Herstory is told through Bolton’s ‘Unbound Imagination’

Bonnie Bolton [Photo: Kaila Jones]

The Center for Spiritual Care is getting into the swing of the gallery season again, cautiously, with safety rules in place for viewing the art, and boldly, with a brave new offering of shows that began this month and stretches through next March.

Although it continues to be closed to large public gatherings, the Center will still observe its regular schedule of opening and closing dates. However, to see the show, visitors are required to phone in advance for a window of time in which to privately view the gallery. Social distancing and masks are also required for a visit.

The current exhibition is a delight for body and soul. “Bonnie Bolton: The Unbound Imagination” opened on Nov. 7 and continues through Nov. 27.

Bolton is known for her mixed-media assemblages that find beauty and whimsy in the range of found objects and the art techniques she uses to produce them.

Her work often centers on the figure – nay, the idea – of Woman, defined by an ethereal face (often cut by Bolton from an antique photo) and an everyday body, constructed of everything from cardboard and fabric scraps to wooden spoons and cowbells.

In this exhibition, a cowbell is found in “Dancing Queen.” In it, a female figure appears upon a stage where old camera flashbulbs stand in for footlights and the curtains are made of pleated paper. In addition to a cowbell for a torso (to which is safety-pinned the number 27) the figure has paper arms and legs, jointed at the elbows and knees with metal fasteners. The head is comprised of a demure young woman’s photo portrait and the coils of a cocktail whisk, that mimic her curly coif. The mood for the artwork is set by a fragment of sheet music in the composition’s background: “I Feel Pretty,” from West Side Story.

The assemblage invokes the excitement and awkwardness of a grade-school talent competition, and of a girl’s simultaneous pleasure and embarrassment at finding herself the center of attention.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bolton acknowledges that a big percentage of her followers are women.

“That’s my audience. I can look at a photo of a female, and almost know what she might be saying or thinking. But men do get into my art. I’m not ignoring them,” she says.

Like her female subjects, Bolton’s depictions of men include everything but “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails.” Take, for instance, “A Gentleman’s Garden,” which is composed of a collection of painted papers, fabric flowers, mosaic tiles, wrapping paper, a vintage photo and an optical lens. The amalgamation represents a mustachioed gentleman with vivid blue eyes (courtesy of Bolton’s paint brush), a monocle (the optical lens) and a teeming bouquet of multicolored flowers.

While most of the figures that people her work do not represent any particular person, one of the pieces in the show is autobiographical.

“It’s the only one,” Bolton notes.

“The House in Cliffwood” refers to Bolton’s New Jersey birthplace by the sea. A house shape in the assemblage has a roof from which a pair of wings sprout, and a sign that proclaims “SEA.” At lower right is the figure of a woman whose marcelled head, cut from a 1920s portrait photo, looks off into the distance. In the artwork’s left half, a cutout from an even older photo shows three girls’ heads. It is perched atop a column comprised of a strip of paper from a handwritten letter.

The photos are not of her mother and sisters, explains Bolton. They are merely stand-ins for them.

Bolton grew up in New Jersey, one of six siblings (three boys, three girls) raised singlehandedly by their mother. In addition to Cliffwood, the family lived in Elizabeth, N.J., “when I was very young,” says Bolton. The family later moved to Plainfield, N.J., where Bolton did the rest of her growing up.

Because her sisters were so much older than she, Bolton during her childhood was the family’s “little girl.”

“The sister closest in age to me is 13 years older than I am,” says Bolton.

“She was almost like a second mother to me, because of that age difference. When she started working as a teenager, she would buy me little dresses and things like that.”

Meanwhile, Bolton’s mother encouraged her youngest daughter’s artistic leanings at every opportunity.

“She would save boxes and cut doors and windows in them for me. Then I would decorate them with crayons, little paper curtains, and so on.”

Bolton remembers the time her mother presented her with a nice big drawing surface in the guise of an old window shade. After it was rolled out onto the floor for her, young Bolton got busy drawing a town with streets, houses and public buildings. She then made little paper figures to inhabit her town.

Bolton realizes now that her mother was a creative woman, who taught her that art materials were all around her, waiting to be made into something special. In turn, Bolton’s paternal grandfather was a hobbyist painter. Although she was only 3 when her “Daddy Fred” died, Bolton retains an image of him standing at his easel.

Bolton clarifies: “His name was Fred King. I loved him.”

She also loved an already well-loved doll that her mother brought home from the Salvation Army store.

“A previous owner had evidently tried to cut her hair, because it was all choppy. You know how a doll’s eyes would open and close? Hers wouldn’t work together. And for some reason, I named her Cockeyed Careen.”

With a fond smile, Bolton says, “I actually wrote a little vignette about her.”

Just as you are imagining a little girl scrawling her dolly’s story on a half-sheet of lined paper, Bolton giggles.

“I wrote it a few years ago, actually.”

Gazing upon the doll-like figures scattered throughout “The Unbound Imagination,” you can’t help but think about the people whose ancient portraits lend humanity to Bolton’s figures.

The now-anonymous faces were purchased in thrift shops by Bolton for her art’s sake. Long before Bolton made them into eternal artworks, those visages were as alive as the viewers who look upon them today. It is fitting that Bolton has so often attached the faces to symbols of the immortal soul: birds, angels and, in one case, a butterfly.

The largest assemblage in the exhibition, “All Creatures Great and Small,” features three angelic figures, arranged hieratically with the tallest in the middle and her shorter sisters on either side. Each is equipped with a pair of white wings, variously made of feathers, paper strips, and in one case, a congregation of child-sized white communion gloves. The trio could signify the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; imagined separately, they could be Christmas tree toppers.

All the religious references you might see in Bolton’s work “probably comes from my Catholic background,” she says.

Remember Cockeyed Careen, and the vignette Bolton wrote about her?

“I now have grandchildren, and they have dolls. I wrote a memory of my doll, what it felt like to get her, and how much I loved her. Even though she was flawed.”

The Center for Spiritual Care is located at 1550 24th Street in Vero. To make an appointment to see the show, call 772-567-1233.

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