Honoring the body and the occult with artist Allan Spiers (part one)

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CHICAGO — Looking across western culture, women and women’s bodies have dominated mainstream depictions of Witches and the practice of Witchcraft. In a famous drawing from 1798, two nude elderly witches fly on a broom over trees and fields (Francisca Goya, Linda maestra). In 1497, artist Albrecht Durer depicted the meeting of four nude young witches (Durer, The Four Witches). Far more recently, in popular films like Witches of Eastwick (1987) and the cult classic The Craft (1996), the transformation from average woman to witch is depicted visually with increased displays of female sexuality and body exposure. For better or worse, the woman’s body has had profound meaning within traditional western-based visual witchcraft narratives.

The Wanderer [Courtesy A. Spiers]

“The Wanderer” from The Sabbath [Courtesy A. Spiers]

However, one artist in Chicago has decided to provoke tradition, while adding to this historic canon of witchcraft imagery. Using both traditional conventions and occult-related tropes, photographer Allan Spiers ventures into new space with regard to the subject. More specifically, Spiers has used his experience, his personal interests, and professional know-how to focus his own occult-based imagery on men and men’s bodies, rather than women and women’s bodies.

“This project [The Sabbath] rekindles […] male potency, it reawakens the Bacchic and Panic rites of lust, sex, and witchcraft. Witchcraft is Nature, it is raw, and it is powerful. It runs in both male and female equally,” explained Spiers in an interview with The Wild Hunt.

Allan Spiers grew up in Peru in a traditional Catholic family. However, at the same time, he was surrounded by the magic of indigenous ancestral practices and beliefs, which blended seamlessly with Christian practice. “Peru is a country where magic and religion aren’t contained in the home,” Spiers described.

He went on to say, “[Magic and religion] are carried with each citizen in their daily lives. Shamans are consulted before doctors, witches and workers are sought after to mend the woes of everyday life. We even have the Mercado de Brujas, the Witch’s Market, where practitioners can purchase offerings to the gods, charms and tools, and where the wanderer can search out a potion or service to gain love, fortune, luck, or to curse an enemy. All of this was and is common practice for my family.”

When his family moved to the California at the age of 13, Spiers experienced an immediate culture shock. “For the first part of my life all I knew was family, religion, and spirituality, and how they enhance and fulfill everyday life. The shock came from the total lack of spirituality in the United States. It amazed me that religion and spirituality were treated with such irreverence by society, that it wasn’t a fundamental part of being, but a secretive practice only to be performed behind closed doors.”

For a long time, as Spiers said, he was spiritually lost. “Especially in the gay community it seemed I was surrounded by atheists and agnostics. There was an extreme disconnect from the heavens and I almost abandoned spirituality entirely. There was no longer guilt for not practicing, but guilt for practicing.”

However, Spiers eventually found his way. In 2008, he met his husband, who he describes as being “infatuated with religion.” Together they began to study and practice. “It was then that the hosts of spirits and gods came rushing back and my childhood faith was rekindled,” he said.

Allan Spiers [Courtesy Photo]

Allan Spiers [Courtesy Photo]

Today Spiers, who is also known as Docteur Caeli D’Anto, practices Religio Romana, the polytheistic religion of ancient Rome, as well as being an initiate of Haitian Vodou. He said that he maintains his Catholic beliefs, honoring the patron saint of his homeland, Saint Martin De Porres and his ancestor Saint Therese of Lisieux. He also keeps a Mesa, or a shamanic “table” found in Peruvian folk practice, on which he has statues and images of Pachamama, Inti, and Mama Killa.

Together with his husband, Spiers owns an online retail outlet called The Vodou Store, as well as a new site called Uriel’s Domain. They hope to eventually open a physical location in the Chicago area.

While Spiers was exploring his spirituality, he was also building his professional career as a graphic designer. The self-taught artist said, “I have independently studied the arts and world religions from a very young age and find that it was a lot more beneficial for me as an artist to walk my own path.”

After school, he moved to Florida and took a job as a graphic designer creating advertisements and websites. Some time later, he decided it was best to venture out on his own. Spiers explained, “Being an undocumented immigrant, I was tired of people claiming we all ‘take American jobs,’ so I created my own. Since then I have employed Americans, paid my taxes, donated to various charities, and contributed to the economy.”

In 1997, he started Digital Fuel Studios and, over the next few years, his career flourished and client list grew. But, he also discovered a new need. “I was doing graphic design for night clubs in South Florida and was tired of paying for stock photography. I figured I would try to create my own photos, so [in 2001] I found a model and set up a shoot. I got a lot of great feedback and started shooting more.”

In 2012, Spiers’ professional focus became fitness photography, which tied into a personal interest. In fact, he met his husband in a gym.Today, he is professionally known for his fitness photography.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2013, Spiers decided to blend his two artistic talents, graphic design and photography, with his religious beliefs in order to birth projects that venture beyond the scope of his professional career and cater to his personal muse.

Spiers has since launched four such projects.Two smaller ones include Urbanity, which he said “showcased the beauty of the nude male physique,” and Dicks and Dames, which caters to an early 20th century gangster aesthetic. His first big project is called Legion of Aeons, which focuses on superheroes as gods in a post-apocalyptic world. He and his husband developed and wrote the accompanying story line.

"Alaris" from Legion of Aeons [Courtesy A. Spiers]

“Alaris” from Legion of Aeons [Courtesy A. Spiers]

However, the merging of his religious beliefs and his art weren’t fully realized until he launched The Sabbath. In his same unique style, Spiers latest multi-image photography project brings together the nude male form with traditional occult imagery.

In our interview with Spiers, he candidly discussed his work, religious beliefs, upbringing, his many inspirations, including the beauty and spirit he finds in the physical body.

The Wild Hunt: You are now a photographer and graphic artist. What form did your creativity take as a child?

Allan Spiers: It began with sketching and painting, then moved toward music and calligraphy, and architecture. This helped me develop the eye for photography and design.

TWH: What artists or people serve or have served as artistic inspiration for you?

AS: I actually never focused on any particular artist. I pretty much developed my own artistry with a limited knowledge of art history. I come from a long line of artists, my great-grandfather was a sculptor and my great-great-grandfather was a painter whose work can be found in the Naval Museum in Peru. I guess if anyone, it would be them who have inadvertently inspired me.

TWH: How important or how influential is your spirituality to your artistic work and career?

AS: At this point my religion, spirituality, artistic work, and career are one and the same. My patron goddess is Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and creativity. She has a rather large statue and altar in my office, and I recite prayers and offer incense when I am looking for creative inspiration, whether simply working on graphic design or fitness photography, or engaged in a project such as The Sabbath.

TWH: Outside of your art, you are also personally invested in physical fitness, and that ties into your professional work. How, if at all, does that tie into your spirituality?

AS: [My husband and I] have altars to specific gym gods such as Hermes and Herakles, as my husband practices Hellenismos, the religion of the Hellenic (Greek) gods. Each workout is an offering to the gods and it is important to keep our physical bodies just as healthy as the spiritual.

TWH: What about photographing the body interests or inspires you?

AS: The human body is a divine invention and when individuals achieve almost supernatural perfection it is worth of a sort of admiration. The lines, curves, and shadows reflect creation itself. We see symmetry, strength, life, and beauty in the human body, and it is in this perfection we are closest to witnessing the image of the gods.

From the smaller "Dicks and Dames" project [Courtesy A. Spiers]

From the “Dicks and Dames” project [Courtesy A. Spiers]

TWH: With a focus on fitness models, do you feel your work contributes at all to our culture’s unhealthy relationship with body image? If not, why?

AS: Body image anxiety is the invention of the individual. It is not the responsibility of the whole to heal an individual’s insecurities. We have to examine this phenomenon from a realistic and unapologetic standpoint, however unpopular. These individuals I shoot are real people. They exist, and their results are attainable by almost everyone if one were to demonstrate the force of will it would take to achieve them.

As a fitness photographer, I spend a lot of time around fitness models. They share their experiences, and they have shown the messages people send them. They are constantly told they are ugly; they are mocked; they are told they are unintelligent; they have been entrapped and publicly humiliated. This isn’t to dismiss the experience of those who perceive their self-image negatively, but confidence and self-love can only be found in the self. No external force can manifest that.

It is not the physical body that cures body image anxiety, it is something found in the soul. If an individual is deeply troubled by the perpetuation of beauty standards they do not exhibit and this results in an inability to produce a happy functional life within society, that is too clinical for any artist to overcome. They could view any number of projects that celebrate different body types but the psychological trauma would be greatly unaffected.

[Note: This answer was edited due to length. The full unedited response is here.]

TWH: Do you see room for celebration, or even divine invocation, in all physical forms?

AS: All bodies are beautiful and certainly there are artists who capture this, but that is not the focus of my art and my projects. I am a fitness photographer, and I personally find the sculpted body sacred. This shares in a long held tradition within polytheism, as seen in the art of the ancients, particularly in Greece and Rome, whose gods we serve within our household cult. […] These individuals who have surpassed the limits of the average human physique have touched on something inspiring and divine and this divinity represents the need for strong and dedicated willpower integral to the execution of successful and powerful Witchcraft. After all what is Witchcraft but the surpassing of limits of the natural world through force of will?

I want people to feel inspired and empowered by my imagery. The symbolism of the fit physical body represents what all Witches have inside us, strength, confidence, and pure will power. I want them to feel lust, to strive for a better self. I want them to celebrate their bodies and find power in it, no matter what shape they are in. We are all created by the gods, and we are all gifted with their spark. Relinquish society, and remove care for public opinions.

TWH: You have said that your work captures the personality and spirit of the model. Will you tell us how you make that happen? What is your secret?

AS: While I can’t reveal all the secrets, much of it is in the direction. The first part of any shoot is focused on making the model comfortable and natural. Often times photographers will direct too much and it will result in stiff looking photos. I try to get the subject to remove their filters and become who they truly are. There is a balance that needs to be achieved between model and photographer, this is the only way you can capture the spirit of the model. And then of course there are my secret methods which I keep up my sleeve!

TWH: What prompted you to start doing multi-image projects? 

AS: Quite frankly I was tired of the routine of fitness photography, and if I am being honest, I was seeing a lot of really bad composite work that really took away from beautiful photography. It also gave me the opportunity to unleash my creativity and create my own world. I specifically stay away from any licensed superheroes [for Legion of Aeons] and want to tell my own story. Many of the models started working out because of superheroes so this is a way to make them their own. In a way, that is how society sees them. They inspire, they exude confidence, and to many, they are seen as almost superhuman. I can also tell you, these guys are some of the most genuine and sincere people you will ever meet.

Haakon from "Legion of Aeons" [Courtesy A. Spiers]

Haakon from “Legion of Aeons” [Courtesy A. Spiers]

TWH: Legion of Aeons (LOA) has a very detailed story. Why include that element into the project?

AS: We want to take the viewer into the world and let them get lost in this evolving story, to show there is a purpose, and it isn’t just an image.

TWH: Some of the LOA images seem to be inspired by mythology or modern Pagan traditions. Is this just fanciful storytelling or were you purposefully drawing from religious experience?

AS: That is an aspect of the project that is oftentimes missed. It is definitely religious at its core. Some say superheroes are like gods. Supernatural, superhuman, and greater than ourselves. LOA reimagines the gods as superheroes, or rather, the superheroes as sort of avatars of the gods. After all, comic books and religion share the same concepts and struggles. Good vs. evil, power vs. the powerless. But this project also examines the concept of what good and evil are. Is good absolutely good? Is evil absolutely evil? Or is there a spectrum? This is explored in the anti-hero who does right by doing wrong, and the villain whose endgame is for the greater good.

TWH: In these photographs, what comes first: the story, the image, the character name or something else?

AS: First I select the model image and start to design the suit. I let the personality of the model, and my own creative process, create something as a base. Then as it evolves, the story starts to evolve with it, and in the end, it becomes its own invention. The models often times don’t know I am including them in the project. This helps me retain full freedom in their creation. I pick the names, costume design, and backstory.

TWH: Let’s talk about your most recent project, The Sabbath. What prompted you to capture this provocative (and evocative) subject?

AS: I guess you can say its earliest incarnation was the ads I would create for The Vodou Store that featured male fitness models. Then it was as if the spirit of the project spoke directly to me. All of a sudden I had a jolt of inspiration that told me to homogenize both of my worlds and make them one.

The first two images where “Mendes” and “Blaspheme,” “Mendes” being the very first that was created separately without the root concept. Then, after Blaspheme, the project started to breathe. It began to take on its own living essence and I gave up control. The image creation process became a ritual. I would sit with my gallery of photos and through a sort of divination, select a one without any concept in mind. Then I open myself up to whatever spirit or entity wants to come through. I enter a trance like state and allow untamed and wild energies to create the perfect image.

To be continued… 

Join us later in the week for Part 2 of our interview with Allan Spiers. We’ll talk to Spiers more specifically about the intersection of religion, Witchcraft, magic, and the physical body within his art. He discusses in detail his latest project, “The Sabbath,” which captures his personal spiritual beliefs as well as celebrating the male form within occult settings. He shares his favorite images and also gives us a sneak peek into his plans for a new 2017 project.  

"Archangel" from The Sabbath [Courtesy A. Spiers]

“Archangel” from The Sabbath [Courtesy A. Spiers]

[Editor’s Note: All images are reprinted her with express permission and are copyright Allan Spiers Photography.]