Agatha Wojciechowsky. American (born Germany), 1896-1986, and spirits. Untitled (detail), 1963. Watercolor on paper. 11 ¾ x 8 7/8 in. Courtesy the collection of Steven Day, New York, NY.

Making contact: “Supernatural America” explores our long fascination with the unexplained

By Robert Cozzolino, Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings //

This week, Mia’s exhibition “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art” will open—not at Mia, but at the Toledo Museum of Art, in Ohio. The exhibition moves to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, before having its finale in Minneapolis next February. What it was like to organize a major loan exhibition during a pandemic could be its own spooky tale. Suffice to say that many powerful guardian spirits helped materialize the project, outwitting innumerable imps, sprites, and pixies that challenged Mia staff in unprecedented ways.

Columbia Industries. Mystic Answer Board, c. 1940s. Wood, pigments. Collection of Brandon Hodge. Photo: Brandon Hodge / MysteriousPlanchette.com.

The exhibition presents artwork by more than 100 artists, spanning the late 1700s to the present. Well-known figures such as Betye Saar and Grant Wood share space with artist-mediums who made images as part of sacred practices as Spiritualists. You might expect to see images of ghosts in an exhibition exploring the supernatural—and you will—but the primary thread that binds these diverse artists across generations leads to contact.

Visitors will see this in the many artworks that bring attention to hands: reaching out to us, seeking something, feeling for orientation, hoping to make connection, groping towards the unknown. It is an apt metaphor for humanity aspiring to understand whether there is something out there beyond us, even something not visible to the eyes but capable of making us feel and know. It is one reason why designer Tracy Kompelien gravitated to a still from Tom Friedman’s video projection Wall for the cover of the exhibition catalogue: an image of a hand emerging from the ether, its fingertips glowing as if in contact.

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It should not be surprising that mysterious and unexplained phenomena have consistently inspired artists. Beyond the art world, audiences cannot get enough of books, films, podcasts, and TV shows that center on these tales. They have seeped into our culture and across innumerable genres as they evoke what lies beneath the surface. This accounts for the powerful entertainment value that supernatural or paranormal themes have brought to audiences. But it is largely a world of fiction. “Supernatural America” deals with firsthand experience, to the degree that many of the artists in the exhibition—and I, as the curator—would describe the supernatural as natural and the paranormal as normal.

Nearly all of the work included in this exhibition is by artists who we know made art about their personal experiences of and witnessing of the otherworldly. Call them hauntings, spirit contacts, or visitations by interdimensional or interplanetary beings, these encounters directly inspired the artists. They depict the specters they saw or try to convey the uncanny feeling of haunted places. Some made art while their bodies were controlled by spirits. Some try to make the invisible visible, giving viewers a sense of what felt real and tangible though unseen. Others make altars to honor spirits, create devices to enable communication with them, or form images during ritual.

The author as he turned 1, in 1971. This explains a lot.

Sound scary? That’s not the intent. This is not a Halloween show, though perhaps my own interest is rooted in having been born on October 31. So was my maternal grandfather, Thomas McCann, who emigrated from Ireland to Chicago as a young man. That journey and where he wound up has a lot to do with who I am and how I have come to this particular moment. That meaningful connection across generations, rather than the spooky birthdate, is a key into “Supernatural America.”

The religion of Spiritualism arose in the 19th century, advocating “deeds not creeds” on Earth, and their unusual non-hierarchical approach attracted a diverse range of people seeking links between the spirit world (sometimes planetary systems) and what we would call social justice action at our feet. They hold that there is no death, and that the living and the spirit world can communicate back and forth. That sense of hope and relation—that our ancestors and friends are never gone and can impart wisdom and guidance—is a basis for spirit contact through séances and other practices. I remember the moment of recognition I suddenly had at Lily Dale, a Spiritualist community in New York, when I first went to do research there: Most of the people attending healing ceremonies, sitting with mediums, and joining séances are there because someone they love has died. They want to make contact.

Having been raised Catholic (though no longer practicing), I see connections in the devotional practices and image-making that permeate the religion. Art history has paid little attention to this visual culture. There are connections that viewers will make with their own spiritual practices and beliefs. We may wonder whether we’re alone in the universe, or consider if places echo with traces of their past. We may carry a meaningful object or charm, or have notions about whether intelligence survives bodily death.

As the icons of the saints are to Catholic or Christian art imagery, so automatic drawings—like the work of medium and artist Agatha Wojciechowsky—are to Spiritualism. When fascinated reporters asked Wojciechowsky to explain her practice, she responded matter-of-factly, “I really have nothing to do with it. This is the work of different entities who take over and step into my body, directing my hand.” This wasn’t a colorful response about the muse—she meant it. And the curatorial point of view of this project is to take the experiences and views of the artists seriously, treating them with respect and asking of their imagery and practice a serious question: what are the implications for creativity and belief.

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The past year has been challenging in ways that were unprecedented in our lifetime. The mandates around the grieving process during the pandemic left so many people without emotional closure. Awareness of the spiritual core of our connections to one another required frontline care workers across the globe to pay special attention to the deeper needs of patients and families. The catastrophic mortality rate from Covid-19—nearly four million worldwide as of this moment—and the dread of encountering those infected (there have been almost 175 million stricken) has made human contact an anxious prospect. Even if you have not lost someone you know to the illness, we have all experienced the loss of routine, milestones that could not be traditionally marked, and the delay or loss of experiences we might have been planning for our whole lives.

Macena Barton. American, 1901–1986. Untitled (Flying Saucers with Snakes), 1961 Oil on canvas. M. Christine Schwartz Collection. Photo: Michael Tropea, Chicago, IL. © Estate of Macena Barton.

In other times of crisis—the influenza pandemic of 1918, two world wars, and the U.S. Civil War—a reexamination of the meaning of life and death has followed. A will to honor the spirits of the dead, our friends, family, and ancestors, has felt urgent. An impulse to contact spirits also accompanies these cycles. It should not be surprising that interest in religions such as Spiritualism are on the rise, or that references to ghosts and haunting have become prevalent in popular culture. Sometimes this can seem flip, but it also gets to the core of the threat we face, and the concern for the souls of the dead who died without the rituals or intimate care they might otherwise have received. It is also no coincidence that the rise in UFO sightings and a concern for whether we are alone has accompanied the pandemic. Maybe there’s a better world out there—or we can learn from another species?

The truth is we get in touch with the otherworldly to understand ourselves. The pandemic has been enough to shake us awake to the need to honor spirits. But social justice reckonings, begun long before the pandemic, raised an urgency that cannot be ignored. As many artists in the exhibition declare, unstill national ghosts demand to be acknowledged, honored, and made amends to: settler colonialism, racialized violence, and the innumerable individual cases of these legacies that exist in our communities today. We must recognize that this haunting will not stop and it demands us to shift our consciousness to deliberately make different choices in favor of love and justice as the basis of community and policy. The ghosts will continue to remain restless unless we attend to their messages and warnings. Then we might finally see them as the critical messengers of guidance they have always been.

All of this coincides with the exhibition “Supernatural America,” but it did not craft the show. The artists in the exhibition have for generations and centuries found the core things we are facing to be important, full of lessons and the potential for hope. In contact with spirits, they saw the possibility that we might transcend the earthbound actions that limit what we can be.