Katherine Bradford's "Fear of Dark"
The past year is one that none of us will soon forget and that will long be remembered by future historians. Kathy Bradford's Fear of Dark, created during the summer of 2020, captures that moment of confusion and doubt, while also reflecting on the power of the personal connections that sustained us. We at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art are honored to add it to our collection, thanks to the generosity of Barbara and David Roux.
Painter Kathy Bradford splits her time between New York (Williamsburg, Brooklyn) and Brunswick, Maine, and is known for her bold, colorful canvases, many of which evoke quasi-dreamscapes often with rich metaphorical overtones. She has received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim, Joan Mitchell and Pollock-Krasner foundations and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and her work has been widely exhibited and collected by leading art institutions.
Created here in Brunswick during the summer of 2020, Fear of Dark is part of a series of paintings playfully known as "lap sitters." The first of these works, a small gouache, was developed during the artist's quarantine upon returning to Maine in the early spring of 2020. What was to be a painting of three people-perhaps evoked by the artist's thinking about her two adult children who were in regular touch-became an image of three people sitting on a lap. As Bradford ruminated on the imagery she had produced, she thought: "Maybe that's where we want to be, on mother's lap, a place of comfort."
As one critic has noted the sitter in the first work in the series merges with the chair. And indeed, it's interesting that the English language itself intermingles chairs with the human bodies they support. A chair, after all, has "legs," a "back," and "arms," just like people. In the hands of Kathy Bradford, then, the chair becomes a part of each of us, or perhaps, she suggests, each of us has the capacity to become a chair-a rock-a source of support to others who are in need of rest and of nurturing.
Returning to the BCMA's Fear of Dark, I cannot help but think of the childhood fears that emerge in the night, the specters and spooks that grow out of creaks and bangs produced by sources the young cannot readily identify. It is uncertainty, then, about that which we don't know—or which we can't control—that leads us to flee to a parent, or a loved one, for comfort. While Fear of Dark may recall the vulnerability of youth, it also requires that we confront the challenging uncertainties and demands of our world as adults. This includes not only the path of a dangerous virus, but also the burden of history. Implicit in the title Fear of Dark is an intriguing double-entendre. Calling to mind the unsettling experience of literal and metaphorical obscurity—or a lack of clarity—Bradford's painting also forces us to acknowledge the devastating reality of embedded racism, so long hidden from the view of, or overlooked by, White individuals. As Bradford has noted: "The title 'Fear of Dark' grew out of my belief that not only were we fearful of the future which newscasters had termed 'dark' but that there was also an intense racial divide." As she recalls, demonstrations demanding recognition that Black Lives Matter swelled during the summer of 2020 in the wake of ongoing violence against Black individuals, epitomized by the murder of George Floyd.
Even as we turn our attention to these solemn challenges, and contemplate both the uncertainties and the responsibilities that darkness may convey, the painting also brings to mind the points of brightness that may emerge during darkness. One such sign of this may be the stars that seem to be present in this canvas, hovering over the bodies of the three sitters. This may in turn serve as a reminder that the best anecdote for any "fear of dark" is to shine light on that which seems puzzling or foreign, to confront it, and to take action to move forward.
Looking still closer at Fear of Dark another intriguing detail emerges. Rather than the largest figure serving as an anchor on which the others rest, it is, instead, the smallest—possibly the youngest—that undergirds the group, with feet well planted. As Bradford has mused: "It seems to me that if you go and sit on someone's lap for a little while that eventually you will be the one to provide the lap." As we reflect on Bradford's powerful observation, might we recognize it is not only the young who are reassured by their parents, but adults who may in turn find comfort in the commitment to change on the part of the next generation and by their very vision for the future? As the Co-Director of a campus museum, where we have the privilege of regularly working with and learning from many emerging leaders, I know that is the case.
Anne Collins Goodyear
Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art
Illustration: Lap Sitters, 2020, gouache, collage on paper by Katherine Bradford. 15 × 11 inches (38.10 × 27.94 cm