The Magic of Marie LaVeau: Art and Social Justice
Updated: Apr 26
"Sisters and enlightened brothers, we have power in our voices, and collectively we are a force to be reckoned with. It is no longer acceptable to be silenced. LaVeau Voudou is the tradition of Queens.” -
-“The Magic of Marie LaVeau”, Denise Alvarado
For a long time I had quite an aversion to anything I considered too spiritual or overly religious. I consider myself a dedicated skeptical empiricist and was heavily influenced by thinkers who give little credence to anything considered "metaphysical.” I still have a healthy respect for skeptical empiricism but I have also learned to understand and feel the transformative power of religion, myth, symbolism, and spiritual teachings as expressed in various cultures throughout the world.
These things can be a powerful catalyst for creating positive change in our society. Think of all of the people throughout history who have helped dramatically change society for the better, who were guided by their spiritual beliefs. Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi…the list is endless and encompasses people from every spiritual tradition imaginable.
Marie LaVeau should definitely be included in this list and this is one of the main reasons that I did a triptych portrait of her. The title is quite telling: “Marie LaVeau/The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans/Healer/Priestess/Catholic/Humanitarian”. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas which is the “sister city” of New Orleans. In many ways I am very southern and grew up knowing about Marie LaVeau.
I did those paintings last year, before the book “The Magic of Marie LaVeau: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans” by Denise Alvarado was published (earlier this year). I got the book which is filled with some very interesting historical research. In a chapter entitled The Devout Catholic, Alvarado says that “Marie LaVeau's life and works embody what the Catholic Church calls corporal works of mercy — charitable actions that help our neighbors in their bodily needs such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.” Some serious community organizing and social justice work, right?! Alvarado cites the following historical source:
"Marie had a large, warm heart and a tender nature and never refused a summons from the suffering, no matter how dangerous the disease. Wherever she went, she labored faithfully and earned life-long friends. During the yellow fever and cholera epidemics she proved herself a noble woman, going from patient to patient, administering to the wants and needs of each and saving many from death.”
STAUNTON SPECTATOR & GENEREAL ADVERTISER, JUNE 21, 1881.
Marie LaVeau was well known for being heavily involved in what today would be called Criminal Justice Reform work. There are plenty of legends about Marie winning court cases. It is said that when attorneys were faced with particularly difficult cases, they would hire her to be a part of their legal team. Alvarado has a chapter in the book entitled “Prison Ministry and Court Work.” She talks about Marie Laveau's Death Row Ministry work and gives another interesting historical reference:
“Marie would often visit the cells of the condemned and turn the thoughts of those soon to be led out to atone for their crimes to their Savior. Her coming was considered a blessing by the prisoners, because if they could only excite her pity, her powerful influence would often obtain their pardon or at least commutation of sentence.”
STAUNTON SPECTATOR & GENEREAL ADVERTISER, 1881.
Originally, I planned on doing only one painting, but as I finished the first, I felt compelled to make it a triptych — an allusion to the triple goddess archetype (Maiden, Mother, and Wise Woman). I made sure to listen to the Cajun and Zydeco music shows that I can catch while working on these pieces, singing along and dancing around my cage while painting…
I am reminded of how Joseph Campbell saw mythology as offering a type of framework for personal growth and transformation that can also benefit society as a whole. In a late lecture he called artists "magical helpers" who can invoke motifs and symbols that can connect us to deeper levels of insight — and in doing so help us venture along the fulfilling life path that is our own heroic journey. In concluding his master work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell made this poignant statement: it is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse.
Never do I think of myself as guiding and saving anyone and certainly not society. Marie LaVeau is definitely a creative hero though. Hopefully in doing this triptych and sharing these thoughts, I have helped honor the empirical reality of her humanitarian and historical legacy – and perhaps even helped to spread the delightful metaphysical Energy of the magic of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. The former is cool but the latter is much more fun isn’t it?
As displayed at New York art exhibition 2019