Interview with S. Elizabeth, author of 'The Art of Darkness' and 'The Art of the Occult'

 I am super thrilled to have had the chance to ask S. Elizabeth some questions, after falling in love with her last two publications, The Art of Darkness and The Art of the Occult. These books are amazing introductions to a wide variety of art forms, but also contain insightful musings on the topics and their effects. I am very grateful to S. Elizabeth for her time and to the lovely Melody at Quarto Knows for introducing us.

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In the Introduction, you speak of ‘all these anxieties and aversions, tensions and terrors that transcend time and which have long plagued our psyches’. What about that list intrigued you dig further into darkness and create an entire book around it?

As an extremely, very anxious person for practically my entire life, I think I’ve made an art form of midnight stewing and ruminating. I can even picture how this dread and angst actually looks if you were to cut me open and remove the roiling tempest of tension from my guts. It’s a little bit like a black hole but also in the form of one of those terrifying biblical angels with a million eyes. Or maybe it’s an angel with a million eyes, but each eye is a shimmering black void. At any rate, we can’t look at it directly because we’ll go instantly, irrevocably mad, like the characters in Josh Malerman’s Bird Box book and film adaption.

The comforting thing is that I know I am not alone; other people–everyone!--suffers from their own fears and anxieties as well. I wonder, how does their dread take shape? I suppose, due to my own churning glooms and my curiosity regarding the shape of shadows in others, ’m perpetually drawn to a feeling of darkness on canvas or rendered digitally or in a photograph, or however an artist has conjured it forth.

I have always been obsessed with what’s in the dark, and these fears and fascinations drive just about everything I do. Before I wrote any books, before I contributed to any blogs, before Tumblr or Pinterest or Livejournal or even my AOL user profile (ha!) I’ve incessantly been compelled to connect with others via imagery that I’ve unearthed from the darkness. I’ve been shouting into the void about these things for as long as I can recall, and it’s this very compulsion that led to the creation of this book.

When it came to creating The Art of the Occult and The Art of Darkness, how did the process work? Did the art guide the writing or did you have sections, concepts, and themes in mind for which you then chose art pieces? I really appreciate how your books bring together modern, perhaps more unknown, art and “established” or classic art. Similarly, a lot of different types of art are featured, from traditional paintings, to digital paintings, to sculptures and more. Do you actively try to strike a balance between these or does it happen naturally as you make a selection?

I think I can safely say that in this case, and my previous book –and my next book, for which I’ve just submitted the final chapters–the art came first and paved the path for the writing. One of the first pieces of the process was to put together a list of art and artists I would like to see in a book like this. I don’t want to say I’ve been preparing for this my whole life…but…that’s…not far off. I’ve been hoarding dark, beautiful images in the galleries of my mind museum for as far back as I can remember, but certainly more recently in the last 15-20 years, as the internet has opened entire realms of possibility for my eyeballs, that I might not have encountered otherwise.

Because I eventually began writing about art and interviewing the artists who intrigued me, both for my own blog as well as various other websites, my list was probably initially skewed more toward contemporary art. Of course, there were certain classics I already had in mind (how could you have a book like The Art of Darkness without Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, for example? Or just about any work by Goya?) that’s where the balancing came in, I think.  And the compiling of that initial list was just the beginning, really. Just something to kick things off to show the publisher that I had a few ideas. In the subsequent research and writing, more ideas and artists were unearthed, either creators I’d forgotten about, exciting artist discoveries I’d never heard of, or even artists whose work I’d never thought of in that light (or darkness, as the case may be.) From the artwork, the themes for the different parts and chapters were developed, as well. The calls are coming from inside the house, and the answers are coming from within the art!

Is there any art piece you wanted to include in The Art of Darkness but couldn’t?

Oh, yes. Absolutely. And here’s a multitude of reasons that you might not be able to include various artworks in an image-heavy sourcebook such as The Art of Darkness.

Right off the bat, your editor might not agree that the work is appropriate; that’s definitely happened to me. It’s frustrating, and you can push back a little, but ultimately it is out of your hands. Or when the time comes to gather permissions, you might not be able to hunt down any way to contact the artist. Or the artist never responds to your email or messages. Or they respond with a “no.” Or their fee is too high. Or maybe they say yes, but they can’t provide a high enough image resolution for the work. Or maybe the artist is deceased or has representation of some sort and we have to deal with a gallery or an estate, and there are too many hoops to jump through. So many reasons! That’s why it’s always so disheartening when I see a reviewer remark, “I can’t believe the author didn’t think to include X, Y, or Z.” It’s very possible I DID think to include it, I wanted very badly to include it, and I just couldn’t!

So that’s all to say, there were tons of pieces I would like to include but could not. I won’t call out any contemporary artists by mentioning them, but there is one piece in particular that still breaks my heart: The artist is Ludwik de Laveaux, and it is a work from 1890 called “Przestrach” or “Fear”. I have seen some blogs refer to it as Lady Macbeth. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough information on the work to merit it a viable inclusion in any manner, let alone to feature on the cover. I blogged about it a little here: A Wonderfully Atmospheric Image That Will Not Appear in The Art of Darkness

What was your favourite section to put together in The Art of Darkness? (I’m very partial to the third part, The World Around Us.)

You know…I thought it was going to be the spooky, supernatural section that I ended up calling “The Restless Dead and Other Eerie Entities”, because I am certainly partial to those types of shivery thrills, but like you, I very much enjoyed my time with The World Around Us. Comprised of Darkness in Bloom, Where The Wild Things Are, And Mysterious Landscapes, Ruins & Ravaged Places, I got to experience all manner of forbidding flora and fauna and sinister vistas. A shadow amongst the summer trees, a lurking silhouette reflected in a coal-black crow’s eye,  a vibrant flower in the early stages of decay–the “exquisite melancholia of the natural world” seems like an awfully pretentious way to refer to it, but hey–the heart wants what the heart wants.

What is your favourite piece of art featured in The Art of Darkness?

Oh dear! That is such a difficult choice!

I love so many of them, so much! As I mentioned, I have been interviewing artists for the past twelve years now and it felt incredible to include many of them in these pages. Artists whose work has captivated me from the moment I saw it, and which has evolved in the most marvelous

ways in the time I’ve know them: conjurers of the weird and macabre, such as Becky Munich, Amy Earles, and Caitlin McCormack. “Death Positive” creators such as Rebecca Reeves, Susan Jamison, and Paul Koudanaris, whose works spark empathy and awareness, reminding us that open conversations about death and dying are a cornerstone of a healthy society. Come to think of it, and going back to a previous question, the chapter Matters of Mortality is a favorite of mine as well. We’re all shuffling off of this mortal coil one day, but death is treated as such a taboo subject. No one wants to address the grim reaper elephant in the room. I think art is such an interesting and beautiful way to get people talking about it.

But my favorite pieces?  Well, I don’t know if it comes across or not, but I’ve got a pretty dark, morbid sense of humor. (Makes me think of a joke I heard: “Did you have a happy childhood or are you funny?") 

While I live to revel in shadows and seek spirits in every lonely, crumbling corner, I don’t think I’m a total bummer 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? I balance the mystery and melancholy, monsters and morbidity with a  sense of silliness, an appreciation of the absurd, and an adoration of ridiculousness. 

So 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’s alligator perambulations and Charley Harper’s contemplative bullfrog (pages 154-155) AND the cherry on top is cover artist Alex Eckman-Lawn, whose collage work is both full of nightmarish chaos but also like a funny postcard from the midnight recesses of your soul, a knock-knock joke from the void.

What topic would you pick next, if you could create any The Art of… you wanted?

This is such an interesting question! And I do have some…very nebulous…ideas! If you’ve read my blog or have peeked at any of my social media, you’ll see certain obsessions returning time and again. Perfume and fashion and jewelry and flowers! I’m not sure how I’d thread all of these subjects together in an art book…The Art of Aesthetics, maybe?  The rituals we create around these fripperies and fineries and somehow tie it all in with instances of trinkets and glitz and bling in visual art…or something like that, I don’t know, but I’ve been thinking on it!

And a maybe odd or philosophical question to round us off: Why is it that looking into darkness can be so comforting, despite all its terrors?

I have two answers: I think the dark is where we meet each other on equal footing. Everyone is afraid of something. Gathering around firelight sharing shivery tales, bodies schooching closer to the light and warmth, closer to each other, while a sense of community and shared experience wards away whatever may be awaiting just outside the glow of the flame–that’s beautiful, and immensely comforting. A literal bonfire full of ghost stories, or you know, just a consensual sharing of darkness and fears between two friends. But also, braving a look into the darkness and just knowing for certain what lies in wait is, in my opinion, better for you than than never looking, never knowing. You deprive yourself, when you avoid confronting your darkness; of a chance to grow and learn, a chance to do and be something better. Sure, it’s not comfortable, but I believe that ultimately it is a comfort.

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 I want to thank S. Elizabeth for her detailed and thoughtful answers, which gave me a whole new appreciation for both her own books and the art she shares.

You can find S. Elizabeth and her writing on her blog Unquiet Things, on Goodreads, on Twitter, on Facebook, or on Instagram.


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