First came the raging fire that obliterated her studio building on August 8th, and then, just four days later, the flood that extinguished the smoldering embers but went on to inundate her basement, washing away a nearby bridge and the long dirt driveway to her home. Because the studio structure in rural Pennsylvania wasn't insured as a commercial property, Christina Bothwell was told she'd get no compensation for the total loss of her workspace and all the work she and her husband had stored there. Though the summer of 2018 was one of disaster at an almost biblical scale, Bothwell has emerged, a month later, ready to rebuild and get back to work to overcome the significant financial challenges ahead. As the main earner in her family of five, her loss of her longtime studio is a devastating blow. But being Bothwell, an artist whose glass and ceramic figures populate a dreamworld of her own personal mythologies, she prefers to look at it with gratitude. None of her family were injured in the inferno, and the artwork she lost gives her an opportunity to remake the pieces with all the improvements she thought about as they emerged from the kiln. Even in the intensity of the fire, and the desperate wait for the volunteer fire brigade, she never lost her appreciation for aesthetics, awestruck by the vision of her oldest daughter framed against the backdrop of angry flames, berating the late-arriving firemen in profanity-laden curses as a marvelous and breathtaking moment of beautiful intensity she will never forget.
For those who don't know Bothwell or her work, she's a formally trained painter who became transfixed by the possibilities of glass and ceramics to explore an imaginary and highly personal landscape filled with haunting characters in altered states. Her weathered figures are physical manifestations of longings, anxieties, and transformation. Bothwell seems ready to embrace this unexpected transmutation as she moves forward from this difficult juncture.
But first, more about the fire. Nobody knows how it started. Bothwell was taking the dogs out in the morning and her artist husband, Robert Bender, told her he was turning off the water in the grinding room, where the water heater had been spraying all over. As he went to call the plumber, the studio somehow went up in flames.
"When I came back I heard Robert saying 'Call 911! Call 911!' and there were sheets of flames so intense, there was no way to run and get anything," says Bothwell. "Even though the firehouse is 5 minutes away, the firemen didn't come for the longest time. The trees all caught fire. After many, many calls, my children got the animals all outside because they were worried that the house might go up, too. Finally, the firemen, some of whom are volunteers and work at the hospital 40 minutes away, arrived. They just stood there, saying 'There isn't anything we can do.' I could hear my sculptures exploding."
Bothwell regrets now that she followed her insurance agent's advice that she present her artmaking as a hobby and not a business. Since she only had homeowner's insurance, and not a commercial policy, she says her insurance company refused to pay for the reconstruction of the studio. "Instead of $4,000 a year, we were paying $1,700," she told the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet in a telephone interview. "I was really super naïve. Even the agents that came out, this nice grandfatherly type, so sweet and supportive, he was almost crying when we spoke, but he also taped the conversation."
Bothwell is very grateful for Les Snow, the program manager at CERF+, who proactively called upon hearing the news of the fire and sent out a $3,000 grant before she had even filled out the application. She hopes to borrow money from her and her husband's parents. If there's a lesson to be had, Bothwell wants other artists to benefit from her experience, and urges people to not cut corners by not declaring their studios or home offices as residential since it will not be covered in the event of a disaster. "Please put something in your article that artists need to protect themselves with insurance," she said. "If you can't afford commercial coverage, then don't take a home office deduction or write off anything since your tax records can be used against you, and yes, the insurance companies will check your tax returns in the event of a claim."
It's still early, but Bothwell hopes to rebuild. Just to clear the site will cost $15,000, but she is already exploring ways she might put up another structure there, a smaller one than the massive 100 x 40-foot building that burned, thinking about how her neighbors or even her son's Boy Scout troop might pitch in.
Not only is her workspace gone, but so are the completed works she was about to photograph for SOFA. She estimates she lost at least eight completed works, not to mention the many components of work in progress as well as the equipment and supplies.
Her spirits have been buoyed by the support of her art dealers. Austin Art Projects, Habatat Galleries, and Heller Gallery have banded together to produce a beautiful 14-page catalog of works drawn from their collective inventories which they are offering for a single sale in an online exhibition called "My World." Potential buyers are invited to contact any of the three galleries to inquire about purchase, and all proceeds will go to Bothwell.
Bothwell spoke about a dream she had just two weeks before the fire. Her father, who died 15 years ago, appeared and they had a conversation. She says he told her: "let go of your past, cut yourself free from the past. Let go of the way you saw yourself as a child."
Remembering the dream gives her strength because, in addition to her artwork, she also lost her archive of work when in high school and college, as well as the work from her artist grandparents she had inherited. Gone, too, was also her wedding dress, and all of her treasured pictures of her honeymoon and three children as babies.
“My whole history as an adult and as an artist was in that studio,” she said. “And I think maybe
it’s kind of like an opportunity — an opportunity for a brand new start.
For those who might want to donate directly, here is the artist's mailing address:
Christina Bothwell and Robert Bender
148 Karns Rd.
Stillwater, PA 17878
With additional reporting by Chelsea Liu.