Denise Alvarado's Mystic Voodoo

(Day of the Dead Catrina Voodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

Words cannot express how fascinated I have been with Voodoo doll artist Denise Alvarado over the past few years. As an artist who works with ritual, dare I say it's been quite unbelievable how many times I have come across one of her sites while doing research for an art piece. Beyond her vast amount of research and strength in the way she harnesses and markets her work on the Net, I have found her dolls to be some of the most intricate and beautiful creations, which are a wonderful reflection of the artist herself.

As Ms. Alvarado prepares the final stages of her PhD, I fondly share with you this interview conducted with her during the summer this year, while sending her support, love and respect across the Net. Due to prior commitments, we were unable to get into the history of Voodoo dolls, which was a topic I wanted discussed in this interview. For more information on their history, please visit her Mystic Voodoo Web site. It's an honour, and beyond my deepest pleasure, to introduce this intriguing artist to you....

(Maman Brigit Vodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

KAREN MIRANDA AUGUSTINE: Tell us a bit about yourself.

DENISE ALVARADO: I was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, the daughter of two artists. My Mama was Cherokee and French and my Pop was Spanish, French and Aztec Indian.

[My mother] was a self-taught mystical folk artist, who was a very skilled painter and illustrator. She was good at sewing things also. This is where I learned how to paint and sew. My father was a medical illustrator, and he illustrated a few editions of the Gray’s Anatomy textbook. He used to draw dead bodies in autopsies and the human body from a cellular level to the whole human form. He used to take me to work with him when I was little and sit me down with all of the brand new art supplies any little budding artist could dream of. I loved going to work with him and hanging out in the art department at Louisiana State University Medical School and watching him draw dead bodies. He taught me how to pen and ink when I was eight years old. My first pen and ink was of an old black man, who I believe now to be Legba. It was evident from an early age that I had inherited a great gift from both of my parents and a great appreciation for the macabre from my father. Art was never a struggle for me and I could draw anything I wanted to draw.

(General Purpose Voodoo Doll by Denise Alvarado) 

In addition to spending my early years in an art rich environment where my creativity was encouraged and nurtured, I was simultaneously introduced to the mysteries. We would spend weekends at my grandmother’s house in Mississippi. She lived along a bayou in the country. It was there that my aunt would hold séances with me and teach me about candle magick. Looking back at the combination of experiences, it makes sense that I would eventually grow up into a Voodoo artist.

In New Orleans, Voodoo is everywhere both overtly and covertly. It is an inherent part of Creole culture. I would have tarot readings done in the French Quarter, buy candles from the witchcraft shop and oils and incense from the purple people in the flea market. I had several friends who practiced Voodoo and we would conduct rituals and try to contact the dead on a regular basis. My folks never forbade me from doing any of these things and, in fact, they even paid for things for me. My father never really discussed it with me…at least I don’t remember discussing it with him. He never questioned it either. He was more concerned with teaching me about Mother Earth and all of our animal, plant, and rock relatives. He also made me go to catechism. We were raised Catholic. I hated catechism but I went and was confirmed and everything. So, that is where I get my background in Catholicism. As an adult, he just laughed (in good spirit) that I applied what I learned from the Catholic church into becoming a good hoodoo woman.

(Yemaya Voodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

My folks divorced when I was eight years old. Then they got back together and remarried when I was 11. We moved to Norway where my father was a visiting professor at the University of Tromsö. They divorced again when we came back to New Orleans when I was 13. I always stayed with my father so I missed many years of having a mother around which was very difficult.

Skipping about 10 years and an abusive marriage that yielded one good thing – my daughter, I continued to be an artist. I was also a musician and struggled for many years in New Orleans with being a starving artist and musician. I eventually left New Orleans and pursued a degree in anthropology at Northern Arizona University, an MS in Clinical Psychology, and a PhD in Psychology Research and Evaluation. I am also an ordained reverend. I have written five books, three of which were released this April: Voodoo Dolls in Magick and Ritual, The Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook, and The Gypsy Wisdom Spellbook. All of them are selling, however the first two are doing the best. I had no idea there were that many people interested in the history of Voodoo dolls! So that is quite the pleasant surprise.

I am currently employed by Walden University and working on my research, which is the development of a wellness instrument for Native American populations called the Native American Wellness Scale (NAWS). I am also on another research team investigating online learning environments.

KMA: First, I would definitely be remiss not to say that I've been following your sites for a couple of years now and find you to be an extremely fascinating artist. For those of us who are interested in the expression of Vodun culture in North America, particularly the creative and spiritual elements of it, you've definitely become a really important on-line resource and go-to person. Your Squidoo mini-sites and The Mystic Voodoo in particular have a really nice mix of the practical, philosophical and the artistic. And I've found them to be greatly accessible research portals that educate well. Speak to us about the importance of utilizing the Internet for disseminating this type of information and the impact it has on creating a network, a community.

DA: The Internet is an integral part of connecting like-minded people and creating communities in general. I have been learning from the Internet marketing gurus over the years and have applied some of the same principles to making resources about Voodoo and other indigenous religions, as well as my art, easily accessible. For example, e-mail lists, blogs, social networking sites: these are just a few examples of using the Internet to get accurate information out.

(Day of the Dead Catrina Fashionista Vodoo doll by Denise Alvarado) 

I currently have about 125 Squidoo sites, most of which are about some aspect of Voodoo or the metaphysical. In addition, I have about 20 Web sites that focus on various things and about 12 blogs. My main Web sites are The Mystic Voodoo, Planet Voodoo, and, which is focused on my research. The others are mainly offshoots of the Mystic Voodoo and, in fact, I have created the Mystic Voodoo Web of Intrigue, which is essentially the conceptual umbrella under which all of my sites, blogs, Squidoo lenses and whatever else I have forgotten to mention. You might think that this is overkill; and you may be right, particularly if Voodoo isn’t your thing. But I can pretty much guarantee that most of the folks who visit my sites find them for a reason, and that is because they are looking for good information about Voodoo and Voodoo art.

In addition to being an artist, I am a prolific writer. The Mystic Voodoo became an enormous site and I felt that most of the information was not being utilized as it was intended. I have spent hours upon hours writing and collecting articles and videos that I feel are of good quality and place them on the site. At first, I started to break them into categories, but that meant making more pages. As I have learned more about Web design and marketing, and have begun using analytics to observe the trends on my site, I have found that people will only go two, maybe three, pages deep into a site. So, that is why much was being missed.

(King Zulu Voodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

I know people want good info about Voodoo and Voodoo art because my e-mail box is laden with requests, questions, enquiries and everything under the sun on a daily basis. I have over 1,000 right now that are unanswered. There is just no way to get to them all. So I broke aspects of the Mystic Voodoo into these other sites that have a specific focus. For example, Planet Voodoo’s focus is on Voodoo dolls and Voodoo doll magick, while Planet Zombi is just about zombies. It is also where I feature my zombie art. Don’t ask, I just went through a phase….

In any event, the Web is also very important for determining what is needed, particularly when you get involved in some of the social network sites and forums. For example, I realized there was a need for a virtual Voodoo temple from requests made on my forum. So I made where there are altars to the various loas and an on-line grimoire. There are a bunch of altar rooms, some with my artwork as altar images, and there is information about the various altars when you enter that page. At least, there will be. It is still in its infancy though; I need to do a lot more work on it to get it to where I envision it.

(Fairy JuJu Doll by Denise Alvarado) 

My next main project is creating the on-line Voodoo doll museum. I already have the domain name but the site is not up yet. I have a wonderful collection of vintage Voodoo dolls, as well as my own Voodoo dolls that I have made and purchased from some wonderful artists. Sometimes I see a piece and I get it just to put it in the museum. Of course the museum will showcase much of my own work as well.

Because of the Internet, I have met some incredible people, both artists and those who appreciate art, from all over the world. I am incredibly inspired by much of what I find on the Web either because it strikes me spiritually and creatively, or because it is such crap that I am compelled to change it.

Lastly, I must offer up props to Ogun for making the technology of the World Wide Web a possibility. Respect.

KMA: Your Voodoo dolls are some of the most beautiful things I've seen. When did you develop a strong interest in them in general and what propelled you to start making your own?

(Voodoo Mammy Voodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

DA: I was given my first Voodoo doll when I was around five or six, but I can’t remember who gave it to me, whether it was my mother or my auntie. I remember keeping it in my “magick box,” which I kept underneath a chest of drawers in my room. I kept it with my gypsy witch fortune-telling cards and some Native American things my Mom and Dad had given me. I loved that box…it was my special box of magick.

I never worked a Voodoo doll until I was in the fifth grade. There was this algebra teacher that everyone hated in the class. I guess he was mean, but to be honest, I can’t remember why the disdain. In any event, I had been conducting séances for a long time with my friends, and I used to get my classmates to do the "light as a feather" thing, where you lift someone up with two fingers. I remember we would do this in the classroom when the teacher would step out. Anyway, this teacher created such a stir among the students that I decided to experiment with my Voodoo doll — the same one that I had kept so carefully in my box since I was five or six. I focused really hard on making this guy burn for treating us so badly. This was on a Friday. The following Monday, he came to school with second degree burns from a sunburn. Did that happen because of my little spell? Maybe, maybe not. But I can say that at that point, I knew that I had tapped into something within myself. This fueled a lifelong fascination with and respect for the powerful art of conjure.

(Oshun Voodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

I made a few dolls over the years but never considered myself a doll artist. I only used them for ritual. But in 2004, I was having a real hard time financially and personally. My son’s father and I had split; I had two herniated discs in my back and couldn’t work for awhile, and was falling behind. That Christmas I received a visit by Papa Legba who told me to create a doll of him and sell it on eBay. Mind you, this was way out of the norm for me in terms of where I was in my life at the time. I had been focusing largely on my Native roots as an adult and really pushed the Voodoo under the rug a long time ago. I had to because of the discrimination and abuse I suffered for it. But that’s another story.

Anyway, not only had I never created a doll in the likeness of a loa or any other deity before, I had never even created an art doll before. My main medium for most of my life was acrylics and pen and ink. Nor had I sold much on eBay. I thought it was a crazy idea…I had no idea people were actually selling Voodoo dolls on eBay. Well, I made this Papa Legba doll and sold him for $10.00. I immediately got requests for more dolls and all kinds of people saying how much they loved him and did I have anymore. So I made all of the Seven African Powers and plenty more Legbas and sold them all for $10.00 each. I found that I enjoyed creating these Voodoo art dolls, and loved it that I could actually sell them. I soon discovered that I was not selling them for near the amount of money that they were worth in terms of time and energy. I had yet to realize my worth as a Voodoo artist.

I also gained an understanding of how an object can be imbued with spirit and come "alive."

Things slowly changed when I had so many requests on and off of eBay that I decided to create a Web site to showcase them and sell them. This was the birth of the Mystic Voodoo. Many of my dolls sell for 12 times as much now as they did then.

Papa Legba is still my main man. He is constantly providing opportunities for me and helping me when the going gets tough. He also provides hours of entertainment. I couldn’t ask for a better Papa.

(Papa Legba Voodoo doll by Denise Alvarado)

Please check out some of Denise Alvarado's Web sites:
The Mystic Voodoo: Where Art, Psychology and Mythology Collide
Planet Voodoo
Planet Zombi
Voodoo Temple
The Native American Wellness Scale

All artwork is copyright of Denise Alvarado and is republished with her permission. 
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