A New York Pirate, courtesy Joe Coleman

The painted surface is on a flat piece of wood finely sanded which is glued onto another piece of wood that contains fabric related to the subject or my connection to the subject. When this is attached to the painted frame about 1 to 1½ inches show between the painted frame and the painted wood, giving the effect that the painting is floating within the frame.

In the painting Mommy/Daddy the picture floats on actual clothing my parents wore. A black satin dress of my mother and a USMC (United States Marine Corps) shirt my father wore in Iwo Jima. The two fabrics connect at the very point where I have joined their bisected dependant halves. In the painting A New York Pirate the painting is floating on the actual shirt that Elmo Patrick Sonnier wore to his execution. Love Song, which is a love song in paint to my wife, Whitney Ward, is floating on bed sheet that we fucked on

and the four corners of the outer frame contain reliquaries holding co- mingled body parts: a cyst from my neck with Whitney’s blood, Whitney’s fingernails mixed with my hair, etc….

This treatment of objects as fetish is partially based on my Catholic upbringing but it is an aspect of Catholicism that is heavily rooted in pagan ritual. Objects have magical powers. This belief is so deep within me that I have turned my own home into a shrine of fear, desire and mystery. To possess an object of magic is to possess the object’s power. The use of magical objects is vital to my paintings. For A New York Pirate, Sonnier’s shirt helps to raise a monster’s power and cage it within. In Love Song the objects serve to protect and immortalize our passion for each other. In Mommy/Daddy they serve as physical reminder of my creation and as a warning of the past.

Magical elements in my performances have parallels but it is in the realm of the priest or shaman. In my early teens I was compelled to strap onto my body homemade explosives that were attached to a cookie tin from my mother’s kitchen. I wore this device on my chest and then hid it by wearing one of my father’s shirts which was slightly too big for me. I would then invade stranger’s homes and ignite myself; in the smoke and confusion I would disappear. I eventually turned these primal acts of suburban terror into a stage performance. In 1981 as Professor Momboozoo (a merging of parental forces: Mom=mother, Booze=father) in New York’s alternative performance space “The Kitchen,” I delivered an apocalyptic sermon then self-detonated, bit the heads off of live rats and then proceeded to chase out the entire audience from the theater with a double-barreled shotgun. Fire and explosion are elemental forces; the biting off of the head of a live animal is a rite of passage. These acts served to put me into a heightened state of being. Transgression into transcendence into a pre-civilized existence that for me set off an internal psychodrama, releasing deep-seated conflicts of childhood producing a slowly diminishing catharsis until the performances of Professor Momboozoo ended.

I have spent many hours researching and painting an historical figure’s pocket watch and then paint the pocket over it.

Mommy/Daddy, courtesy Joe Coleman

With magnified lenses used by jewelers and a one-hair brush I submerge into a microscopic world. I build sets, stitch costumes, and act out all of the parts. I become the person I am painting; perhaps like method acting, maybeit’s what is

called “the assumption of the God form” in occult books. But it is the way in which I can conjure a soul.

As with the paintings there are many levels produced connecting ancient and modern, pagan and Christian. They also create a cultural echo that returns to me in strange cryptic symbols, like when game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker spearheaded my arrest for biting the heads off of mice during a performance. When he condemned me in the press this “BARKER” became my sideshow pitchman. Or when the Boston police had me arrested after a performance at the Boston Film and Video Foundation in which I exploded while hanging over the audience. The district attorney charged me (the arrest warrant read “Joe Coleman AKA ‘Dr. Momboozoo’”) with “possession of an infernal machine”—a charge my lawyer said had not been used since the 1800s. The words in the charge imply something diabolical.

As with all of my work I am concerned only with the details, the whole picture will reveal itself to me when it wants…or not.



Magic is often referred to in terms of being a path, a spiritual quest, a voyage of self-discovery, or an adventure. However you want to dress it up, one point is clear, it is a means of bringing about Change. For this change to be effective, it is important that you be able to set the effects of your magical work within a context—to be able to make sense of them and integrate them into a dynamic interaction with a moving, fluid universe.

Initiation is the term which magicians use to examine this process of integration, and Illumination is one of its most important by-products.

This requires a sense (however tenuous) of where you have been, and where you are “going.” At times these anchor-points will seem to be solid, and at others, ephemeral and faint. Initiation is the term which magicians use to examine this process of integration, and Illumination is one of its most important by-products.


There appears to be some misunderstanding over what exactly the term “initiation” means. Occasionally one bumps into people who consider themselves as “initiates” and seem to consider themselves somehow “above” the rest of humanity. Particularly irritating are the self-styled “initiates” who let drop teasing bits of obscure information and then refuse to explain any further because their audience are not “initiates.” The term itself seems to crop up in a wide variety of contexts—people speak of being “initiated” into groups, onto a particular path, or of initiating themselves. Some hold that “initiation” is only valid if the person who confers it is part of a genuine tradition, others that it doesn’t matter either way. Dictionary definitions of initiation allude to the act of beginning, or of setting in motion, or entry into something. One way to explain initiation is to say that it is a threshold of change which we may experience at different times in our lives, as we grow and develop. The key to initiation is recognizing that we have reached such a

turning point, and are aware of being in a period of transition between our past and our future. The conscious awareness of entering a transitional state allows us to perhaps, discard behavioral/emotional patterns which will be no longer valid for the “new” circumstances, and consciously take up new ones.

What magical books often fail to emphasize is that initiation is a process. It doesn’t just happen once, but can occur many times throughout an individual’s life, and that it has peaks (initiatory crises), troughs (black depression or the “dark night of the soul”) and plateaus (where nothing much seems to be going on). Becoming aware of your own cycles of change, and how to weather them, is a core part of any developmental process or approach to magical practice. The key elements or stages of the initiation process have been extensively mapped by anthropologists such as Joseph Campbell. While they are mostly used to describe stages of shamanic initiation, they are equally applicable to other areas of life experience.


In shamanic societies the first stage of the initiation process is often marked by a period of personal crises and a “call” towards starting the shamanic journey. Most of us are quite happy to remain within the conceptual and philosophical boundaries of Consensus Reality (the everyday world). For an individual beginning on the initiatory journey, the crisis may come as a powerful vision, dreams, or a deep (and often disturbing) feeling to find out what is beyond the limits of normal life. It can often come as a result of a powerful spiritual, religious or political experience, or as a growing existential discontent with life. Our sense of being a stable self is reinforced by the “walls” of the social world in which we participate—yet our sense of uniqueness resides in the cracks of those same walls. Initiation is a process which takes us “over the wall” into the unexplored territories of the possibilities which we have only half-glimpsed. This first crisis is often an unpleasant experience, as we begin to question and become dissatisfied with all that we have previously held dear—work, relationships, ethical values, family life can all be disrupted as the individual becomes increasingly consumed by the desire to “journey.”

One way to explain initiation is to say that it is a threshold of change which we may experience at different times in our lives, as we grow and develop.

The internal summons may be consciously quashed or resisted, and it is not unknown for individuals in tribal societies to refuse “the call” to shamanic training—no small thing, as it may lead to further crises and even death. One very common experience of people who feel the summons in our society is an overpowering sense of urgency to either become “enlightened” or to change the world in accordance with emerging visions. This can lead to people becoming “addicted” to spiritual paths, wherein the energy that may have been formerly channeled into work or relationships is directed towards taking up spiritual practices and becoming immersed in “spiritual” belief systems.

The “newly awakened” individual can be (unintentionally) as boring and tiresome as anyone who has seized on a messianic belief system, whether it be politics, religion, or spirituality. It is often difficult, at this stage in the cycle, to understand the reaction of family, friends and others who may not be sympathetic to one’s newfound direction or changes in lifestyle. Often, some of the more dubious religious cults take advantage of this stage by convincing young converts that “true friends” etc., would not hinder them in taking up their new life, and that anyone who does not approve, is therefore not a “true friend.”

There are a wide variety of cults which do well in terms of converts from young people who are in a period of transition (such as when leaving home for the first time) and who are attracted to a belief/value system that assuages their uncertainties about the world. Another of the problems often experienced by those feeling the summons to journey is a terrible sense of isolation or alienation from one’s fellows—the inevitable result of moving to the edge of one’s culture. Thus excitement at the adventure is often tinged with regret and loss of stability or unconscious participation with one’s former world. Once you have begun the process of disentanglement from the everyday world, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgia for the lost former life in which everything was (seemingly) clear-cut and stable, with no ambiguities or uncertainties.

A common response to the summons to departure is the journey into the wilderness—of moving away from one’s fellows and the stability of consensual reality. A proto-shaman is likely to physically journey into the wilderness, away from the security of tribal reality, and though this is possible for some Westerners, the constraints of modern living usually mean that for us, this wandering in the waste is enacted on the plane of ideas,

values and beliefs, wherein we look deeply within and around ourselves and question everything, perhaps drawing away from social relations as well. Deliberate isolation from one’s fellows is a powerful way of loosening the sense of having fixed values and beliefs, and social deprivation mechanisms turn up in a wide variety of magical cultures.


In shamanic cultures, the summons to journey is often heralded by a so-called “initiatory sickness,” which can either come upon an individual suddenly, or creep slowly upon them as a progressive behavioral change. Western observers have labeled this state as a form of “divine madness,” or evidence of psychopathology. In the past, anthropologists and psychologists have labeled shamans as schizophrenic, psychotic, or epileptic. More recently, western enthusiasts of shamanism (and antipsychiatry) have reversed this process of labeling and asserted that people as schizophrenic, psychotic or epileptic are proto-shamans. Current trends in the study of shamanism now recognize the former position to be ethnocentric—that researchers have been judging shamanic behavior by western standards. The onset of initiatory sickness in tribal culture is recognized as a difficult, but potentially useful developmental process. Part of the problem here is that western philosophy has developed the idea of “ordinary consciousness,” of which anything beyond this range is pathological, be it shamanic, mystical, or drug-induced. Fortunately for us, this narrow view is being rapidly undermined.

The Dark Night is a way of bringing the soul to stillness, so that a deep psychic transformation may take place. In the Western Esoteric Tradition, this experience is reflected in the Tarot card “The Moon.”

Individuals undergoing the initiatory sickness do sometimes appear to suffer from fits and “strange” behavior, but there is an increasing recognition that it is a mistake to sweepingly attach western psychiatric labels onto them (so that they can be explained away). Shamans may go through a period of readjustment, but research shows that they tend to become the healthiest people in their tribes, functioning very well as leaders and healers.

Transitional states showing similar features to the initiatory sickness have been identified in other cultures’ mystical and magical practices, which

western researchers are beginning to study, as practices from other cultures gain popularity in the west.


St. John of the Cross, a Christian mystic, wrote of this experience:

[it]…puts the sensory spiritual appetites to sleep, deadens them, and deprives them of the ability to find pleasure in anything. It binds the imagination, and impedes it from doing any good discursive work. It makes the memory cease, the intellect become dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it causes the will to become arid and constrained, and all the faculties empty and useless. And over this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud, which afflicts the soul, and keeps it withdrawn from God.

When entering the “Dark Night” one is overcome by the sense of spiritual dryness and depression. The idea, expressed in some quarters, that all such experiences are to be avoided in favor of a peaceful life, shows up the superficiality of so much of contemporary living. The Dark Night is a way of bringing the soul to stillness, so that a deep psychic transformation may take place. In the Western Esoteric Tradition, this experience is reflected in the Tarot card “The Moon” and is the “hump” in an individual’s spiritual development where any early benefits of meditation, Pathworking or disciplines appear to cease, and there is an urge to abandon such practices and return to “everyday” life. This kind of “hump” which must be passed through can be discerned in different areas of experience, and is often experienced by students on degree courses and anybody who is undergoing a new learning process which involves marked life changes as well.


Generally speaking, there are two kinds of initiatory experience— Microscopic and Macroscopic. Macroscopic initiations can be characterized as being major life shifts, traumas that sweep upon us—the collapse of a long-term relationship, the crash of a business or the sudden knowledge that you have a terminal illness. Such experiences are global, which is to say that they send shock waves into every aspect of our lives.