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About Holding the Ghosts

Holding the Ghosts

(Mixed Media)


New work in collaboration by WiL Labelle & Coleman Stevenson


In folk literature around the world, the trope of containing a spirit inside a vessel proliferates. Tale type 331 is labeled “The Spirit in the Bottle” to describe tales collected across eastern and western Europe, Scandinavia, Asia, and the Americas about evil spirits trapped inside bottles that must do the bidding of whoever frees them. Other folktales repeat motifs such as “soul hidden in water bottle,” “revenant tricked or jeered into a bottle, corked up and put in safe place,” “spirit in bottle (bag) as helper,” “stopped bottle as protection against witches,” and many more. In the lore of King Solomon, a magically inscribed ring could be used to seal individual spirits inside leather bottles, giving the possessor command over the demon inside. In Arabic folk narrative, the jinn are elemental spirits that can be either benevolent or malevolent and may also be contained/summoned (with vessels and magic rings also sometimes involved here).


This concept has not been confined to the realm of stories. Throughout history, humans have crafted actual vessels to seal up the demons/spirits/ghosts that they believe intend to do them harm. Ancient Mesopotamian incantation bowls were buried upside down in the soil near the home, their terracotta surfaces inscribed with spiraling magical text to ward off demons. The tradition of bottle trees common in the southern United States originates with people from Africa brought to the Old South during the transatlantic slave trade. Empty glass bottles are placed upside down on the cut branches of a tree (or tree-like structure); the colored glass is thought to attract evil spirits, luring them inside the bottles where they become trapped and destroyed by the sunlight. Witch bottles made by filling stoneware (Bellarmine jugs) or more recently glass with pins/nails, protective herbs, knotted thread, and urine have been found inside the walls of English country homes during remodeling.


This collaborative series takes its central metaphor from these stories, beliefs, and practices, but broadens the ideas of “spirit” and “haunting.” When exploring possibilities for our work, we thought about how tangible objects, in general, are commonly vessels for ideas, just as language is. Things we say or things that are said to us can remain with us for a lifetime; the objects we keep around us keep fleeting encounters alive. We considered how our bodies/brains are also vessels–-repositories for personality, soul, memory—and how we try to contain or control what haunts us, the “personal demons,” the revenant memories, the profound or traumatic experiences that have shaped who we are. Ultimately, we asked ourselves what actual, external vessels holding our emotions and experiences (positive or negative) would look like, feel like. What is the nature of the ghost held within each, and how would the vessel change depending on whether we were locking something away for safekeeping or locking it up to keep ourselves safe? In this way, Wil’s vessels are expressions of their contents. My illustrations are, for the most part, representations of the contained spirits, or grapplings with their lived effects.


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