Tools & Talismans #96 — Kay Turner

T&T #96 Kay Turner.jpg

Years ago as a graduate student in folklore at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1970s, I began meeting and interviewing Texas-Mexican women for my dissertation on folk Catholic home altars, later published in an expanded consideration of this tradition as Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (Thames and Hudson, 1999). As legacy and inheritance passed down to them from their mothers and grandmothers, these women were primarily devoted to their family saints, Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Virgen del Valle, and others represented on their private altars in the form of statues, prints, or paintings handed down over the years. But their altars, layered profuse, and lively, also contained other items of a more secular, even idiosyncratic nature. A marriage photo propped against a Guadalupe statue; a jar of buttons next to a votive candle; a prayer booklet on top of a funeral card on top of a Mother’s Day card; a child’s doll; a necklace wrapped around a picture of John F. Kennedy; a garden rock or shells mixed with flowers, fresh or plastic. I remember being astounded by these deeply felt, personal compositions.

One of the most profound things that I — raised as an image-deprived Presbyterian — learned from these elders was the way an intermingling of sacred and secular altar objects produces a synergy of faith, reality, history and memory. This powerful co-mingling makes it possible to represent a quirky religious sensibility not based on bloodless doctrine but on bodily relationship to the living and the dead, to nature and culture, to saints and family, sacred and profane.

Studying altars with these tejanas, and subsequently many other women, coincided with memories of my childhood and how I first came to apprehend the special thingliness of “talismans and tools” long before I knew the meaning of sacred and secular. I collected and possessed and kept hidden in the attic of our small Detroit house certain power objects, akin to what psychologist D.W. Winnicott termed “transitional objects:” the blanket or teddy bear that helps children find their way from the womb into the world. But some children, such as me, need more than a blanket; we need a transitional arsenal! And even then some. My queer collection included a picture of Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger, a key chain, a coin purse, a Petoskey stone, a gathering of dandelion fluff, and other items I no longer remember

What I do remember is the sense of self-power these objects gave me as I held them, spoke to them, and imbued them with magic, feeling, and fantasy. That sense of the liveliness of the material world has never left me. Nor has my sense that random, meaningless objects can be assigned a powerful interactive status that can help compel the day. That’s all I need, along with two cups of coffee. I marshal various helper things around me, some are on my altar, others on the window sill, or within an arm’s length on my big desk, where I work, computer-bound, amidst book piles, journals, mechanical pencils (always No. 9 lead size), ballpoint pens (blue or black ink only), legal pads and scratch pads, for much of the day. All of my special talismans have their stories to tell. When I greet my little sculpture of Sedna, the half-woman/ half seal goddess, she speaks to me of the long crawl from sea to land that eventually made us humans. When I gaze at the bronze bookends in the form of naked women on horses, I am drawn to their adventurous spirit and to the memory of my mother, who bought them and also loved to ride away on an escapade. When I handle the plastic Halloween witch’s nose, still in its garish orange and black packaging, I laugh and re-dedicate myself to finishing my new book on witches before 2020! I sing Madonna’s 1998 song “Ray of Light” as I work to perfect yet another phrase or sentence:

Faster than the speeding light she’s flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She’s got herself a little piece of heaven
Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel
And I feel like I just got home
And I feel

Only I know the meaning of the talismans and tools that comprise my “little piece of heaven.” They are my private stash of Eros. With them, I always “feel like I just got home.” With them I always Feel.

Kay Turner, writer, folklorist, ritualist, punk rock singer/songwriter, author of Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars.


Tools & Talismans is a personal painting project where I document {in watercolor} the tools and talismans of 100 different women — creators and healers, thinkers and makers, wordsmiths and visionaries. Join me — I'll be sharing a new painting with you every Wednesday.

Would you like to have your very own Tools & Talismans painting to inspire, support and remind you of all the things that make you “you”, as you go about your days, grow your business and create your life? Get in touch so we can talk, I'd love to hear from you!