“I don’t find fingernails and belly button lint gross. If other people do, that’s their problem. I find eating meat and littering gross, but I’m faced with it everyday. So what if my materials are a little in-your-face. That’s life.” - Rachel Betty Case
Toenail clippings. Belly button lint. Strands of hair. For most people these would represent the need to spruce up on personal grooming habits. But for Rachel Betty Case, these are mediums for her to make art. Yes, really.
The bright-eyed blonde recently moved to Bethlehem, though her work has been shocking and entertaining people all over the world. At first glance, Rachel looks like the sort of happy, smiley girl-next-door you’d see in a 1950′s film, waving to the neighbors and wearing her boyfriends cardigan sweater.
But this wildly creative woman has been the subject of curiosity and sometimes, just plain mean ridicule. Mixed in with the criticisms and hate mail (see below!) and being featured on blogs like Regretsy and D-listed, she has found support among national and international art communities, radio shows, has sold work at the infamous Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, and will even be featured in the UK edition of National Geographic Kids magazine this month.
Rachel makes Human Ivory, sculptures and fine jewelry from finger- and toenails. Inside tiny bottles live small smiling teddy bears made from belly button lint. She uses her needlepoint skills to skip over the Home Sweet Home and instead craft a two-headed skeleton.
Read on to learn about the happy and humble life of a girl that stirs up craft fairs across the land.
You recently moved to Bethlehem. Where are you from, what brought you here, and how do you like the Valley so far?
I recently moved to the south-side of Bethlehem from Lopatcong, NJ. I moved here because I knew Bethlehem had a lot of artsy things going on. I enjoy the Indiemade Craft Market, Musikfest, First Fridays, Mayfair, etc. Also because my boyfriend is from Huff’s Church, PA and we wanted to move somewhere in the middle of our hometowns. Bethlehem just seemed obvious.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Probably as playful, unconventional (although I have a very traditional art instruction background), experimental and curious. I’m very inspired by forgotten objects, unusual ideas, and things that make people stutter when they respond to it.
Did you attend art school? Do you belong to any social groups that promote art?
I began my art education at the Delaware College of Art and Design (DCAD) in Wilmington, DE. It was only a 2-year school of very traditional art studies. They taught us oil painting and charcoal from observation and printmaking. I was so terribly happy there and was sad to go.
From there I attended The Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, MD. I felt foolish at MICA in the beginning because I didn’t realize there was so much to learn about art…bookmaking, paper making, molde making and casting, art in nature, digital photography, computer design, etc. Naturally, I took the craziest courses I could including one called “TOYS!” This was one of two monumental moments of my art school career. It was in this class that we studied the act of play….how children play and why we stop playing as adults. We would spend 3 hours in the courtyard to draw hopscotch boards, blow bubbles, try to double-dutch, play tag and drink slushies. This was when I told myself that I would stay youthful and playful, and to let play ooze from my artwork!
The other monumental art school moment was when I took my first papermaking course. I was sitting by myself in the middle of this big city, in a small patch of grass, between two highways where I was completely visible to everyone. I was pounding kozo (the bark from the mulberry tree) into a pulp (literally) with a mallet. I couldn’t help but feel completely liberated! Everyone was in a rush to get where they were going, on cell phones, beeping their horns, getting road rage…and I was just hitting tree bark with a mallet. It was very inspiring for me to have an independent art career. I just knew I’d be having more fun that way.
I finish my undergrad of Fine Art at MICA and stayed to earn my Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT). I’ve put out hundreds of applications and to this day I don’t have a teaching job. For the most part I’ve embraced this time as time to experiment and develop and refine my own body of work.
Your website is called “That Woman Makes Crazy Art”. Was that inspired by a real life event? What are common reactions when people first see your work?
I came up with the name of my website, That Woman Makes Crazy Art, when debuting my artwork at a craft show a few years ago. My work tends to shock most people and I get all sorts of comments, positive and negative. Initially, a lot of people are frightened or grossed out by my work. 9 out of 10 people walk away in disbelief. A few minutes later, after it’s all set in, the same people will return, dragging friends and family behind them saying, “look at this woman’s crazy art!” I figured that although everyone has their opinion about my work (unusual, innovative, interesting, gross, disgusting, etc.) we can all agree on one thing…it is a little crazy.
Were you always drawn to the macabre and somewhat creepy aspect of art?
I wasn’t always drawn to “creepy’ art per se. I was however, drawn to unusual things. Surreal art was always an interest of mine. It was in a bookmaking class I took that I started to realize the beauty in everyday things. One assignment was to make a BSO (Book-shaped object). A BSO is an object that resembles a book because it tells a story, or because it contains a book, or an object that undergoes a transformation as it is being viewed. I took a lemon skin, cut it in half and hinged the two “covers” together. I constructed two “chapters” on the inside. My point was to try and convey the senses when eating a lemon.
On the inside on one lemon half I pinned about 100 small pins, then I filled it with clear resin. This was the juicy and overwhelmingly tart reaction to the lemon. On the other side I constructed three 3-D segments to fill the lemon half. What I didn’t tell everyone was that I dabbed lemon oil on it. When other students and my instructor were doing the crit, they could just SWEAR it even SMELLED like a lemon! Messing with people’s minds, just a little bit at a time, started with that lemon.
My bears made of belly button lint are a similar thing. Everyone thinks it’s gross, but I see conflict in their faces. Bears are cute and everyone can relate to a cute teddy bear.
Human Ivory, on the other hand, is only attractive to certain people. People who like anthropology, biology, skeletons, bugs, mysterious creatures, gross and creepy things like Human Ivory.
When I first started showing my curiosities I would get really offended at what people said to me. I thought I had created a monster when really I created a very small window for people to let go of themselves and react on impulse. When you go to a craft show and an artist or craftsman makes something you don’t like, you may look quickly and keep walking. You don’t go out of your way to tell the artist or craftsman that their work sucks and it bothers you that it sucks. But with my work, people get so frazzled or overwhelmed with disbelief or shock that they’ll say whatever they’re thinking at that moment. Once, a man read my entire artists statement, looked at me and said “I can’t think of anything more disgusting. You’re a disgusting person.” At first these types of reactions bothered me, now I’ll just answer with a simple “No way.” or a laugh. I realize the majority of the world IS going to react that way.
You have been featured on websites like Regretsy and D-listed. Were those bad experiences? Did you find any flattery from being featured on those hugely popular websites?
Being featured on Regretsy was a bad experience for me. It was when I was still fragile about my work and felt I needed to defend it. I made a lot sales as a result of it, but I didn’t care because it still felt awful to be ridiculed.
When I was featured on D-listed, my first thought was “here we go again.” Instead, I didn’t look at the comments and still haven’t to this day. I honestly don’t care about them. I think my work is fun and innovative and I’m sticking to that. :) A day after being featured on D-listed I received an email from Flash News of San Diego about an interview inquiry. I did the interview and she asked is she could give my contact info to radio/tv producers and on air and web editors for interviewing purposes. I said hell yes to that and I’ve been doing fun interviews ever since. They have been mostly radio and web interviews, but most recently a brief TV appearance in the UK!
Here is the link to the video:
And now I’m waiting for the National Geographic Kids (UK) to send me a few copies of their latest issue because they featured me in it! It is very flattering to be in respectable magazines and news shows. But Regresty still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. You know what they say though…All press is good press!
What is the draw you seem to have to using things we throw away, and even consider “gross”?
I like making art of things that are usually thrown away because it brings light to reusing, recycling, and using all of your resources. It’s also cheaper! Security envelopes, fingernails, and lint don’t cost me anything. It reinforces being creative, thrifty and frugal. And they are things that everyone can save for me. People like to get involved in that aspect, too.
I also don’t find fingernails and belly button lint gross. If other people do, that’s their problem. I find eating meat and littering gross, but I’m faced with it everyday. So what if my materials are a little in-your-face. That’s life.
Do you ever feel like people get an idea of who you are as a person based on the sort of art you make? Is that funny/upsetting/wrong/etc?
I do feel that people relate me to my work and and base their opinion of me on it. It’s a huge social experiment for me! It’s great to meet someone for the first time and then I tell them what I do. And vise versa. It doesn’t bother me anymore. The people that I’m friends with are generally people that are similar to me, who like crazy stuff anyway.
I think the only tough thing about it is family. Some of my family members think it’s weird. But hey! We’re family. Can’t get away from it. For example, my grandmother. She is a very traditional, classic grandma. She likes baking cookies and ice-skating. She likes puppies and kitties. She didn’t like Human Ivory or belly button lint bears at first, but now she buys them as gag gifts for friends. She loves me as her grand daughter and wants t support me in what I do. And to be quite honest, she’s getting spunkier with age and I think she actually likes it now.
I wonder what my family would do if I was in porn? I think I’ll stick to belly button lint bears.
Do you have any particular artists you really admire, or do you seek inspiration in certain places or things?
I admire a lot of my former professors as artists. I admire the Dadaists and the Surrealists. I adore Ray Johnson, the king of mail art. I admire local artists and friend artists. Everyone does it because they’re in love with it. That’s something to admire.
What your experience been as an artist new to the Valley? What are your impressions thus far of the arts community?
I’ve been in Bethlehem for 3 months now and the arts community is so welcoming. I’ve experiences First Fridays, local businesses who provide great music, dining and art on view, the craft nights and events, the Banana Factory, the local etsy community, the performing arts charter school; everything has been fun. I still need to do some more getting-out. I want to learn more about, and perhaps teach at, the Banana Factory. I’m a member of ACE, the Arts Community of Easton. We do the Riverside Festival of the Arts which is always a pleasure.
(Letter from a patron of the Riverside Arts Festival in Easton, PA)
See what Rachel is up to at her WESBITE: That Woman Makes Crazy Art