Vital Objects: The Art and Meaning of Vernacular Altars

Brief abstract: Artist and folklorist Kay Turner has been documenting and studying altars for over 40 years. She has written extensively on the topic, including her book Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (Thames and Hudson, 1999). Her focus is on vernacular altars, usually made at home, that escape the bounds of institutionalized religion by representing the beliefs and desires of their creators in their intentional assemblage of vital objects. She looks at this folk art form across a wide spectrum of practices including the ancient evolution of altars beginning in the Neolithic period (3500-5000 BCE), Mexican- American and Sicilian women’s traditions and the use of the altar by feminists, queers, and artists as a source for invoking healing, memory, resilience, and identity. She invites the Last Tuesday audience to learn more about this important, long-lasting tradition. Also, please bring a “vital object” of your choosing to the session and we will assemble a virtual altar together!


 Kay Turner is an artist and folklorist working across disciplines including writing, music, performance, and folklore. Turner holds a PhD in folklore and anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. She is the past president (2015-2018) of the American Folklore Society.  From 2002-2022 she taught in the Performance Studies Dept. at New York University, where she initiated courses on gender and queer theory; temporality; ghosts and their ontologies; fairy tale performance; oral narrative theory; and the performative art of the altar. Turner is a noted scholar in the study of vernacular altars and ephemeral memorials, as well as fairy tales and witch lore. She has lectured and written widely on these topics. She created and edited Lady-Unique-Inclination-of-the-Night (1976-1983), an early feminist journal on art, feminism, and the goddess. Her books include Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars; Transgressive Tales: Queering the Grimms; and Before and After: What the Witch’s Nose Knows That Andy Warhol’s Nose Doesn’t Know. Turner’s current book and performance project, “What a Witch,” queerly rethinks the witch figure in history, story, and performance. Turner’s musical side is activist and partial to feminist political outrage. She has written songs and performed in numerous bands, most notably Austin, Texas- based rock punk, lesbian-feminist “Girls in the Nose,” active  from1985-1996 and now touring again, on occasion.  Turner continues her musical interests in Brooklyn  with “Kay Turn Her and the Pages,” the band for an ongoing project of original songs called “Otherwise: Queer Scholarship into Song.” Follow her on Instagram @kay__turner and order her books by sending an email of interest to <[email protected]>

don’t worry if you miss it – we will send you a recording valid for two weeks the next day