On 14 May 2021, I met with my colleague Bradley Borthwick, one of the artists invited to participate in the L.C. Bates 2021 summer exhibition, for which he expressly created a marble relief. Borthwick’s practice transcends genres as it melds materials such as stone, metal, wood, but also leather and beeswax, and involves performative and conceptual dimensions, which are grounded on an insightful engagement with critical issues. His work maintains a remarkable balance between form and meaning and engages in compelling ways with this issue’s theme, addressing questions of history, memory, tradition, but also of ecology and materiality.
VP: Bradley, It’s a thrill that you accepted the invitation to participate in the L.C. Bates summer exhibition. Full disclosure: I suggested that Whitney White and Carissa Yang, the two Colby students who curated the show under my supervision, contact you because I thought your work would fit wonderfully with the theme of Marks and Tracks and this is also why I wanted to interview you for this issue of the Maine Arts Journal.
First of all, I’d love it if you could tell us more about the piece you created for the exhibition.
BB: There is an element of serendipity here. Having an option to participate in a show that is themed is actually, to be honest, tricky. For me, it’s challenging because I’m not creating work towards a given theme; I am creating work that I create—I have my own ongoing “theme.”
VP: That is exactly why I thought you would fit so well!
BB: This one was seamless. And it was timely because for some time I’ve had this beautiful slab of marble and I’ve been hoping to carve a couple of reliefs. I’ve been waiting for the right moment and so your invitation to the show was that catalyst! I realized that “this makes sense now; I’ve got to do this.” And it’s always great to have a deadline. Beyond the perfect timing, there was the convergence of what I am typically doing anyway with this particular theme, Marks and Tracks, in terms of stone carving. For me, it’s not so much how I pursue that method or that material, but more about how I observe stone carving from the past.
VP: Those reliefs you mentioned are from the Ara Pacis Augustea (Altar of Augustean Peace), right? Tell us why you drew inspiration from this ancient monument, built in the 1st century BCE to celebrate the first Roman Emperor, Augustus.
BB: I had returned to Rome thanks to a Colby Humanities Division grant shortly after I started here. That was my second time to Rome—it had been about a decade since my first visit. I had initially gone to the site [of the Ara Pacis] in 2004 and went back to see it again in 2014. That second visit for me ended up becoming this photo documentation, not of the whole altar, but of these many details. And in terms of marks and tracks, there is this reminder that, “everything I’m looking at here was carved more than 2,000 years ago and bears the marks of certain chisels which is no different from what’s going to be left of what I’m carving today.” And so, part of this particular relief carving is meant to introduce a certain kind of remnant chiseling—“unfinished surfaces”—as I saw them on a structure that was obviously built for a very important person [chuckles] who would have been at his zenith. And yet, even with that importance, there’s . . . what is it? . . . an aesthetic choice to leave some of these tool marks, whether it’s the culture of the making at that time or whether it’s something technical, leaving a dog-tooth chisel pattern is going to throw light and bounce more shadows. And I am recognizing that patterning in the midst of a structure that is probably more than 90 percent rebuilt in a concrete mix. So, in that sense, in terms of marks and tracks, when you have so little of the original structure and its details and its carvings and its motifs, it makes me think of how, two millennia later, so little remains of all of the intent that was put here! In a broader philosophical thought, what kinds of marks and tracks are we leaving behind? What will endure? I think I’ve always found that to be most fascinating.
This particular carving is a relief of the wing from an eagle—that imperial symbol—but not the whole eagle. When I emailed my parents an image of the carving, one of the questions from my mom was, “well, so what is it? It’s just this one wing, where’s the rest of the bird?” I replied that “the rest of the bird doesn’t exist as far as I know. I’m making a record of what I’ve found.” All of this is diluted, weathered, and softened over time and impact. When I start to recreate that given detail, what I have in front of me is crisp: the edges are intact. This is when the endorphins start and I think to myself, “this is probably what this thing looked like originally.” That’s probably a bit of ego, right? As I keep working, I then start to question why I’m keeping to that accuracy, why don’t I start softening it, why don’t I just mimic the remnant as it is? I start to play with those thoughts and it can be a bit conflicting. In terms of marks and tracks, there is a set of decisions: do I go after the way it would have been, or do I believe in a different mark and recreate it as it currently is? And, am I misrepresenting this detail with what I’m doing? That’s a tough question.
VP: What you do and what you think about is so close to the kind of issues I’m interested in, it’s amazing! One thing you’ve been talking about is how we relate to the past, and when you have an artifact, a building or an object, and you want to bring it back to its original state—what is the original state? My favorite example is how at one point, the Colosseum in Rome was filled with medieval houses. You remove the medieval houses to have the original Colosseum, but, wait a minute, medieval houses are old! So then, when you are recreating a fragment, do you copy the way it is now, or do you bring it back to the past? One thing you said, which I think is remarkable, is how by making, you get in touch with the past. You quickly added “That’s probably a bit of ego”—but no! I think when making, you’re retracing the steps of the people who originally carved that relief.
A few other thoughts: as you said, it’s part of an eagle, the rest doesn’t even exist, so you’re really talking about a fragment. This connects with the idea of ruins, which invariably makes me think about what Florens Deuchler, my professor of medieval art history in Geneva [Switzerland] used to say: that we work on ruins, we work on fragments of the past. So, in fact, this is at the root of why I thought you would be so perfect for the show, I see that so much of what you do is about relating to the past and, in a way, it’s also about marks and tracks—or even, about marks and tracks as a way of relating to the past. So, for instance, I immediately thought about your three-year-long project, Flodden: The Mote of Locherwart, in which you went to Scotland, and right next to Borthwick castle, on the ancestral land of the Borthwicks, you shot arrows. It seems to me—and you tell me if you agree with my reading—that with that performance piece, you were doing several very moving things. First and foremost, you were dealing with history, going back to the place where your ancestors lived. But then, by shooting those arrows, you were marking the landscape. I would say that by that particular action in that particular place, you were reflecting on how this place was itself inscribed with the history of your family. It’s interesting, by the way, that you were using English longbows, which is what gave the English the advantage during the Hundred Years’ War. And you were telling me that Borthwick castle went back to the 15th century, so it’s of that time, isn’t it?
BB: Yes, of the hundreds of battles recorded historically in several hundred years, the battle of Flodden was in 1513, so not even a full century of our particular place. And this is, mind you, the borderlands between Scotland and England. From what I have learned studying that area, so many of the skirmishes and battles took place on either side of that border, which actually corresponded to Hadrian’s wall. But then, 1513 was Flodden, and that’s when a significant number of the Borthwick lineage met their demise because the English employed the longbow.
VP: You had someone in England make the longbows for you, right?
BB: I made the bows and the strings.
VP: Didn’t you work with someone at some point?
BB: I was initially taught. I attended a workshop years ago led by a German, who had worked on various archeological digs with, I believe, the University of Münster. I met him in Colorado of all places, that’s where he had landed. He would recreate various period wares from remnants found in digs. He held a workshop on the English longbow, which I attended. Then, I pursued it on my own for the bows and the strings—the strings are so complicated and require a kind of fingertip dexterity that I don’t have. But they’re the most critical part: if you don’t have a string, you don’t have bow inflection. The arrows, you’re right: I have made dozens of arrows in my own time, but for that project, given the sheer quantity that I needed, I did.
VP: You sourced it out.
BB: The amazing thing is there are small companies dotted around England who still do this, mostly for the film industry. I placed an order for 360 arrows. That was just working backward through my budget: that’s what I could afford, [laughs] because they’re not inexpensive. They sent them up to Borthwick castle from England. The biggest issue was loading the longbows onto an airplane [to be shipped from the US to Scotland]: they had to be put in a special case with a special lock so the TSA could check them out—it was nerve-wracking.
So back to all of that. I think it was close to five hours of loosening arrows. I had to take regular breaks due to physical fatigue, but also because a string would slacken. There’s this really interesting moment: initially, the archer’s body is good—you feel strong, you’re not tired, the lactic acid hasn’t built up yet—but the bow is cold and hasn’t warmed up. As it gets used, the wood starts to perform better. So there’s this moment when it all feels great because both the body and the bow are warm and pliable, and the string remains in proper tension.
VP: That’s where you need a little squire to warm up your bow.
BB: [Laughs] I know! I remember that time being maybe 20 minutes, with arrows landing from 150 yards within a space of maybe 50, 60 square feet, which is pretty phenomenal. Not to mention that I was down in the adjacent valley shooting arrows up into the slope below the walls of the castle, and there was a hedgerow of trees between me and the landing zone. The release of arrows was all done blind, by muscle memory.
Those arrows then stayed there and that was the installation. They were in the ground for half a year until I went back in late spring to collect them and ship them back—I retrieved every single arrow except one that was missing. [Both laugh] Somebody’s got a souvenir! Of course, they weathered and are now completely defunct. They are warped, damaged, the fletching is in terrible shape, the arrowheads rusted. Those “artifacts” are now what I can display along with a film that documented the entire event.
VP: It’s fascinating because what you’re talking about is first a performance with a video of it, then it becomes land art with an installation, then you collect the arrows and you exhibit them. At that point, the arrows are showing the marks left by weather and time. By the way, speaking of marks and tracks, I was thinking that what you were saying about the battle of Flodden is fascinating because it took place at a border. And what is a border, but a line that marks the landscape. You can think about how arrows can go across such lines. Even in warfare, when there’s not an actual border, there’s the enemy line.
BB: Every arrow is this trajectory, it’s this line from point A to point B through space.
VP: And into space—that spot where they all gathered.
BB: It was an odd feeling once all the arrows were removed, looking back to the Borthwick battlement, how vacant it seemed.
VP: Even though you didn’t make every single arrow, they were your arrows that were occupying that space as the result of your actions. Along with the physicality you described, I see this as proof of your fundamental interest in materiality. You are an absolutely phenomenal stone carver. I know of people who were first fooled into thinking that your 2013 piece titled Monolith (Slumber) was carved by machine! Can you talk about your material choices, and maybe reflect on how this might tie in with the idea of mark making, and also about the idea of time inscribing materials, which you touched upon when describing the arrows after their time spent in the field . . .
BB: As they weather, for sure. There’s this part of my practice that has developed over the years, where the final work and its installation is about remaining in situ, in hard-to-reach areas. Most people might think, “why would you do that? There’s no audience, this thing is tucked away”—but that’s the point: the object is meant to be found, there’s got to be a reason to try to find it or happen upon it, be surprised by it. Because then, with that element of discovery—back to marks and tracks—I see a parallel to when I’m looking at these ancient monuments and I am registering with those marks of tools on the material. That’s why my materials palette is somewhat . . . I don’t like the word traditional . . . relatively simple or small. Stone, right from undergraduate time, when my extraordinary sculpture professor, Mr. John Fillion, introduced the class to carving stone, when for the first time I got into this material and there was simply a response. And because of that response, all these years later I can say that I’m at my best when I’m carving stone—when I’m in front of a block of stone I lose track of time, I very quickly empty my mind, I forget about feeling hungry. There’s just this relationship with the material. Which then means that if I’m carving marble, for example, I’m actually at my best in terms of my relationships with people around me, with my family, with my students. I am constantly being reminded of what I’m asking my students to do; if I’m away from the work, I can forget that, and my demands of them can become dishonest.
VP: What you are describing reminds me of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Have you heard of him?
VP: Hungarian with an impossible name. He’s a psychologist. And he’s the guy who coined the concept of “flow.” We can talk about that one day, but it’s pretty much what you are describing. It’s the feeling you experience when you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing. That’s why people have said that what he really works on is happiness. And so not surprisingly, when you get to experience flow, when you’re carving, then, as you said, you’re easier to live with and are more attuned to your students.
BB: I sleep better.
VP: Well, there you go! It’s interesting because when you carve, you are fully in the present and yet, earlier, you were explaining how when you were carving the relief from the Ara Pacis, you were reconnecting with the artists who carved the monument 2,000 years ago.
BB: Speaking of carving and of marks and tracks, Monolith (Slumber), the big marble sphere in Colorado, was the most physically engaging project I’ve pursued—several months, cutting and shaping by hand with a saw and a bush hammer. The bush hammer is quite heavy over time as you swing with both arms all day. That’s how you can find the perfect sphere. There’s this relationship of the outer circumference to the center of that sphere that your mind starts to register. I was in the best “physical shape” of my life—I built a new musculature in my arms and shoulders doing this.
VP: The action left a mark on your body.
BB: Similarly, when I woke up the next morning after loosening all those arrows at the Borthwick castle, I was completely sore. And my left forearm, even though I wore a leather sleeve, was one big bruise because of the bowstring’s impact.
VP: So not only did you place your body in that ancestral site, but you brought back from it marks on your body, that bear witness to your actions. To go back to Monolith: after you carved it, you brought the sphere back to the quarry where it came from. In a way there’s a parallel with the Battle of Flodden project, in both cases, something happened in situ with things brought and removed—a back and forth. But in opposite directions: the arrows were brought, left there for a while, and then removed; the block of stone was extracted, taken away to be carved, and brought back. Not an easy task, by the way!
BB: No, not an easy task. And throughout it, I kept wondering if I was maybe outside of my own parameters? Financially, a significant Canada Council for the Arts grant afforded both the block of marble and the freight back and forth, all expensive because you’re dealing with specialists and special equipment.
VP: And transporting something very heavy!
BB: That was an 11-ton block of marble. I figured by the time I was done, I was probably still at close to 9.5/10 tons of material that had to be trucked through the Rocky Mountains, back to the quarry. On the day it arrived, the quarry workers took the afternoon off to move my sphere from the loading zone down in the valley, up this winding road into the mountain, back to the quarry, and then, using all of their big equipment, placed it on this ledge. Since then, the cavern of that vein of the quarry has been abandoned and it fills up with water.
VP: Is the sphere still there?
BB: Oh yes, and that’s the point.
VP: I couldn’t fail to notice that the block came from a vein in that quarry (and went back to it), a mark of sorts that runs through the rock, and since the same word refers to the vessels that carry blood through the body, we get this image of the stone as something surprisingly alive. Now, this makes me think about the very beautiful and thought-provoking observations you make in your statement for the L.C. Bates show in which you talk about stone as a material and its formation over millennia. It also makes me think of what you were mentioning earlier, of how the Ara Pacis shows the ravages of time and how some areas were restored with cement fillers: these different materials correspond to different moments in time. And then, there’s the story you told me about the crack that appeared as you were carving the relief for the show and that kept getting bigger, as if you were handling living matter.
BB: Yes, it has broken. I’ve stopped working because I have to make a repair before I can continue—otherwise, the fracture will make its way across, and then I’ll have two pieces of stone.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1990.
Image at top: Bradley Borthwick, Ara Pacis, Vermont Olympia white marble, 20.5 x 31 x 1.5 in., 2021.