Pagan Art Featured in Successful ‘Doorways to the Underworld’ Exhibition

Cara Schulz —  November 20, 2014 — 7 Comments

Pagan and mainstream are not two terms you often hear together, but they were a winning combination for a local art show in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Minneapolis Collective of Pagan Artists presented Doorways to the Underworld in a mainstream art gallery called Stevens Square Center for the Arts, Oct. 25 through Nov. 15.

The show was aimed at two audiences: Pagans who would understand the Samhain theme, and non-Pagans who were made more familiar with this spiritual path. Approximately 150 guests attended the show on opening and closing night, with an average of 50 guests attending on the other evenings that the show was open. The exhibition received positive and considerate coverage from mainstream and Pagan press.

Paintings displayed at Doorways to the Underworld art show [c schulz]

Paintings displayed at Doorways to the Underworld art show [c schulz]

Doorways to the Underworld
As Samhain is one of the best known Wiccan holidays and has the most built in visibility and interest for the general public, the Minneapolis Collective of Pagan Artists (MCPA) decided this would be a good time to launch into the public eye. The group also felt the theme, Doorways to the Underworld, was auspicious.

Roger Williamson, one of the founders of the MCPA and also one of the artists, said, “Doorways are forms of machines that allow us to move from one reality into another. My paintings are machines that move a viewer from one realm of reality into another. In the context of the show, the Doorways of the title can be understood as machines that move us from outer to inner space, inner space generally being accepted as the region of the Underworld.”

The MCPA was formed in 2014 and consists of Roger Williamson, Ali Beyer, Helga Hedgewalker, and Paul B. Rucker. The MCPA had exhibited at last year’s Paganicon, a Pagan conference held in Minneapolis, but hadn’t yet exhibited in a more mainstream setting.

Paul Rucker says Roger Williamson, who was a long time member of the Stevens Square Center for the Arts, was instrumental in helping secure the exhibition space for the MCPA. Rucker adds that the group crafted a proposal for their debut show and were pleased it was accepted by Stevens Square Center for the Arts.

A non-Pagan attendee takes in a video art installation piece [c schulz]

A non-Pagan attendee takes in a video art installation piece [c schulz]

Helping non-Pagans understand Samhain
The show used longer than standard descriptive labels on many of the works to help non-Pagans understand the symbolism and metaphorical language with which Pagans work. A person who has no grounding in Pagan ritual, belief systems, or traditions could understand what they were seeing. Rucker, who also exhibited at the show, said, “They can go beneath the surface of the art and grasp more of how these Pagan experiences and values shape the work. Viewing art is a form of cultural transmission that allows the viewer to learn about the artist’s intent and have a completely personal, intimate experience at the same time.”

The show has changed peoples’ perceptions about Paganism. Rucker related how a young man, who attended the closing event by chance, came away with a different view of Paganism, “He had associations with Pagan and Paganism as being about Satanism or evil, but that experiencing our show totally turned his head around.” Rucker said the young man was so enthusiastic about this experience he signed their guest book with his email, so that he could be notified about future shows.

[credit - Minneapolis Collective of Pagan Artists]

Paul Rucker’s Witchfire on display [Credit: MCPA]

A Pagan view of the show
For Pagans, the show experience was different. Many of the Pagans attending said that the pieces spoke to them on a personal level. Penny M said, “I fell in love with Paul’s Witchfire piece at Paganicon last year and was immediately drawn to it at the show this weekend. The red, black, and gold entwined with jewel tones spoke to me. Life and death, the finality of skeletal remains with the vibrant colors. The first time I saw it I literally stopped breathing.”

Penny added that the theme of the show was appealing to her, not just because Samhain was so close, but because of what was happening in her personal life, “A close family member died recently. Art exploring the Doors to the Underworld called to me.”

Curating the show
In addition to being one of the MCPA founders and having pieces in the show, Ali Beyer was also the curator. Since the 1990s, she has worked at art galleries and museums along side curators at places such as The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Her work experience, combined with a master’s degree in fine arts, led other members of the MCPA to ask her to curate the show.

As a foundation for the show, she started with works from four members of the MCPA, and then looked for guest artists to round it out. “As curator, it was important to me to include a variety of different types of art,” said Beyer, “… I was looking for artists who self-identify as Pagan whose work was quality but who worked in different mediums than we do, and I was especially interested in finding more 3-dimensional work.”

Other guest artists included in the show included Katie Clapham’s photography, Rmay Rivard’s narrative collage-sculptures, and Alana Mari’s dance performance piece for opening night. Beyer says for future shows, she’ll look to include poetry and storytelling as well as more dance and other types of performance art.

Not only were the artists working in different mediums, but Beyer also wanted the artists to be at different points in their career. “When I saw the pottery of Ellie Bryan I was very excited to include her. She recently graduated with a BFA in ceramics from the University of Minnesota and she is also in the band Crow Call which performs regionally at Pagan events,” said Beyer. Not only was Bryan’s ceramics in the show, her band performed at the closing night event.

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Ellie Bryan’s ceramics on display [c schulz]

Attendee Traci Amberbride was particularly taken with Bryan’s pottery. She said, “Ellie’s pottery is magnetic. The colors and etchings are inspired and reflective of divinity on the micro and macro level. That Ellie’s such a young artist who already has a profound voice promises many years of her offerings and the chance to watch her work grow and morph into new and inspired pieces.” Amberbride, who lives in Wisconsin, traveled to attend the closing of the show as part of her birthday celebration.

A dream come true
MCPA founder Helga Hedgewalker said her largest piece on display, “Bear Mother,” was already started when the group began discussing themes for the show. She said,”It was a happy coincidence that the painting I was currently working on fit the Underworld theme so perfectly: a priestess wearing a mask, sitting in a cave among the bones of the ancestors.” She went on to say that having a looming deadline of a show motivated her to complete the piece and she feels it’s her best painting to date. She asked Minneapolis Pagan wood-worker craftsman, Christopher Odegard, to build a special frame for her to display the piece at the show.

Bear Mother by artist Helga Hedgewalker [courtesy photo]

Bear Mother by artist Helga Hedgewalker [courtesy photo]

Hedgewalker says this was her first time showing her works in a mainstream gallery space and she didn’t know how attendees, especially non-Pagans, would react. “I just took a leap of faith that we had to try. Now that it is all said and done, I can look back at the tremendous effort, and know that it was worth it. I feel tremendous pride at having pulled off a huge success, far beyond my original hopes and expectations.”

She says the experience was a dream come true and she enjoyed watching the expressions on peoples’ faces as they viewed the art. She says it has renewed her soul and she, “…want[ed] to deeply thank the Pagan community and everyone who took the trouble to come out and be a part of something that means so very much to me, building Pagan culture through the arts.”

Two attendees gaze on a piece by Roger Williamson [c schulz]

Two attendees gaze on a piece by Roger Williamson [c schulz]

Penny related a story about one of the other attendees, a young woman, who was excited to meet the artists, most of whom were in attendance. “I think we, in the local Pagan community, who are so blessed with so many talented artists of all sorts, sometimes forget just how fortunate we are. Not only with the depth of talent and experience in our community, but with our freedom to express our religious ideologies in art, worship, or identity. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Future shows
The MCPA is currently looking at other mainstream venues to host other shows. They are looking mostly at universities, galleries, and art centers. Rucker says, “It’s very important for us to present our work to the general public as well as to the Pagan “in-crowd”. In fact, it’s critical to the process of legitimation for ourselves as artists who, while grounded within this specific community, are also conveying ideas about what this Pagan experience means to the larger world.”

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.