Interview with Artist Christina Bothwell

"Mu Second Self"

I came across Christina Bothwell's work on a gray spring day that did little to reassure me that winter was over. Seeing the images of Christina's ethereal sculptures though quickly took my mind elsewhere, and I was soothed, subdued, shifted beyond my present. Christina's sculptures, which combine glass, clay, and mixed media, are dreamy figures of enchanting animals and people that together populate a magical landscape where I'd like to meditate. Sometimes sweet, sometimes strange, there is a depth and pull to her work that lulls one into a trance, a contemplation on existence, life, death, and the navigation through it all.  

First off, can you tell us more about the mediums you work with? Your sculptures are so mesmerizing not only because of the images they depict, but the way you employ glass in your work. The material certainly evokes an otherworldly, translucent element in your work, which you've described as "soul" in your artist statement - it's truly enchanting and powerful. Tell us about how you came to discover the medium and what the process is like to work with it.

I came to discover glass by accident... I had been working with ceramics for a couple of years, making large pit-fired raku pieces... Eventually I came to a dead end with that work, but was unable to figure out how to reanimate my creativity. I took a workshop in paper-making, and then an Indian food cooking class... then a friend mentioned that the Corning Glass Museum was  relatively close to where I lived, so I decided to take a five-day glass-casting class.  As soon as I saw what glass could do, its potential, I was hooked.

Last year one of the galleries that I work with asked me to write down my process, from idea to finished product.  I will share that here, as it really explains my process. So here is my process for my piece, "Soul Sentinel" based on Frida Kahlo's painting, "Two Nudes in the Forest". 

Before I came up with an image for this piece, I had the concept of exploring the idea that love, and the bond between two people, continues even after the death of one of them. When I saw a reproduction of the Frida Kahlo painting, "Two Nudes in the Forest", the image resonated with me to the point where I saw it wherever I went. I made some sketches in my sketch book of what my piece might eventually look like, based on the Frida Kahlo painting. Then I sat with the idea for about a year.  

When I finally could picture the sculpture in my head, I began working on the heads for the piece.  I knew that a figure cast in clear glass would communicate as the spirit, and the ceramic head would present a more corporeal presence.  I wanted to suggest that one of the people in my piece was in this world, and the other was in the spirit world. I always begin with my clay heads, which after finished, I fire in my ceramic kiln to cone 1.

After the clay head is fired in the kiln, I then pit fire the piece outside in a chimney that smokes the piece, infusing it with the colors of smoke and ash…. Then, I make the figural portions of my piece (that will end up as cast glass) from beeswax, which I heat in a skillet until it achieves the consistency of warm clay. Basically, my process is the lost wax process used with jewelry making. After the wax piece is finished, I make a mold using equal parts casting plaster, powdered silica, and talc. Then, using a large crab pot, I steam the wax out of the mold. What I have left is a large mold with the interior space where my beeswax sculpture was.   When the wax is out of the plaster/silica/talc mold, I fill the empty mold with pieces of clear glass. I then heat the filled mold (in a glass kiln) to 1500 degrees Fahrenheit until the glass is melted, and then once the mold is leveled off, I cool it slowly- honoring the thickness of the glass within the mold (so as to avoid cracks).

After the glass firing, I cold-work the glass to remove the roughness and sharp edges of the cast glass, and then I am ready to attach the fired ceramic parts to the polished glass portion of the piece. This is also the time I add any found objects that hold personal meaning (to me) to the piece.  (In this piece, the found objects were carved wooden hands broken off from antique Santos, which I bought from eBay). 

When I combine glass and clay, I use a lot of adhesives. I wear a huge respirator and avoid inhaling or touching any of the glues. I have to prop the piece up so as to keep the glued parts in place. After the glue has set, I grind and sand the work where the glue has been applied, and I use ashes, plastic resin clay, and oil paints to blur the demarcation that divides the glass and the clay. After all parts of the piece are assembled, I work on the surface of the glass with oil paints. My formal training as an artist took place at an academy for painting, so painting is something that is dear to me. I find that the application of oil paints to my pieces add an extra layer of narrative, and ease the transition from one material to the other.

"Soul Sentinel"

Can you tell us more about the concepts behind your work - about your exploration of "soul" and the ideas you're dealing with in your sculptures?

I have always tried 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. 

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 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 being-ness, the idea that we are all more than just what is seen on the surface.

When did you first discover your passion for sculpture? What does your formal background/training look like? Your informal background/training?

I always made art when I was a kid, I just loved making things, period. My parents didn't have a lot of money so if I wanted a specific toy, I usually tried to make it for myself.  I made a whole dollhouse with furniture and dolls etc, when I was 14, but I never thought of the things I made as sculpture.

When I was in my early twenties I was in Manhattan during a surprise snow blizzard trying to find the art-supply store. To escape the storm I ducked into a tiny gallery where there was an exhibition of the artist Daisy Youngblood's work. I was shocked, stunned actually... I had never experienced anything like it before, and seeing this work changed me in some undefinable way. I think I eventually began making sculpture as a result of that experience of seeing Daisy Youngblood's pieces.     

My grandparents were artists, and my mom was a portrait painter when I was growing up. My mother was also a hippie, and as a young child I have memories of her holding drawing classes in our living room, and of nude women wandering around the house. My grandfather always sent his used up pastels to me, and I remember my mom explaining how we perceive perspective when I was about four, and how to draw in perspective.  I went to art camp when I was a teenager (where I met my husband, Robert Bender, although we didn't see each other or marry for another fifteen years), and I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to study painting. After art school I moved to NYC with the idea that being in that city would result in my finding a gallery that would carry my work. (This didn't happen). Eventually I moved to the countryside, where I currently reside, rural Pennsylvania.  It was in going to an auction to find furniture for our house that I found a small ceramic kiln... this led to  my informal learning of how to work with clay.

About a year after I started working with clay I got into a gallery in NYC, and very shortly after was able to support myself from sales of the work. But after about five years of working with clay I became burnt out, clay lost its magnetics for me. I then took a five-day workshop at Corning Glass Museum as I explained above. That pretty much sums up my artistic education.

You have children, correct? Do you ever involve them in your practice, or do they have art practices of their own? I imagine art must be a part of their life in some way, right? I remember growing up, my father, who wasn't a professional or established artist by any means, but loved playing with paint, taking photos, etc. always encouraged me to do the same, and often we did so together when I was younger. Two of my most treasured pieces of art are paintings I created with him. 

My husband and I met at an arts camp as children, and it was always my dream to send my children to the same camp when they were old enough.  I was dismayed to discover that the little run down art camp we attended in our youth is now super fancy and super expensive - over five thousand dollars for one session for one child!  There was no way we could send our kids there... so about five years ago Robert and I decided to hold our own annual art camp, in our barn... for our kids and also the local kids. It was very exhausting, but a lot of fun... I know the kids loved it. One summer we had forty kids! It proved too much for us though, and after four or five years we stopped doing the camp.  

My nine-year-old daughter Violet is creative (and very shy)... so recently we decided to hold an art club at our house for her and some of her friends. We have only done it a couple of times so far, but everyone seems to love it.  We worked with clay and glass, and we used glue guns... I was thinking of doing something with candles and crayons, but my oldest daughter was just experimenting with this while I type to you, and all the smoke alarms went off so maybe I will have to offer a different project next time.

I know you have work on display in several permanent collections around the world and think you must have traveled to quite a few places on behalf of your art - can you tell us about one of your favorite journeys in the past?

I haven't really traveled to any of the foreign countries that have my pieces in their museums (I wish!)..  I do love traveling, but mostly it is too expensive for me at this stage of my life.  I did take my children to Costa Rica last winter, and it was so beautiful to see flocks of scarlet macaws flying in formation in the sky, free, as they are supposed to be... there were giant blue moths, and tiny monkeys that ran right up to us... I loved it so much... I love the feeling of life merging with dream state... where everything is in such a state of beauty and alignment it almost doesn't feel quite real.

"Such Reveries"

Going back to the images you employ - many of them really are very reminiscent of mythology in that they depict these very symbolic figures and even suggest their own anecdotal scenes - three beings and hummingbirds within a glass house in "Air"; a being sitting on the tail of a large dog in "Such Reveries"; or the two beings on a deer - one laying on its back and one propped in its antlers in "My Second Self"; as examples. What kind of research do you do in creating these stories? Do each of your pieces have a unique story for you, and if so, is it one you're set on communicating to the audience?

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. Most of my pieces are autobiographical in some way, although it often takes years before I see how that is. I usually have a specific inspiration or idea for each piece, a unique story. I do hope to communicate my ideas directly to the audience, but often people bring their own perspective to my work and see something vastly different from what I intended. I can give you an example of a unique story that inspired a piece... This story really captures what my work is all about, and what really lights me up, creatively. 

A 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".

"Tethered to My Heart"

Who are three artists that inspire you and your practice?

Definitely Daisy Youngblood, I have loved her work since I was in my early twenties. I just have to look at images of her work  to remember what lights me up. I love the paintings of Fred Stonehouse, looking at his work is like being injected with adrenalin!  My good friend Irene Hardwicke Olivieri's work inspires me a great deal... her outlook on life and her vision, are so aligned with mine that often when she talks to me I feel as if she is a different version of me, living and making her art across the country. I recently started an account on Instagram, and there are so many amazing artists it is mind-boggling. There is a wood sculptor named Andreas Sennonier whose work I adore, and a tattoo artist whose user name is Ginginx... I am definitely leaving a lot of people out, my mind is mostly drawing a blank... I loved Gregory Gillespie's paintings when I was a child, and also the paintings of Balthus.

Who are three women you've looked up to/learned from in your life? In art or otherwise?

My mother has definitely been my biggest influence... in art, and otherwise. She is a strong spirit, very idiosyncratic and outspoken. My first art dealer, Bebe Benoliel, was a giant influence for me... She saw me as already embodying my full potential... because of her I actually believed I could live my life as an artist, and believe in myself as she believed in me. Even though she passed away fifteen years ago, I occasionally still dream about her... in my dreams she often advises me, and I treasure those dreams and follow her dream guidance. This may sound a little strange... but a woman who has influenced the way I see the world is actually someone I have never met. Her name was Helen Greaves, and she was a mystic who lived in Cornwall, England. She  wrote memoirs about her experiences as a clairvoyant, books that were published in the 1960s. I read and reread her books all the time, I don't even know if any of them are still in print, but if my house was burning down I would try to grab her books as I was leaving... the cats, and her books.

What are your art practice rituals? Do you ever feel unmotivated to work, and if so what do you do when that happens?

I guess my art practice rituals are not really different than my regular daily rituals. I have to take my dogs for a long solitary walk through the woods every morning.. this recharges my battery, so to speak.  If I don't go on my walk, I feel sluggish and out of sorts all day. Before I start working, I usually clear my work space and clean my tools from the day before if I didn't have time... and if it is necessary, scrape up wax from my floor around my work table. Sometimes I look through my sketch books to refresh my memory and enthusiasm for current projects...  

I don't like feeling unmotivated, but it does happen. It is not my favorite, when it happens. Sometimes it is enough just to go on a long walk by myself and give myself a pep talk as if I were a parent to myself. I say to myself, "I know that commissions are boring, but it is so lucky to get a commission!  I am so lucky I can live my life as an artist, doing what I love every day!" Sometimes just forcing myself to work gets me back on track. If I am actually in a slump, I have to tell myself that my work is probably going through a growth period, and needs to change in some way... and even if I can't work for a few days or even weeks, it doesn't mean that things are static, that nothing is happening. I like to recall the image of an egg.. that while it is incubating it appears that nothing is happening, but something is happening, and there is a real chick at the end of the process.  When I am in an actual slump it helps to jump start my creativity by taking a short trip and going to a museum or eating some ethnic food... 

Have you encountered any obstacles in your artistic journey - if so, how have you overcome them? What's been the most surprising part of your journey? What's next for you in this journey?

I have encountered lots of obstacles in my artistic journey. My father was very opposed to me becoming a professional artist... he would tell me I wasn't smart enough or talented enough to "make it", and when I still insisted on going to art school, my parents didn't speak to me for months at a time. I guess I have an oppositional streak which makes me feel determined to accomplish what I am told I can't do.  But all through my career I have had teachers, other artists, gallerists, tell me I was not very talented, not enough to matter.  I was friends with the painter Will Barnet, and he once told me I had more persistence than anyone he had ever met. I still rely on the memory of that comment, when I need it.

The most surprising part of my journey has been having children. I was terrified that having children would mean the end of being an artist, but I think the opposite happened for me. When I had my daughter Sophie, it felt as if my heart burst into flames... and I think the experience of pregnancy and having her, and then my twins Ellis and Violet, actually infused my work with more heart... and made my work more accessible for people.

What is next for me in this journey?  Well, I haven't given it that much thought... but if I had to say, I guess I would like to enter a stage where I can parent myself, give myself and my work more attention and focus. The last fourteen years have been centered around taking care of my children first, but I see that they are entering a stage where they are more self sufficient...  

Lastly, what does feminism mean to you?

What does feminism mean to me...  I have definitely benefited from the strides the feminist movement has taken... I don't actively champion it politically, but I live my life in accordance with the feminist idea... which is, with the full expectation of making a good living doing what I love, while at the same time having a family, without having to make a choice for one or the other. I guess I would say that to me, men and women have equal status and importance in life. I am fortunate to have a partner who shares all the parenting responsibilities equally, and supports my career whole-heartedly.  I could have easily ended up with someone who felt his work was of more importance than mine, or who expected me to be a support system for his more important career.. then my artistic life would have been like a plant in a very small pot..  I recognize that my whole career has only been possible because of having such a loving and supportive husband who has always believed in my work, without resentment for the time my work has taken away from him. I tell my children that women and men are equal, and they have to be very careful what kind of partner they choose to spend their lives with...  that their very dreams can depend on their partner..  they can choose a partner who expects them to sit in the background and be  a governess/housekeeper to their home and children, without the possibility of a career or passion of their own, or they can choose a partner who views and treats them as an equal companion...