Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art

“Strange Shadows (Shadows and Substance)” by Gertrude Abercrombie.

Speed Art Museum lifts the spiritual veil through their upcoming exhibition that is guaranteed to send chills down your spine


By Melissa Chipman
Photos provided by Speed Art Museum


Old Louisville is known as one of the most haunted neighborhoods in America, a fact that helped the Speed Art Museum win the chance to host the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s exhibit, Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art, starting just before Halloween. This major exhibition will travel to only two other venues, including the Speed.

“Several American cities were interested in the exhibition, and being able to promote Louisville’s long history with, and attraction to, supernatural activities helped us secure the show,” Erika Holmquist-Wall, The Speed’s Curator of Painting and Sculpture, told VOICE Louisville. “I knew we had an audience who would welcome the subject matter and engage with the questions that the show raises.” 

“The View from the Sorcerer’s Window” by Betye Saar.

The exhibit spans the early 19th century through the present. Supernatural America includes over 220 objects from paintings, drawings, photographs to videos, scientific instruments and occult paraphernalia, including a “Mystic Answer Board,” a sort of Ouija board from the 1940s. Works include artifacts of Native American spiritual traditions and subjects that reach through the ages from the Salem Witch Trials to Afrofuturism. As a collection, the exhibit “tracks this country’s complex and complicated relationship to the otherworldly,” according to the press release. 

“I noticed the community’s interest in the supernatural and paranormal during my first Halloween season here, about six years ago,” explained Holmquist-Wall. “It was a happy surprise to find out that Louisvillians are open to the weird and unexplained. There is a cultural preoccupation in the region that you most definitely do not necessarily find in other parts of the US.”

“Mystic Answer Board” by Columbia Industries.

“There is an entire section of the exhibition devoted to the concept of ‘America as a Haunted Place,’ and with our deep, long, often-difficult state history, there are lots of stories to unearth. I was also thrilled to discover that Kentucky is one of the most active places in the US for UFO reportage.”

The exhibit includes Untitled (Flying Saucers with Snakes) (1933) by the late painter Macena Barton (1901-1986), a landscape of mountains and volcanoes of people’s faces in repose rising from a fire-lit sea under a sky filled with iconic flying saucers and snakes. Barton, a committed feminist, studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1921 to 1925 while supporting herself as a bank clerk and proofreader. She looked at the work of the post-impressionists and won notice for her works of surrealism.

John Jota Leaños’s (1969-) Destinies Manifest (2017) is an installation that animates John Gast’s iconic painting American Progress. Considered the “Manifest Destiny” painting, American Progress features White American Settler ideology and the common belief of the inevitability of westward expansion. Leaños’s work reimagines Manifest Destiny from Indigenous and Mestizx perspectives and challenges Settlers’ beliefs that the land, being occupied and civilized, was “unoccupied land.” 

“Frederic Chopin Impromptu A Flat Major, ‘Carefree,’”
by Henriette Reiss.

Leaños crowds his western landscape with indigenous people, native spiritual iconography, flora and fauna of the American West, angels, cartoonish UFOs and more until it blooms into modern America encased in concrete and bounded by interstates and Trump’s wall.

According to the artist, “The animation also pays homage to nonhuman ancestors who have kept the land for generations as well as to the network of Native communities who continue to inspire decolonial movements globally, such as Idle No More, The Defenders of the Land and the Zapatistas.”

Holmquist-Wall said that the exhibit helps to expand the canon of American artists to include those that were previously historically excluded. “While our belief systems and experiences are different, the fascination with the otherworldly and a curiosity about the supernatural bind us in ways we’re still discovering.”

This exhibition will open to the public on October 8, with a preview opening for Speed membersand supporters on October 7. For more details about programming, visit speedmuseum.org.

Speed Art Museum
2035 South Third St.
Louisville, KY 40208