Archive of the Mendocino Heritage Artists
Dorr Bothwell (1902-2000)
DORR Bothwell: AN OVERVIEW
Sometimes by chance, more often by courageous intuition, where ever Dorr Bothwell found herself, she was at the creative center of her times, and unselfconsciously moving ahead of them.
Straws in the Wind
I follow straws in the wind, and that’s how I came to Mendocino. A friend of mine from art school, whom I hadn’t seen for twenty five years, recommended me to Bill Zacha. I was busy, so I recommended Hilda Pertha to Bill, and she came…later I taught a summer course at the Art Center and fell in love with the place. All the wood, for example, really excited me, the wonderful gray wooden fences. I did a whole series of close-ups of the wood, all the grains and knotholes, and when it was shown in San Francisco, it sold out. The very tempo of living here has influenced my art. I think there is a magic in this place, something very special that people call a kind of ‘power center’, like Mount Shasta, and I think that this was the moving spirit of Bill Zacha, that remarkable catalyst. – Dorr Bothwell, Arts & Entertainment Magazine, Mendocino, California, May 1989
A native San Franciscan, Dorr Bothwell remembered her crib rolling across the floor during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and she remembered the chaos in the city streets in its aftermath.
In her twenties Dorr lived, worked and opened a gallery at the Montgomery Block, that architectural marvel, so long at the heart of the bohemian intellectual life of San Francisco. She returned to the Montgomery Block for several years during World War II.
In 1928, Dorr used a small inheritance to travel alone to Ta’u, the easternmost of the Manu’a islands of American Samoa, where she lived for two years. She made her home with the chief and his wife, who formally adopted her into their family. There she learned the traditional dances, and how the local textiles were made, and there she created the block prints, drawings, watercolors and oil paintings that she always considered her finest work.
After Samoa, Dorr studied art history and painting in England, France and Germany. She lived in Paris, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Joshua Tree, northern Arizona, and Mendocino, traveled and worked in Europe, Asia and Africa, but her bond with the land and the people of Samoa, not least her Samoan family, was unique, a powerful lifelong source of inspiration, strength and longing.
Dorr Bothwell always called herself a Symbolist, and rejected Surrealism as descriptive of her art, but it’s understandable that the term Surrealist tempts some of her biographers. Recurring throughout each period in her work, often at its most purely representational, distance and time collapse; the past and present interpenetrate.
Beyond surreal resonances in her work, Dorr had an historical connection to Surrealism as well. She tells of a day walking in Paris when she wandered into the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme and found herself stunned, seared, transformed by the power of the images, the first five of which Dorr could recall in order, with perfect clarity, fifty-five years later. After Dorr described the exhibiton, she told me of the dreamlike experience that followed.
Picture Dorr after the Exposition as she meanders through the city, seeing only the images behind her eyes, until her attention is caught by an open doorway slightly below the level of the street. A woman is standing in the doorway; she makes herself understood, invites Dorr to come down the steps to watch a film. The price is a franc or two. The seating is an assortment of kitchen chairs. A few others have gathered. The woman is the legendary Gala. Not yet released to the public, the film is Un Chien Andalou.
The Great Depression
In addition to her painting, in the first part of the 1930s Dorr opened the Bothwell Cooke Gallery. In late 1930s Dorr worked as a ceramics designer for Gladding McBean where her small decorative ceramic pieces were distinguished by her attention to full presentation in the round. Like so other many starving artists during the Great Depression, from 1936 to 1939 Dorr worked for the Federal Arts Project as a muralist, including designing the ceramic frieze. for the DeAnza Monument in Riverside, California. In addition, she learned serigraphy
Dorr’s work was represented in the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, as were sculptures by her former husband Donal Hord, and her friend Dorothy Cravath. The exhibition’s theme was Pageant of the Pacific, which Dorr’s The Birth of Venus, celebrates with a Samoan conch.
In 1940 Dorr was commissioned to paint The Story of Manning’s Coffee, a series of murals for one of the Manning’s coffee shops in downtown San Francisco. She stayed in the city after the job was done.
World War II
During WWII Dorr’s flatmate at the Montgomery Block was young textile designer Tammis Keefe. Some of their adventures are chronicled in an illustrated journal Dorr kept during February and March of 1942, immediately after the United States declared the war on Japan. The journal is now in the Dorr Bothwell collection at the Archives of American Art.
For years Dorr taught color theory at the San Francisco Art Institute.
In 1961, over a year after Bill Zacha’s initial invitation, Dorr Bothwell came to Mendocino. Bill and Dorr had never met before she came to teach at the Mendocino Art Center, but their connection was immediate and profound. In Dorr, Bill found a mentor, and each found a life-long friend in the other.
Bill was so intent on making Dorr comfortable in Mendocino that he custom-tailored a combination home and studio space for her at the corner of Kasten and Albion Streets.
Later Bill built Dorr a studio with living space overlooking his rose garden behind the Bay Window Gallery.
As Erika Kohr Island has written, “Although she alternated between her Mendocino studio and a studio in the Joshua Tree desert during wet Mendocino winters, she continued global travels into her nineties. In Europe or the Asian Pacific, in Southwestern deserts or in the tiny coastal village of Mendocino, wherever she went, heart and eyes always wide open, Dorr Bothwell created her art, and it was in her artwork that she made her true home.”
We owe thanks to batik artist Monica Hannasch, Dorr’s close friend since the 1950s, for editing and publishing Dorr Bothwell’s African Sketchbook (2000). This handful of vibrant sketches is the only surviving record of the many sketches Dorr made during her travels in Africa in the 1960s.
Many artists might work from photographs, but Dorr worked only from her sketches. We are fortunate that the Archive has photos of artwork – serigraphs, and at least one oil painting – based on the African sketches. In addition, the Mendocino Art Center offers a number of Dorr’s beautiful African serigraphs for sale.
Dorr Bothwell left her unique imprint on Mendocino and, as with so many who come to Mendocino, Mendocino also left its mark on her. A brief biography on the website of her longtime dealer, the Tobey C. Moss Gallery, alludes to a change in focus which coincides with Dorr Bothwell’s move to Mendocino: “A thread of surreality and abstraction is observed in her paintings of the late 1920s through the 1950s, overtaken by her irrepressible gusto for life and nature.”
That “irrepressible gusto” produced the vibrant collages, the serigraphs, the paintings of Mendocino cats and fences, and the large format metaphysical artwork of Dorr Bothwell’s last forty years.
In addition to her art, Dorr Bothwell’s Mendocino legacy includes half a century as a gifted teacher of painting, serigraphy, collage, color theory and design, including the theory of notan.
First published in 1968, Notan, the Light-Dark Principle of Design was written by Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield. The Dover Books edition of Notan is available from Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino.
Bothwell’s teaching credits include the California School of Fine Arts (1944-1948), the San Francisco Art Institute, the Parsons School of Design in New York, the Inner London Educational Authority and the Ansel Adams Yosemite Workshops where she taught Composition and Design for Photographers. In four decades teaching at the Mendocino Art Center, with insight and unstinting generosity, Dorr Bothwell mentored generations of younger artists.
An innovator in the use of serigraphy as a fine art medium, Dorr Bothwell also produced major work in painting and collage. Her work is in public collections worldwide, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the United States Library of Congress, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Georgia, the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Bishop Museum, the Crocker Gallery in Sacramento, the San Diego Museum of Fine Art, the Achenbach Collection of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums, and the former San Francisco Museum of Art, now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).
Note: This is barebones Bothwell. If you stop here, you will be the poorer for it. Dorr Bothwell has shared more – and better told – stories of art, adventure, and philosophy, in her oral history Dorr Bothwell: Straws in the Wind: An Artist’s Life as told to Bruce Levene. The complete digital text is available to read here. Don’t miss it.
Carol Goodwin Blick, Archivist
The Mendocino Heritage Artists
Dorr Bothwell: Chronology, Exhibits, Publications
Dorr Bothwell: Straws in the Wind: an Artist’s Life as Told to Bruce Levene
Dorr Bothwell: Artwork
Dorr Bothwell in Her Own Words
Red Roses for Bill
The Mendocino Heritage Artists
1921-2001 – Dorr Bothwell papers, 1921-2001. Archives of American Art. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/dorr-bothwell-papers-6774
1965 – McChesney Interviews Bothwell, February 27, 1965. Transcript. PDF. Archives of American Art.
Dorr Bothwell Chronology. Tobey C. Moss Gallery
1986 – Doris (Dorr) Hodgson Bothwell, personal history. The Journal of San Diego History, Summer 1986. www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/86summer/bothwell.htm
2000 – Dorr Bothwell, biography with links to images of early work. The Tobey C. Moss Gallery. www.tobeycmossgallery.com/BIOS-bothwell.html
2000 – Dorr Bothwell Memorial page, The Tobey C. Moss Gallery, 2000. www.tobeycmossgallery.com/dorr_bothwell_bio.html
2016 – Dorr Bothwell. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorr_Bothwell
2013 – Dorr Bothwell: Straws in the Wind, An Artist’s life as told to Bruce Levene. Pacific Transcriptions, Mendocino. Print.
2000 – Bothwell, Dorr. Dorr Bothwell’s African Sketchbook. Monica Hannasch, editor. Arti Grafiche Ambrosini – Roma, 2000. Print.
2000 – Oliver, Myrna. “Dorr Bothwell; Painter Lived Nomadic Life.” Los Angeles Times, 21 September 2000: B-8.
1999 – Bowers, Karen. “Dorr Bothwell: Original Prints from Three Decades.” Arts & Entertainment Magazine, March/April 1999. Mendocino Art Center, Mendocino, California. Print.
1999 – Richard, Valliere T. “Dorr Bothwell: Edited Biography.” Arts & Entertainment Magazine, March/April 1999. Mendocino Art Center, Mendocino, California.
1995 – Fort, Ilene Susan. “The Adventurers, the Eccentrics, and the Dreamers: Women Modernists of Southern California”, Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890-1945. Patricia Trenton, editor. ISBN 9780520202030. University of California Press, 1995. Pages 76, 80, 82, 86, 89, 95, 98. Print.
1991 – Bothwell, Dorr and Mayfield, Marlys. Notan: The Dark-Light Principle of Design. ISBN: 048626856X. Dover Publications, 1991. Print.
1981 – Stevenson, Charles. “Local Artists on Avant Garde: Charles Stevenson talks about the onward march of culture and other things related to the avant garde.” Arts & Entertainment Magazine, March 1981. Antonia Lamb, editor. Mendocino Art Center, Mendocino, California. Pages 8, 9. Print.
All works of visual art by Dorr Bothwell are © 2022 The Dorr Bothwell Trust, Mill Valley, California. For permission to reproduce images by Dorr Bothwell, contact
Marlys Mayfield, Trustee, the Dorr Bothwell Trust.