The Real Witches of Bushwick Turn Altars Into Art

by Gabby Bess
Katelan Foisey's small apartment in Queens mirrors the mystic vibe of Bushwick's Catland, a bookshop for rare occult ephemera and artisan fare. When she opened the door to greet me, fog should have billowed, or at least gently rolled, through the apartment door, making its way past the expansive, candle-lit altar in the center of the room. With all the lights off, it glowed.

Instead of billowing smoke she offered up a vintage tea from Madame Zuzu's in a cup that was patterned with pagan iconography. We sat down to talk about Altars As Artforms, an exhibition of rituals and offerings that just closed at Catland. The show brought together a mix of diverse occult practitioners including artists, writers, and even Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.

Like the gallery space, Foisey's apartment is covered in altars. "This is my altar to Santa Muerte. In Mexico she kind of has a cult. She used to be associated with drug cartels and things like that because no matter who was asking her a favor she would grant it, as long as you were good to her. As long as you give her her offerings, which are like roses and tequila and cigarettes and chocolates, she's cool with you."

Santa Muerte is Spanish for Our Lady of Holy Death. She is just one of the goddesses that Foisey calls upon. "Behind you is Elegua," she continues. "He is the guardian of the crossroads." She gets up from her chair to illuminate him with a candle. "He's basically a road opener. I really like road opener deities. They're also the tricksters."

Growing up, Foisey practiced what she described as "kitchen magic," using herbs from her mother's cabinet to heal things. "I didn't have any religious structure. My grandmother taught me things about herbs and stuff like that. She taught me the little symbols that you write on rocks if you want something and you hold it up to the moon. I grew up with all of that but nothing structural." Now her practice has expanded to love healing ("Oshune is the goddess of love and creativity and healing -- she's a river goddess. I wash honey jars filled with herbs and honeycombs, and pictures of the person who needs healing in the river and sing to them and light candles on them when I get home.") and she has started her own coven. "The coven is called Super Coven. It's very intimate and invite only. You have to know someone in it," she says. "I wouldn't say I'm the high priestess but maybe 'organizer.'"

Foisey's interest in magic and goddess worship is nothing short of earnest and this sincerity came across in Altars as Artforms. "There's this thing happening where it's trendy to be pagan and it's trendy to be a witch. Also, there's the thing of it being a show in Bushwick," Rachel White, an artist in the show, said with a knowing look. "It makes me worried but Katelan combines her spirituality and her artwork in a way that feels like she's not comprising her spirituality."

In the current landscape of young contemporary artists that seem to be drenched in irony, the show may not have been high-concept but it was refreshing. The altars in the show were personal -- like Foisey's offerings to William S. Burroughs and Taylor Mead, a writer and actor who frequented Andy Warhol's factory and appeared in several of his art films. Foisey knew him well.

"For Taylor Mead's altar, his niece had sent me a bunch of his belongings because I was a friend of his," she says. "When he passed away I didn't really have anything of his so I emailed her and I was like look, 'I'm a friend of Taylor's and I really want to do an altar for him for this show. I really want to show who he was and his energy. And if there's writers in the room and they want to tap into that I want them to be able to put a petition there and have Taylor be with them.' So he gave me a piece of his shirt that he passed away in and his last note that he put up on his door. I put the top to the Duerr's bottle because he liked Duerr's. My altars were very personal. They were very much people that I had a relationship with."

For Altars as Artforms, Catland wasn't so much transformed as it was made to embody its essence to the fullest. The space was crowded with off-duty burlesque dancers and incense burned in the courtyard. The audience was invited to throw rose petals on the altars and write petitions to the gods and goddesses. It was a gesture to include the audience in these highly personal works. But the art still felt sacred and best viewed by tip-toeing around it. Juliet Escoria's video installation whirred ominously in the background, another piece with deep personal connections. "It was based on an experience I had," the artist and author of Black Cloud said. "My ex-boyfriend had a fiancée that died and when we first started dating I was having all these weird dreams about her. So it was based on that. This video was me coming out of the closet as someone that has paranormal experiences because that's kind of an unpopular thing to talk about. A lot of people say that they're atheists and to say that you see things and have weird dreams, a lot of people think that you're crazy."

A piece by Billy Corgan.

The most conceptual piece in the show was from Billy Corgan, who goes by WPC for his spiritual work. It wasn't an altar in the traditional sense -- it was a song. In curating the show, Foisey told him that if he was going to make music it should be "something that feels like you're walking into a magical world." What he came up with was a boombox that played an eerie, twinkling melody. It filled the room in every direction and above it was a graphic that read, "Look!"

Even now that the exhibit is over, there are still plenty of opportunities for communal gatherings. The shop hosts The Witch's Compass, a monthly event celebrating the new and full moons that is also of Foisey's own creation. "It mixes the theatrical with the spiritual. One time I was in a little red riding cloak and a wolf mask as the Wolf Mother. Another time I was a bubonic plague doctor," she says with a laugh.

But although she is chanting and dancing in a mask, Foisey doesn't view these rituals as performance art. "I don't think there's a performative vibe in the room," White echoes, recalling a Super Coven ritual. "When we're there you get into this sort of feral, wild, animal heart space and it just feels natural. You're not even aware that you have a body."

If Foisey and White don't consider their rituals performance art, is it fair to suggest that in a similar vein, altars are something other than fine art? White argues that the altars are, in fact, their own forms of art. "Can a spiritual experience be art? Well, for me, if life is art and everything is feeding this performance that is life, then definitely. When I'm sitting at my altar and conjuring up magic and deep in meditations and having all these synchronicities happening, that definitely feels like art. The altar is an intensely personal space that has nothing to do with you. It's this other-worldy space that you create. Like all art, it's a door to something beyond yourself."

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