Major Arcana: Witches in America at ClampArt

Art Scene

Major Arcana: Witches in America at ClampArt

The Salem Witch Trials are a topic in American history that many students come into contact with in elementary school. After that, witches seem to vanish into the world of myth as characters in movies, books and Halloween. The historical presence of witches, as well as a multidimensional awareness of who they are and what they do (stretching beyond the 15th century, at least) is often hard to come by. However, photographer Frances F. Denny offers a glimpse into the lives of witches in the 21st century through her exhibition, Major Arcana: Witches in America.In Denny’s artist statement, she offers a compelling reason for her undertaking of the project:

© Frances F. Denny, “Leonore (Montpelier, VT),” 2016, Archival pigment print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

“During the research process for a prior series of photographs, I discovered two related facts about my family tree: a) Mary Bliss Parsons, my 8th great-grandmother, was accused of witchcraft in 1674 in Northampton, MA and b) less than two decades later in 1692, my 10th great-grandfather, Samuel Sewell, presided as a judge in the Salem Witch Trials. One body of work came and went, but this ancestral coincidence stayed with me. What is a witch? Who does that word belong to—now?”

© Frances F. Denny, “Dia (New York, NY),” 2017, Archival pigment print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

While the color portraits of witches in Denny’s series are interesting in and of themselves—as statements of identity that traffic in external signifiers like fashion, symbolic jewelry, and aesthetics—Denny’s research on witch culture is vital to a more in-depth engagement with the work. The diversity in practices, heritage, and relationships to 21st century feminism laid out in her statement is intriguing. What her subjects do share is the embrace of a self-sovereign identity formation that allows for a self-determined definition of “witch,” a choice to align with structured religious systems like Wicca and Voudou, or to simply understand their practice as pagan.

© Frances F. Denny, “Meredith (Moretown, VT),” 2016, Archival pigment print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

When discussing this diversity, Denny gives a basic list of terms to help explain that her subjects practice, “…mysticism, engagement with the occult, politically-oriented activism, polytheism, ritualized “spell-craft,” and plant-based healing,” and are “self-proclaimed green witches, white witches, kitchen witches, hedge witches, and sex witches.”

© Frances F. Denny, “Shine (New York, NY),” 2017, Archival pigment print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

Denny situates her Major Arcana project within feminism and its evolution since the 20th century, noting the ambivalence of some witches toward the mainstream embrace of the culture within the current #MeToo moment. She also notes a rising interest among millennials. Ultimately, Denny makes an expanded definition of the word, “witch” visible for those who are unaware: “the contemporary embodiment of a defiant, unsanctioned femininity.”

© Frances F. Denny, “Judika (Brooklyn, NY),” 2017, Archival pigment print, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City

Major Arcana: Witches in America at ClampArt is on view through November 24, 2018.