Visit with family of Catherine Bastian - Dubuque area "ham can" grotto artist

A few weeks ago on my way driving back from a bathtub-grotto demonstration at the Antique Spectacular Show in Cedar Falls I spotted a stunning construction on the front lawn of an old farm house of Highway 20 while passing through the tiny town of Earlville, Iowa. Somehow I had driven past this house countless times over the past 5 years or so and never noticed it until now. I left a note in the mailbox asking for more information about the grotto and eventually received calls back from the creator's niece and nephew.  They informed me that their aunt Catherine had created 7 large grottoes like the one I saw in addition to 900 small grottoes made from cans of ham!  This was thrilling news to me because I had purchased a ham-can grotto from Goodwill years ago and despite my best efforts had been unable to find any clues about it's origins. In fact, the little grotto was a major catalyst for my project in the first place, and helped me to connect with my project partner, Tracy, who also owned a ham can grotto. (note: I have been unable to find any of the additional large grottoes, and they may not still be in existence. ) I hope to follow up with the family and potentially do a filmed interview.

Grotto-inspired "sculptures"

These past few months I've been experimenting with making some grotto-inspired sculptures- or as I prefer to call them- '3D collages' with various materials in my home studio. So far, my favorite thing to use is paper mache clay. It's really amazing how strong mulched paper is! I have a lot of pieces in various stages of progression right now. I seem to be unable to work on one piece at a time....One of my goals for this year is to have proper studio space outside of my home. Art has a way of taking up incredible amounts of space! My other goal is to start connecting with galleries.


The challenges of working with extremely heavy materials

I must admit- when I first embarked on this project I had no experience working with concrete, mortar, or bathtubs. I had never picked up a bag of mortar or cement. I had certainly never tried lifting a cast iron bathtub. If i had known how heavy they were, I might have been chickened out.  This is almost embarrassing to write, but I had originally envisioned myself working on the concrete and cast iron grottoes in my second floor apartment studio.  How naive... I thought- what could be so heavy that two grown men can't carry it out? They've carried sofas out!

Oh....How wrong I was...

I thought I would be able to start working on my bathtubs right away- but it became clear as soon as we collected the bathtubs that they were not going upstairs- and since I would be adding hundreds more pounds of weight- it was necessary that I find out where they are going to go before I created a potentially unmovable 700? pound sculpture. I'm used to working on things spontaneously- by myself- wherever I want. This project is very different and I needed to be strategic- I wanted to avoid using my funds to move these objects more often then necessary.

I had always envisioned the bathtub grottoes in Washington Park. It's centrally located downtown between the historical post office and the Dubuque Museum of Art. Washington Park hosts tons of public events throughout the year, including one of Dubuque's biggest arts events, DubuqueFest. I thought maybe this could be a live, public event during DubuqueFest- what better way to ensure tons of visibility and public interaction? Fair-goers could learn about grottoes, donate their own materials to be used in one, and watch one being built- and maybe even help build it. I thought the Dubuque Museum of Art might be a great partner for this project so I approached them with idea and they agreed ! Exciting.

"Washington Park Gazebo Dubuque" by Dirk Hansen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

 

Typically bathtub shrines are buried halfway, vertically, into the ground- but we wanted to avoid the trouble of digging giant holes in public property- especially since at this point we don't officially have permission to keep the bathtubs there past DubuqueFest (I am in the process of applying for a permit to display them for at least a few months after the event).

So my next issue was figuring out how to create some kind of stand for the bathtubs- I was eventually connected with woodworker Tim Hitzler, who also happens to be my neighbor. He agreed to help build wooden stands so the bathtubs could be held upright. In fact, in the process of me writing this blog post Tim texted to me to tell me that the first stand for the first bathtub stand is completed! I am going to be headed over there tomorrow morning to experiment grottifying a chunk of bathtub...wish me luck! I will be posting more details on the materials I decided to use and how everything goes. I'll probably bring my GoPro over to take a time-lapse.