When visual artist Frances F. Denny began to research her family lineage five years ago, she came across a shocking discovery: her eighth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons was accused of witchcraft while living in Northampton, MA, in 1674.
“I was researching my ancestry for my first book, Let Virtue Be Your Guide, and found a document my father had made outlining his side of our family tree,” Denny tells Broadly.
One historic account noted that Parsons, who came from a “good family” and had a large brood of children, was accused of practicing witchcraft by a woman who wanted to have children but was unable to get pregnant. Although Parsons was acquitted of the charges and lived into her 80s, her reputation never recovered.
Less then two decades after Parsons stood trial in Boston, the practice of bearing false witness rose to a fevered pitch during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 – 1693. Over 200 people were accused; fourteen women and five men were found guilty and hanged under the auspice of Chief Justice Samuel Sewall – who in a twist of fate, Denny learned was her tenth great-grandfather.
Although Denny does not believe that Parsons was a witch and didn't even knew she was related to Sewall, the bizarre coincidence in her familial ties related to colonial witch persecution could not be ignored. “I identified with my great-grandmother,” Denny reveals. “As someone who thinks of herself as a convention-bucker, I feel like I would have been accused of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. Yet I am wrestling with being a descendant of both oppressor and victim.”
Denny then began to explore the etymology “witch” and studied various forms and practitioners of witchcraft. She began by reading Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America the only detailed history of Neo-Pagan subculture in the United States by former NPR correspondent and a Wiccan high priestess Margot Adler, as well as Barbara Ehrenreich's Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Stacy Schiff's The Witches: Suspicion, Betrayal, and Hysteria in 1692 Salem, and Starhawk's Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Goddesses.
Denny then set forth to create Major Arcana: Witches in America, a vivid tapestry of portraits that provide an inclusive spectrum of the cis, gender fluid, and trans women who practice witchcraft, creating an intimate glimpse into those who are reclaiming the divine feminine and restoring its majesty and honor to the world.
“I see the witch as a feminist heroine or anti-hero,” Denny explains. “I feel the word ‘witch’ has a mysterious internal power that looks like a sense of self-possession that is cultivated through their belief and practices. There is a sense of resistance that feels anti-authoritarian and unruly, primordial, and nature-based.”
The work, now on view at ClampArt Gallery in New York through November 24, presents an expansive look at the witch as an ancient archetype in American vernacular now manifested in modern, practicing form.
“It’s almost a misnomer to call it a witch community because it’s so diverse,” Denny reveals. “On one end of the spectrum, is a Wiccan high priestess. A Wiccan uses an uppercase W for Witch just as a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian would because of religious praxis. At the other end is what I call a lowercase witch, a woman who is interested in tarot, divination, astrology, crystals, and candle work—things that are derived from mystical practices and have broader appeal.”
Denny feels an extraordinary sense of responsibility to her subjects, careful to both share and protect their lives. “It can be easy to forget that there is the real risk in outwardly owning this word ‘witch’ and identifying with witchcraft [in some parts of the world] because you can not only lose your jobs or your kids—you can be put before trial or be killed for being a witch. The things that were happening in Salem are still happening in parts of the world [today],” Denny says.
“There is something at stake about being ‘out of the broom closet,’” Denny says. “They are taking back this history of women being powerful and gathering together. There was this silencing of it. Many of the women I met are focused on reclaiming something that is ancient and has been stolen from us.”