Today we’re talking with S. Elizabeth, writer and curator extraordinaire of “The Art of the Occult” and “The Art of Darkness.”
1. I became familiar with you when your previous book “The Art of the Occult” released, and now you’re back with “The Art of Darkness: A Treasury of the Morbid, Melancholic and Macabre.” Was it hard to convince your publisher that there was an audience for books discussing art?
I don’t think it took much convincing at at all, and as it happens, my editor is the one who pitched both ideas to me! She reached out to me originally in 2019 for The Art of the Occult, a book which she had the idea for, she just needed someone to write it! I am not sure how she happened upon me and I have never asked (I’m weirdly shy to ask such a thing!) but I imagine it’s because I have been writing about art and artists for well over a decade now, and many of these artists have esoteric or occult leanings. I have been privileged to work with the same editor at the same publisher over the past 3 years, and I think for the most part she really “gets” me. She’s the impetus for The Art of Darkness as well–she presented the idea to me! And this publisher, The Quarto Group, as far as I can tell, is very big on art and artists, that’s very much their thing, to publish inspiring niche-interest books are visually appealing, information rich, and stimulating.
2. What is your process for selecting art for these books? Do you need to seek permission to use works of art in your books?
I’ve been collecting art online for as long as I’ve been online…I’ve been keeping a sort of mental rolodex for the past 20 years! So for both books, I already had so many works in mind for each of the projects. What I did is I started with a wish list of hundreds of artists that I would like to include in the book, which I would then share with my editor, who would give me feedback. Feedback usually looked like “too illustrative or too comic book-y or cartoon-y “or what have you (those pieces absolutely have a place in the art world and in my heart, but they may have not been quite the right fit for the books, I get it, even if I might have been a little disappointed!) So I would whittle down my list and build it back up based on loads of research and my editor’s suggestions, and then when I had a good-sized list to look at, I would look it over with an eye toward building groupings of images based on themes. I didn’t want the chapters ordered chronologically, or in terms of art movements, I wanted something that felt much more interesting and imaginative. So after some thought, I structured The Art of Darkness into three parts, each broken down further into four chapters. So you’d have something like Part I: It’s All In Your Head, in which we would then have chapters about dreams and nightmares, psychological distress and whispers from the void. Further parts include The Human Condition, The World Around Us, and Visions from Beyond. I am really quite pleased with how it all pulled together!
AND YES ABSOLUTELY. Permission to use the artwork is a MUST and it is a PROCESS. Gathering the permissions nearly takes as long as writing the book. Some images are in the public domain, and some can be acquired from museums and galleries, but there is a lot of reaching out to individual artists that has to occur, as well. And I did a lot of that work myself…and it’s not exactly a straightforward process. Between tracking down contact information for the artist (if they are still alive, that is–otherwise, you might be dealing with galleries, estates, etc.) and actually finding them and receiving those permissions, you then have the concern of whether or not the artist can provide a high-enough resolution of the work, whether it fits with the layout of the book, and to backtrack a bit–whether or not the publisher even agrees that the images you’ve suggested will be appropriate for the overall project. In the course of this process of research and reaching out, which was never tedious, believe it or not–I love to track down elusive art and artists!– I got a lot of email bounce backs, and oftentimes even if the email appeared to go through, there were a handful of artists I never heard back from. Sometimes I did get a response and received a “no” right off the bat. Sometimes, too, this occurred after some back and forth between myself and the artist, and we arrived at the determination that maybe my book wasn’t a good fit for their artistic vision. And that’s OK! It really is. It’s not all going to work out, and you can’t always get everything you want, and after getting over a bit of initial frustration, I frequently came to the conclusion that it was probably for the best.
With regard to those artists who are no longer with us, sometimes I couldn’t track down an estate contact, and when I did I never heard back from them. If it was the publisher reaching out, sometimes they either couldn’t come to an agreement or they were perhaps unable to acquire a high enough resolution image that would work for this particular print medium.
I know that was a lot of not -terribly-interesting info and not everyone cares how the sausage is made, but that all brings me to a point that I cannot stress enough. There are always going to be readers or critics who say “oh, I can’t believe she forgot to include X/Y/Z artist!” All of that boring explanation I gave just now? Any one of those reasons could be why I was unable to include such-and-such or so-and-so. It’s so galling that people automatically presume that I (or anyone in this position) “forgot.” Okay, so I don’t want to end that thought on a negative note, but that’s just something that always burns my muffins. Ugh.
3. After “The Art of the Occult”, what made you decide that darkness would be a good theme to explore, and were your publishers like, “What?”
I believe what happened is that over the course of working with me on The Art of the Occult, my editor had seen a blog post of mine in which I wrote about where my fascination with horror/darkness grew from, and the idea for The Art of Darkness was born from that. She came to me with a mostly fully fleshed out pitch, we built it out a little and she took it to the marketing team, who, I am told, loved the idea. I don’t quite get how that end of it works, and I realize that most of the time, probably none of it works that way at all, so I got pretty lucky! Sometimes we’re just too close to a thing to even think about it as a viable idea that others might have an interest in, so I wonder if it it ever would have occurred to me to write such a book if it wasn’t suggested to me? Maybe …? Who knows! I am glad I don’t have to guess. I will share that at first they wanted to call it “The Art of the Macabre,” and to be honest I didn’t love that. I feel like you’re going into that knowing exactly what you’re going to get. The Art of Darkness, though? That’s a bit more nebulous, there’s some mystery there. I liked that, and I really pushed for it.
4. What is the importance of exploring dark themes in artwork?
Well, The Art of Darkness was conceived of at a time when “Good Vibes Only” was a big thing that influencers and wellness gurus were all espousing. And that really rubbed me the wrong way. We’ve since started talking about that attitude as “toxic positivity” and I was sort of thinking of this book as the antidote to aggressively good vibes. A way to sit in a safe space with unpleasant, distressing, things that don’t feel good, and maybe find something beautiful or meaningful there. Or at least give yourself the opportunity to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Ever since I learned as a child that we all at some point experience difficult and troubling feelings or behaviors or conditions, whether that be fright or fury, melancholy or misery, sadness or sickness, I have been fascinated by how we describe and communicate these things, these darker aspects of the human condition–especially as it relates to language and visuals, and in particular the way these things are depicted in art. We all experience darkness. We can’t avoid it, and I don’t think we should. When we dismiss negative emotions and respond to distress with false reassurances, we are neither dealing with reality as it is nor adequately readying ourselves for the random pains and struggles that life has in store for us. As humans, for our emotional wellbeing, we need to experience and embody the full spectrum of feelings and emotions. Shit happens. Pain is pain, feelings are feelings. And we need to feel them. I think art is one of the ways that we can experience some dark shit and feel those feelings in a space of your own choosing that feels controlled and safe. Granted I am not an artist, a therapist, or an art therapist. But this is how I feel as a human who experiences darkness, and I think the idea has a great deal of merit to it.
5. You frequently discuss the darkness that haunts many of the artists featured in your book. Do you feel the “tortured artist” archetype is too frequently held up as the way to successfully be creative?
I do feel like the romanticization or the fetishizing of the tortured artist is a harmful mindset. We have for the longest time perpetuated this myth implying that an artist must experience pain, physically or mentally, to produce great works of art, that “madness makes the artist.” That artists need to make something beautiful from their pain for it to have meaning. That they must find meaning in their pain at all. Personally, I think that’s horseshit. This is of course the opinion of a layperson. The relationship between art and mental illness/wellness is complex and I don’t know how much I can really comment on it, having exactly zero background or training in mental health …although I do come from a family where every member suffers either with some form of depression or struggles with substance abuse, myself included…so maybe on some level that gives me a tiny bit of insight? Personally speaking, do I lean into my depression and anxiety and self-destructive behavior, because that suffering enriches my writing, and the torment proliferates my creativity? Those who glorify such things would suggest that yes, it’s vital for my work. But you know what? Art is vital. Period. Full stop. We’ve earned the right to share our art because we’re alive and we made that art. We painted the canvas, sculpted the statue, wrote the book, did the thing, not because we’re fucked up in some kind of way, but despite it. That is success as I define it.
6. What are a few of your favorite pieces featured in “The Art of Darkness,” and why?
Oh GOSH. I love so many of them, so much! I’ve been interviewing artists for years and it was amazing to include many of them in these pages, artists whose work has captivated me from the moment I saw it, and over the time that I’ve known them, I’ve seen their work grow and evolve in the most fascinating ways, such as Becky Munich, Amy Earles, Caitlin McCormack. Death Positive artists such as Rebecca Reeves, Susan Jamison, and Paul Koudanaris, whose works spark empathy and awareness and that conversations about death and dying are a cornerstone of a healthy society. But my favorite pieces? Well. Here’s a thing about me. It’s true, while I live to revel in the velvet shadows of a moonlit midnight and seek spirits in every lonely, crumbling corner, it’s not like I’m a gloomy Gus about it. If you can’t laugh at what lies waiting in the hungry maw of darkness, if you can’t giggle with the ghosts, or cackle into the nothing of the abyss–well, that’s hardly living, you know? If I have somehow fooled people into thinking I’m all about mystery and melancholy, monsters and morbidity, okay, well, that’s all true, I am. But it’s more than balanced with a significant sense of silliness, an appreciation of the absurd, and an adoration of ridiculousness. My favorite emotion to express is “demented glee”! I mean, I’m really just a goofy weirdo, is what I am trying to say here.
So it would stand to reason that I have massive admiration for artists who can combine these sensibilities in their practice, and these works of the kooky and the macabre, often filled with sly, weird humor are some of my favorite canvases to gaze upon. Enter Ruth Marten and Charley Harper. AND the cherry on top is cover artist Alex Eckman-Lawn, whose work I have described thusly:
“Initially, I was torn, truly torn, when examining the painstaking collage work of Alex Eckman-Lawn. Deep, dense, full of doom and gloom and dark details, these surreal, lonely portraits, on one hand, called forth a sickening dread in the pit of my stomach and give my heart a little lurch. But on the other, and at the same time… they caused an involuntary, choking giggle. As if a shadowy horror had crawled its way from the void to the sanctity of my home, and after an agonizing wait whilst I cowered at the peephole, it gave a smart rap on the door and told me a knock-knock joke.
Perhaps it’s an odd take on things, but I once envisioned the above scenario, I saw these pieces through fresh eyes– and instead of a face-full of nightmarish chaos, they appeared wondrously playful, like a funny postcard from the midnight recesses of your soul, just when you need it most. Have a laugh, they seem to say, or here, have a kitten! Oh, hey, it’s just your dear old skull peeking out to say hello, that’s all, no worries! Little voids, the faces-within-your face, checking in on you from the inside, popping out to say, “hi!” and, “how’s it going?” and, “have you heard the one about…?”
7. Goya, Van Gogh, or Brom? (FYI, loved seeing Brom turn up in the book!)
Ok, this is maybe a controversial take, but while we absolutely need to learn from and honor all those that came before…I don’t believe dead artists need our support all that much, you know? So Brom’s macabre, majestic creations, for sure. Or maybe the choice out of these three is too easy because while I can certainly appreciate Goya and Van Gogh, they just don’t excite me the way a moody 16th century Dutch still life might or a lonely midnight mountaintop by a lesser-known artist would. Maybe I’m just a philistine, who knows. Or maybe you’d show me paintings of what I just described and I’d still choose Brom! I mean, I really love Brom.
8. What type of art do you have on display in your home?
It’s mostly contemporary, like I would say probably 99% of it. And I would say that it is also mostly artists that I know. Again, going back to that idea of supporting artists. I’d much rather give my money to someone alive and creating and making art right now, and even better if it is something that I’ve interacted with, rather than buying a reproduction online of some renowned piece of art that was painted by someone who lived and died a hundred years ago. Although I am not criticizing that! However one chooses to beautify their home is up to them and certainly none of my business. Except I will say that I always see this quote:
“People need art in their houses. They don’t need Bed Bath and Beyond dentist-office art. They need weird stuff.”
…and I’m like, really?? Who is out there buying Bed Bath and Beyond art??
As to what “type”…I guess you could say it’s all pretty dark. I l do like my witches and ghosts and eerie landscapes and spooky castles and creepy crawlies. I can think of only two exceptions; one is a giant print from the NYPL of a carte de visite of my creepy fashion icon, Maria Germanova and the other is a canvas that my mother in law painted for my husband and I when we got married. It’s weird and charming and I love it more than words can say.
9. What’s next? Do you have any upcoming projects that my readers should be aware of?
I sure do! I just started a newsletter, where I share little treasuries of stuff that I like or that I’m up to/into; at the beginning of the summer I started my Patreon where I talk about perfume, which is another passion of mine, and I do have a YouTube channel where I talk about various nonsense, and I hope to be updating it regularly soon! The biggest thing, I guess is that I am currently working on a third book for the Art in the Margins series, and this one will have a focus on fantasy! It is scheduled for publishing in September of 2023.
10. Parting shot! Ask us at The Magical Buffet any one question.
Just one?! Argh! Ok, but I will make it a two-parter:
Dark art–who is your favorite artist? Above ground and below?
Above ground, a favorite of mine who have own many prints from is NeNe Thomas, who does fantasy illustrations. I wouldn’t describe much of her work as “dark”, but her artistic landscape is sometimes populated by desolate winterscapes and the occasional vampire or demon.
Below ground, Keith Haring. Again, not traditionally “dark”, however, people frequently forget that buried in his MASSIVE catalog of brightly colored, cartoon art, are pieces that reflect the pain and fear of the AIDs epidemic.
I also should mention, I’m a HUGE fan of artwork inspired by Dia de Muertos and Santa Muerte. LOVE IT!
About S. Elizabeth:
S.Elizabeth is a writer, curator, and frill-seeker. Her essays and interviews focusing on esoteric art have appeared in Haute Macabre, Coilhouse, Dirge Magazine, Death & The Maiden, and her occulture blog Unquiet Things, which intersects music, fashion, horror, perfume, and grief. She is the co-creator of The Occult Activity Book Vol. 1 and 2 and the author of The Art of the Occult (2020), The Art of Darkness (2022), and The Art of Fantasy (2023)
Get your own copy of “The Art of Darkness” here. (This is an affiliate link to my Bookshop, which supports independent bookstores throughout the United States. If you use this link to purchase the book, I will make a small commission at no additional cost to you.)
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