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The Lath Hunter: Artist Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels

The Lath Hunter: Artist Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels

For Serra Victoria Bothwell Fels, creating art begins as a subversive adventure. A typical day begins at night, dumpster-diving in gentrified housing development areas in search for discarded wood. And not just any wood. After years of rummaging, Bothwell Fels developed a predilection for lath—the thin strips of pine to support the plaster in walls before the invention of sheet rock. Even with unlimited resources, she would still choose to use archaic this material. “I like the process of using something that already exists in the world and not having to make more of something. I like the distress that happens on lath that I don’t make, that is there from happenstance and circumstance.” In a sense, her work inherits the history already accumulated in the wood. This history, along with the greater human history, becomes an important element in her work.

Bothwell Fels’ studio is located in Harlem on 125th Street, east of Broadway, towards the Hudson River. The first time I met her, it was dusk, on an unusually warm fall day. I was deciphering barely legible stenciled numbers on the doors of industrial buildings near where her studio is located when I heard my name called from the street: “Are you Debra?” Bothwell Fels was in the back of an old ‘93 navy blue Chevy pickup truck perched on a stack of wood. Her warm smiling face was framed by a tousled steampunk hairstyle—waist-length brown ringlets that turned into matted dreadlocks at the ends. If I squinted, she looked like a cameo silhouette from the late 1800s. Dressed in burnt orange harem pants and a dark green fitted tank top, Bothwell Fels hopped down from the back of the truck in one swoop, landing barefoot on the sidewalk. “Hiya!” She shook my hand enthusiastically.

The loft building housing her studio was unbearably hot; the heat in the building had been turned on early for the season. While walking along the maze of an old factory-building-turned-artists’-studio, Bothwell Fels greeted fellow artists, apologizing profusely for not being in touch; her phone was lost a few days ago. “You lost your phone again?” one of the artists called out incredulously. She flashed a guilty smile, giggled, and kept walking down the hallway, her long ringlets bouncing enthusiastically as she walked. Her latest Instagram post was an image of one of her artworks, an inverted pyramidal white block letter message: Sorry I lost my / phone I can’t / text you / back.

Bothwell Fels poured us water in makeshift glasses from mix-and-match pasta sauce jars. She told me about her acceptance to the Columbia University MFA program. However, it is her choice to pursue undergraduate degrees in social psychology and political science that is perhaps more revealing of the underlying essence of the supporting theories and motivation behind her work.

Inspired by the family systems theory, which suggests that a familial emotional unit is both interconnected and interdependent, and Bothwell Fels expresses this idea through her art. “I started representing families, parents, grandparents, and it got exponentially huge really quickly,” she says, “We are made up of thousands of people that came before us. Two hundred years ago, there were 168 people walking around that now make up each of us. That, to me, is mind-boggling. So then I started representing it with triangles. Basically, we are conglomerations of the thousands of people that came before us.”

Over the course of several years she has transitioned her love of social phycology into bold installation art forms. To express this her signature style has become a system of equilateral – or Sierpinski – triangles, in which she places one triangle inside but slightly on top of the other, creating the illusion of three dimensions. She then fuses this set to another grouping of triangles. Her finished work creates a relationship between the art and the walls in which it is built on, in, and around. Her art depends — or rather, feeds — on existing structures.

Her latest installation, Crystal Cavern, at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, is an inviting piece that fills a corner of the gallery. It is inspired by the Cave of Crystals in Mexico, which houses 40-foot-long crystals. Made entirely of wooden triangles, the installation appears from the outside to be comprised of a futuristic wall and small doorway that leads into a small room or cave. The smallish opening requires one to acquiesce to the experience before entering. This moment, when one decides to participate with art, is the true magic of Bothwell Fels’ work. Her world is a treehouse, and she invites us to play.

Crystal Cavern at Pioneer Works draws quite a bit of attention. One woman was so enamored by the installation she touched the outside and looked through the doorway several times. Bothwell Fels called out to her, “You can go in.” The woman looked up and laughed, realizing that we had seen her admiration and hesitation. In the same moment, David Sheinkopf, the Director of Education for Pioneer Work, almost flew past us in a frenzy to get to another event in the gallery. He stopped and hugged Bothwell Fels, then pointed to Crystal Caverns and said, “We are all really loving this world that you have created here.”
Bothwell Fels is always amused with how people interact with Crystal Caverns. She recounted one instance after a long evening event in which she saw a man’s feet sticking out of the doorway. Apparently he had passed out in the work after a night of partying. She let him sleep.

Because the wood she uses is reclaimed and often found in dumpsters, it is essentially free. This creates a unique relationship between herself and her medium. She doesn’t simply go into a store and purchase materials as an oil painter would; she has to find her medium, and scouting, chance, and charm are required long before the art-making begins. Bothwell Fels seeks out areas being gentrified, often in Brooklyn. “I drive around in my truck to source the lumber. I had no budget, so by necessity I drive around looking for things I could reuse that nobody else wants.” She values the history that the wood lends.

The topic of gentrification is often controversial; people love independent coffee shops but hate rising rents. However, gentrification is no stranger to Bothwell Fels; not only does it provide the medium for her art but it also is a sign that she too will have to move out of her affordable rent. “In the seven years I have lived in New York, I have managed to gentrify myself out of about six neighborhoods. So I know at this point that as soon as I can buy kombucha at the corner store I have about six months before I can no longer afford to live in the neighborhood. But I really like those six months; it’s really nice to be able to buy kombucha.”

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