Flooding, Insomnia, and Embedding Dark Ideas into Cozy Installations: A Studio Visit with Bonnie Crawford Kotula by Paul Shortt

Over the last year I’ve been following Bonnie Crawford Kotula’s artwork via Instagram and Twitter, experiencing her insomnia drawings almost nightly posted on Instagram (done when she can’t sleep), light sculptures combined with soft plushy mounds (and more), and her often humorous Twitter posts. Recently I did a studio visit to learn more about her artwork, intimacy, social media, and her recent nap time lecture.

Can you talk a bit about your current body of work and your exhibition at School 33 “or, if there be flooding”?

I currently have three ongoing projects in the studio and the installation on view at School 33. I have a tendency to work obsessively, so the ongoing projects are all serial in nature.

The one I have been working with for the longest are the Light Emitting Studies. I started this series in 2006, and it has evolved steadily over the years. Every few years I find that a collection of them will have branched off into a group, either formally or technically, and I think of them as a subset of the larger series.

For example when I first started working with them, they were battery operated, and when I started using AC adapters for them, that introduced wires as new formal elements to consider. They have gone from being objects that sit on shelves, to being installed directly on the walls. They have also become larger and more colorful, as I have introduced colorful wire, painted wood, and now the stitched soft forms. They are always an exploration into this combination of the scientific elements and more poetic or playful formal elements.

The Viewfinders began in 2014 when I was invited to participate in Season 2 of the Station North CSA. Since there was an element to the project that meant there was a guaranteed exchange between artist and collector, I wanted to make objects that established a sense of intimacy within that exchange. They turned out to feel like a combination between party favor, souvenir, and miniature contemporary art gallery.

The thing I love the most about them is that a person has to physically bring them close to their face in order to experience them. I made another round of the Viewfinders in the Spring of 2016 and I am currently working on a new set of them. The ones from 2016 were made daily, almost like a journaling practice — I dated them, and usually made objects that were reflections of the events of that particular day. They are each dated with the day they reference. The ones I am working on now are still very new, and I don’t know what quality defines them yet.

The Insomnia Drawings began in the Summer of 2016. I haven’t slept through the night since 2013 when my second son was born. Then in 2016, I went through some significant personal life changes, and the insomnia worsened. I learned about the Insomnia Drawings series of Louise Bourgeois, and I thought I would try, as an experiment, to draw when I woke up at night. I started by creating pen and ink drawings on paper.

The political climate rapidly began to intensify right about the time that I started this series, and the drawings (and the insomnia) began to speak to the anxiety and uncertainty many of us are feeling. I draw in the dark, using only the light of my cell phone screen to draw by. Once I finish a drawing, I photograph it on my bed sheets and post it to Instagram. The flash of the camera in the dark creates a shadowy vignette around the image. In 2017 I decided to add color to the drawings, so I now use watercolors and ink.

At School 33 right now, I have an installation called or, if there be flooding. For a larger piece like this one, I tend to think of concept as a part of process. So, the piece doesn’t so much have a conceptual output as much as it was created using a lot of conceptual input. The title of this piece is a fragment from Advice to a Wife and Mother, published in 1878. Flooding, in the context of the book, refers to postpartum hemorrhaging. But this euphemistic language can be more literally interpreted to reference natural disasters or rising sea levels. I was thinking about flooding in both senses of the term while working on this piece.

My hometown of Columbia, SC flooded in the Fall of 2015, and it was very traumatic to see images of places from my childhood covered in water. Then last summer, there was the flood in Ellicott City. We are only going to have more of these extreme weather events as climate change intensifies.

I experienced postpartum hemorrhaging after the birth of my first son in 2010, and was surprised to see it referred to as “flooding.” I am particularly drawn to the use of euphemism, and how it allows us to talk about unpleasant or difficult things while it also obscures what we are really talking about.

I wanted to create an installation that feels warm and cozy, but refers to subject matter that is dark.

The formal elements of the installation reference baby nursery decor, and internal bodily organs, like if the interior of a uterus and a baby nursery were to get jumbled up together. Overall, the space feels very warm, with gentle lighting and “pretty” formal elements, but if you look closer, you can see macro photography of my skin and pubic hair incorporated into the piece.

For the School 33 exhibition you also had one of the coolest sounding art talks recently with your nap time lecture? Where did that idea start?

Nap time is one of my favorite things. As someone who suffers from insomnia, I take advantage of naps whenever I can. And as a mom, nap time is a very special time in the day to recharge and get a little oxytocin boost from snuggling. When I was installing the piece at School 33, the Muslim Ban was taking effect and there were people detained in airports all over the country. I was freaking out, and crying throughout install, and I felt exhausted. That’s when I realized that everyone could probably use a good snuggle.

Then, when I was planning for the talk, I was reminded of this song that my mother used to sing to me when I was little. I don’t know where my mom learned the song, but the version she sang to us seems to be based on an English folk song called, “The Bitter Withy.” The song relays an apocryphal story of Jesus Christ as a little boy who coaxes other children to play with him in the rain by using sunbeams to build a bridge over rising water. In the original version of the song, the children he is playing with actually drown.

The version my mom sang was closer to a song recorded by The Kingston Trio in 1960 called, “Mary Mild.” In that version of the song, the children don’t drown, but their mothers’ eyes are “drowned in tears.” It seemed this was a song about flash flooding and motherhood, so I thought it was appropriate for the nap time artist talk. I sang this song as a part of the talk. I am not a very good singer, so I apologize to anyone who had to hear it. My mom, who died when I was a teenager, once told me that she liked the song because in it, even the son of God was someone who just wanted to be loved.

Over the last few months you’ve been making a series of insomnia drawings. Can you talk a bit about how these works have informed or lead to other works (if at all)?

I just dropped off a stack of the Insomnia Drawings to be framed. I haven’t really framed any of my own artwork in years, so this feels a little weird for me. The relational aspect of the nighttime creation of the drawings and subsequently sharing them on social media is really important to them, but I also think they possess power as objects. So, in exhibiting them framed on the wall, I am exploring how art objects (as opposed to performance, or social interactions) can embody relational aesthetics. I think a lot of my work is interested in how we can experience intimacy through objects. I think humans have historically (and pre-historically) used objects for this purpose, but within capitalism, the power of objects to convey intimacy is exploited.

I think the idea to have a nap time artist talk is also an extension of The Insomnia Drawings. It was a way to invite viewers to actually get into bed with me. For the artist talk, I brought four mattresses from home and placed them in the gallery space. So, people were literally in my bed sheets. I think if I have the opportunity to create a similar installation in the near future, I will plan for there to be beds and pillows on the floor for the duration of the exhibition. I want people to have a lot of physical contact with each other in proximity to my work.

Do you see the Nap Time talk as a performance? This is an aside but are you familiar with the Sophie Calle Sleepers piece where she has her bed continually slept in, and in doing so opens up her home and bed to strangers which she photographs and questions. I feel there is a similar investigation and intimacy at play in your work.

I think the nap time artist talk exists in a space between the genres of performance art and a more traditional artist talk. Something that David Page has talked about before is that all sculpture is site-specific. I left that artist talk wondering if all art isn’t relational.

I am familiar with Sophie Calle’s work- I love that project. There’s also Chris Burden’s “Bed Piece,” and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s heartbreaking bed billboards. And a cultural phenomenon of emotional labor/borderline sex work of professional cuddling, which I may consider doing if I ever need to supplement my income (picture a wink emoji here).

What are your hoping to achieve with the intimacy you create with the viewer? Or rather what are you trying to say with that connection?

Oh man, this question is a doozy. If I think all art may be relational, then perhaps all human interactions are somewhat performative? My brain is firing off several different answers to this question from different angles, so bear with me:

On the one hand, I sincerely hold this really sentimental belief that life is super brief, and the only thing that matters about living in the world as humans is to make genuine human connections. I think intimacy is required for those connections to be made. I’m kind of intense with my friends and loved ones, because a lot of my family members have died at relatively early ages. My mom was 48 when she died, her sister 39, and my dad’s brother was 56. So I feel that whole seize the day, life is brief stuff really hard.

On the other hand, I am interested in how material needs and systemic oppression play into intimate relationships. I grew up in South Carolina, and the first person to hold me when I came home from the hospital was a black woman named Dot, a domestic worker who cared for me for the first eight years of my life so that my white parents could both work. If the nurturing relationships we experience in the first few years of life are fundamental to how we relate to others as adults, then I have a keen sense of how you can really feel love for someone at the same time that you are engaged in an exploitive relationship with them.

And so going back to the idea of human interactions being performative, I love/hate that idea that there real or fake people in the world.

And with social media, people are even more conscious about who they present themselves as in virtual public spaces. The whole idea of a personal brand is so insidious — that we are narrowing down our public identities in order to cultivate specific following. By developing a personal brand, we are capitulating to the corporate interests of the platforms we are using. But then I wonder how were we already doing that within real life relationships before social media became a thing.

So, I don’t think I’m trying to say just one thing about intimacy. Intimacy is potent and complex.

How long have you been in Baltimore and what brought you here?

I moved to Baltimore in February of 2002. I had gone to College Park for undergrad, and had an art degree. I couldn’t afford to stay near DC, so Baltimore seemed to have a vibrant and budding arts community, and was affordable. I paid $225 per month in rent in my first apartment here. Things were very different back then. I didn’t own a cell phone or a car, and finding out about arts events was much more difficult. I find that people in the community here now have really used social media to enhance and strengthen what’s happening IRL, and that it makes the community very accessible to someone who is not afraid to show up.

I feel that showing up is what gives the art scene strength. Online support is important, but attending exhibitions, talks and critique groups helps sustain an art scene long-term. How do you think being on social media has affected your art practice and career (if at all)?

After making art, showing up is the second most important thing an artist can do. So in terms of social media, I would say it’s primary use for me is in finding out what is happening when. That’s how I became involved with my book club, my critique group, and it’s how I find out about openings, shows and other events. The second way I use social media is by making new connections with people in the community. Baltimore is small enough that if you follow someone on social media whose work you admire, you will get to meet them in person and talk to them about it, and that’s so cool. It’s also a portal into other art scenes. I follow a lot of folks in Kansas City, Melbourne, and London. These connections have allowed me to see photos of exhibitions that I won’t be able to visit. Occasionally there has been a big show, like Pipilotti Rist at the New Museum, that I wasn’t able to attend, and I was grateful to people who shared their images so that I could see their perspective of the show.

The last two ways that I have used social media are kind of complimentary. I use it to promote my work and whatever events I have coming up. But, I also use it to experiment a little. The Insomnia Drawings began as an experiment on Instagram, and I’m delighted that they have turned into a body of work, but that’s not what I set out to do when I started them.

I also have this weird thing that I do, and I don’t know if I think of it as art or not. But, I take selfies with my children when we are brushing our teeth at night. This began as an exercise for me to emotionally process new habits we were establishing after I moved out of the home I lived in with their dad. Now it’s just a nice exercise in capturing a sweet, intimate, and honest moment of family life.

Instagram can be a giant advertisement for breeding if you follow a lot of people with babies, and I feel it obscures how challenging parenting can be sometimes, so I am really conscious of representing parenthood honestly. Also, I am always curious about how other parents are balancing an art practice with their roles as parents so I thought it would be useful for me to be transparent about my own parenting, even if it comes across as mundane.

One thing that I recently did as an experiment on Instagram was post a video of me shaving my face. I actually do shave my face every day. I felt pretty embarrassed and exposed after posting it. I’ve been thinking a lot about how people who benefit from white supremacy, from gender discrimination, and homophobia will be required to relinquish some of the power they have in order to allow folks who are oppressed by these systems to gain power. So by exposing one of the ways in which I conform to those systems was an experiment in surrendering a tiny bit of power. I think there is more to come from me on this topic, but I don’t know what it is yet.

You mentioned that in undergraduate school at UMD you felt compelled to use building materials, whereas now that has shifted to lights, fur, fabric and vinyl. What brought about this change?

At UMD, I fell in love with woodworking, and made a lot of sculpture out of wood. With John Ruppert and Foon Sham there, the sculpture program at College Park is very much based in large sculptures and heavy materials. There are metal casting and welding classes that can make it feel like a very masculine environment. Home Depot was my go to place for art supplies back then. The graduate program I attended at UMBC focuses in Digital Media, so there’s not a huge emphasis in material. For this reason, I think these two programs complement each other. I try not to go to big box stores so much, but if I could make an analogy out of them, I am more inclined to go to JoAnn Fabrics now for shitty craft supplies than to go to Home Depot for sculpture materials. This shift has come about as I have become more unapologetically feminine and/or feminist in my work.

I’ll take trash from anywhere, though. Right now, in the School 33 piece, there’s a large green piece of plastic that came from Home Depot. It was the binding around a palette of drywall or something, I found it on the floor there. And with The Insomnia Drawings lately, I have allowed myself to admit that I love the purity of really fine art supplies. I love going to Artist and Craftsman. It’s such a sensual pleasure.

As an artist I’ve always found a love of crappy or everyday materials. I think we feel we are making art with a capital “A” when we shop at art supply stores, but really it doesn’t make a difference where the materials come from so much as how we transform them and why. In your work there is a transformation but also some things are left exposed such as wires and such. What is your intent with this?

When I was studying with Foon Sham at College Park, he said something so beautiful and poetic about transformation of materials that I still think about all the time, fifteen years later. It was something like, “A glass of water is water, but rain is water, too.” I love the way materials can be transformed in sculpture. I think Tara Donovan’s work is so powerful because of how she transforms materials. But for my own work, kind of in the same way I think of oscillating between being genuine/honest and being performative, I like to fluctuate between presenting a material in an illusory, elevated manner, but also presenting it in a very matter of fact way. I think that speaks to my appreciation of a scientific method and to my love of poetry. They are both indispensable approaches to helping humans gain a deeper understanding of their worlds and experiences.

What other exhibitions to you have coming up?

I have a solo exhibition that opens April 7 at Hillyer Art Space in D.C.

What artwork will be in the Hillyer exhibition?

I will be showing some of the newest Light Emitting Studies, some Viewfinders, and The Insomnia Drawings. I am really excited to be working with Seth Adelsberger to frame some of The Insomnia Drawings in custom frames that will be appropriate for the shadowy, nighttime conditions under which they are made.

Check out Hillyer Art Space’s Artist Spotlight Video on Bonnie below —

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Author Paul Shortt is a visual artist, writer and arts administrator. He received his MFA in New Media Art from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He was formerly the Registry Coordinator and Program Assistant at Maryland Art Place. He is currently the New Media Curator for Arlington Cultural Affairs in Arlington County, VA and lives in Washington, DC.

Bonnie Crawford Kotula’s exhibition at Hillyer Art Space in Washington, DC will be up April 7 – 30, 2017.

Images courtesy of the artist.