Power of art: an interview with artist Laura Tempest Zakroff

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SEATTLE, Wash. — Laura Tempest Zakroff, known to many by the name Tempest, is a Pagan artist and Witch from the Seattle area. She travels the country attending festivals and conferences, sharing her work, teaching, and performing. Her art incorporates her visions of the world as well as creating powerful connections to her spiritual beliefs, to Witchcraft, to healing, and more recently to her own brand of political activism.

Laura Tempest Zakroff

Laura Tempest Zakroff

Raised in the New Jersey suburbs of Philadelphia, Zakroff was the youngest of three children in a mixed-religious family.Her father is Jewish and her mother is Catholic. Zakroff’s two brothers, as she said, were much older and so she felt as if she was “practically an only child.”

In addition, Tempest added that many of her childhood friendships didn’t last. Children in her school or her neighborhood would move away or go to a different school. Friendships were hard to maintain, and she was often alone.

Zakroff said, “I remember spending a lot of time outside in the back yard, turning over rocks, collecting moss, playing with plants, and gathering them to dry in the little wooden play cottage my parents built for me. When I wasn’t outside, I was inside drawing, painting, and building things […] I learned to amuse myself, keep my attention occupied by nature and art.”

We spoke with Zakroff more about her childhood, her influences, her spiritual beliefs, and how it all comes together in the very varied modes of artistic expression for which is she is known.

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TWH: Coming from a household with a multi-faith background, how were you reared?  

LTZ: My brothers and I were all raised Catholic, and went to Catholic school from kindergarten onward.

TWH: As a child, how did you experience this Catholic upbringing specifically?

LTZ:   I remember finding priests fascinating at a very young age, and I loved the beautiful churches. Ours had large amazing stained-glass windows, and my grandparents’ church in Philadelphia is the oldest Italian church in the U.S. [It is] filled with murals, stained glass, and mosaics.  But very early on, it did not sit well with me that women could not be priests, girls could not be acolytes (now they can, but not back then). With the exception of the rituals that focused on the adoration of the Virgin Mary, I found going to mass to be extremely boring and lacking energy or purpose.

But I got dragged to mass every week with my mom until I was 18. I went through all of the sacraments up through confirmation. I think every sacrament there was actual concern that I’d let loose or somehow otherwise get rejected, especially during confirmation. Despite my internal leanings, I was an excellent student, so I was driven to do well on all of the things – including religion.

TWH: Let’s talk about the arts. When did you first experience the arts?

LTZ:   My parents are both creative people who majored in journalism. My father ran his own audio-visual business out of the third floor of our home; filling it with books on history and art, photography, slides, and early computers. My mom has always been a talented crafter, making and selling beautiful wreathes and arrangements. Later on, she became a school librarian and eventually a religion teacher.

Because both of my parents being creative people, I was born into a house that was filled with art, and there was a wonderful series of books called Museums of the World, which I spent many hours looking at.  We often went to art and craft shows, as well as artsy places like Peddler’s Village in Lahaska, Penn. or Flemington, New Jersey (now both are mainly known for outlet stores) and Cape May, New Jersey. So art and making art seemed very integral to life from a very young age. I wanted to know the meaning of paintings and how different things were made. Art clearly had purpose.  

TWH: During your childhood, did you study art formally or were you self-taught? 

LTZ: The earliest art classes I remember were at the Ocean City arts center around age three. I was one of the youngest kids, but if you sat me down in front of clay or paper, I could do it for hours. Remember fashion plates? I got bored with the selections they included and started drawing my own fashion sheets. At age six, I started afternoon drawing classes at Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown, New Jersey; formal still-life compositions and all that. Then every Saturday during the school year, I attended Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia up until I was 14.

When I was 15, at the end of my freshman year at Holy Cross High School, we moved to Columbia, South Carolina. It was a fantastic culture shock. […] Being artistic, smart, and culturally a bit different than my classmates in New Jersey made me stick out and the target of a lot of abuse, but moving to South Carolina and going to public school was a completely fresh start. The school had an excellent art program, including advanced placement studio arts, as well as a literary magazine which I became the editor for. At that time, the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts was a summer-only program, and I got accepted into that my rising senior year. That experience solidified for me that I wanted to focus on the visual arts, so after that I applied and got a scholarship to go to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). There I majored in printmaking and got my bachelors of fine arts.

TWH: At that point in your life, what were your goals?

LTZ: Heading into college, I think I had an idea of running my own gallery/cafe/witchy shop. Even though I majored in printmaking, I knew I didn’t want to be a print maker, at least not in the sense of printing other people’s art, which is what most print makers do for work. Before I even graduated, I managed to snag a job as the associate director of a gallery owned by a RISD alumni in nearby Bristol. Then the director quit and it was just me and the owner, and mainly just me most of the time. So I taught myself web design and Photoshop during slow times. But my husband at the time was originally from California, and my best friend from college was also from there, so in 2001, I moved to the Bay Area with aspirations of working at the SF MOMA or something similar.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

TWH: Outside of art, what other jobs have you held and when did you become a professional artist?

LTZ: After arriving in the Bay Area, I quickly discovered how far apart things were. San Francisco was not very close and [there were] very few openings in the arts. Around day three, taking a break from unpacking, I stopped by the Psychic Eye in Mountain View.  As a lark, I asked about doing readings, and shortly afterward was hired. I had done readings professionally back east to make extra money, so it seemed like a good intermediate way to bring in money.

Three years later, until they abruptly closed, I was working full time as a psychic and teaching metaphysical classes. And, to answer the usual question of, ‘didn’t you see that coming?’ – yes, I actually had a dream a month before it closed. During this time, I had also been studying and began performing belly dance, so I was also making art and designing costumes, and that began to really take off. To supplement, I also got a job as a picture framer in Menlo Park, and mastered a lot of those skills.

Then in 2007, I wanted to leave the Bay Area to be closer to my family, and in particular my grandparents so we moved back to New Jersey. There I got a job as a graphic designer and jewelry designer for a woman-owned jewelry manufacturer and importer, which also involved designing for Disney World. I was designing during the week, and often traveling somewhere on the weekends to teach and perform belly dance. Then, in 2009, we moved again back to Providence, and I was hired as a fashion jewelry designer for a major corporation. I designed for Target, Macy’s, and many box stores.

Three years later, I had had enough of corporate culture, enough of my 15-year marriage to a narcissist, and enough of not making art. I filed for divorce, quit my job, and moved to Seattle to start a new life. So while I had been making art, designing, crafting, and illustration in some form since 2000, it wasn’t until midway through 2012 that I embarked on the road to what I consider being a professional artist.

TWH: Tell us when and how you found Witchcraft and Paganism?

LTZ: I had always been fascinated with ancient cultures – the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Greeks. I loved the Mysteries of the Unknown series. I read Jane Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series starting around age 12 – and similar pre-history novels, especially ones that focused on Native American myth and culture prior to the European invasion. But it didn’t occur to me then that these faiths and deities could still be a living thing.

A girlfriend of one of my brothers lent me a copy of The Mists of Avalon when I was around 14. I remember finishing that book and being both simultaneously inspired and enraged. Yet I was still not cluing in that there was some modern practice that I could participate in. It seemed the closest thing out there was Native American beliefs and practices, but even at that age, I knew I could only admire them, not partake in them. Those roots weren’t my roots. I formulated my own practice and belief system instead.

So when we moved to South Carolina, I could get my license at 15, and by 16 I was able to take my mom’s car out to the mall on weekend nights, where the big bookstore and cafe was open late. So my friends and I would drink coffee and discover the New Age section. It was there I found Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, which appealed to me more than the Wicca books on the shelves that seemed more like fantasy than reality. I hung out in IRC chat rooms -Pagan_Tea_House -and learned more.

TWH: When did you decide to reach out to other Pagans or find a Pagan community ?

LTZ: When I went to RISD, I was all eyes and ears on the trail of Paganism. I found the Society of the Evening Star (also based in Providence) and wrote them for information, but my relationship at the time didn’t really give me the space to try it. Luckily though, when I started working at the RISD store not long into my freshman year, I was clued into a witch publication in the magazine section by the gentleman in charge of that section. It was actually published by a fellow RISD student, and it was a glorious beautiful magazine on real witchcraft and paganism, called Crescent Magazine.

My coworker pointed out the girl who made the magazine one day, and I am pretty sure my heart skipped several beats. Tall, long thick dark wavy hair, big dark eyes, dressed in velvet; a living Pre-Raphealite painting. I managed to work up the nerve to talk to her, and pretty soon we were fast friends, and I also got involved in the magazine. However, she was two years ahead of me, and so all-too-quickly she graduated and moved back to California. I managed the magazine post box, wrote articles, and then (very lonely) became determined to start a Pagan Society for RISD and Brown. The Cauldron of Annwyn Pagan Society took off like wildfire, and expanded quickly to include more colleges, and then pretty much anyone who wanted to get involved.  Soon I was leading large public rituals and crafting my own tradition.

TWH: Let’s shift now to your current work as a professional artist. When people look at your art,  it is clear that your personal expression and spiritual path are interwoven. Before we talk about that. Tell us more specifically which forms of expression are you focused on now and why.

LTZ: I design, dance, write, and make art. I write songs for our band, and play instruments. I design because I enjoy solving problems, I dance to be engaged with my body and spirit (and teach others to do so), I write because I can’t shut up (hello Gemini), and I art because I have to.

And I feel Witchcraft interweaves with all of those things. I find that I mainly go between making art and writing nowadays, though I teach dance from my home studio every week, and still perform/teach workshops. I’m constantly thinking about images to create, and words I need to say.  But I find that I need to word sometimes, and art other times. They’re both creative, but take different moods and settings. I also completely work for myself, so it comes down to what things need to get done to pay the bills first.  Sometimes that’s a week for working on a book, and two weeks of making art.

TWH: How do you experience the partnership between your spiritual life and your artist expression?

LTZ: For me personally, it’s near impossible to separate the artist from the Witch, to the point where I would say that my art itself is a form of witchcraft, which I guess makes up for the fact that despite my love of herbal magick, a Green Witch I am not. […] I believe that the path of Witchcraft teaches us to have power over ourselves. Art can be a manifestation of that power.



TWH:  In you workshops and writings, you often talk about a art as being a source of power. How do see that manifesting in the our daily lives outside of Witchcraft practice?

LTZ: Modern-day society tends to dismiss the arts as frivolous, something that is superfluous to our daily existence.The arts belong to the realm of the rich, who have the funds to invest or waste.This reinforces that idea that being an artist, writer, musician, dancer, or poet are not respected or valued paths.

TWH: You said “modern-day society.” Do believe that this modern opinion of art’s purpose or function was not always the same?

LTZ: Yes. The earliest signs of civilization – ultimately the very dawn of our species, are intimately linked with the making of art. Our predecessors may have used tools and formed societies, but it was when we began to use line and mark as symbol that pinpoints the moment in which we truly began to see and think differently. Drawings that described the upcoming terrain or weather changes indicated a new sense of spacial recognition, an understanding of cause and effect, and the passing of time. Decorative treatments for the living body as well as the decoration and burying of crafted items for the deceased demonstrated both individuality and tribal recognition.Cave paintings hint at ritual explorations and metaphysics – the interplay between the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Our ancestors understood that art was not useless, but rather an integral tool to interacting with the world and with each other. It talked to the gods and spirits; it helped us remember stories and wisdom; it identified and explained us; it helped us define the spaces we lived in. All of those aspects are still incredibly valuable things in our daily lives.

TWH: If modern society has lost this connection to artistic expression, what do you believe is needed to get it back, so to speak?

LTZ: I believe the solution is intricately linked with ritual, spirituality, and metaphysics – entities that are just as misunderstood and belittled as art-making. Both [art] and concepts involving magick are often dismissed as fantasy or fiction; It’s easy to dismiss the so-called “invisible.”  Yet many would attest to seeing real tangible results in the work. It’s all really about different ways of viewing, seeing, and using power. When we believe in something, we give it power. That goes for social movements, deities, and symbols alike. Ideas are intangible, yet have real physical repercussions.

TWH: Why is it so easy to dismiss, what you call “the invisible?”

LTZ: Art seemingly comes from nothing. A song is pulled from the air; a painting unwrapped from a vision in the mind.  From out of thin air, an artist, musician, writer, dancer transforms concept into concrete reality. The sudden appearance from “nothing” generally belies the fact that years of training and practice were involved. Any one can pick up a paintbrush, write some words, or hold a violin, but it takes more than the physical act to bring forth art. It’s that seemingly unseen element, brought forth by talent, practice, and/or strange encounters with muses that makes the difference.

Regardless of how it happens, the experience of hearing or playing music, reciting a poem, reading a story, looking at a painting, feeling a sculpture, or watching or doing dance – all have mental, emotional, and even spiritual effects.

Sigil for our Times [Image Courtesy Laura Tempest Zakroff]

Sigil for our Times [Image Courtesy Laura Tempest Zakroff]

TWH: Will you talk about the intersections of art and religion in general? What role do you see art playing in religious practice?

LTZ: I remember in my college art history classes, the professors would cite the Catholic Church’s patronage of the arts as what heralded the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance at least for Europe. The church recognized the power of art and architecture to transform a space or idea, to give a sense of heaven, to teach, and to inspire.

But they weren’t alone in linking art with the divine and teaching spirituality. Although in Judaism and Islam it is forbidden to make icons to varying degrees, both religions have utilized artwork, writing, and fine craftsmanship to elevate humanity in order to better understand and unite with the divine. Hindu temples not only have sculpted the divine in bodily format for centuries, but within them dance is taught as an expression of and for the gods.

And while P-words (Pagans, Polytheists, Pantheists, etc) may not have as much in the way of built real estate or museums, the arts are integral to our various and diverse systems. Modern Druid practices hearken back to a time when the bard as poet and musician shared the knowledge and carried on the stories of the spirits, gods, and humanity. There are multiple traditions that see art-making as a means to communing with the divine. Anaar in her book The White Wand says, “the language of Feri is the language of poetry, of art, of ritual. The foundation of this language is our intimate communion with God Herself.” Another example of the importance of the handmade mark: in Vodou, the drawing of veves is a sacred act of invoking a Lwa.

TWH: In your most recent workshops, for example at Dragon Con 2016,  you talk specifically about the power and use of sigil magick. What is it and why is it important?

LTZ: Sigil magick is an excellent way of harnessing intent and gathering focus. For countless generations, we have used symbols to stand in for larger, more complex ideas. [Symbols] condense down those big ideas into small, recognizable marks that hold meaning for those who understand, see, and use it. They can cover whole walls or be hidden inside a charm.They are often easy to make and to replicate, regardless of your level of talent with a pen, pencil, or brush.

Unfortunately, most of us are very aware of symbols that are used as vehicles of hate, to spread damaging ideas and cause harm. Often times these symbols are used without a thorough understanding of their history, by the misguided and the angry. Therefore it’s even more important for us to use symbols that encourage, empower, invigorate, protect, and heal. We can make and use art that grounds, grows, and inspires.

TWH: Recently you’ve been doing a little sigil magick of your own. Will you talk a bit about that project? 

LTZ:  Shortly after the 2016 election, I felt the need to create a power sigil – for myself, for all those who need protection and empowerment. When I had the urge to make that sigil, I simply knew I had to do something in the realm of what I do best, making art. Since then, the new sigil [seen above] has been shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter, the blog posts reaching over 30,000 hits. I have seen it marked on pottery, stitched in fabric, painted on walls, made into avatars, etched in metal and stone, hennaed and tattooed on numerous bodies. With every person who responds to it and draws it for themselves, it adds to not only their personal power, but the power of the symbol to do its work.

Sure, it’s “just” a collection of shapes and lines, but it has clearly spoken to the individual and collective consciousness, who recognized something within those marks. They gathered their thoughts and beliefs, focusing upon the symbol to call upon power, seeing it more than just some drawing. And so I encourage you to take a moment to consider your surroundings, and what symbols and images you believe have power – or don’t.

All art has the potential to be a guide for power – whether it’s a song, a poem, a dance, a sculpture, or a sigil. It simply needs to be manifested.

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Since this interview, Zakroff has co-launched another campaign called #wearearadia. She has created a second sigil for use by those supporting the effort [seen below]. Columnist Tim Titus will have more about the #wearearadia movement in full including more from Zakroff about the new sigil.

Until then, Zakroff’s work and the schedule of performances and workshops can be found on her websites Owlkeyme Arts or Laura Tempest Zakroff, and her writing can be found on  her Patheos blog, A Modern Traditional Witch.

#wearearadia sigil [Image Courtesy Laura Tempest Zakroff]

#wearearadia sigil [Image Courtesy Laura Tempest Zakroff]