American artist Christina Bothwell, tells her story of the relationship with death through her life and its connection to her art in conversation with Maria Abramenko.
How did you become an artist?
When I was a small child, I lived with my parents in New York City in a small apartment. My parents were poor and we did not have a television. I was a sickly child – almost dying of pneumonia twice before I was four years old, and I spent months in bed under an oxygen tent, with nothing to entertain myself with other than crayons and paper. I remember when I was four years old I had an awareness that there were no distinct lines separating objects (the way you see in drawings). Arms, furniture, animals all had soft edges which blended into the air around them.. I was fascinated with the space around objects, and tried to draw it.
Around that same time, my mother taught me about perspective. She took me out into the New York City streets, and showed me how the lines of the street appeared to converge in the distance. She showed me that if I drew the street that way, the street would recede similarly in my drawing. This was extremely interesting to me! All I wanted to do was draw, which I did – for hours at a time. I assumed even at that age that I was an artist. I never wanted to be anything else.
Where did the awareness of soul perception come from?
This answer also originates in my early childhood. My earliest memory was from when I was just months old – of my father holding me in his arms and pretending to fly with me.. I was laughing, enjoying the whooshing sensation, and then my perception shifted – and I was observing the scene from the ceiling, looking down on my father holding the baby. I often had dreams as a child of flying, out of my body and out of our apartment, across the city skies in the dark, looking down at buildings. These were my favorite dreams! Every day when I was a toddler, 3-4 years of age, my mother would walk with me along the streets of upper Manhattan toward Central Park, where there was a playground and a sandbox. On our daily walks we passed numerous elderly men and women sitting on street benches with their caretakers. These old people were my friends, and I greeted and hugged them every morning. Sometimes when I saw these old people, I sensed their deaths. I remember hugging an old man I was particularly fond of, unwilling to let him go. My mother grew embarrassed and impatient with me.. she urged me to let go of his legs so that we could go to the sandbox. “You’ll see him tomorrow!” I remember her telling me. “I won’t!” I cried, “he won’t be here anymore!” My mother grew angry at my unwillingness to cooperate, and I was subsequently punished. Later we learned the man had died the following day. This awareness of people’s impending deaths continued throughout my childhood.. I often got into trouble for asking my parents’s friends (and even complete strangers), when they were going to die. I felt that everyone knew when their time to die was going to come, and I was curious if it was a deliberate choice, something we had control over. It never occurred to me that other people didn’t know when their time of death would arrive.
When I was in the fifth grade, one day I had an overwhelming feeling that someone was going to die, and it was going to be bad. My teacher asked me why I wasn’t focusing on my schoolwork, and I told her that someone was going to die. I still remember her reaction – she became very frightened and angry, shaking me and saying that nobody could know these things, unless I was possessed by the devil! Spittle flew from her lips and hit my face. The other children in my class clustered around us, also frightened by the teacher’s yelling. I realised at that moment I couldn’t talk to people about this topic any more.. death frightened people, and made them angry at me. The children at recess that day taunted me, “Chrissy Bothwell is possessed by the devil!” When I returned home after school that afternoon my mother told me sadly that one of the young people who sometimes came by our house to visit had taken his life earlier that day. I guess the sensitivities I had as a child created a fascination with death, the spirit, and continuation of consciousness.
Is there any particular reason you have chosen glass as a medium to work with?
I started my career working with ceramics, even though I had been trained at art school as a painter. I loved sculpting with clay, but being self taught, I couldn’t figure out how to add color to my sculptures. My attempts at coloring the clay were garish and jarring. I took a workshop in casting with glass, and although working with glass was very challenging (my pieces cracked and broke every time), I soon realised the translucency of glass allowed me more range of expression – especially when it came to trying to visually articulate elements of spiritual life. I work with glass in this way- I heat up blocks of beeswax (warmed in a crockpot or an electric cooker). Once warmed, the beeswax has the consistency of warm clay, and I sculpt my forms out of this wax. I make the faces, heads, and other parts of my pieces from clay, which I fire separately in a ceramic kiln.
Once my wax form is finished, I take it up to the studio where I make a mold (that covers the wax form), using plaster, silica powder, talc, and water. Once the mold has set and is hard, I steam the wax out of the plaster/silica mold, until the mold is empty, with only the empty impression of my wax form inside it. I take the empty mold and fill it with chunks of colored glass and glass powders. Then I fire the glass filled mold in a glass kiln until the glass has liquified and filled the empty cavity inside my mold. Sometimes it takes a day and a night to completely fill the mold- I must repeatedly open the kiln to shovel glass into the hot mold as the glass melts down. Once the glass in the mold is level with the surface of the mold, I turn the heat down in the kiln (now above 1100 degrees Fahrenheit), gradually lowering the temperature until it is room temperature. This cooling down period can take three or four weeks, depending on the thickness of the glass in the mold. Once the mold has cooled, I chisel the mold walls from the glass form within. Then I take the glass form and polish it until smooth. After this, I attach my fired ceramic heads to the glass form, and finally I paint my detailed work on the surface of the glass, using oil paints and tiny sable paint brushes.
What is your concept of the afterlife?
I honestly don’t know.. I love reading memoirs written by people who have had the experience of dying, and returning to life.. ( my favorites being “Dying to be Me”, by Anita Moorjani, “Return from Tomorrow “, by George Ritchie and “Heaven is Beautiful”, by Peter Baldwin Panagore), but of course there is no way of knowing until we cross that threshold ourselves! I do believe in the continuation of consciousness, mostly because of experiences that I have had with deceased people and animals I have loved. I think that the experience of physically dying (and subsequent continuation) will be so different from life in physicality, that language probably doesn’t exist to adequately describe it.
What do you see as your future plans?
I certainly look forward to moving past this pandemic! It will be fun to see friends in person again (be able to hug my 90 year old mother), and be able to travel safely without fear of getting sick. I look forward to being able to attend my art openings in person! Presently I am working toward my solo exhibition in New York City in February at the Heller Gallery, my first show in Manhattan in seven or eight years.