Legacy of Spiritualism Shines in ‘Radical Spirits’ at Hill-Stead Museum

Theorem paintings in 'Radical Spirits: Tarot and Automatism in the Works of Hilma’s Ghost' at the Hill-Stead Museum through Nov. 1

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FARMINGTON — It’s an open secret that Theodate Pope Riddle, whose home and collection serve as the basis of Hill-Stead Museum, practiced spiritualism, but until now the trove of her writings and materials has been mostly unexplored. 

A current show at Hill-Stead, “RADICAL SPIRITS: Tarot and Automatism in the Works of Hilma’s Ghost,” in the museum’s new carriage barn exhibition space, speaks to Riddle’s passion for divinatory and psychic practices including automatic writing and seances with mediums. 

Through channeling and drawing sessions in Riddle’s home, Brooklyn-based artists Dannielle Tegeder and Sharmistha Ray have created five new paintings for the show with the aid of a professional witch, Sarah Potter. 

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Tegeder and Ray created the feminist art collective Hilma’s Ghost, named for Hilma af Clint, a Swedish artist and mystic who died in 1944 and was nearly unknown until her blockbuster show at the Guggenheim Museum in 2018 rocked the art world.

Noteworthy was the artists’ discovery of a theorem painting in an upstairs bedroom drawer, facilitated by the museum’s senior curator, Melanie Bourbeau. Theorem painting involves making and using stencils to create artwork, usually on velvet. It was a technique taught in the 19th century at girls’ schools in New England. This one was signed by Judith F. Twain, who was either Riddle’s grandmother or great-grandmother.  

Theorem Painting by Judith Twain at the Hill-Stead Museum (CT Examiner)

Tegeder and Ray researched theorem paintings and chose to revive the technique using spiritual intervention.

“You have an abstract spiritual theorem where the entire process was sparked by the discovery of the actual, realistic, historic women’s work,” said Anna Swinbourne, the museum’s executive director and CEO. 

Other works in the show include Hilma’s Ghost original designs of tarot cards and selections from their “Chromagick,” a series of works on paper based on the tarot. 

On view are a few automatic drawings from Riddle’s sessions with mediums, which represent only a “tiny amount” of the pieces in the museum’s archive, said Swinbourne.

Riddle’s pursuit of spiritualism was probably one of her most deeply felt and passionate endeavors, said Swinbourne, and one that in recent decades has been almost entirely overlooked in her legacy. 

“We talk about her as an architect, before women were architects, she was the designer of this house. We talk about her as a pioneer, we talk about her as a philanthropist,” Swinbourne said. “We talk about her as a farmer and someone who was interested in sustainable practices of the land. But we almost never talked about her spiritualism.”

When asked about the reasons the museum had not discussed Riddle’s spiritualism, Swinbourne said she thought it was “somewhat of a controversial topic for people.” 

Another reason, Swinbourne said, is that the experience of seeing masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas, Cassatt and Whistler as intended in a domestic setting is a once-in-lifetime experience for visitors. 

“It’s different from other historic houses – we have a world class collection in a historic house — so just talking through that can take up an hour. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches, the amount of material that she left us to interpret.” 


“RADICAL SPIRITS: Tarot and Automatism in the Works of Hilma’s Ghost” at the Hill-Stead Museum is open until Nov. 1.