Arts Detour from Wonderland
As the Greenwich artist Margot Bittenbender herself might say, she didn’t go down a rabbit hole to discover Alice in Wonderland as a muse. Instead, she found Alice in Japan, where she lived for years during her own real life journey.
Take “Go Ask Alice (Magical Mushroom Kimono),” one of the prints Bittenbender had in her recent solo show at the Silvermine Art Center in New Canaan. The titular mushrooms are rendered with scientific precision, but the kimono they float over is flattened to near abstraction. Both in turn are framed by a musical score.
“Your remember that song by the Jefferson Airplane, ‘Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know,’ that’s what the music is in the background,” Bittenbender says, paraphrasing the lyrics to “White Rabbit.”
“It’s all based on the kimono and where your imagination can go. The idea is if Alice had gone to a Japanese wonderland, she and the White Rabbit would meet and there would be a different kind of kimono than could be found in Japan or here. So I imagined the kimono in a surreal Japanese wonderland.”
The “Go Ask Alice” kimono belongs to a set Bittenbender had in the Silvermine show. Another, “Kimono for White Rabbit,” shows a Wonderland clock with mixed up hours, some rabbits drawn in the kawaii (Hello Kitty) style popular in Japan, while others are faithful to John Tenniel, the early Alice illustrator.
Altogther Bittenbender had some two dozen Alice or Japanese inspired prints in the show. She made each using a labor intensive intaglio, or etching, process, and loaded each with cross-cultural meaning.
“Go Ask Alice” alone connects the 1960s U.S. music and drug scene with Japan’s centuries old kimono tradition (the actual garments are hung flat, just like her imagined ones) as well as its mushroom cuisine. Then there’s Alice, or what she has become.
“It’s incredible, such serious attention is paid to these books,” says Bittenbender, who belongs to a Lewis Carroll Society. “She just had her 150th anniversary. I see her now as a young girl, almost a woman, who’s very self-possessed and very serious. She doesn’t hesitate to explore or ask questions. Most of the time, she doesn’t get answers, but she keeps trying to understand the surreal world she finds herself in.”
As it was for Alice, so it has been for Bittenbender on her Asian travels. After studying art at Wittenberg University in Ohio, she spent 14 years abroad with her husband, a banker, adopting to different cultures. Her first stay in Japan, when she was a young mother, lasted five years. The second, after they’d settled in Greenwich, lasted two. It was during that stay that Bittenbender began to see Alice as more than a fun story or Disney heroine.
In a contemporary art museum, she bought a Japanese translation of Alice with the original Tenniel illustrations.
“I thought it was kind of cool. Then I started noticing how popular Alice is in Japan, especially with manga and anime artists. They had Alice cafes where the waitresses dressed like Alice. Serious artists do oil paintings of her,” she says.
In a nation where most businesses have a cartoon mascot, Alice is the only western one and has a larger following in general than Anne of Green Gables, another Japanese obsession. “Anne appeals to young women. Alice appeals to everyone,” she says.
Over the years, Bittenbender kept up her art work, including studying and eventually teaching print making at Silvermine. She also taught art at Greenwich’s Parkway Elementary School for 20 years, leading several trips to China. Her retirement in 2012 roughly coincided with her second Japan residency and led to an outburst of creativity.
One of her first important solo shows was at the gallery of the Tokyo American Club, in 2015. The gallery normally exhibits only established local, or Japanese, artists. The intaglio label she puts on most of her prints embraces a tool kit of etching methods. She may begin with a bare copper plate but cover it with a variety of substances into which she will etch an image or pattern. The plate is then dipped a chemical bath, imprinting the etched image into the metal. In the final stages, she may add color or cut paper to the etching.
A favorite etching medium is “soft ground,” a dark asphalt material that she describes as being like Vaseline.
“I think I use it more than most artists. Maybe more than any artist,” she says. “I love the effects. It’s like sealing wax.”
Her studio, including a chemical sink, is in the unfinished basement of her modest home in Old Greenwich. Besides Alice, Bittenbender also has done series of prints based on Mount Fuji and another on Noguchi’s 40-ton Moto Taro stone sculpture at the Storm King Art Center in New York. A series inspired by Oriental puppets and dolls is ongoing.
Her interest in them dates back 20 years and she still seeks them out in village puppet shows during the weeks-long return trips she and her husband make once or twice a year. Some she has collected are quite old.
“I have puppets that have traveled in the villages of western China in the 1940s, where there would be a cart (pulled by itinerant puppeteers). So I figure those puppets have been places I’ve never been,” she says.
“Traditional puppeteers think of their puppets has having souls and they depend on the humans to allow them to speak and have a life. I put dolls in the same category. The doll sits there until the little girl comes along and gives it life and movement.”
Bittenbender feels much the same when she does prints of puppets or dolls.
“I think I’m sort of doing portraits,” she says. She also sees connections between the mysteries embodied in puppets and Alice’s adventures in Wonderland with her own in Japan.
“I’m more interested in things I don’t understand, I guess,” she says. “I thought there are many things in Japanese culture I don’t understand. So I sometimes felt like Alice.”
The artist’s upcoming solo show, “Prints and Photographs by Margot Bittenbender,” is March 3-April 30 at the Mayor’s Gallery, 888 Washington Boulevard, Stamford. An opening reception, from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 20, is free and open to the public.
Joel Lang is a frequent contributor to Sunday Arts & Style.