Over time, Christina Bothwell’s sculptures have taken on many forms and even more meanings. Most obviously, they combine elements of delicate glass and robust clay. However, upon closer look you’ll spot the bits of fabric, old toys, and taxidermy as well. Then, the sculptures within the sculptures. And so, those who’ve looked long and hard enough at them have found everything from terrible malaise to quiet comfort in these same sculptures. Today, Christina shares some of what worries, comforts, and inspires her.
Reading how W. Warmus, U. Sauvan, and other critics describe your work, many people would assume you’re this natural-born, wunderkind artist. How much art did your life involve as a child?
I think one thing that was helpful to me as a child was being television-free. My parents didn’t own a television, and I didn’t really have much in the way of toys, either. I drew a lot, and read books, and made my own stuffed animals from whatever was lying around the house. I had imaginary friends, and I spent a lot of time making tiny habitats around the house for miniature people whom I imagined shared the house with us.
My mother went to the Arts Student League and studied with George Grosz, and her parents were also artists. I had access to their boxes of used up coloured pencils, pastels, pads of paper, etc.
At night when other children might have been read aloud to from picture books, my mother and I would lie in the dark and imagine what it must have been like for escaping slaves. In our night-time musings, we imagined we were escaping, running through the woods. Sometimes I had nightmares. I worried a lot about Harriet Tubman, whom I couldn’t grasp was no longer alive.
When we moved to the suburbs of Pennsylvania from NYC, my father commuted back and forth to the city in order to finish his doctorate. My mother, left to her own devices, embraced her inner hippy self. She organised demonstrations against the Vietnam War, and there were parties on our front yard where teenagers burned their draft cards in impromptu bonfires. The neighbourhood teenagers willingly posed nude in exchange for painting and drawing classes which took place in our kitchen and living room. I drew (not very well) from nude models from the age of five or six years old.
When my father returned on the weekends from the city, my mother put all that away, and made applesauce and mayonnaise. She became a model housewife. I am not sure my father was even aware of her escapades.
Are there any memorable moments, old photos, or other elements of your own childhood you’ve incorporated into your work?
My family kept no photographs, so there were no family portraits or photo albums, or pictures of any of us in the house. As a young adult I collected vintage photographs of other people’s families, and used them as inspiration in my paintings and in my sculptures.
Regardless of individual circumstances, many parents tend to have mixed feelings about their children pursuing the arts. How did yours react when you decided to study painting?
My relationship with my parents was strained when I was a teenager. By the time I graduated high school, they weren’t speaking to me. We were like estranged tenants stuck in a house together. When I told my parents I wanted to go to art school, my mother locked herself up in her bedroom and didn’t come out. My father sat me down and said flatly, “Only one out of a million people succeed at art, and frankly, you aren’t talented enough.”
I remembering saying, "well, this is the only thing I really love doing, and I feel the happiest when I am making stuff, so I still want to go”. My father flew into a rage and said, “Your mother went to art school, and had to give all that up when she had you! If you go and steal her dream, it will kill her...”
It was a bad scene. Even though I saw clearly that my father was deranged in that moment, I felt horrible. That conversation, and other similar ones made me more adamant about moving out and having a life separate from one with them.
My parents finally agreed to let me go to art school, but they stopped speaking to me altogether for the following four years. After I moved out of their house I still saw them sporadically, but we didn’t talk about my classes, or about art. It took them a long time to come around...
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One earlier article draws some parallels between your work and that of your academic mentor, the late, great Will Barnet. How would you say he’s influenced you as an artist and as a person?
Will Barnet was like a father figure to me, as well as a mentor and teacher. I looked up to him, and always deferred to his advice and insight – his career spanned eighty years, he had a lot of experience! One thing he taught me in art school (when I was studying painting) was the importance of negative space – what was going on around and behind the objects in a painting. This really stuck with me, and I still think about the ‘space around’ when I am composing a sculpture and considering how it looks from different angles.
Will had a reassuring way of looking at various aspects of living the life as a professional artist. While he did lament that I had not gotten any kind of college degrees so was unable to teach at a university, he did say that collectors come and go – he once told me he had outlived all of his gallery owners (except for the last one who is still active) – and he said that even during periods when my work wasn’t selling, the best thing I could do was to hunker down and ride it out, there would always be a new batch of collectors.
Sometimes today when I panic about money or my career, I go for a walk in the woods and imagine what Will would say to encourage me. Just imagining the conversation comforts me. I think he has influenced me a great deal as an artist. The older I get, the more I appreciate his spare style, sometimes I believe my ideas somewhat mirror some of his.
Your first gallery show attracted a few surprising visitors – both new and familiar to you. Could you tell us a bit more about that experience and how you dealt with your work being ‘discovered’ or ‘re-discovered’?
I was so terrified in the weeks leading up to the opening of my first solo exhibition in New York City. Although I had become friends with the gallery owner (also an artist), I had been told by some of the other artists who showed at the gallery that unless my show did really well in terms of sales, I would be out on the street after my show, and nobody else would ever want to show my work in the future.
The following morning (which was the day of my opening), we drove to the city and I went by the gallery. I was confused by the red dots I saw next to each of my pieces. I asked the gallerist seated at the front desk what the meaning of the red dots were, and she said casually, “Oh, that actress Demi Moore was walking by the gallery and saw your work through the window and came in and bought ten pieces!”
After she bought those pieces, other collectors heard about my show having sold so well, and I guess they didn’t want to miss out, and they bought up the rest of the work. I was so excited and overwhelmed, I didn’t sleep for three nights! It was hard to process what had happened. Ultimately subsequent shows had their ups and downs, and I came back down to earth
Your work tends to be quite polarizing. Is it ever difficult to leave something so personal open to interpretation?
Throughout my career people have reacted with anger at my work, blaming me for making work that is intentionally provocative and upsetting. It is always strange to be at one of my openings and find myself confronted by a face contorted with rage, the offended party accusing me of making work that advocates sexual or domestic abuse.
A piece of mine was acquired by the Renwick Museum in Washington DC about twenty years ago. A month later, the piece was returned to me with a letter written by the newly-hired museum curator, accusing me of creating a deliberately offensive piece that made fun of women going through infertility treatments! The tone of the letter was such that I felt it impossible to respond. The woman’s mind was made up and she would not be dissuaded from her opinion.
So yes, it is difficult to me when I make a piece from a pure place in my heart, and it causes people to feel pain when they look at it. I have to remind myself that art is neutral – and people project their own issues onto art work.
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You’re married to a fellow artist. How involved are you in each other’s work and how do you maintain the creative and personal boundaries of your relationship?
Robert and I each have separate work spaces on our property where we make our work. We also share a large studio where we fire the pieces, cold work and polish them, and photograph and pack them for shipping. We try to respect each other’s boundaries, and only give advice when asked.
We are lucky that we are pretty compatible, and we are also lucky that we can make our pieces independent of each other. Robert helps me so much, not just with insight and perspective that I might be lacking because I am too close to my work. He also lifts my heavy moulds and melts out of the wax, he photographs my pieces, programs my annealing, and he packs up my sculptures for shipping to galleries. I probably wouldn’t be able to do my work without his help, I would have to take up something like crocheting – something that doesn’t need so much muscle.
Currently, you live and work in rural Pennsylvania. What drew you here? Do you think the sort of work you make could be possible anywhere else?
I was living in NYC, and languishing without really knowing it. And then I did know it, but had no idea what to do about it. I discovered that I was severely nature-deprived, and when I was able to be surrounded by nature, I felt myself go right into alignment.
We moved to rural PA because I craved being around birds and trees, and having a calmer pace than I had while in the city. Even now when I go to a city I initially feel out of my mind with happiness at all the stimulation (and good multicultural food). But after a few hours a migraine sets in, and I feel overly caffeinated and jittery. Also, I tend to lose my sense of myself when I am around too many people. I am an introvert, and I need a lot of time by myself in order not to feel overwhelmed. I do think my work could be made probably anywhere else. But for whatever reason, I am happier when surrounded by nature.
Your sculptures combine a wide array of techniques and materials, most notably clay and glass. How do you know when you’ve found the right combination?
I love the tension that occurs when disparate elements are placed together. For that reason I like incorporating not only clay with my glass pieces, but also old doll parts, antique toys, taxidermy, sewn materials. It creates a kind of visual syncopation for me, I think.
My work is very intuitive… when something feels right, then I know I am going in the right direction.
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Some major themes explored in your work include birth, death, and the afterlife. Why do you think these subjects are still so taboo? Has exploring them through art made them somehow easier to discuss, especially with your children?
I think people are very uncomfortable with death. Plain and simple. It is so often associated with decline and suffering, and those are such difficult things to contemplate. I guess because we can’t scientifically prove the continuation of the spirit, people often dismiss the whole idea as being made up, a fairy tale. I think a lot of people are very rooted in the physical – what they see in front of them – and anything as non-linear as the afterlife, or even the unconscious makes for discomfort. And when people (or our animals) die, it is such a painful loss to have to bear. People shy away from painful topics, which is natural.
I talk about death and the afterlife with my children, until they remind me that they have heard all my stories a million times, and they don’t want to hear them again. They humour me.
For each of us, 2020 was difficult in its own special way. How have you spent last year and how did the experience Luminous Dreams in Cataclysmic Times?
For me, the worst of this time of the pandemic was all the anxiety. And the ongoingness of the pandemic. And the stress of what was happening in our government. I always seemed to have a knot in my stomach, never knowing if people I loved were going to get sick and die, and I read obsessively about all the tragedies and losses happening all over the world.
I kind of figured at the onset of the pandemic that people weren’t going to be thinking about buying art, so I made the decision not to obsess over any decrease or lack of money coming in. I accepted it, and made the decision that since my work probably wasn’t going to be selling anyway, I might as well just make pieces for myself. My friends and I discussed the different ways we were each handling stress and anxiety, and one of them told me she was collecting beautiful moments.
Each day she took notice of beautiful moments as they happened, and at the end of the day she would reflect on them. I loved this, and I too, started becoming aware of the beautiful moments as they happened.
Sometimes it was a moment of laughing hysterically in the car with my daughter Violet, or feeling my cat Bob curl up behind my knees when I slept; an indigo bunting eating at the bird feeders, and the three legged deer who came each day to root through my compost pile. “Right now!” I would think, “This is a beautiful moment!” It made me realise how lucky I am to be alive in this, and every beautiful moment. I think the pandemic gave me a greater appreciation for my life than I had before this virus came along. That was the basis of my show’s title - the idea that every moment can be beautiful and complete, no matter what terrible thing is raging on in the world.
Some of your previous work has been labelled as ‘weird’ or even ‘disturbing’, yet this latest collection seems, not unlike a sweet dream, quite genial and comforting. What inspired this change?
I made these pieces as a way to comfort myself. When I feel unbalanced, I immediately go into the woods by myself. Walking by myself in nature grounds me and brings me back to my own inner truth. I often imagine myself lying down and taking naps with wild animals, and I think most of my pieces for this recent show were creating the kind of fantasies that I wish I could manifest in my actual life.
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