Magic and ritual spotlighted in Ely Center’s show

The infamous witch trials in Salem, Mass., were a shameful period in American history that nearly everyone has heard about. Few, however, are familiar with Connecticut’s witch trials, which took place about 30 years earlier and resulted in the hanging of nearly a dozen people accused of witchcraft.

Turning the tables on old stereotypes of witches and timed to run during Women’s History Month in March, the Ely Center for Contemporary Art (ECOCA) will present two complimentary exhibitions, “Extra Human” and “Witchy,” that are both on view through April 19.

The open call for “Witchy” solicited work from artists to address issues of magic, power, spirituality and feminism. The exhibit not only provides new perspective on the witch trials (many women were accused by those seeking their land or personal gain) but also looks at how women are treated now and what it means to be a strong woman today.

While both exhibits explore themes of power, agency, the human body and modernity, “Witchy,” in particular, pays a nod to Grace Taylor Ely, the philanthropist who converted her home into a space for local artists to gather and show their work — the Ely Center.

Valerie Garlick, who co-curated the exhibition, said the center has a board and various committees that discuss potential themes and ideas to do shows around. “We noticed a lot of allusions to witches, magic, and ritual in pop culture and media, and wanted to explore ‘power’ as in something carefully considered and related to ritual, as well as a very important part of many artists’ and creators’ practices.”

Garelick and the center’s curatorial team were thrilled to see much of the artwork submitted offers representations of “witchy” in ways they had never seen before. “The works give a lot to think about, and portray a lot of different ideas,” she added. There are 115 artists in the show in all media: drawing, painting, sculpture, fiber, photography and video.

Artist Martha Lewis created the site-specific installation, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Black,” which hangs not at the Ely Center but in the rotunda of the New Haven Museum as the museum will host a symposium on the history of witchcraft in Connecticut. The artwork takes its name after a Charles Demuth painting, “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold,” and a poem by William Carlos Williams.

“My piece is a pentagram — a magic circle — based on the geometry of five,” she said. “We ourselves have five senses and five fingers on each hand and five pointed stars are an important component in magical history. The finger and sense part is important because while this is an abstraction and a diagram. I wanted to bring it back to the human aspect. I also wanted to make something that was a strong statement about collectivity and protecting those under attack or being bullied for being different or other.”

Austin Furtak-Cole is represented with one of his paintings that features hands, a favorite motif for the artist. “Hands started off as something formally challenging and fun to make but also had a lot of symbolic potential,” he said. “They can communicate within a somewhat ambiguous language that, even if limiting, can be widely understood. They are expressive forms and I liked how they could be searching for something without actually seeing or knowing exactly what they were looking for.”

“Witchy” embraces a celebratory tone to celebrate the power of eccentricity. With a full range of programs from talks to performances and a party, the exhibit is more experiential than most art exhibits.

The Ely Center is at 51 Trumbull St., New Haven. For more information,