Chances are that many of us have knocked on wood, avoided walking under ladders, or carried some sort of good luck charm (maybe a rabbit’s foot or an evil eye) close to our bodies. These rituals, of course, are products of superstition: the comforting belief that a ritual or object has the power to bring good luck, or ward off evil.
“It’s part of the human condition: the desire to control things that we may not necessarily have in our power,” author and illustrator Ellen Weinstein told Artsy on a recent morning. “It affects almost everyone, to some degree or another.”
As a deeply superstitious person herself, Weinstein has always been fascinated by the rituals humans develop in hopes of ensuring success, productivity, or creativity. But she doesn’t like to divulge her own: “If I actually share them, they’ll lose their power,” she admitted with a laugh. Instead, Weinstein embarked on a journey to share the superstitions of some of history’s most remarkable individuals—including artists.
This month, she releases Recipes for Good Luck: The Superstitions, Rituals, and Practices of Extraordinary People, published by Chronicle Books. Through text and playful illustrations, the book unearths the superstitious habits of 65 famous artists, designers, musicians, scientists, athletes, and more.
Their routines range from unexpected to eccentric. Model and TV host Heidi Klum, for instance, carries a pouch of her baby teeth wherever she goes. Novelist Mary Shelley wrote with a boa constrictor around her neck, and famously interpreted the snake’s movements as directions to continue writing or call it a day. And Frida Kahlo found that she painted better after tending to her garden.
While the luminaries and rituals Weinstein highlights are eclectic, a common thread connects them. “They all have a deep passion for what they do,” she explained. “If you don’t really care about succeeding at your work, then you won’t cultivate a practice or superstition to ensure good luck for it.”
Below, we share excerpts from Weinstein’s book, which reveal how creatives from Yoko Ono to Salvador Dalí found comfort and inspiration in superstitions. Spoiler: One famous artist kept all of his nail and hair clippings for fear of losing his “essence.”
Illustration of Coco Chanel's superstition, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Illustration of Pablo Picasso, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Lucky Number 5
French clothing designer Coco Chanel (1883–1971) was deeply superstitious. It’s been said that she was informed by a fortune-teller that 5 was her lucky number, and she named her famed fragrance accordingly. Her apartment also contained a crystal chandelier created with shapes twisted into the number 5, and she liked to present her collections on the fifth day of May (the fifth month of the year) for good luck.
Held onto His “Essence”
Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) would not throw away his old clothes, hair trimmings, or fingernail clippings for fear it would mean losing part of his “essence.” Picasso collected Picasso, and at the time of his death, he owned around fifty thousand works of his own, which ranged from prints and drawings to ceramics and theater sets. He is hailed as one of the last century’s most prolific and influential artists.
Illustration of Charles Dickens, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Illustration of Yoko Ono, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Slept Facing North
Charles Dickens (1812–1870) carried a navigational compass with him at all times and always faced north while he slept—a practice he believed improved his creativity and writing. The author of such classic novels as A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations, Dickens was also a social critic guided by a strong moral compass, which he made evident through his incisive depictions of socioeconomic conditions.
Lighting a Match
Renowned multimedia artist and peace activist Yoko Ono was very sensitive to sound and light when she was young. Ono discovered that lighting a match and watching the flame extinguish in a dark room gave her a sense of relief. She said she would repeat this ritual, sometimes in front of her sister, continuously until she calmed down. Later this private ritual became a performance piece, called Lighting Piece, which was recorded with the collective Fluxus.
Illustration of Diane von Furstenberg, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Illustration of Frida Kahlo, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Diane von Fürstenberg
Lucky Gold Coin
Fashion designer and icon Diane von Fürstenberg has a gold twenty-franc piece her father hid in his shoe during World War II that he gave to her when she was a girl. She tapes the coin in her shoe for good luck before every fashion show. Best known for her iconic wrap dress, von Fürstenberg’s influential designs are available in more than fifty-five countries worldwide.
Mexican painter and icon Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) created with plants as well as paint as her routine practice. Frida Kahlo’s paintings, often autobiographical, are filled with plants and flowers she grew herself in the garden of the home she shared with artist Diego Rivera, known as Casa Azul. Kahlo’s well-tended garden was a place of comfort and inspiration for Kahlo and one where she would spend hours tending plants, fruit, and flowers, many of which were of Mexican origin. Kahlo’s painting desk looked out at the garden from her window, and her last request when she returned home from the hospital before she died was for her bed to be moved to face her garden.
Illustration of Dr. Seuss, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Illustration of Salvador Dalí, excerpted from Ellen Weinstein's Recipes for Good Luck, 2018. Published by Chronicle Books.
Wore a Hat When Blocked
Author and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904–1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, kept an immense collection of nearly 300 hats. When facing writer’s block, the place Dr. Seuss would go was his secret closet, where he would choose a hat to wear until he felt inspired. His whimsical habits helped him create some of our most popular children’s books—including the classic The Cat in the Hat.
Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904–1989) considered himself to be very superstitious and carried around a little piece of Spanish driftwood to help him to ward off evil spirits. Dalí was a prominent and influential painter whose life and work embraced surrealism. Known for his idiosyncrasies, he nearly suffocated once while giving a lecture in a diving bell helmet and suit.