The Pocket Shrines of Nina Gaby

article by Ric Kasini Kadour

Nina Gaby’s Pocket Shrines are intimate sacred vessels that incorporate the fragments of those old religions: Virgin Mary, Maneki Neko, dice, glitter, etc. Each Shrine is an ornamented box that contains a tassel of sacred objects reflecting its theme or purpose.

For millennia, the human spirit has assembled objects that help us feel safe, connected, holy and in control. Up until the last century or so, these objects were deeply rooted in cultural tradition. Then the impossible happened. A break, a schism, a rupture occurred in the fabric of humanity and the buttons of religion flew off in a thousand directions. Nina Gaby gathers these potent fragments into small pocket-sized shrines. ARTSHOP had some burning questions for her.

ARTSHOP: Are you a witch?

GABY: No! Although, when I was 9 years old, I decided that out of all my relatives, there was one aunt I could do without more than anybody else, not that I didn’t love her, but I was always rating things. So I would rate, if my grandfather died, I would have to die along with him; if my grandmother died, I would…parents came way down the list. I had this aunt. She was fine, but I could live without her. After I had this list in my head of the people I could do without, she died. I thought for a long time that I was a witch and that I could tell absolutely no one, because they would burn me at the stake.

ARTSHOP: If you’re not a witch, where does the impulse to make shrines come from?

GABY: I’m pretty cut-and-dried. I’m also a nurse and nurses have to be very practical. All of a sudden, I started to attach more meaning to specific things. I had always worn amulet chains and things, but I never connected that with anything real. Then I realized that there’s a tremendous healing energy in objects. I found that I would start feeling safer when I had certain things around me.

ARTSHOP: How did you start making Shrines?

GABY: I had always been interested in boxes. The boxes translated into the shrines as I began to realize that people need things in their life that they focus on.

When I was in Japan, I was fascinated by the roadside shrines. People would dress up stones in little aprons and put flowers and little arrangements of stones around the big stone that was dressed up in an apron. It was a Shinto thing and no one could really explain why they did it, but people did it. The traveling that I did, I noticed that every culture had its own shrine-type things. Every culture seemed to have places where they would focus their energies.

There are all these symbols that people have attached themselves to. The most typical is probably the cross. Then, there’s the Star of David. There’s the Islamic symbolism. Certain cultures put them together in wonderful ways, becoming very shrine-y and imbued with powers of various types.

Because my scale is so small anyway, I started to make them out of clay at first. They were 3” x 6”, then out of little children’s doll house closets that were plain and I could paint them. Then slowly they worked down into the matchboxes, which bring together that whole sense that you can wear your little safety things, you can transport them with you and then, of course, they started to become humorous because life issues can be humorous.

ARTSHOP: Like the Emergency Spirituality Kit?

GABY: We’ve all been accosted at some point by a Jehovah’s Witness or something like that and I started to think, Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you could just whip something out of your pocket and say, ‘Oh, you know, I’m covered! I’ve got my little Buddha, I’ve got my Star of David, I’ve got my cross, I’ve got my St. Rita.’ The shrines are aesthetic pieces of jewelry that are housed in their own, little meaningful boxes. If a friend was having trouble with something or needed to keep on laughing or was sick you could give them a little shrine for a specific situation.

ARTSHOP: You’re speaking of these objects in terms of their functional and practical usefulness. How do they connect to your art?

GABY: Having started out as a potter, I was very practical: a teapot is a teapot and a cup is a cup and a bowl is a bowl and everything has its usefulness. Then I went to art school and started to question usefulness. I love the idea that we can smoosh various elements together and make them into something better than they are on their own.

Just as I was getting interested in the shrines, people were coming back from Mexico and giving me little Frida Kahlo nichos. All of a sudden my whole aesthetic was informed by all these bright colors. When I went back to working with clay, I didn’t go back to working in high-fired, translucent porcelain that I had always done. I wanted things to be more garish and exciting. I have been working with acrylic paints and low-fire glazes. Everything is color and flatter in texture, not the kind of richness that I used to find via the depth of a glaze over white porcelain, but instead flat, flat bunches of color just as they are…which is fun. At this point in my life, art has to be fun.

ARTSHOP: There’s also an aspect of playfulness in what you’re describing.

GABY: There’s playfulness, but there is also a dialogue that is serious. There’s a type of therapy called Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Basically, it looks at the fact that…if you think it, you can be it. That’s simplifying it tremendously and the gods of therapy would be furious with me. Basically, if you can make the muscles in your face smile, a whole cascade of neurotransmitter relationships begin to happen. Before you know it, your synapses are firing in a different way. You may not feel as desperate and depressed as you did before. Silly Girl is something you would buy for yourself or present to someone else. When they look at it or wear it, you want them to feel some of the muscles in their face relaxing a little bit so the neurotransmitters can do their job a little bit better.

ARTSHOP: It sounds a lot like Contemporary Paganism. Spell casting, for example, is a way to focus the mind on themes and effect change. That change may be explained by the creation of new cognitive patterns like you are talking about. They say, Magic is in the doing. Maybe cognition is one way of explaining it. There is also a lot of spiritual playfulness in the act of casting a spell.

GABY: People really study those things. They take them very seriously. In a dilettante-ish way, I pick and choose symbols from different things. You’ll see some pentacles, and you’ll see some things I pick them more for their beauty and the fact that I know they are important to somebody. I’m Jewish and the cross has never been anything that I’ve resonated with. In many ways, the cross brought up some negative stuff for me. When I realized that so many people feel so strongly and beautifully about that symbol, I started to see it in that symbol. All these symbols, no matter where they come from, are incredibly important to somebody and have an incredible beauty in and of themselves.

ARTSHOP: When I first saw the Shrines at Studio Place Arts in Barre, Vermont, I was really taken aback. I get turned on by small objects with great potency. The shrines are examples of that. They are very evocative of the power of little things.

GABY: When I saw you responding to them, it was amazing to me, how important that was, to know that somebody “got” it. To know that somebody saw those different layers of things. I make them in nice little aesthetic packages. It was a little package of something important. Sometimes the little things are carriers of great meaning, because we do have to step into their field. We have to pay attention to them or else we’ll miss the whole thing.

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