kat snoddy

Paintings for the Temple

For six months over the course of 2018 and 2019, the Guggenheim museum in New York is forfeiting its promotion of the self-serving male titans of the art world. In those six months, it hosts a temple built by a woman to honor her spiritual masters.

Walking into the museum (or rather, the temple) is overwhelming. The first room of the exhibit urgently plunges you into an outlandish world with a series of staggering 10-foot-tall paintings, each richly saturated with oranges, blues, and purples. Spirals and interlocking circles surge and gush over the massive sheets of paper, forming an illegible cursive. The rest of the exhibit follows a similar thread—vibrant colors fill every corner, and every work seems to communicate something mysterious with a language of diagrammatic, letter-like symbols.


The temple was created by Hilma af Klint, an artist born in 1862, just a few decades before artists like Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian created their most iconic works. A talented landscape and portrait artist, Stockholm’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts awarded af Klint her own studio upon her graduation. She achieved a respectable amount of success completing commissions from wealthy patrons for traditional subjects like portraits of their wives and children. When she wasn’t supporting herself with commissions, however, unbeknownst to most of the world, af Klint was creating some of the most revolutionary paintings of the 20th century.

At the age of 17, af Klint became interested in spiritualism, or the belief in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the dead and of deities. Her interest may have been sparked by the passing of her 10-year-old sister, whom af Klint took care of as she died of pneumonia. However, af Klint’s interest in spiritual communication quickly turned to contact with deities, all-knowing spirits that she would later call the High Masters. Within a few years, she had mastered the art of divine communication, and spent the rest of her life frequently communing with these spirits.

Spiritualism was a common interest for upper-class Europeans in the late 19th century, and seances (rituals used to contact unearthly spirits) were generally not taken as lightly as they are today. The contemporary scientific discoveries of subatomic particles and x-rays were proof that the world contained things beyond those that are visible and immediately apparent. People interested in spiritualism at the time were simply inspired by those discoveries to seek new ways to understand the natural world.

Almost a decade after af Klint’s initial dive into the world of spiritualism, she created a group with four other female spiritualists called De Fem, or The Five. Together, the women would seek to enter trance-like states to perform intricate seances, communing with the all-knowing High Masters.

The process of these seances, though somewhat unknown to history, went a bit like this: the five women would sit around a table, their altar close at hand. The contents of the altar were surprisingly Christian—a crucifix was boldly placed front and center and an ornately framed depiction of Jesus was hung above it. The small altar stand was covered in a luxuriously embroidered white cloth and was laden with vines, palm fronds, peonies, and roses. On either side of the cross were two white candles melted over their elaborate candle holders. The altar reflected The Five’s spiritual interests: aside from their more occult religious beliefs, all of them were practicing Lutherans, hence the Christian imagery. The group was also deeply interested in understanding nature, so they adorned their sacred space with pieces of it.

Once the altar was prepared and the women seated, they would begin their contact with the High Masters. It’s unclear how they would summon these spirits—however, we do know that their process of communication relied on automatic drawing.

Automatic drawing, a technique made famous by surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí, is the process of clearing one’s mind completely and drawing without intention or control over what’s being drawn. For The Five, this type of drawing allowed them to communicate with the High Masters. When The Five sat for their seance, it was as if the person drawing relinquished her own consciousness and allowed her body to be occupied by the spirit, who would use her body as a conduit for communication. The resulting works were chaotic, abstract pencil sketches. Over time, af Klint and The Five developed a sort of dictionary of symbolic images that they could use to interpret the drawings and understand what they were describing about the natural world.

After 10 years of regular seances, the High Masters came to The Five with a commission: they wanted them to create a series of paintings diagramming the universe to be installed in a temple. One by one the women declined, worried that they would go mad from such extended contact with the spirit world. Af Klint, however, was unafraid, so she accepted. She would spend the next 10 years creating a series of 193 paintings called The Paintings for the Temple. The series describes everything from the origin of the universe to evolution to the contrast and conflation of the masculine and feminine.

All the while, she kept her project almost entirely a secret, relegating her works to her small, isolated cottage in Sweden and showing them to very few people. Though she no longer created automatic drawings, all of the works for the temple were guided by the knowledge she gained from the spirits she worshipped.


Hilma af Klint began to create her stunning abstract works in 1905, years before revolutionary male artists like Wassily Kandinsky had their breakthroughs. This fact is undeniably exciting—it’s incredible to realize that a woman beat them to the punch. However, what’s really radical and subversive is the fact that af Klint’s motive for creating her works was so distinct from that of her male counterparts. While the long-acclaimed male artists ventured into abstraction for the sake of radicalism and personal achievement, af Klint did so out of pious selflessness. For af Klint, art was not simply an exciting experimentation to show off to the art world and garner her acclaim, like it was for most contemporary artists. Af Klint’s artwork was her life’s duty—she created it because she cared so deeply about her metaphysical commissioners. Her work was a demonstration of her love and respect.

In her article “The MoMA’s Hot Mamas,” Carol Duncan explains that the popular conception of art history’s progression is one of metaphorical patricide, or father-killing. In this patricidal narrative, artists achieve recognition because they did something better, more innovative than their forefathers. For example, cubists like Picasso became acclaimed because they thought of three-dimensional space differently than artists had before. These patricidal artists’ success is rooted in a millennia-long competition to one-up their predecessors. This narrative almost always excludes women, people of color, and anyone seen as inferior to the white men who are established as great artists. It allows us to incorrectly assume that underprivileged groups historically didn’t have the flourishing creative production that they did.

Hilma af Klint and the recent recognition of her work’s value deeply upset this narrative. Unlike most artists of the time, she didn’t create work for the sake of display or profit. In fact, she only displayed her spiritual works once during her lifetime, when she brought a small number of her pieces to a spiritualist convention. She even mandated that her works not be displayed until 20 years after her death, a decision that surely saved her from severe criticism and allowed her to continue her mission undisturbed. Because she kept her work so secretive, we can easily assume that she didn’t intend for her art to be forced into the aggressive and toxically masculine context that most well-known art is. By looking at af Klint and other artists like her, we can begin to unravel misconceptions about artistic beauty and innovation that are rooted in pointless rivalry and self-aggrandizing.

Critics attribute af Klint’s invention of radical abstraction to her spiritual guidance, and I’m sure she would agree with them. However, this attribution becomes problematic in terms of af Klint’s authority and individualism. It’s easy to write her out of her own work, to claim that because she worked with strong guidance from her deities, she doesn’t deserve full credit for her art.

But what’s the big deal about individualism and intention? We only value individuality and originality in art because of the dominating patricidal narrative and because of our misconception that an artist has to be some kind of independent, revolutionary genius for their work to be valuable. Af Klint didn’t think of herself as working independently, but that doesn’t make her work any less moving.


At the end of the long walk up the Guggenheim’s spiraling ramp (which, with its distinctive roundness, looks wonderfully similar to af Klint’s unexecuted plans for her own structure), you reach the temple’s altar. In the altar, there are three paintings, the two on either side depicting something like steps rising to and from the horizon, the one in the middle holding a massive gold orb that almost seems to vibrate with energy. The complex symbols likely translate into some sort of prayer, though most onlookers can’t understand what it says. You don’t have to. These paintings weren’t made for you to evaluate their meaning or worth. You’re allowed to just look and appreciate how beautiful the piece is. Perhaps for the first time in a large museum, the artist isn’t obligating you to understand their own importance. You can relax and enjoy the beauty of Hilma’s divine world.

Blue Issue | February 2019

Performing for Ourselves


I am walking down the hill, out of the bubble of Horace Mann Ivy League Preparatory School and into the rest of the world. I have just enough time between classes to walk to David’s house, smoke a spliff, and listen to whatever new music he’ll make me listen to. His grimy Bronx apartment is a welcome reverie after my high school’s pit of anxiety. I open the unlocked door of his apartment and creep into his room. He’s sitting where he always is, legs crossed at his desk, hammering at his Korg keyboard. The sound coming out of his headphones is audible from five feet away. At four hundred dollars, the keyboard is by far the most expensive thing he owns, and more precious to him than anything. He’s hunched over, barefoot, his hair and hoodie unwashed. As always, it takes him a few moments to notice me. I wait, not wanting to break his musical trance, and sit on the edge of his bed.

Suddenly, he turns around. “Kat! Listen to this shit.” Still half-entranced, he rips out his headphones and lets the beat bump through the speakers. It’s mediocre.

“Dude! Fucking sick,” I say, “who are you writing this for?” 

“Akilah wrote something last night, needs a beat. I’m trying to get it on SoundCloud before the show this weekend.”

I almost flinch—I’d entirely forgotten that we were going to perform. 

I feign excitement: “Oh sick, yeah, I’ve been working on some poems, I’ll send them to you.” David doesn’t need any more negativity surrounding the performance.

At the biggest show we ever played, only twelve people were in the audience. We had been practicing for weeks. My piece was by far the easiest—I read a couple of old poems and helped the musicians move their equipment. David’s jobs were far harder. He was the one responsible for organizing group practice. It took place in the Sweatshop, a twenty-dollar-per-hour studio in Bushwick, away from the ears of complaining neighbors. He was the one who had to fight with venue managers over the money we had to scrounge up to use the space. Most importantly, he had to keep us from turning our anxiety and anger against each other. FreeThe was a hotheaded DIY group, a collection of artists desperate for success. Bickering was inevitable, just another part of the operation.

It took me a while to comprehend why he put so much effort and suffering into what would end up being a mediocre, unpopulated show. As a side performer—primarily just a friend who was invited to participate—I always felt distant from the group’s drama. From my perspective, it was almost depressing to watch. It was pretty clear that no one in FreeThe was about to make it big.

Recently, I asked Jake, a fellow former FreeThe musician and longtime friend, why he thought David worked so hard for the group. “No idea,” he replied. Jake, like me, left the intensity of New York for the quiet emptiness of Colorado. I think he still harbors some resentment for the city and its people. 

“It’s like, when we performed,” he continued, “it would just be going terribly and we knew it was going terribly but we just had to pretend it was all okay. We just had sit there and cringe.” I was surprised to hear him speak so negatively of FreeThe. “Why didn’t you quit earlier?” I asked. “They’re good people and I need good people to practice with,” Jake said, before changing the subject. 

After David and I finished our spliff, the initial edge of pre-show anxiety disappeared, and my excitement was a bit less forced. He continued to work on the beat as I leaned back and listened, willing it to be better, desperately hoping for him to succeed. Perhaps it was just my affection for him and my own wishful thinking, but after fifteen more minutes of work, the beat sounded halfway decent. I lay back on the bed, soaking up a bit more of David’s ardor before trudging back to class.

Jake’s answer to my question was unsatisfying, so I’ve been searching for a better one. Why did David work so hard for what he must have known wouldn’t succeed?

Only recently, now that I’m more than halfway across the country and dearly missing FreeThe, have I begun to realize that the question of “why” never even entered anyone’s head. We only wondered “how.” The group’s need to make art was not up for question. Our only focus was finding a way to do what we needed to do. 

That’s why we put on shows: It gave us a deadline, a tangible reason to get together and practice. Though most FreeThe members would deny this (they’re as haughty as most artists are), the show didn’t matter nearly as much as the practice. We did it for the process, for the actual production of art. The show itself was only a byproduct.

In David’s case, there is another factor that can’t be overlooked. Before FreeThe, back when I only knew him as an older guy with a slightly predatory reputation, he was a weed, cocaine, and acid dealer. He’s only told me the story of his downfall in various hesitant, drunk fragments—it’s a touchy subject for him. Essentially, he was robbed of a few thousand dollars’ worth of drugs and needed to get the money back fast. After making some bad decisions to get money quickly, he wound up at Rikers Island prison for a brief period of time. Since getting out, he’s remained relatively clean and has only worked legal jobs. 

FreeThe was partially a distraction, something to fill David’s time so that he didn’t feel as compelled to return to the drug scene. I also believe, though, that being responsible for something made him feel better about himself. Like a parent raising a child, David could focus on the successes and failures of FreeThe to distract from his own. 

The next Saturday, I was back at David’s house, clumsily taking apart a drum kit and preparing it for the nearly two-hour long subway journey to the Lower East Side. Most of FreeThe was also at David’s house, leaving little room to move around the tiny apartment. An air of excitement filled the small space as everyone hyped each other up.

I kept to the side, alone with the cumbersome drum kit—I didn’t want to bring down their energy with my anxiety. Performing has always been tough for me, though not for the reasons that Jake expressed. Once I begin to read my poetry, my fear dissipates. Every moment until then, though, is painful. 

Swallowing my stress, I began hauling the drums past the broken elevator and down the stairs, allowing myself a moment alone before the inevitable ordeal of performing. 

As bad as my anxiety in that moment was, it was far from the worst it’s been. In seventh grade, I shared a piece of writing with a large group of people for the first time, and became so overwhelmed with fear that I cried. I ended up having to leave the dingy public library auditorium. Years later, after winning a competition for a piece I wrote, I was so anxious about reading it publicly that at the last minute I backed out of my opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall. Instead of going to the ceremony, I watched a live stream of it with my parents. I remember staring at the screen, still dressed up in preparation to perform, filled with regret. I decided to never let it happen again.

Like me, David and the rest of FreeThe were kids on the cusp of being “real artists,” willing to put in whatever amount of pain and effort required to make something beautiful. Also like me, they often failed to actually do so. Either way, they were there to force me to continue to try, and I was there to force them. They gave me the tough love I needed. Once or twice, Jake angrily yelled at me to “stop being a little bitch, Kat” when I tried to get out of performing. At the time, I hated him for it. His aggression felt cruel, and amidst the group’s usual bickering, I took his insults personally. But I realize now how much that anger helped me. Nothing but the bitter desire to prove him wrong could have made me get up and perform. 

The subway ride from David’s house in the Bronx to the lower Manhattan venue must have taken an hour and a half, and with a drum kit, keyboard, guitar, and pedalboard in hand, it was a hellish excursion. Some of the other passengers smiled at us, though I’m not sure if they smiled because of the absurdity of the scene or out of warmth and respect for visibly struggling musicians. Either way, their joy was a welcome sight. Most people were far ruder, disregarding the preciousness of our equipment and callously kicking or bumping into it. I’m sure that for people like David, whose keyboard was his pride and joy, their behavior was heinous. 

Finally making it to the venue was barely a relief. Moments after we got there, David was already arguing with the manager.
By 8 p.m., the drama had peaked. The issue of the venue fee had led David and the bar manager into a near-physical screaming match. Money was often the root of our fights with venues. Usually, a band will pay a certain amount of money to play at a venue, and the money is returned after ticket sales. At this particular show, the venue refused to return the hundred dollars that we had barely managed to scrape together from painful extra working hours. We couldn’t afford to lose that money.

Not all of New York’s teenage performance groups go through this struggle. Certain groups whose families have the money to support their music can easily afford to spare a hundred dollars. Often, they can spare even more, which gives them the option to play at bigger venues with better advertisement and regular crowds. Money isn’t the only key to success in DIY, but it certainly helps, and our lack of money certainly put us at a disadvantage in the harsh competition of the New York music scene.

New York is overcrowded with talented people trying to make it, to stand out against the masses of equally talented performers. The city is simply too physically dense to accommodate us all. Because of this, performers are forced to appeal to the economic interests of venues, which, as much as they want to help the art scene, also need to sustain themselves financially. 

For the most part, we made an effort to resist the atmosphere of tension and remain supportive towards each other. But sometimes we would slip up and let the stress get the best of us. Someone would give five dollars less than another person would, and bickering would ensue.

David left the bar in a huff. Half the group left with him to offer comfort and solutions, while the other half, including myself, stayed inside with the equipment. None of the people who left were allowed back inside. The bouncer became a barrier between the two halves of FreeThe. 

When an hour passed, no solution had been reached and we were halfway into our time slot. Out of boredom and the unavoidable urge to continue making art, we began our show unplugged, with only half of the group, and without an audience. We played for each other and for ourselves, channeling the frustration right back into the work. We improvised. A guy with minimal drum experience played a box drum. I recalled my childhood ballet classes and danced. I read poems over a girl’s singing. People picked up instruments they’d never used before. Ultimately, we just messed around, giving in to the chaos of our failed show, relishing the freedom it granted us.

Half out of tradition, half out of an attempt to console ourselves for the objective failure of our show, we decided to leave the venue and get drunk. With money we didn’t make from the gig, we bought pizza and beer and migrated to our usual corner of Tompkins Square Park. It was a bit too cold and late to be hanging outside, so the park was deserted apart from our group and our equipment. Our little caravan, dwarfed by all the gear, huddled in the slight shelter that the drum kit and guitar cases provided.

No one was talking. After our moment of failure, each of us was deeply involved in our own internal debate. Why do I do this? Why am I wasting so much money? So much effort?

“I still think I should have socked that guy,” said David.

“Yeah, no shit,” said Jake. There was a pause before we all started to laugh. For the first time, I realized the comedy in the scene. I saw my underdressed and shivering friends hugging their instruments, sitting in a circle on the pavement for no real reason, pouting like children.

David mentioned something about an open venue in a couple weeks but was quickly cut off by a communal groan. 

“Ok, fine. I’ll shut up.”