Right now, the walls of Mortlake & Company are covered with images of witches. Nude figures kneel by cauldrons, wielding skulls and branches. Whiplash lines spiral through enchanted landscapes, suggesting invisible energy fields that may be manipulated with a bit of practice. A large, dramatic charcoal drawing by Maria Dolorosa depicts a winged figure with a clawed foot, a pointed tongue, pendulous breasts, and a vagina lined with monstrous teeth. A smaller ink drawing by Johnny Decker Miller shows a bearded Christ-like character who appears to be getting visions piped directly into his head from a winged celestial disk. His feet float above a dark pit filled with bones and keys, reminiscent of Byzantine illustrations of the Harrowing of Hell.
This is Witch-Ikon, an exhibition of witchcraft imagery curated by Three Hands Press, a prominent publisher of "contemporary occultism and metaphysica." A book-release party for a related publication, Witch-Ikon: Witchcraft in Art and Artifact, will be held here on October 28, just in time for All Hallows' Eve. Then this show will come down and an exhibition of work by Joseph Uccello—an artist and book designer who conjures ecstatically detailed ink and brush works—will open on November 2.
Mortlake & Company, a bookstore and art gallery that opened in April with a large storefront in Pioneer Square's Tashiro Kaplan Building, is the brainchild of William Kiesel. Kiesel is the founder of Ouroboros Press, a small publisher that specializes in producing gorgeous new editions of classic texts by alchemists like Paracelsus and Nicholas Flamel. He's also the founder of the Esoteric Book Conference, a convergence of fellow booksellers and scholars who are fascinated by things like magic and the occult.
"I was interested in mythology and comparative religion as a teenager," says Kiesel, a lifelong Seattle resident who grew up collecting sci-fi paperbacks and quizzing his Catholic mother on the nature of God. "I started going to the Theosophical Society on Capitol Hill at age 16, and they would give me tea." Inspired by their impressive library, Kiesel began buying and selling titles that interested him, keeping a running line of trade credit at most of the city's used bookstores. Eventually this obsession led him to study Renaissance bookmaking traditions and start crafting books of his own.
For Kiesel, there is a natural kinship between book arts and the spiritual subjects he favors. "The alchemists thought that Nature was the best teacher, and I concur," he says. "Paracelsus refers to the Codex Naturae, or Nature's Book. Being a book person, I like this kind of mystical allegory."
Mortlake & Company is the kind of store that gives me a rush of excitement when I discover it, and monthly gallery exhibitions add a layer of visual interest that keeps providing new reasons to come back.
"In witchcraft, the idea of imagery is super important," says Kiesel. "In our digital culture, imagery is really important in framing how people think about things. If you can't capture attention right now, you've missed your opportunity. Imagery is everything."