of weathered, rotting tree roots. It had realistic wood-like detail and a glowing, deep reddish tone created by washes of india ink over the bare orange clay. I spent three weeks barefoot, coil-building its facade in my studio with coils of clay the size of small pythons. Hidden in crevices, among the roots, and hanging from protrusions were small amulets, talismans, and garlands that I hand made out of porcelain, spices, and other media. These represented specific hopes, dreams, things to be protected, and protective charms. Multiple sharpened steel spikes emerged from the top with papers impaled on them representing things that people wanted to defeat. Japanese incense burned from the shrine’s sides, ritual vessels held mysterious contents, and a vast sweep of black linen cloth stretched down the back of the shrine and across the room. There was a pillowy, white cushion underneath the shrine for people to kneel upon, edged in piles of cloves and cinnamon. I surrounded the walls with an incantation I had composed and hand written, I worked all night drawing patterns of energies across most of the gallery floor in dry brown quinoa with my bare hands, and I invited people to bring in their own offerings to leave on the shrine during the opening and every day. At the opening, I led a dedication ritual, singing and blessing the shrine with a coven of witches and with the help of a trance-inducing performance by a professional tuba player, my amazing friend Sean Kennedy. The warmly lit gallery became a temple.
I have been forming my own visual and sensory vocabulary to communicate my own experience and practice of magic. The plant and animal sources I use in reality or in image—like real seed pods and bones, or ceramic garlic cloves and hand-sculpted maggots—I research thoroughly. I use them with layers of meaning: scientific, cultural, metaphorical, personal. Certain categories have become fixations of mine. For instance, I know a bit too much about fungi and lichens of all kinds, the life cycles and dwellings of insects, herbal medicine, and the morphology of bones. I also have become particularly focused on religions and magical systems that give me useful frameworks, for instance Shinto, Yoruba, alchemy, and the Judaism with which I was raised. I do my best never to appropriate imagery from others’ beliefs, but instead to honor them. And I try to make sure that my work still has plenty to offer a non-believer.
This work is never just metaphysical and personal, it is political. By making and promoting ritual art I want to work towards society’s acceptance of the open expression of beliefs and promote respect for traditional and unique craft and art made by every class and gender. I believe that valuing world cultures in art can also influence how we interact with those societies, for instance by respecting intellectual property rights when pharmaceutical companies use indigenous knowledge or by helping to preserve native languages and traditions. If we cling to words like “primitive” and “superstition” and think of people who live in the present as some kind of remnant of the past, we disrespect and dehumanize people and discount efforts to strengthen their communities and rights. This includes every community from the San, to the Hopi, to the Hoodoo root workers, to the traditional Irish, to the Tibetan monks. No one should be seen as backwards for learning and sharing non-Western wisdom. A vision of the world’s future must be an inclusive vision, in art as in everything.
When I made the transition from thinking about my art as metaphorical to actively practicing magic and ritual with it, I felt the way I feel when I’ve lost my voice for a long time and finally get it back. I wrote to my graduate committee that in discarding the framework of surrealism, “My artwork just woke up.” And as I researched to support the validity of what I was doing, I discovered that I was echoing most of art history. Most of the history of art, including its present reality in many parts of the world, is art in the service of religion, magic, and the spiritual world, but contemporary “ritual art” is often marginalized in today’s art world. I am in awe of those artists who are already well-known for making contemporary ritual art, artists like Lucas Samaras, Pedro Reyes, Huang Yong Ping (especially his “House of Oracles” and “Pharmacy” series), installation artist Renee Stout, and Ana Mendieta. The research I did to combat the resistance to my work over the years in graduate school became a passion of mine, itself, and I would love to teach a class in ritual art, history, and critical theory. My oral thesis defense was so long and full of quotes that my graduate committee gently cut me off in the middle, told me I’d said enough, and suggested that my defense was already a course curriculum. I delivered a much shorter version in a lecture about the relevance of contemporary ritual art at the National Conference on Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA), and I got an overwhelmingly positive response.
After graduating with my MFA from Penn State University, I felt that, far more than kilns or residencies, I needed community. So, I moved back to West Philadelphia and devoted myself to my neighborhood, a community full of magic and queer pride and DIY spirit, and genuine, unconditional affection. I have especially fallen in love with my “Faemily,” the Philadelphia Radical Faeries. My recent art is solely in non-ceramic materials such as yarn, paper, spices, and beads; in particular, I’m crafting custom wands for friends and ritual jewelry. I just had the wonderful opportunity this January to do an installation at a fundraising art event, the monthly Get Lucid Activist Dance Party. I called it the “Wishing Lines,” and really, it is a simplified and more colorful version of some of the ideas behind “Vulnerary.” Participants wrote their wishes and hopes for others on colored paper tags and hung them on the gold-edged “Lines,” creating a jewel-toned haven of sacred space on the margin of the party. It was an amazing experience with over 200 people participating. I felt that I had tested the waters for the potential of future large interventions, and received a resounding “yes!”
My current work represents the loving, ecstatic, and welcoming community I have found here in Philadelphia. Now that I have begun to make a place for myself, I want to give back with all of the experience and skill I have. I recently organized and led an amulet-making workshop in my own neighborhood, similar to one I’d led in the midst of “Vulnerary.” It went so well that I have decided to do more of these. Also, I’ve met so many amazing artists here whose interests intersect with mine, and I hope to collaborate. And finally, I feel that I need to go back to ceramics soon; some things just work better in clay. I want to make ritual vessels for healing tea and herbal medicine, for instance, and also to make some objects that survive outdoors. I miss the potter’s wheel and the sensuousness of carving porcelain. Clay has even become part of my magical practice, and I will probably never stray too far away from it now.
I might be seen as following multiple paths, but to me, these paths are all facets of the same identity. I am a fine artist, and also a local witch who wants to serve her community, and an academic theorist, and a teacher. I could be none of these things in the same way without the others. I loved teaching ceramics classes when I was a grad student at Penn State, and now that I have amassed all of this technical and scholarly treasure, I’m not just going to sit on it silently forever. However, I won’t go back to academia until I feel like I have more to offer than theory and technique. I want to bring my real experience of this witchy, connected, city life to students, too. I want to hold nothing back.
Laura Mecklenburger is a recent MFA graduate in Ceramics at Penn State University, living in Philadelphia. Her ritual-based installations and objects consist of mixed media and works on paper as well as clay, and sometimes involve performance. Mecklenburger has taught introductory Ceramics at Penn State and with the Claymobile outreach program at the Clay Studio, and she has presented on the topic of ritual in art at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA). Mecklenburger received her BA at Swarthmore College, and went on to study at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Tyler School of Art before arriving at Penn State. She hopes to build an integrated art practice that truly serves the community.
Author’s photo by TCD Photography.