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Divining Her Mediums
Combining cast glass with raku clay, Christina Bothwell works on her own frequency, one with distinct spiritual overtones.
It was the eve of her first big New York show, and sculptor Christina Bothwell had the jitters. To calm her nerves, her husband suggested they go see a movie, any movie. The one they randomly picked starred Demi Moore as a sculptor who is delighted when a mysterious buyer (later revealed to be a killer, of course) snaps up a number of her artworks.
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if someone went to my show and bought a bunch of my pieces like that?’ ” Bothwell recalls. The next night at the gallery, someone did – none other than Demi Moore.
That kind of synchronicity has been happening to Bothwell all her life. As a little girl, she began having what she calls “experiences beyond the five senses,” such as premonitions of when people would die (a knack that would get her quickly herded out of the room at her parents’ parties). In her 40s, shortly after she learned she was pregnant, she had a lucid dream about a pair of brother-and-sister twins, whom she recognized as her children and who told her to have courage; weeks later, she discovered she was going to have twins, a boy and a girl.
For her, these are glimpses of something more – a spiritual dimension, levels of energy and awareness that transcend the material world.
“Our true selves go beyond our physical bodies and our minds,” Bothwell says. “That’s what I’m trying to express in my work, even without consciously being aware of it. I’ve always been interested in trying to grasp that truth, what that means.”
Combining elements of solid, earthy, pit-fired clay with translucent, ethereal, cast glass (along with touches of surface paint and the occasional found object), Bothwell’s figurative pieces explore the mysteries of body and soul, of things seen and unseen.
Mothers and babies are a staple of her work, as symbols of beginnings and the circle of life. Often she’ll draw on her own experiences with pregnancy and motherhood. In When You Sleep (2007), the spirit of a woman (glass) is seen rising from her sleeping form (clay). Bothwell was thinking of the sleep deprivation she had while pregnant, so intense that “my body would fall asleep, and I would have this sensation of lifting up out of my body and flying.”
Other content stems from her unconscious. “If I get an idea from a dream, that’s the best. It’s like a present,” she says. “Or I’ll be attracted to something as an image or an idea, and I won’t understand why.” After hearing a discussion on NPR about the emotional lives of octopi, she began making tentacled women. Later she saw this as a metaphor for how she and many modern women feel at times – overextended.
Animals and human-animal hybrids are among her favorite forms. She thrives close to nature, living in the central Pennsylvania countryside with her husband, Robert Bender (a writer and illustrator of children’s books, who recently took up glass art himself), their 11-year-old daughter, and the twins, who are 8. Her studio overlooks acres of rolling hills and forests full of wildlife, a constant source of inspiration. One freezing morning, she was traveling in her car along a nearby dirt road. “It was like driving through a lace doily. All the tree branches were encased in ice, and the sun was shining. I drove past a creek, and there was this magnificent deer, with huge antlers, drinking. He looked up at me, and he was so beautiful.” At that moment, she realized it was hunting season and felt an acute, overwhelming love for him. “It was a feeling of beauty and vulnerability, wanting to protect that.” The result was the recent Garden of Pretty Things – a female figure tenderly holding a deer, their spirits commingling.
“There have been times, usually when I’m in nature, when I’ve felt completely in alignment with the best of who I am. In that piece I was trying to express the essence of that feeling, of being completely attuned.”
Beautiful as they are, Bothwell’s creatures can be unsettling, with their still, serene faces, preternatural forms (often with other entities visible inside their translucent glass bodies), and hard-to-miss allusions to birth and death. The artist, whose manner is down-to-earth and cheerful, says she’s not trying to creep anyone out. It’s just that her art invites us to go deep, to ponder what lies beneath and beyond, and maybe arrive at some personal truth. No wonder some of the people who love her work the most, she says, are psychologists.
She tends to attract others on her wavelength. People tell her things. They share stories of miracles and psychic phenomena, inspiring some of her most heartfelt pieces. Once she chatted with a young mother at the Y as they sat poolside watching their kids swim. Years earlier, the woman confided to Bothwell, she’d gotten a cancer diagnosis that kept her awake night after night, in turmoil, until finally she let go. “She said, ‘I realized it doesn’t matter. If I die, I’ll be with God. If I’m here, I’m with God.’ With that awareness, she was able to sleep. When she went back to the doctor a few weeks later, the cancer was gone.” Driving home after that conversation, Bothwell turned on the radio and heard Bob Marley sing “One Love.” It became the title of a sculpture she made about the young woman’s epiphany – “There is no place God isn’t.”
Another woman, in mourning over the death of her identical twin, asked Bothwell to make a piece about the two of them. She spoke of lying in bed one night, despondent, when suddenly she sensed the presence of her sister enter the room, get into the bed, and spoon with her as they had done in life. Tethered to My Heart (2013) depicts this experience, and – to Bothwell’s joy as a mother of twins – brought the bereaved woman comfort.
“Things like that light me up, make me so happy to be alive and able to make art.”
Her heightened spiritual awareness may be a gift, but it took Bothwell years to feel open and comfortable about it. Her family wasn’t religious. Her father was a psychologist and her mother a painter, the free spirit in their straitlaced town outside Philadelphia. Theirs was an unconventional household, she remembers, a gathering place for local hippies who would hang out, play guitar, burn their draft cards, and occasionally pose for her mother, which gave Bothwell an early education in figurative art. (“I was drawing from nude models from the time I was pretty young.”) She started making things as a way to have what she visualized but couldn’t buy, like a dollhouse she built out of clay. “That feeling of making something out of nothing but an idea was so fulfilling. That was what always brought me the most happiness.”
She studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through the early 1980s, then spent a decade in New York, trying to find her place in an art world that seemed to require her to be someone she was not. “I subscribed to all the art magazines. Some of them I couldn’t even understand. I’d think, ‘If I want to be able to make a living, really make a go of this, I have to get it.’ I put so much pressure on myself.” Her life began to change for the better when she got married, left the city, and took up ceramics. “Moving out to the country was the point where I started following my heart.”
Finding her artistic voice, however, was an ongoing challenge. By the late 1990s she was having some success making doll-like figures out of clay, found objects, and old, faded cloth. Still, to her frustration, dealers felt the work had a disturbing quality that sometimes was a tough sell. “They would say, ‘If you could just do sculptures of dogs.’ I got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t work at all, because my ideas were no longer allowed to come from me. I was withholding so much in order to have success and money.” Burnt out, she went on hiatus, tried other things – a cooking class, papermaking. Her breakthrough came in 1999 when she took a glassmaking workshop at the Corning Museum. Glass, she realized, could do all the same things as clay, and had the elements of delicacy and lightness her work needed. It was the expressive direction she’d been looking for, and she’s been combining the two materials ever since.
Bothwell’s quest for the essence of true self not only adds emotional resonance to her art; it also empowers her in daily life. There’s a certain strength, she has learned, that comes with a willingness to be exposed, vulnerable, and authentic. Shortly after having her twins, she was invited to speak to a group of graduate students in glass. “I got up, and I had nothing to say. So I said, ‘I had twins at 45,’ and everyone burst out laughing. I felt like such an idiot. But afterwards, people came up to me and said it was so refreshing to hear a real person who’s not fancy or intellectual. And that’s OK, to be a regular person. It gives us hope that we can do something in our work, just with who we are.”
That, she says, would be her message to young artists. “It’s such a cliché to say, ‘Just be yourself,’ because that’s all we can do anyway. I guess it’s more, ‘Be OK about being yourself.’ It is a really nice thing, to be OK with who you are in the end.”
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.