July, 2020

Last month I went for my first socially distant art viewing experience, courtesy of Baltimore artist Bonnie Crawford. She cleverly utilized the space inside the shed in her backyard to mount a small exhibition of dental floss weavings and other mixed media pieces she has been creating during quarantine and beyond. We spoke in her garden about what it means to be in artist right now, coping with uncertainty, and the nuances of dental floss!

The conversation below is between Amy Boone-McCreesh and artist Bonnie Crawford.


A: The title of this show is Signature Care, can you talk about the title?

B: It’s actually a generic brand of dental floss I bought. This whole project came out of wanting to pivot from the less formal, more relational experiments I was doing with Brush House on Instagram, posting the selfies of brushing teeth. I was thinking about how to formalize that into sculpture or gallery-type work, because I could never imagine Brush House being in a gallery setting. It’s a different thing.

I was thinking a lot about care and how we learn to care. It’s cultural, and you have to have someone in your life to teach you to floss your teeth. Especially as a mom, I think about this habit of care. Right now there’s a lot of discourse on radical self-care, but for me I’m thinking about maintenance care that’s not all that exciting or radical. So all that is what made me think about the material of dental floss.

As a material, floss is not all that radical. It’s made from those evil little plastic beads that are destroying our oceans. So this project isn’t just a one dimensional exploration of care, but rather a meditation on the complexities of how an act of care in one direction can cause harm in another. 


It’s been so exciting for me to watch artists creatively problem solve and work around everything the world is throwing at us right now. The shed idea is so brilliant, How did this exhibition come to be?

The shed is in my backyard, and the person who lived in this house before me is a woodworker named Joshua Bohannon. He made the shed by hand and I think it’s such a beautiful space. I didn’t want to waste the space by just storing tools in it. A couple weeks into quarantine, I thought the thing I was going to miss the most was socializing because I’m such an extrovert, but the thing I actually missed the most was physically looking at art. I woke up one morning and just burst into tears about it. At the same time, I had the realization that I was just a few hours from finishing my big weaving, so I was like, Okay, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to clean out the shed, go to the studio, and finish the piece and I’ll hang it in the shed and invite people to come see it.


So I wanted people to be able to see the piece and I’ve had lots of good conversations about it that I wouldn’t have had over Zoom. Zoom lacks warmth; there’s so much to be said about human interaction in real life. That’s another thing I’ve been thinking about in terms of how we learn to care for one another. We went into a huge shift all of a sudden, culturally, in what it means to care for each other. When you’d see a friend before March 13th, hugging them meant you were happy to see them and now when you see a friend there’s a pause. I’ve noticed there is this pause that people take now that’s sort of the space where a hug would have happened where we just kind of acknowledge the fact that by not hugging you I’m showing you that I care about you. So there’s this adaptability to how we think about caring for one another that’s really coming out right now.


Can you talk about the specifics of the work in the shed? Materials, weaving, etc. 

There’s a house that’s been in my family for a few hundred years that’s in the mountains of North Carolina. I went to visit it a couple summers ago and there were these beautiful, handwoven quilts that are made up of these four-inch squares of weaving. I think my grandmother’s aunt must have made them. I took a picture and sent it to April Camlin and she was able to tell me how they were made using a vintage loom that was popular in the 1950s. You can find them on eBay. That’s where I got mine. At first I was thinking I was just going to make a quilt and I wasn’t thinking about making art. What’s interesting is that my grandmother’s aunt was an artist. A single mom and an artist who lived in Charleston and my middle name is her name. So there’s all these layers that are very personal. (And some historical layers that are pretty complicated and dark.)


So I had already been weaving the dental floss in an experimental way for a few months before then, but after I got the looms I was wondering what it would look like if I made these very tight weavings on the loom in a really formal way. There are different floss widths and I actually doubled up on the big weaving and used two threads at a time to make it more sturdy. The blue piece is floss from Reach called Total Care, which is blue and transparent and really slick when you floss with it. My favorite is called Oral-B Superfloss or something like that, and it comes in pre-cut strands that have three different textures within it. It starts out pointy and thin, then gets fat and fluffy, then gets small again. I think it’s made for people who have braces or other dental work they need to pass it through to get to the teeth. But it’s such a cool material to have three different textures because when you weave with it a lot of things happen naturally that you can’t really control. I also tried that cinnamon flavored kind that’s kind of fuzzy, but it’s hard to weave with because it’s kind of sticky and the cinnamon dust would come off so it was gross.


So I liked these experimental pieces, but I didn’t quite know where I was going with them. Then in October, I went back to April Camlin’s studio to talk about a different project and just casually showed her the weavings and she showed me this book with a sampler of the open weave style. I thought I could totally make that and imagined it at the scale it’s at now, because it would be made up of the squares I’d already made, but I was also thinking about what other things we encounter in the bathroom space. So I specifically thought about it as having the scale of a shower curtain. I even bought a shower curtain rod because I was originally going to install it like a shower curtain, but in the shed space the shower curtain thing became irrelevant. So that’s how the scale of that piece came about.

Another coincidental thing about this project is that the day after I built it, there was a fiber artist named Rachel Christensen who was in Area 405 with Jackie Milad, they were doing a dying project. So I showed them what I’d been making on the loom and she asked what I was going to use for my heddle and my leash–and I didn’t know what those things were! She told me, but it was just at the right moment when I needed the information. It was just in time before I started weaving, other than getting the warp on the loom, so I was able to build the heddle and leash per her suggestion and it probably cut my weaving time in half. It was magical. Every making tradition has these incredible tools.


How are you feeling in general right now about making work and about the role of artists? How are you managing life?

Back in March when everything first shut down, I was just sort of in shock. I started thinking about how my work wasn’t even relevant anymore and what was I doing with my life? I’m not making anything better. It was kind of paralyzing and it felt meaningless. Something I’ve struggled with for years is why do I love art so much? I didn’t have words for what that experience was like for me or why it was so important to me. But when I started thinking about how much I missed looking at art in real life, I started thinking about what that act was really about and what does it do for me? Why is it important in our society? So thinking about that and thinking about taking my kids to museums and letting them look at the work and talk to me about it–I think at its most basic level is that the individual experience of encountering a work of art, just asking yourself if you like something or not–just that act is so important. 


There aren’t many things in our culture that allow us to ask that of ourselves without marketing to you or trying to convince you to do something. It’s just an exploration of your immediate feeling about something. It’s so important for us to know how we feel about a thing. And then there’s so much more beyond whether you like it or not, like do you understand it and its meaning? Taking that moment to really be present and consider something is another thing we really don’t do enough in our society. So I’ve gone from thinking this is all useless and meaningless in the world to this is really essential and we need to do it more and keep it alive right now. I think about how in the US, one of the first places where money gets cut is the arts. We need that now more than ever. Watching the news cycle and politics of the whole thing congeal, all of a sudden we had this false dichotomy of prioritizing people’s health and prioritizing the economy. That’s the way everybody talks about it now. It’s so false. If you don’t prioritize peoples’ health, you’re going to harm the economy for a longer period. All the countries who got it under control and took all the proven measures to fix things now have economies that are functioning. 


But the whole idea that caring for people hurts the economy is actually–the pandemic is actually the problem, not social distancing. So I think those kinds of ways of thinking are trying to manipulate people into doing something a certain way, but art tends to have a place in our society where it’s not about controlling or influencing in the same way, but contemplating something and having a conversation. So you can see what happens in society when questions aren’t being asked; you end up with those false dichotomies as ways of thinking about things. 
Usually at the end of these interviews I ask artists if they have anything coming up or anything they would like to promote – I would also like to ask if you have any recommended readings, entertainment, etc. 

A lot of things are up in the air because obviously we don’t know what the world is going to be like in December. But I am serious about wanting to make the shed into an artist space and have more artists show their work. I’m applying for grants to get some funding to do that because I think right now it is important to support the Baltimore Arts community as much as we can. We’re definitely going to lose some people who need to go find jobs to better support themselves in ways that being an artist just can’t provide right now. So I’d really like to focus my energy on supporting that.


Other things I’ve been enjoying are gardening. The timing of lockdown was good in terms of planting a garden! I’ve never really planted a garden before, but it’s been therapeutic. I have this big, ambitious garden with tons of vegetables and we’re ready to start planting for the fall. 


Bonnie has a work on paper, from her Insomnia series,  in the Inertia Shop. 50% of this sale will be donated to Baltimore Youth Arts. Click here to purchase and learn more. 


Inertia Studio Visits