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Bonnie Crawford will make you cry. At least, she has made me cry on several occasions, and I don’t really consider myself a crier unless I’m watching a movie where they fridge the mom character in the first scene—which is most Disney animated movies, actually. But Crawford, who describes herself as sensitive, is plainly in touch with the emotional side of being a person, and if you talk to her for any amount of time, you’ll likely get onto a sensitive topic, and well, then the floodgates often open. Talking to Crawford feels like a relief because, honestly, we probably all need a little cry these days.

Crawford makes artwork about the systems and practices surrounding care. As a mother of two, working full time as a manager at the digital marketing firm TBG (The Berndt Group), Crawford worries she has been making less art during the pandemic. “I feel like I’m not making any art right now, and in some ways, that’s a ridiculous thing for me to say because I have this huge collection of new drawings that I’ve made and I’ve been doing little projects here and there,” she says. “I think it is really important for us to set limits on what we’re expecting of each other and ourselves and how we define our work.”

This sense of treading water in the studio is one I’ve heard from other artists throughout the pandemic. Regardless of whether Crawford is actively creating art at the moment or not, it’s clear that she is pushing forward mentally with the ideas she has long been pursuing. 

For Crawford, and for most artists, inspiration is everywhere. Even on Twitter. “I love Twitter for its way of distilling things into kind of silly realities,” she explains. She references a tweet noting that “in order to insure your whole head, you have to have three different kinds of insurance. Health insurance, dental, and vision. It’s so weird that we don’t think of our eyes and our teeth as covered under health insurance. But for many people in this country, just having good dental coverage is a luxury.”

Dental health has been a theme for Crawford since 2016 when she began photographing first herself and her children and then others brushing their teeth in bathroom mirrors for her photo series “Brush House.” “The act of caring for one’s teeth is much more layered than just one meaning,” she explains. “That’s true of pretty much anything that you decide to pay attention to.”

 

Brush House 2018

It’s that close attention that makes both Crawford and her work so distinctive; there’s a quiet poetic quality to much of her art that rewards observation. In her series “Signature Care,” the artist weaves dental floss, a single-use pollutant packaged as a tool for dental hygiene, into tiny and huge weavings that ask viewers to contemplate their own participation in capitalism’s disregard for the natural world and the larger ramifications of even the smallest acts of care strongly urged by doctors.

In investigating teeth and tooth care, Crawford is attempting to see all aspects of her subject, the good and bad, and truly put her arms around it. She mentions an idea from Eastern medicine that a friend shared with her, that the health of your teeth is tied to your emotional health and wellbeing. The notion has become a bit of an obsession for her. “My brain is always looking for patterns like that,” she says. “A lot of times it’s magical thinking or cognitive distortions, but if I’m going through something tough emotionally, I’ll be extra conscientious about taking good care of my teeth, because that’s what I need at that moment.”

Toothbrushing is also a time when people tend to look at themselves. Standing before the bathroom mirror, we examine own faces, searching for signs of aging but also perhaps accepting ourselves while caring for ourselves. It’s an ordinary moment where we are often alone, and for Crawford, focusing on it is a meditation on self-acceptance. “It’s really hard for me to balance my own needs with the needs of others,” she says. 

For Crawford, individuality is not important; it draws a sharp line that separates people. “We’re much more blended than we realize as individuals,” she says. “The idea of an individual is not useful to me.” She distinguishes less between herself and others, focusing instead on the ways we are connected by the collective experience of being alive now. “It’s sort of like gardening,” Crawford says. “Everything in the garden has needs and has the right amount of soil pH and the right amount of water and sunlight that it needs. We all need to kind of be aware of that and how these ecosystems are working.” 

SUBJECT: Bonnie Crawford, 41
PLACE: Lauraville
WEARING: Red jumpsuit purchased used from artist Katie Shlon, a tiny hand pendant from Las Pozas Xilitla, an engagement ring as a pendant, and hand-held scrap of a magnifying sheet of PVC. 

 

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?

Bonnie Crawford: Anne Boyer’s writing has been carrying me through the past six years. Her books and her email newsletter have given me a place to land and to process watching capitalism fail in disaster on both an individual scale and at the level of policy.  

What makes Baltimore a great and unique place to be an artist? 

When I moved to Baltimore 20 years ago, it was its affordability that attracted artists like me. What no one wanted to admit at the time was that Baltimore was so affordable because of the legacy of systemic racism here. (My husband wrote an op-ed about this for Pitchfork in 2015 that is more nuanced than my answer here.) 

Not a lot, and a lot, has changed since then, but one thing that has changed for the better (maybe?) is seeing more and more Black creatives here being recognized for their talent, artistry, and hard work. I personally have a lot of mixed feelings about what it means to be recognized as an artist, and who is doing the recognizing. Black artists have always been here, and have always been great.

That being said, there is so much creativity and weirdness here. It’s very magical, and people joke all the time that it can’t possibly be a real place. I think that is due in large part to many non-white, non-cis, queer people living wild lives here. Also the fact that the ceiling is kind of low for artists means that we don’t tend to be too competitive with one another, because what’s the point? Hah! So there’s a strong foundation for mutual aid, accountability, and support for each other. It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s not nothing.

You’ve noticed the theme of care coming up in a lot of artists’ work over the last few years. How does care come up in your work?

I’ve thought a lot about care, especially in my life as a single mom, for a long time. I have been exploring the theme of teeth brushing as a minimum maintenance kind of care that we do for ourselves and each other in life. But our culture is not oriented around taking care of one another and we have a very weak social safety net for people in general, but especially for people with disabilities or aging people.

The idea of care has been such a big focus for so many artists for the past few years, and it has felt like the idea reached peak saturation in the contemporary art world discourse right before the pandemic. Artists tend to be ahead of things a lot of the time, but people were talking about care a lot before COVID hit and now there is this recognition that, actually, we really suck at taking care of one another, as a culture in the USA.

 

Bonnie Crawford, Signature Care, 2020
Bonnie Crawford, Signature Care, 2020
Bonnie Crawford, Signature Care (detail), 2020
Brush House 2018

How have you defined success for yourself as an artist? Has this definition shifted at all with time? Do you ever feel anxious about your “progress” against your personal career goals?

When I was younger, I feared that I would someday stop making art, so just being able to continue making art was the bare minimum level of success I imagined for myself. Many things can be barriers to making art: employment, finances, health, relationships, parenthood, feeling burned out or disillusioned, etc. I think the biggest threat to my ability to make art over the years has been disillusionment. And that’s probably my greatest challenge in life in general, how to cope with feelings of disillusionment. 

Growing up in the US in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as a middle-class white person, there was this expectation of continuing economic prosperity, this sense that capitalism had “won” the Cold War, and there was actual propaganda in public school economics classes to that effect. I felt so lucky to have been born here and to benefit from its prosperity. And what I’ve actually experienced in my adult life has been quite the opposite. What was really happening in those years—the war on drugs, mass incarceration, ignoring climate change, corporate interests in politics, and so much more—all of these things have brought us to a point today where our leaders are incapable of acting in our interests, and that is by design. 

Even as recently as 2019, I had ambitions about what a “career” as an artist looked like, and since 2020, that has completely disintegrated. I still want to make art, because I think art itself is pretty vital to society, community—hell, even my mental health. But I think my highest value these days is making sure that I am engaged in caring for my loved ones and receiving care from them. 

Ugh, this is a bleak answer! I was just reading an interview with Karen Finley where she talked about the early years of the AIDS crisis and how terrible things were then, and she said something to the effect of “things have always been bad.” I guess all times are bad, and it was just me being a kid that didn’t know any better that made it seem less bad before. So that’s kind of a hopeful thought? That there’s a lot of potential now, just as there was in the ‘80s. 

You have a drawing club with your good friend, the artist Ben Piwowar. What is drawing club and when did you start doing it?

Ben has been my best friend for over 20 years. He has a way of thinking and seeing that is essential to my survival. I don’t know how to make art without asking him for feedback and advice. He moved to Switzerland back in late 2019, and we started video chatting and jokingly calling it Drawing Club. We would video chat with one another and just draw at the same time. I had purchased tickets to visit him and his wife, fellow artist Nicole Shiflet, in Switzerland in April of 2020, and then the pandemic hit and the flights were canceled. It was like everything in the world exploded in slow motion and we were just suspended in this state of witnessing, bug-eyed, the blasted out particles suspended in mid-air. 

So then most relationships shifted to virtual, video-chat-only-type interactions, and so we just continued. In some ways, it made it easier for me to cope with his absence because the way I interacted with him in Switzerland was similar to how I interacted with many other people nearby.   

Then in October of 2021, I had the most magical experience on Zoom. I have all these regular Zooms scheduled with friends and family, and I got my times all mixed up and ended up on a Zoom with Ben and Nicole, and then my dad joined, so they hung around with him for a few minutes. And then right after that, my mother-in-law joined, so we had a big gathering on Zoom. It was like running into a bunch of people you love at the same time, but virtual. I don’t know how it happened, but it was so great to have these three different factions of my life interacting in a pandemic. It was the first time my mother-in-law met my dad or my friends. 

Ben and Nic are back in Baltimore now, and it feels really weird, because in a lot of ways, it makes the pandemic more real for me, like they are here, and we still don’t get to see each other as much as I want to. 

 

Bonnie Crawford, Drawing Club, 2021
Bonnie Crawford, Drawing Club, 2021

Do you pursue any hobbies in addition to your work? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence on your work or do you view them more as stress relief or a way to unwind?

I had hobbies before the pandemic. Now I’m just struggling to fit in things like therapy appointments, making art, and being there for friends and family. I’m so tired, I just want to sleep for years. Sleep is my hobby. 

Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it? 

I love Red Pepper in Towson. One night in quarantine, my husband and I ordered from there and watched the Sichuan episode of Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain. It was a really sweet “date” at home. 

You started using a wooden shed in your backyard during the pandemic as a venue to show artist projects. The Shed is now closed, but what were your hopes for the space?

One of the reasons why I put a lot of effort into having The Shed as an exhibition space for the past year was because so many artists were making work and had no opportunity to show it. In the case of Erin Fostel, she had taken the leap to quit her job and become an artist full-time and then COVID hit the fan. She had an exhibition that was completely shuttered the whole time that it was up. At the same time, being able to work with Teri Henderson on that exhibition was great. Teri was kicking ass as a curator in town and had all these things ramped up, then her exhibition at Terrault opened for one day before it was shut down in March 2020.

Providing opportunities for people who were doing the work and were directly materially affected by that shutdown, I was really glad to be able to offer that. And not just for the artists, but also as was the case with Dave Eassa’s show, I think it provided such a great outlet for people in the community. It made me consider, what can showing art do for people right now?

How do you relate to others in the world?

I think I’m very sensitive. I am sensitive to my own feelings and sensitive when I can know what’s going on with other people. It’s intense, I have a very strong orientation towards other people. I feel like… I don’t feel like I exist. I think we’re all connected to each other; we have ways that we’re connected to people that we’re not fully aware of yet. There are invisible threads connecting all of us. If these people over here are suffering, that’s affecting a big network and the threads are being tugged on in all directions. 

 

Bonnie Crawford, Signature Care, 2020
I used to say I was a grief magnet. I would just find myself in friendships with people and then eventually be like, oh, that's why! We have this common understanding of loss or grief. 
Bonnie Crawford

Do you believe that knowing specific things about others’ life experiences impacts how you relate to them?

That’s a good question because I’ve had moments with people where I really connect to someone’s work or something someone says resonates with me, and I find out they have lost a parent. I had an experience at a musical performance one time where the artist said something to the audience and I was like, he’s lost a parent. I just knew it. And he has. I used to say I was a grief magnet. I would just find myself in friendships with people and then eventually be like, oh, that’s why! We have this common understanding of loss or grief. 

I definitely have gotten more esoteric in my thinking during the pandemic. I have thoughts about what happens when you lose someone in death. Before Christian tradition there was and there still are religions practicing ritual sacrifice, so there’s something spiritual about experiencing a death and that thing that’s dying is precious to the community or to you as a person. I don’t have a strong religious feeling about it, but I do feel like there’s something spiritual that happens. Experiencing a loss like that and what it does to you, in terms of how you think about being alive and being in the world. It impacts the relationships that you make with people and the way you love and let yourself be loved. All of that is very different when you’ve experienced a loss.

You and I both lost our mothers to cancer as teenagers, which at this point is half a lifetime ago for both of us. What do you think about that loss now?

I had these really mixed feelings when my mom was sick and dying. I loved her, definitely. But I didn’t really understand what I lost, in a way, until after I had children. I realized there was somebody in the world who loved me like this and I didn’t know. You don’t know what that love is like—people say that about having children. It changed my heart. It changed my capacity for love. And especially having a second kid—when I had my first kid, I was kind of like, how am I ever gonna love anybody else? And then your heart just gets bigger and you’re just like, this kind of love is too much … As I have gotten older, I have come to understand losing my mom differently. That’s the wild thing about grief; every phase of your life, it gives you a new perspective on it too.

Inspiration comes from everywhere, but a body of work is likely to be put into context with other people, at least posthumously. Who do you see as your contemporaries? Whose art is yours in conversation with? Or if there aren’t any other artists whose work you see your own in, are there structures, places, or other notable influences on you? 

It’s nearly impossible for me to imagine that anyone who doesn’t know me personally will care about my work after I’m dead. So, I think this question is best answered by the relationships that have influenced me as a person. My mom was an incredible painter, and I completely took it for granted when I was a kid. Even in my early 20s, I thought her work was cheesy or passé, and now I see her paintings and I’m just blown away. She was amazing. And my dad is a photographer, so his way of seeing was foundational to me. My siblings are both creative as well, so I am trapped in a creative family!

My mom’s best friend, Sandra, was my high school art teacher. My buddy Darby was my best friend in high school and now lives in Charleston, SC, still making art. Ben’s work, of course. I also had a dear friend when I was in undergrad, Natalia Blanch, who was from Argentina but now lives in Brussels. Her work is so quiet and contemplative, just lovely. Nicole Shiflet (Ben’s wife) and Marian Glebes were my colleagues in grad school who probably influenced me the most in terms of their sensibilities and aesthetics. Nicole for her playfulness and Marian for her subtlety. 

 

Bonnie Crawford, Drawing Club, 2021
Bonnie Crawford, Drawing Club, 2020

Do you believe in astrology? What insights do your signs give to your personality and mindset?

I don’t know if I believe in anything. I am very pragmatic when it comes to ideas and that includes spiritual beliefs, magical thinking, astrology, and other thoughts that scientific rationalists might consider cognitive distortions. Pretty much any idea, I think, can be defended or backed up by “evidence”; we are living in a time where truth is relative.

So the question for me is not, do I believe in this thing as true, but rather, what use is it if I do? How am I going to apply this idea to taking action, or how will believing this thing affect what I do in life? I don’t know enough about astrology to speak on it much. That being said, I am a raging fiery Leo and both of my marriages have been with Aries partners. I’m at home in lots of fire.

Who are your art or career heroes and what do you look to them for? Do you have anyone whose work you’ve always admired or whose career you’d like to emulate or just someone you think would be a cool person to have coffee with? Why were/are they the coolest? 

Abraham Cruzvillegas. I would love to have coffee with him and empty our pockets/backpacks and compare whatever strange objects we have collected and why they persistently hold significance for us. 

I have a really long list of art I love. I appreciate that I was given access to this work via large institutions, but I have a really hard time reconciling the feeling that I have looking at their work with understanding the money and power that has been fueling those institutions. That’s nothing new, though. Standing at the altar of a church run by corrupt leaders, they always housed useful ideas. 

I love Elsa Dorfman, Cecilia Vicuña, Félix González-Torres, Carrie Mae Weems, Ann Hamilton, Ruth Asawa, Julianne Swartz, Annette Messager, Eva Hesse, Doris Salcedo, Mona Hatoum, and so many more. But it’s not their names, it’s the work that matters to me, and I can have the same sublime feeling from seeing any artist’s work that has a certain material and sensory presence. Heck, I can even get that feeling from finding a wadded-up napkin that went through the clothes dryer and came out as a soft, round, pseudo-stone. Which brings me back to my briefer answer before about Abraham Cruzvillegas, except it could be any artist who has a stash of dear objects they carry with them.

You think a lot about the impact of your work before you even make it. Can you speak to that process a little?

Before I actually move on making something—and I think it’s even more true in quarantine—I’ve been thinking about the implications of something and thinking: Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it adding value to something that’s already existing? I’m a little more paralyzed in my ability to answer these questions than I was pre-quarantine. There’s just so much more uncertainty, so I am kind of sitting with that. I have random ideas from time to time, like, oh, I’m gonna brush my teeth and read to people and then just don’t do it because I’m thinking, who’s gonna care and why are they gonna care? And is that the kind of thing I wanna be putting in the world? I don’t know. 

 

I don't have an inflated view of what art can do in terms of changing culture rapidly... But I do think that artists have always played an important role in imagining alternatives and bringing to light things that we're not discussing otherwise.
Bonnie Crawford

Is it important to you that your art provides comfort for people? Or do you want them to get something like a feeling of being cared for? Or is that not part of the criteria for you?

I think it depends on the circumstance. What’s most important to me, in terms of an idea or a thing coming into the world, is what’s its use? And in this day and age, anything can be twisted to be used. I think art is one of those areas where the beauty of it is that its usefulness is so malleable. But especially right now when people are hurting so much, I mean, the past two years have been so painful on so many levels, not just in terms of healthcare, but in terms of how we recognize the disparities across different demographics in how it’s affecting different people.

I think my concern isn’t necessarily what’s gonna make people feel good, but what’s gonna contribute to making some of this better? I’m an artist, I’m not an activist. I don’t have an inflated view of what art can do in terms of changing culture rapidly or anything like that. But I do think that artists have always played an important role in imagining alternatives and bringing to light things that we’re not discussing otherwise.

What have you learned the hard way?

Oh god, so many things! I’m so stubborn and mostly only learn through experience, so I’ve had a lot of painful lessons! I am pretty much stumbling through all my days! I feel like every time I experience hardship, it opens a new layer of compassion and empathy for others that I didn’t know I needed before. And part of me thinks, why couldn’t I have been compassionate about that BEFORE experiencing the hardship? Come on!

What would your teenage self think of you today? 

When I was 17, I wrote in my diary and promised god that I would never become a lesbian as a bargaining chip. I can’t remember what I was bargaining for, but it took me longer than it should have to realize straight kids didn’t make those kinds of deals with god. That kid would be so happy to know that gender is a lot more fluid these days. I think I would have identified as nonbinary as a kid if that word existed for me back then. I didn’t shave my legs in high school which was unheard of for a girl in the ‘90s in South Carolina. She would be appalled that I had children, but then once she got to know them, she would see that they are very cool people and would love them like I do. 

 

Artist portrait photography by Justin Tsucalas for BmoreArt. Images of art courtesy of Bonnie Crawford

This story is from Issue 12: More is More, available here.

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