Dorr Bothwell (1902-2000)
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, 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 Bothwell lived, worked and opened a gallery at the Montgomery Block, that architectural marvel at the heart of the bohemian intellectual life of San Francisco.
In 1928, Dorr Bothwell traveled alone to Ta’u, the easternmost of the Manu’a islands of American Samoa, where she lived for two years doing the block prints, drawings and watercolors she always considered her finest work. After Samoa, Bothwell studied art history and painting in England, France and Germany. She lived in Paris, San Diego, San Francisco, New York, Joshua Tree and Mendocino, traveled and worked in Europe, Asia and Africa, but her bond with the land and the people of Samoa, not least the Samoan family which formally adopted her, was unique, a powerful lifelong source of inspiration, strength and longing.
Although Dorr Bothwell rejected “Surrealism” as descriptive of her art, one can see why the term tempts some of her biographers. Recurring throughout each period in her work, even at its most purely representational, distance and time collapse; the past and present interpenetrate.
Beyond surreal resonances in her work, Bothwell has an historical connection to Surrealism as well.
Dorr Bothwell 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 Bothwell could recall in order, with perfect clarity, fifty-five years later.
Picture Bothwell 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 Bothwell 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 Gala. Not yet released to the public, the film is Un Chien Andalou.
The Great Depression
In addition to continuing work on her own prints and paintings, in the mid-1930s Bothwell was both a muralist for the Federal Arts Project and a ceramics designer for Gladding McBean where the artist’s small decorative ceramic pieces were distinguished by her attention to full presentation in the round.
World War II
During WWII Bothwell’s flatmate was artist Tammis Keefe. Some of their adventures are chronicled in an illustrated journal Bothwell kept in 1942, now in the Archives of American Art.
In 1961, over a year after Bill Zacha’s initial invitation, Dorr Bothwell came to Mendocino. Zacha and Bothwell had never met before she came to teach at the Mendocino Art Center, but their connection was immediate and profound. In Dorr Bothwell Bill Zacha found his mentor and each found in the other a life-long friend.
So intent was Bill Zacha on making Dorr Bothwell comfortable in Mendocino that he custom-tailored a combination home and studio space for her at the corner of Kasten and Albion Streets and later built her a studio with living space overlooking his rose garden behind the Bay Window Gallery. Although Bothwell often repaired to her desert studio in Joshua Tree during Mendocino’s cold, wet Mendocino winters, briefly relocated to the Arizona desert, and continued her far-flung travel adventures into her nineties, she always returned to Mendocino.
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 paintings 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 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 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 stories of art, adventure, and philosophy, better told, in her oral history Dorr Bothwell: Straws in the Wind: An Artist’s Life as told to Bruce Levene. Don’t miss it.
– Carol Goodwin Blick (2017)
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.