Arts & Culture

Bottling light: Artist Catherine Edgerton shifts lens of mental health

Artist Catherine Edgerton is working on stained-glass kaleidoscopes in her home studio for her upcoming exhibit "Bottled Light" exploring mental health through books, drawings, and stained-glass kaleidoscopes.
Artist Catherine Edgerton is working on stained-glass kaleidoscopes in her home studio for her upcoming exhibit "Bottled Light" exploring mental health through books, drawings, and stained-glass kaleidoscopes. The Herald-Sun

Artist Catherine Edgerton started making stained glass kaleidoscopes the year she stopped drinking.

“I was leading a pretty extroverted, chaotic life, and stopping drinking was kind of a shock. Making kaleidoscopes was a way of exploring solitude, and experimenting with light,” she said. That was in 2014.

Edgerton went on long walks with her dog, Harvey Sue, a pit bull and black Labrador mix. Walking near train tracks, she found pieces of glass from broken bottles and “all these transculent treasures.” Seven of her kaleidoscopes — as well as 19 prints of collages — will be part of a new exhibit “Bottled Light” going up at The Carrack Modern Art gallery. It opens April 12. The exhibit is about “exploring mental health in an insane society through books, drawings and stained glass kaleidoscopes.” The prints on display are of pages in three books of writings, collage and drawings she has done. Edgerton has never sold a kaleidoscope — instead she gives them away to people dealing with mental health or addiction. The Carrack exhibit will be her first solo show as an artist.

Harvey is a friendly dog, happy to greet visitors to Edgerton’s garage-turned-studio. She moved in to the house in an area of downtown a decade ago when rents were still cheap, and fixed it up herself and with the help of friends. She was born and raised in Durham. On Tuesday, she was putting finishing touches on hanging boxes that will display the kaleidoscopes. A few are borrowed from those she gifted, a few are new creations.

“I’m always looking for anything you can hold up to the light and see through,” Edgerton said. That’s both in life and stained glass kaleidoscopes.

“I’ve always given them away,” she said. Edgerton said seeing the reactions of kaleidoscope recipients “gives me total, authentic joy.” Some of the glass is from a beach of seaglass in California. She’s heading out to California again soon to work on a sailboat for 10 days, and her work at sea shows up in some of her artwork, too. She has also worked on a scuba diving charter. One of the collage books ends with a painting of a sailboat.

Before Edgerton quit drinking and went on those walks with her dog, she wrestled alligators. Her uncle Vic taught her how to pick up a young alligator in a Georgia river one night, and was surprised that she did it so easily. He had told her you have to face your demons before you can become an alligator wrestler. Edgerton took that to mean drinking alcohol, so she decided then to stop. Her life at the time including spending a lot of time on tour in her then-band, Midtown Dickens. After she quit drinking, she kept playing in bands and working in bars, but ended up stopping that, too. There was no big event to her decision to stop drinking — unless you count wrestling an alligator on a dark Georgia night.

Harvey Sue, Edgerton’s pedestrian canine companion, was also her shepherd during that time in her life. He helped her know when it was time to leave her room and go on those walks.

“That addiction stuff is so tied up to mental health and can be a symptom and a cause,” she said. “What’s overlooked in society is the gift of neuro-diversity.” She has been involved with the Durham Artist Movement’s Art Asylum group that has helped to reduce isolation and lean into creative gifts, she said, instead of criminal or patient stigmas.

Edgerton hopes that people who see “Bottled Light” leave with a sense that there are people and communities actively working to shift the lens of culpability with mental health from the individual to the system, she said.

While Edgerton’s creating of art has increased the past five years, that wasn’t when she started. She has bookshelves lined with collage books she has made since sixth grade. Art and writing has always been part of her life, she just hadn’t shared it before. People were asking her to share it, she said, and now she is.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

GO & DO:

WHAT: “Bottled Light: Work by Catherine Edgerton” exhibit

WHEN: April 12-23. Opening reception 6-9 p.m. April 14.

WHERE: The Carrack Modern Art

947 E. Main St., Durham