Esoteric Practices, Occult Arts, and The Year of the Witch…
by Elizabeth Torres
Pam Grossman is an independent curator, writer, and lifelong student of magical practice and history. She is the creator of Phantasmaphile, a blog which specializes in art and culture with an esoteric or fantastical bent, and the Associate Editor of Abraxas International Journal of Esoteric Studies. As co-founder of the Brooklyn arts & lecture space, Observatory, her programming aims to explore mysticism via a scholarly yet accessible approach. She lectures on such topics as “The Occult in Modern Art 101,” and teaches classes on herbalism and ritual.
Q: You are a writer, a curator and a lifelong student of magical practice and history. Indeed quite a busy life. Especially keeping in mind the city where all this takes place. In a city so full of movement, how do you find the balance to focus on these studies? Does the rhythm of the city affect your internal research… do you find New York to be a channeling place, is it the opposite, or is it neutral?
This is something I think about quite a lot actually: how to stay “balanced” in general, but also in the context of living a very urban life. The best answer that I’ve come up with thus far, I actually learned from my teacher, the wisewoman Robin Rose Bennett. She taught me that balance is stagnant, and frankly, not a very realistic goal: life is constantly in flux, so we have to continually recalibrate. But what we can strive for is equilibrium. It’s a much more fluid concept, and I think as a paradigm, is also a much more forgiving way of looking at life. It implies that life is kinetic and always changing, but that we can use our awareness and other tools to keep ourselves in relationship with it in a fulfilling and healthy way.
New York can certainly be a challenging place to live, and I definitely need to escape into the countryside to unplug when I can. But on the whole, I find it to be an incredibly magical and energizing place to call home. The island of Manhattan is filled with quartz crystals and garnets! So that’s a heck of a powerful charge right there, energetically speaking. But what truly keeps me feeling vital is a combination of being around art (and this city has some of the finest “art temples” in the world), being in nature, keeping my spiritual and creative practices consistent, and getting enough quiet time. Baths and books are my tethers, and keep me from vaporizing into a stress-cloud.
Q: Let’s talk about your writing. Could you tell us about your work? Does it relate to your esoteric practice/research? Does one influence the other? Is there a specific purpose or message in your body of work?
Growing up, I was constantly writing stories and poems, and being “a writer” became a real self-identifier for me throughout adolescence. I was also really lucky that I had a few teachers who really believed in me, and encouraged me to go to workshops and readings and festivals and such in jr high and high school. I studied creative writing in college, and assumed I would double-major in that and English, but then I quickly realized I was actually more interested in studying myth and ritual and symbol than I was in deconstructing novels. So I ended up just taking classes in things that intrigued me, and cobbled together a sort of odd, yet ultimately rewarding degree with a major in Cultural Anthropology, and triple-minors in Art History, Religious Studies, and Creative Writing. It was incredible to me how often what I’d be learning in any given class would be in dialog with the others. I managed to accidentally build this eco-system for myself where all of this knowledge would cross-pollinate. In retrospect, I realize now what I was trying to study is, well, magic and creativity. And that’s what I’m doing to this day.
I still write poetry and stories, though have been keeping that more private these days. That may change. But I have been publicly writing articles which look at esotericism through a contemporary lens. Primarily essays on topics such as the archetype of the witch, pagan rituals, art as a magical act, and so on. And as the Associate Editor for Abraxas Esoteric Journal, I’ve been doing interviews with and writings about contemporary occult artists.
And yes, my practice and my creative projects very much feed one another. They live in that imaginal realm, and I have to keep both well-tended and verdant.
Q: Let’s talk about your esoteric studies. When or how did you get started? Was it an Aha! Moment, something you always wanted to do, or did specific circumstances or events lead to you choosing to follow these studies?
Definitely not an Aha moment, though that would make for a much more dramatic story! It was a far more gradual expansion. I’ve been obsessed with magic and myth literally for as long as I can remember. I was a lucky kid, in that I had (and still have!) very artistic, loving parents, so I spent loads of time in museums and libraries and book shops. But I always gravitated toward fantastical books and magical emblems and surreal artworks, for whatever reason. And was constantly making art and creating little rituals and living in a highly imaginative space. It was a revelation, though, to realize that there were, in fact, “serious” books on these topics, which I got to delve into later in life, at college. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell were real light-bringers for me, and of course they led to the huge canon of esoteric literature and scholarship that’s still being added to to this day.
Q: A must-ask question I guess has to do with personal experiences. We are all suckers for these kinds of stories. Could you share with us memories or anecdotes, synchronicities, interdimensional experiences, lucid dreaming experimentation, or any kind of vision or surreal situation you have experienced?
I’m not shy about talking about these, and I have many of these types of anecdotes, but I do struggle with the fact that recounting these experiences is innately dissatisfying, both from the teller’s and the listener’s perspectives. Something inevitably gets lots in translation. I suppose that’s how we know they’re examples of the sublime: because language fails them.
So with that giant caveat…! What’s coming to me right now are all the synchronicities and signs that occurred throughout my engagement and wedding in 2010. There were dozens of them, but I’ll list a few biggies:- First off, my husband (who it must be said, is extremely supportive of my passions but not really “into this stuff himself,” as he would put it) proposed to me on May 1st, having no idea it was Beltane, the most magical, love-filled holy day on the wheel. When I realized it myself, I felt pretty dumbstruck. It got things off on the right foot, to say the least.
– We were originally planning on getting married a year later, but the venue we liked (which was out of our budget) told us they had a cancellation, and that if we took the date, they could give us a huge discount. The date ended up being October 16th, which was our 6 year anniversary of dating! So we took that as a big sign.
– I ended up getting an off-the-rack wedding dress, and later realized the label said the dress style was “The White Queen,” which is an extremely alchemical image, and a particularly apt one as we had a lot of alchemical symbolism in our ceremony.- My spirit animal is the deer, and we had two deer on our wedding invitations. The night before the wedding, Matt was driving me and my bridesmaids home from dinner, and two deer crossed our path! A wonderful omen.- My Grandpa Morty, who loved Matt, passed away a few months before our wedding. My mom told me that a seat was unintentionally left next to her during the wedding ceremony, and she realized afterwards it was where my grandpa would have been sitting, and so he was in fact there in spirit. Then, Matt and I borrowed my parents’ car after the wedding, and we were driving upstate to a b&b for a little getaway. I was thrilled from the weekend of course, but also feeling wistful that my grandpa hadn’t been there. We stopped along the highway for gas, and I opened the glove compartment for something, and suddenly my grandpa’s hearing aids came tumbling out! I burst into tears, because there was no question in my mind that it was his way of telling me that he had been there, and that he had heard the whole thing.
Q: Do you have a routine incorporated in your daily life to include your magical practices? Do you have a specific style? If so, has it been developed on your own or is it based on other mentors, disciplines, etc?
My style is a real amalgam that’s based on equal parts study and intuition. I have an altar I work with very actively, even if that means just checking in with it daily. I celebrate the holy days of the wheel, and also work in tandem with the lunar phases. And I have a few sacred spots both in my neighborhood, and in Manhattan that I work with very mindfully. I’ve had a lifetime of practicing and studying and taking classes on esotericism, as well as apprenticing in a 3-year green witch circle with Robin Rose Bennett, whom I mentioned earlier.
But I also trust my gut when it comes to knowing when or where or how to do a particular working. In other words, my instinct trumps the guidelines and correspondences given in books. I don’t believe in absolutes. Symbols are a living system, and they respond well to being interacted with. I work with symbols and deities from all different paths. Some people dismiss this as grazing at the spiritual salad bar, but not me. I think we can do no better than to trust the images that call to us. And to figure out how to work with them, and put them in dialog with each other. These symbols can be from dreams, stories, nature, scraps of songs… I’m not concerned with where they come from. I’m more interested in paying attention when they arrive.
Magic is symbolic action with intent. It’s a relationship, and from my experience, it seems to thrive when its personalized. If I suddenly feel called to work with Quan Yin, for example – as is happening to me currently – I know that means it’s time for me to get to know her and spend time with her. She actually introduced herself to me for Beltane this year. Now, you don’t have to tell me that she comes from a different “system” and hugely nuanced Eastern context. I have deep respect for history, for tradition, for scholarship. That said, she’s the goddess of mercy and compassion. She sits on a pink lotus. She is heart, she is love. And she showed up for me this year, and beautifully so, for Beltane, a Gaelic spring festival. She didn’t seem to care that she was originally from a Buddhist path! She was more interested in teaching me about how forgiveness and self-care and creativity are all interconnected, and how we flourish when we tend to ourselves and to one another with compassion.
Q: In your opinion, what are the most important elements to keep in mind when exploring mysticism? Is there a linear way, or does each person define the way to pursue these studies?
I genuinely believe you just need to trust your intuition, and follow that which resonates with you. There’s no one way in. Certainly you can decide to devote yourself to one tradition, or to incorporate many, or to change over time. You can study very formally if you wish. But ultimately, the real work is about devoting time and awareness to that which calls to you. Books and teachers help, absolutely. But I think they can’t replace actual experience.
I do think it’s crucial that you make sacred space for yourself. That can be a meditation or mantra, a visualization, or a literal, physical space you sacralize, like a circle or altar. Before a working, I try and purify myself, usually with a smoke smudge or a salt bath. And I cast circle. But other people have other methods. Essentially, it’s about creating a demarcation for oneself between the material and the spiritual worlds. And it keeps things healthy and clear and focused.
Q: In our time, is it difficult to filter content due to the excess of information? Are there any role models or mentors who helped your personal search? What about books, movies and other study material that influenced you?
Absolutely. I think we’re all overwhelmed by too much information in general! But I think that’s also why we’re seeing an upsurge in the pagan, the occult, the spiritual. We’re longing for meaning. We’re longing for sensuality to help combat the digital overload. We’re longing for nature.
But in terms of filtering content re: esoteric studies, for me, it always comes back to books and art work in general. The internet is great in that it can introduce you to new concepts, and connect you to new communities. But it can’t replace the experience of standing in front of an actual work of art, and letting it affect you. It can’t replace reading books and taking notes and absorbing information in a slow, savoring way.
There are too many influential books and films and such for me to name them all. My personal teachers and friends include Kim Thorpe, Alice Richter, John Lach, the late Lois Hirshkowitz, Robin Rose Bennett, Mitch Horowitz, & Jesse Bransford. My spiritual teachers include the female surrealist painters, especially Remedios Varo & Leonora Carrington, Tom Robbins, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Alan Moore, Lynda Barry, Tori Amos, Neil Gaiman, Polly Jean Harvey, Roald Dahl, Michael Ende, & Monica Furlong.
Q: Why are some people more receptive to visions / encounters / psychic experiences than others? Do you think some people are just psychic beings and others aren’t? Are there techniques or exercises to augment clarity or vision for those interested in being more open and receptive?
I’m afraid I don’t have the answers to this one in terms of the why. But I believe meditation and devoting time to cultivating spiritual practice can certainly help.
Q: In your blog, you posted an amazing article announcing that this was the “Year of the Witch”, which is how I found you once it was reposted on Disinfo. Could you tell us a bit more about what you meant? I’m also curious about its effect on the online world, (as well as offline) connections and succession of events after you made this announcement. Do you have any other predictions, recommendations or advice for this year?
Thank you, I’m glad it resonated with you. It was, essentially, a summary of the ways in which the archetype of the witch is blazing brightly this year, via TV shows, films, fashion, and how it seems to me a sign of this deep vein of female re-empowerment that we seem to be collectively tapping into – spiritually, culturally, and politically. It’s definitely was one of my most popular posts, and got shared around quite a bit. It seemed to click with a lot of people, and folks still continue to want to discuss it, which I think is great. And a real affirmation that other people are picking up on this as well.
I do think we’re going to keep seeing a lot of old systems break down, and it’s going to be painful, especially as materialism and fear and greed keep roaring and gnashing their teeth as they fall. But that the rise of feminine power (for women AND men) will be incredibly healing. We’re collectively trying to reach that equilibrium I mentioned earlier.Q: It seems the role of creation is very important in your life. How is this intertwined with your magical practices? You also promote creativity through classes such as “The Occult in Modern Art 101” and through your work as a curator, where you present artists who include symbolism and occult information in their art. Could you tell us about what you have discovered while joining these two worlds? Common treats of artists who follow occult sciences, styles, practices, etc?
Mainly that art is a spell. That the act of creation is a magical act. And when a work is infused with focus and intention, it affects both the artist and the viewer in a way that changes both.And likewise, magic is art, not science. While it does seem to have some “rules” or principles, it really works best when it’s mixed with the practitioner’s personal touches. Poetry, painting, decorating, music, and the like are wonderful enhancements for any working.
Q: Are there any specific artists you recommend?
Oh plenty! Far too many to list in any comprehensive way. Off the top of my head: Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Dorothea Tanning, Hilma af Klimt, Agnes Pelton, Albert von Keller, Jesse Bransford, Fredrik Soderberg, David Chaim Smith, Adela Leibowitz, Ron Rege Jr, Panos Tsagaris, Shannon Taggart, Theo Ellsworth, Judy Chicago, Kiki Smith, Lynda Barry, Ann McCoy, Lori Field, Susan Jamison, Miriam Wosk, Laura Battle, Judith Schaechter, Madeline von Foerster, Fred Tomaselli, Paul Laffoley, Emma Kunz, and anyone else I’ve featured on Phantasmaphile.
Q: Please tell us about upcoming shows and projects related to art:
Well, the biggest thing I’m cooking up right now is the Occult Humanities Conference, which I’m co-organizing with Jesse Bransford at NYU, and which will be October 18-20. It’s shaping up to be a pretty tremendous gathering some of the finest esoteric minds around today. There will be presentations about artists and historical figures who have shaped the contemporary occult world as we know it. Details to come! And I have two art shows percolating at the moment, one for fall and one for next year, both at Observatory, the arts and event space I co-run. But it’s a bit too soon to announce them just yet.
And of course, I’m always working on the latest issue of Abraxas, which focuses a great deal on esoteric artists. I just finished up my interview with Panos Tsagaris, and I’m excited to introduce his work to a wider audience. He’s an alchemist indeed.
Q: Let’s give our readers a bit of practical advice, for those who are curious about the world of the occult. What they should look for or expect? What to be aware of? Are there any physical, emotional or life changes that occur when opening the doors to esoteric practices?
Well, in addition to what I’ve already touched on, I would suggest they immediately:
1. Start keeping a journal or notebook. Just a place to keep track of images, synchronicities, dreams, general notes. It’s important to be able to write these things down, so we can remember them, work through them, and reflect on them. It’s always amazing to go back and read the journals, too, and see what patterns emerge.
2. Create some sacred space in your home. Even if it’s just the tiniest shelf or corner of a windowsill. This will be your altar. I live in a Brooklyn apartment, I know firsthand it’s not easy to find the room. But it’s incredible what happens when you have an area designated only for spiritual purposes. You can put anything you feel called to there: a candle, stones, scraps of paper with holy words on them, deities, feathers, whatever. You can rearrange it as you feel you need to, or just keep it the same, that’s up to you. But whenever you need to charge something, want to manifest something, or just need to touch in with Spirit, you can use this space.
3. Keep track of nature, and the seasons. It’s astounding to me both how disconnected we can all be from this, but also how simple it is to get back into its rhythms. Personally, I also keep track of the moon cycle and eclipses and such as well. But even doing a small ritual to mark summer, say, or to celebrate the colors changing on a tree, can have such a deep impact on ones own spirit.
4. Follow the cosmic breadcrumbs. By which I mean: you will undoubtedly start seeing certain images or words or colors or numbers crop up for yourself over and over again. Pay attention to this. Let it lead you forward. Do you keep noticing white pigeons everywhere? Maybe start researching their occurances in mythology. Does the number 12 keep showing up? Do you feel drawn to a certain painting in a museum? Write this down. Meditate on this. Research this. Follow this. Trust this There is some lesson there for you, or some guidepost letting you know you’re on the right path.
5. Stay grounded. It’s great if you go off into the ether for a bit, but its important to reintegrate what you learn, and apply it to your material life. Did you hang out with a boddhisatva for a while in a meditation? Bully for you! 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’ve met quite a few folks who think they’re “mystics,” but act like chumps. Pay your rent. Show up when you say you will. Respect boundaries. Be kind. I’m far more interested in that stuff than in hearing about your communion with Hecate.
– I’ll be teaching Summer Solstice Ritual Workshop on Friday, June 21 at Observatory: http://observatoryroom.org/2013/05/27/summer-solstice/
– I’ll be a panelist on The Keys to the Occult & The Evolution of Consciousness onThursday, June 27 at the Meta Center: http://metacenterny.com/home-2/calendar-of-events/june-2013/
– I’ll be hosting Mitch Horowitz’s lecture, Real Magic: The Life and Methods of Neville Goddard at Observatory on Fri, June 28th.
– And I’m co-organizing the Occult Humanities Conference at NYU, which will be taking place on October 18-20: http://www.sevenseven.com/occult-humanities/