Monday, June 6, 2016

An interview with Christina Bothwell


Sometimes I find it difficult to articulate my feelings about certain artists' work into written words. I'm sure I've mentioned this before around here, about how I'm unable to write about Max Ernst. If he were alive today, I would struggle with interviewing him, I would struggle with writing an introduction to said interview. ( Perhaps part of my obsession with the surrealist time period is that it's in the past, that  all the surrealists are long dead, that I will never be a part of it, despite all my longing )

I have struggled in a similar way in the writing of this introduction. Part of this I am sure is due to my being out of practice writing more thoughtfully about art, & part of my hesitation may also have to do with how shipwrecked I feel in my new city. But mostly I think it is because there are some artists I feel I may never be able to successfully write about, because their work conjures more of a physical  feeling inside me I can't put to words. A lot of art does both for me, and as a writer, I often think and react and feel with words....but sometimes I choke. Christina Bothwell has proven to be one of those artists. This may be because I never imagined our 'paths would cross' but social media has its peculiar ways and here I am, with the incredible opportunity to ask an artist I have admired for years some questions about her work and her process. 


One of the things that initially drew me to your work ( aside from the subject matter ) was your use of cast glass. The only other time cast glass work has struck me is Lalique’s, who was creating jewelry and perfume bottles and other ‘functional’ pieces of art at least a hundred years ago. I’ve read that you are self-taught, and aside from a seminar in which you learned the basics of glass casting, you’ve mostly figure it out on your own. Even though I understand the lost wax process of metal casting intimately, cast glasswork still seems to be this sort of fascinating mystery. Can you describe what kept you working with it & how you feel it transformed your narrative arc ? Your work previously seemed to be made of cement / exclusively clay, which physically and visually makes me think of heft and weight. While glass is still weighty, there still seems to be an lighter quality to it, perhaps because it transmits light. I like this evolution of your work.

I am not actually self taught as an artist.. I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for painting. After art school I moved to Manhattan where I lived for around ten years, but the art I made then was definitely limited by the size of my apartment. For years I made tiny paintings on rusted lids of cans. It was only after I moved to rural PA when I found an old ceramic kiln at an auction (ten dollars!!!), that I began working with sculpture. Even though I had been unable to find galleries willing to show my work during the time I lived in NYC, after I moved to Pennsylvania and began working with clay I got into a gallery almost immediately... and had some success, mostly because the actress Demi Moore happened to walk by the gallery the day before my opening and bought most of my ceramic sculptures from my first show. But after a few years of making pit-fired clay/assemblage pieces, I began feeling boxed in by the limitations of ceramics. While I was drawn to color, using ceramic glazes made my work look garish and cartoonish, and I started yearning to express more through the work.. but had no idea how. I finally shut down completely and found myself unable to work anymore at all. Which was very scary. In a panic attempt to try and jumpstart my creativity, I took a five day glass casting class at Corning, expecting nothing. To my delight and surprise, I realized that glass can do all the things that clay can, but in addition glass transmits light. After the workshop I went home and then spent the next few years trying to figure out how to incorporate glass into my pieces... It was really hard, as I basically had no clue what I was doing. But the potential to express something that was more ethereal than I had ever been able to achieve with just ceramic, kept me going.


The other startling aspect of your work is how a lot of the bodies are also vessels. The women hold babies in their glass skins, while babies hold their ‘old souls’ & fish hold women.... On the outer glass bodies, you sometimes include ‘tattoos’. This tension between inner and outer landscapes of the psyche and individual is further heightened, for me anyway, with the inclusion of the clay limbs and faces. These lack the ‘light bearing’ nature of the glass anatomies and seem more somber, gravestone like, and often invoke feelings of death. I imagine viewers may find this marriage ‘uncanny.’ This line from my personal research felt applicable “ The uncanny entails another thinking of beginning: the beginning is already haunted. The uncanny is ghostly. It is concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious, with a flickering sense of something supernatural."

 When I read what you just wrote, I had an actual AhHa moment... I finally understood why people find my work disturbing! Over the years I have been accused repeatedly of making deliberately disturbing work, which has never been my intention. I have always only been trying to express the things that interest me- the cycle of life, reproduction, our spirit, and our soul purpose... I think that all my work is pretty much autobiographical. I never set out to make a piece based on any actual experience, but later in hindsight when I look at work I have made, I am immediately able to see the correlation to my life.

When I was very small, I often had surreal, spiritual experiences, and perceptions that didn't match what other people seemed to experience. Looking back on it, I see that my perceptual system was somewhat skewed, especially compared to the rest of my family. For one thing, I could tell when someone was going to die... It was the most natural thing in the world, and I thought everyone was aware of this phenomena as well... I would often ask people at my parents' parties when THEY were going to die... Even as a very small child I believed we chose the time we were born, and also the time we died. This caused my ultra conservative father no end of shame and embarrassment... Both my parents thought I told tales and lied all the time in order to get attention, and eventually any time I was introduced to a new friend of theirs, an explanation would be given that I wasn't to be trusted at all, that I never told the truth.. In my head I was scrupulously honest, but I wasn't perceived as such. I also seemed to repeatedly encounter strange people and situations, pedophile school bus drivers, adult figures who were mentally ill and had visions, people who lived outside the norm in their interior world. This was so commonplace in my childhood that it felt normal, just how the world was... and even though my life was never in acute danger, it created this feeling within me that life was scary and unpredictable... that things which appeared safe on the surface, could change on a dime. I learned to retreat into a world of daydreams and fairy tales, I escaped my surroundings by writing stories and drawing (we had no television while I was growing up). My husband says that my childhood was like a field of flowers in a mine field, that pretty much sums it up.


To continue on the use the image of the chrysalises or vessel, your figures appear to be in liminal states, transforming, becoming something, more, something ‘other’. As women, our bodies are biologically created to sustain life, and to me, this sharing of the body always seemed strange, invasive somehow. Can you speak to this ?

I guess that because of my early obsession with death, I gravitated toward trying to figure out the answers to why we are here. It never made sense to me that our whole purpose is just to live, have a job, fall in love, have babies, and then grow old and die. Because of my early spiritual experiences, I was drawn to trying to find the truth, to try and discern our spiritual purpose. Seen in that context, it made sense to me that our bodies are just containers for something much larger, something larger that lies beyond our understanding. When I started making the figures beneath the surface of the glass (seen through the glass to the inside of the torsos), I was trying to express the soul, the interior beingness the idea that we are all more than just what is seen on the surface. I had never planned on having children- I think if having a child hasn't happened by the time someone is 40, there is a lot of ambivalence, which was certainly the case with me. But when I finally was pregnant with my daughter Sophie, it was the strangest and most mystifying experience of all to me. I had a tangible recognition that it was the only time I would ever have more than one heart beating in my body! I was nervous that I might not be able to love my child after she was born, but then so many things went wrong with her actual birth- she died and had no heartbeat for almost twenty minutes, and after being revived we were told she probably wouldn't make it and if she did she would be severely handicapped... Her birth was very joyful to me but also terrifying, as I was consciously aware that life could be given or taken away in the blink of an eye. It took me a long time to process the experience of my daughter's birth, and I certainly never planned on having additional children. The whole thing had been way too scary to want to repeat, and I was pretty sure I was too old for the possibility anyway. (then I gave birth to twins four years later, but that is another story!)


I’ve also read that childhood memories/states of mind inform your work. I was specifically drawn to you saying “Our childhoods are so short-lived in the overall scheme of things, but they have such an influence throughout adulthood” There is an innocence and a vulnerability both in material (glass) and in the form of your figures (often children or women ‘carrying ‘ children), can you speak more of this ? Has having children of your own effected your work ?

I definitely think that even if we can't remember a lot of our childhoods, there is part of us that never forgets, either. I still carry my child-self with me, and it sometimes pops up at the most inopportune times! As for having children, it probably was the most amazing experience I ever had. I don't know if was due to all the hormones or what- but for a year after having Sophie, and then again after having Ellis and Violet, I found myself in a prolonged state that seemed to last for almost a year... of feeling an almost unbearable sense of lovingness toward everyone. I felt that I was a link in a long chain of mothers throughout history, that we were all linked to one another, and to everyone on the planet. It was a very gentle, and tender sort of awareness... It was almost as if every adult and elderly person had superimposed over their faces, the babies that they had once been.. We have all had mothers, and we have all been children, I remember feeling, over and over again. I think that having children has definitely affected my work.. My children are such complete, whole, beings.. and their innocence and their individual sense of integrity is so pure.. I want to keep that intact for them, I want to protect that quality within them, to shield them from the pain of life so that their innocence doesn't erode... I also want to express and capture that quality in my figures. That innocence.


The range of what goes into your work is so impressive to me. I watched the video on your site where you alternate between labor-intensive actions such as chiseling, burning, scrapping etc and then there are the more tender moments where you are sculpting and painting. Does your process influence your work or do you already have an idea mapped out ?

Most of the time I already have my ideas mapped out... I get ideas (mostly in dreams) and have to jot down a rough sketch in my sketchpad right away or else like dreams, the ideas dissipate, sometimes almost immediately. My process does influence my work, mostly because a lot of working with glass is way beyond me. Recently I have been trying to make life sized pieces, and basically I am learning as I go along. Sometimes the finished piece looks completely different from the initial sketch, although I continually refer to the sketches as I work, for inspiration.


I’m also a fan of your older work and your continued use of ‘found objects’, doll arms, skirt hoops, clawed stool legs, wire cages etc. Can you talk about this inclusion of ‘collage’ in your work ? For me, using objects that already have a history makes me feel like I am tethering my ideas ( myself ) to the beauty of the past. Maybe it is somewhat similar for you?

I never thought of myself as using collage! Another ah ha moment! I love collage artists, most of the people I follow on instagram are brilliant collage artists. For me, using found objects in the work, (and also including the element of ceramics), is like having syncopation in jazz music. I need to break up the sameness of the glass with other elements. I don't actually like most glass art... I think that too much glass in my pieces makes the work somewhat monotonous and relentless...too impersonal, or cold. I do like the feeling of someone else's personal history being incorporated into my pieces, which is something the little doll parts and found objects impart. When I was a child, all our family outings were to either used bookstores, or antique flea markets. So I am still drawn to Old Stuff... it has a nostalgic feel to me that reminds me of those happy times from my childhood.


Your husband is also an artist, can you talk about this effects your work and your working process? For me it is so nice to have a sounding board in another artist who’s work and vision I trust and respect.

Robert and I met at art camp when we were teenagers. I always knew him in the context of making art. We didn't see each other for fifteen years before we met up again in Manhattan as adults, but when we connected again, it was immediately apparent that he was someone who "got" me, I didn't have to explain my aesthetic, or my idiosyncrasies to him, he understood me because of his own artistic orientation. Robert has helped me enormously with my work... I probably couldn't do what I do, if not for him. He studied ceramics in college, and it was he who encouraged me to get that old kiln and try working with clay, and he taught me the basics of how to work with ceramics. He still programs all my glass firings for me, and lifts my giant molds, and sometimes even cold works my pieces. And he is my photographer! I am so lucky! Best of all, he can clearly see things that don't work, in my pieces. When he isn't around, I have to ask a little mental Robert doll on my shoulder if something needs to be altered in the work. His work inspires me and makes me think outside my own mental space, as well. Of course, being married to another artist means our income vacillates wildly, and we often don't have synchronistic successes... But I love that our children understand that we are following our dream, so to speak, and it allows that possibility for them someday, in their own lives (hopefully).


Dreams / speculative narratives seem to play an important role in your work. Both of these ideas either relate to what I was mentioning earlier about ‘the uncanny’ or in the case of dreams, are so personal that it's hard to describe them to another person, yet in visual form, seem to carry a universal resonance. Do you dream ? How important is your dream life to your work?

 I would have to say that dreams are extremely important in both my work, and in my life. All my life I have dreamed about events that were going to take place in my life, and in the case of my twins, I even had a lucid, out of body experience where I met them (when I was only a few days pregnant, I didn't even know I was going to have a boy and a girl,) and in the dream they were older than me, grown... They said they came to me because it was very important to all of us, that I relax and not be so fearful.. They spoke about love outside of time, and explained that we had loved each other forever. (the woman asked me if I remembered them from before, and I said, No! I am really bad at that!) After the dream I was a lot less afraid.. I had so much fear when I found out I was going to have twins, partially because of Sophie's birth, but also I was afraid I would never be able to make art again if I was caring for three children.. The dream definitely helped dissipate the fear... I also had a dream where I was told I was going to give birth again... this was three years after Sophie and a year and a half before I found I was expecting my twins, and I had to wake Robert up and tell him about this dream immediately.. and Robert, knowing me, said wearily, "oh god..." because he knows me.. My favorite dreams are where I am in a museum and I am seeing incredible pieces... similar in theme to mine but way better than my pieces... and then when I wake up I realize slowly, hey, if this is MY dream, then I can make these pieces and it won't even be stealing!


In your older work you explored the visual idea of conjoined twins and in your newer works, there is still the theme of ‘doubling’ or ‘the other’ being present. I know the idea of the soul is an important theme in your work, can you talk about how these two ideas correlate?

I have always been obsessed with twins. For years before I had my own twins, I made pieces of women pregnant with twins (my husband said that our twins were a result of too much creative visualization on my part) And as for conjoined twins, there are two souls inhabiting one body! What a great argument for immortality, or continuation of the soul! I first became aware of conjoined twins through the Mutter Museum. Back when I was in art school, it was a very tiny, almost modest museum, and anyone could just walk in and go into the basement and draw the specimens in jars. Which I did, several times a week, for years. I was often the only person in the dark, catacomb like basement lined with wooden bookshelves and creaky wooden floors, surrounded by benign, floating creatures. I don't really know why I was so drawn to medical oddities... I think because I grew up identifying with "other", I somehow related to these babies.

As for the idea of the soul being an important theme in my work, and also twins, the best story I can tell you is one that involved a commission I did two years ago for a lovely woman I met. This story really captures what my work is all about, and what really lights me up, creatively. This woman approached me at an art fair, and by way of introduction she said that she understood that I had twins, and she wanted to introduce herself, saying that she was an identical twin, her husband is an identical twin, and her identical twin was married to her husband's identical twin. Then she went on to say that her twin, whom she loved more than any other person in the world, had died the previous year, and she hoped I would make a piece of the two of them. She emailed me several photographs of her and her twin as children, in little dresses. Later that day she came up to me and said she wanted to tell me a story. She said that six months after her sister died, she and her husband bought a vacation home in New Hampshire. The moving truck unloaded all the furniture in the house although the electricity was not yet hooked up, and she stayed in the dark house while her husband went back to NYC to his job. It was at night and completely dark in the house, and she lay on a bed upstairs, wondering how long it would take if she were to stop eating. She was so consumed with grief, she no longer wanted to live. While she lay there in the dark, she became aware of footsteps downstairs beneath her room. She felt panicked for a moment, realizing that someone had seen the moving truck and was probably there to rob the house. "Good", she thought, "I hope they kill me while they're at it". The footsteps continued across the floor, then she heard them continue on the steps leading up to the room where she lay on the bed in the dark room. Then she heard the doorknob turn, and the footsteps approached the bed where she lay. Then, she smelled her sister... and her sister climbed on the bed behind her, and lay spooning her, the way she always had comforted her when she was alive. She told me, "I opened my eyes then, and the previously dark room was filled with blinding light". Gradually her sister's presence faded, until she could only feel the pressure of her sister's hand on her shoulder. After that experience, she found that she was able to go on. I chose to make my piece about that experience for her, a piece titled, Tethered to My Heart.


Also while viewing your video and reading about you, I noticed that you live in a rural area. Can you talk about how your environment effects your process? There certainly seems to be a connection to nature and animals in your work, do you feel that you’d be able to create the same work in the city ? What is it about living in a rural area that appeals to you? Your studio also seems teeming with objects, can you talk about what is important for you to have around you while working ?

I really benefit from living in nature. I probably have ADHD, total strangers ask me if I do (repeatedly), and when I lived in cities I was often so jangled and overstimulated that I lost touch of who I was. Nature grounds me, and puts me in a zen like quality that allows me to focus on my work the best. My studio embarrasses me a little. I definitely like to collect weird stuff. I tend to collect anything that resonates with me, without really analyzing what or why.


Do you imagine that all of your work inhabits the same world or are there new worlds for each body of work? Do you imagine there being a dialogue between your figures, a kind of shared dream or language ?

That is a really interesting question! I never thought about it before, but now I am going to think about it a lot! I can't answer that question, because it is a totally new thought in my head... I will have to get back to you about it.

Christina Bothwell

At one point or another it seems as artists, we get blocked. Can you talk about how you overcome blocks to get back to work ?

I really don't enjoy being blocked creatively. When it happens I always panic. But one advantage to getting older is that I can remember all the previous times I have been blocked, and how I always seem to move past it. Every time I find myself unable to work (because the act of making art has lost its magnetics), I remind myself that during that time of inactivity my work is still growing... like, what happens when an egg incubates. The egg sits there and it looks as if nothing is happening for weeks and weeks, but then the egg hatches and there is a brand new chick! In other words, a lot is still happening beneath the surface!

 What usually works for me in terms of overcoming blocks, is to do something different to stimulate my creativity. I like taking a trip to a city and going to museums, eating really good ethnic food (something unavailable where i live, sadly), exploring used bookstores or unfamiliar natural settings and national state parks... that sort of thing. And Instagram is the best- there are so many incredible artists out there to be inspired by! I have only been on Instagram for the past few months, but there have been many nights I have been unable to sleep, because of some amazing artist I have discovered! We are definitely living in a Renaissance time of great artists.

Christina Bothwell  (8)

Can you share any lasting inspirations ? Music or books that you feel have a kinship to your work? 

One snowy day in my twenties, I found myself lost in lower Manhattan during a freak snow storm...It was the kind of blizzard where there is no visibility beyond a foot or so... I stumbled into a tiny little gallery, which was empty (of people). The most beautiful, pure, raw, clay figures of women and monkeys hung on the walls...They were unglazed, just raw fired clay, and there were holes in the ceramics and cracks, but they were just perfect. I had never heard of the artist Daisy Youngblood before that moment, but as I stood there looking at her pieces, I was consumed with a lust to own one... How could I buy one... They were only about five hundred dollars, but I barely had the money to pay my rent each month.. it was impossible... I had so much regret that I couldn't buy one of her pieces.. But the memory of that work stayed with me, and I think it was because of Daisy Youngblood that I turned eventually to sculpture. I think I wanted to capture something of the feeling I had when I saw her work. Anyway, her work definitely resonated more than any other artist I had ever seen, then , or now. I still look her work up on line from time to time and every time I do, I sigh with peace and contentment.. Her work just touches me.

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