Letty LaGrange lived in a run-down, baby-blue trailer across the street from my childhood home. Mrs. LaGrange was a traiteur — a kind of folk doctor specializing in faith healing particular to the Cajun culture of South Louisiana. A childhood friend of mine once visited her with an ugly case of coup-de-soleil, or heat stroke. The practice of traiteurs is syncretic, combining different beliefs and various schools of thought. Uniting the folk medicine of their ancestors with French Catholicism, traiteurs utilize techniques like “laying on of hands'' or even “smoking a baby”: burning local herbs and infant hair to cure teething pains. Traiteurs do not receive any form of payment for their services. The services, they believe, are not truly theirs; they are simply vessels performing the work of a higher power. If a person cannot come to visit the traiteur, she can treat them by “praying on the name” from her home — a mediation that requires its recipients to believe in the traiteur’s healing abilities. Without faith, the intercession won’t work.
Some of this magical thinking recently appeared on my Buffalo doorstep via the strangely synchronous arrival of two gifts: the first, from a writer, a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, and the second, from my partner, a deck of tarot cards (following the old adage that you must be gifted your first deck as opposed to purchasing it yourself). Maybe the same rules of acquisition exist for the saintly figurine, or so I’d like to think. Both objects yield magical contemplation, a sacred respect toward the Unseen. As tools of guidance, both the tarot and saintly statuary provide a secret knowledge through their representation of archetypes. After all, the archetype becomes such through the repetition of representations, patterns in characteristics, attitudes, behavior, and overarching narratives. Yet there is a convenient gap, a hollow for our own audacious stories to fill within the archetype; our dreams, desires, and despairs nestle in the outline.
As a child I was fascinated with Saint Francis, a symptom of my Catholic school education and continuous visits to Christian bookstores. The Children’s Picture Books of Saints helped me visualize these mythical figures, eyes forlorn and palms stigmatized, all arched toward the heavens. Most of these illustrations alluded to obtaining some form of grace: an invisible presence of inner stillness received by those who surrender themselves to God. For All Saints’ Day, students dressed as their favorite saints and paraded the half-mile trek from the Catholic school to the church for a ceremonial mass honoring our patrons. This Christian holiday immediately follows the now fully secularized All Hallows’ Eve. The profane meets the sacred! We all transformed our monsters into monks, ghouls became martyrs, an inverted Jeykll/Hyde conversion on the threshold of October and November. I would borrow an altar server’s robe and sash to dress as Saint Francis, tucking a stuffed Simba doll under my arm. I refrained from a tonsure, but I now wish I would’ve been bold enough to paint my palms crimson.
Although my costume was bare bones, it was enough to facilitate transformation: it mimicked that of the provided archetype. In essence, my hermitage of costumed saintliness mirrored my experience of formative education. I kept to myself, too limp-wristed and book-wormish to play with the boys. With time, I realized that I was content with my introversion; it gave me more room to imagine as a child. During mass, my eyes often watered from the incense. I consciously rubbed them until organic bubbles of purply blue-blacks all outlined in algae green bloomed across my vision. Am I bearing witness to a miracle? I wondered. Is this what the Soul looks like? I confirmed both of these questions with a resounding, Yes, holy shit! I secretly rejoiced in obtaining these newly discovered abilities, this hidden knowledge. Classmates stared at me, concerned about the red-eyed Franciscan that appeared before them.
Filmmaker and artist Alejandro Jodorowsky states that the tarot is a means for building a soul through the inner union of archetypes and symbols. The tarot’s twenty-two Major Arcana explore some of humanity's most penetrating spiritual questions. Naturally, I gravitate toward the archetype of the Hermit. This ninth Arcanum — a solitary man with lamp, mantle, and staff — appears to be doing one thing: he is simply walking. The Hermit manifests a third space between thinking and action, between knowledge and will; he synthesizes these into a space of the heart. It is the heart that turns know-ledge into will, contemplation into action. It is the heart that walks steady and without haste. To believe with one’s whole heart is to suspend one’s own limited conception of possibility, to feel the unwavering potential of destiny. The heart is simultaneously active and contemplative.2 It is why the Hermit, the wise father of practical intuition, walks so steadily.
Not so different from the Hermit, I find myself contemplating how a soul can persist in the ruinous depths of this world, how a body houses its own consciousness, and how much more I treasure mystery over certainty — the latter being too painfully ironic during such uncertain times. I often blush just imagining speaking about the soul among my peers, particularly artists. Has general cynicism and our modern conception of existence extinguished this fascinating inquiry? Of course, I understand their skepticism. The soul is perceived as too mystical, maudlin, and immaterial for serious scholarly consideration. Somewhere along the road, we lost interest in the gnostic and traded its mystery for the certainty of modernity, placing ourselves at the center of the universe. All of this meditation, arriving on the doorstep of my North Park home via Amazon Prime and USPS.
Considering the home as a multiuse space feels old hat after a year of its necessary conversion into makeshift offices, living room gyms, and proxy movie theaters. Isolated like modern stylites, we’re forced repeatedly to evaluate our relationship to the outside world from indoors. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I quickly found myself fatigued from doomscrolling. Each news alert became a rude jerk, catastrophe just the swipe of a finger away. The idea of returning to this space as a respite after a long day now feels foreign. How can the domestic reclaim its sacredness? After a year of isolation, tragic loss, global outbreak, false information, economic downturn, ongoing climate disaster, and a reckoning with the insidious virus known as white supremacy, quarantine has become a hermetic exile for reflection on questions surrounding ritual, community, attention, and protection.
The inaugural exhibition at Kingfish — a project space I cofounded and operate with architect Adam Thibodeaux in our North Park home — Praying on the Name investigates these questions and how the current moment necessitates a reevaluation of our ways of communication. Here, letter writing emerges as a mode of address equal parts anachronistic and intimate. Via snail mail, we invited dear artist friends to send us a talisman of their own making or a found object that provides luck, magic, and protection.
Alex Jackson folds the sense of smell into Heirloom for Breakfast and Treasure Hunting (2021) by rubbing perfumes belonging to his parents onto an antique Dutch guilder coin suspended from a silver chain. Scent is the strongest of the five senses when it comes to triggering recollection, and with this process Jackson envelopes the worn-down heirloom’s own mythology of inheritance and familial protection with aromatic veils of memory and history. The wearability of the chain brings up notions of transience, portability, and distance from one’s family.
Amaryllis deJesus Moleski is also interested in mythmaking and how ritual requires belief in the unseen. With Ceiling Scratcher (appeasing the ghost) (2020), a clawed hand emerges from a sequined wrist which emerges from a fragment of bone. A plastic gemstone sits in the middle of the bone, and a fiery braided hair extension serves as a hanging wire. This appendage emphasizes the paradoxical presence of an absent body while alluding to some form of sacrifice, dismemberment, disembodiment. Who did this arm belong to and why was it uncoupled? Acrylic fingernails claw into the wall, animating the object and creating a sense of its own autonomy (think of The Addams Family’s Thing but more flamboyantly sinister). The sequins refract light off this phantom limb and onto the walls and ceiling; the piece creates its own environment.
If Moleski presents the disembodied arm, then Gerald Sheffield II shows us what it’s holding: the brush. With albatross (2020), the head of a much-used paintbrush ending in a purple screw leans against a wall. Historical painting pedagogy conceives of the brush as lengthening the limb in service of the indexical. The painter’s traditional tool for formalizing subjectivity is suddenly itself made into the subject. Like any querent using a divination tool, the brush asks of its maker, Can you trust what you can’t see? For the painter, how does one make something appear that previously wasn’t present? Sheffield’s work pushes back against homogenized Western conceptions of figurative painting. It is through the wielding of the tool that the artist is able to create new symbols and signifiers, ones that destabilize our conception of the “fixed.”
Emile Mausner makes painterly objects and personal relics examining the private self made public. She directly samples Nietzsche’s philosophical text Human, All Too Human in her work of the same name (2020), crafting her own object of aspirational and tragic freedom — a prop imitating the secret it claims to hold. This handmade paperback employs sculptural and painterly strategies: wax, papier-mâché, and watercolor heighten its uncanniness. Referencing Nietzsche through a critical lens, the sculpture operates as a mimetic symbol of self-recognition through the act of reading and interpolating.
Azza El Siddique offers a galvanized metal ouroboros, an ancient Egyptian symbol of the beginning and end of time, in All that which is and all this is not (2020). Ideas of absence and presence serve as conceptual and formal devices within her practice. Steel frameworks carve out spaces for sacred contemplation. Within these sites, Azza transports material from one state to another: mist fills a room, water mobilizes, smell holds conceptual dimensions.
Julia Rooney’s Waiting Game (01) (2020) — a gouache painting on game tiles embedded in a coarse surface — examines the vitality of touch through the visual. Abstract forms in blues, pinks, and reds suggest brick-like bending walls or plump lips that meet where the tiles abut against one another. The title of the piece, and its constitutive domino tiles, allude to patience and the importance of occupying one’s time with contemplative distraction. How does the artist occupy the contemplative parameters of not only the studio but also quarantine? The act of painting a game piece provides an opening to consider what abstracted forms of play you can generate for yourself. Touch seems vital here — a domino is painted with a level of care while the pulpy surface alludes to a decomposing wall; you can almost feel the weight of the enamel piece in your hand. Dragging your vision across its gritty border, the eye becomes palm.
Maya Strauss utilizes sympathetic magic to shape her sculptures and paintings. Disparate words — SYMPATHETIC, MIMETIC, AGNES, REST — weave between various trinkets: bobby pins, buttons, keys, and coins. The jug alludes to a specific time, perhaps this past year, but more broadly thematizes memory. Maya’s work is interested in the handmade, in gesture emphasizing the deeply felt and substrate absorbing its impact. How can we put the felt back into the object/image?
In ancient civilizations, artisans and craftspeople would call on their personal deity for sacred creative intervention. Artists used their bodies as vessels to channel a higher power as inspiration for their artwork. As fleeting as inspiration can be, art certainly has always been the vehicle to express subjectivity. But what about the corners of ourselves that we can’t ever know for certain? Surely, these are entirely felt and remain mysteries to ourselves. However, those mysteries metastasize, providing a benign magic that imparts itself onto our work whether we realize it or not. To be a conscious being is to remain in a perpetual state of unknowing. As contemporary stylites, each of us perched on our own fabricated pillar, we expose ourselves to the elements, fasting and finding time to pray. Isolation has led me to reflect on my childhood, with all of its symbolic magical thinking that so easily sacrificed realism in order to offer up another truth. Rituals, folk practices, superstition, and even some gris-gris — all magical tools and devices utilized to access the Unseen, connecting physical bodies with not only one another but that outside of our corporeal existence.
Very few traiteurs still practice in Southern Louisiana, and most pass away before teaching the rituals to a younger generation. A requirement for passing down the gift is that your disciple must be of the opposite gender. Lettie LaGrange passed in 2019 and I’m not sure if she gave her abilities to a young boy, but I like to imagine a reality in which the recipient of her secret knowledge was me, the costumed Franciscan boy who lived across the street.
1 Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marianne Costa, The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards (Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2009).
2 Anonymous, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, trans. Robert Powell (New York: Penguin Putnam, 2005).
Jacob Todd Broussard is a visual artist/educator and cofounder of Kingfish Gallery in Buffalo, NY.