A “Bathtub Madonna” is an American vernacular tradition in which a statue of the Virgin Mary is placed inside an upturned bathtub to form a devotional icon creating a sacred space known as a “grotto.” A variety of different religious figurines and personal mementos can be placed inside the shallow cavern, traditionally in naturally occurring caves or niches in rock faces. The grotto’s significance dates back to Greek mythology and biblical stories. Contemporary grottos are man-made structures that can be purchased ready-made and set up in a garden or front yard as a display of religious belief. Carla Edward’s EAF15 work Gain and Cost draws from the use of grottos in devotional rituals as a way to investigate the relationship between objects, religious artifacts and personal identity.

The name of the piece comes from the essay, “Ritual and Social Change: a Javanese Example,” by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Edwards has been contemplating, as Geertz puts it, “The tendency to consistently stress the harmonizing, integrating and psychologically supportive aspects of religious patterns rather than the disruptive, disintegrative, and psychologically disturbing aspects… the manner in which religion preserves social and psychological structure rather than the manner in which it destroys or transforms it.” Edwards seeks to explore this separation within religion, especially the role that icons and objects play in how spiritual belief acts as a double-edged sword in society.

When Edwards first thought of using grottos in her work, an initial search led her to an array of ready-made structures sold at garden supply stores. The imagery of empty grottos on display catalyzed her thoughts on the intersection of religious practice and commerce. “Mass-produced objects say a lot about our dominant culture,” Edwards shares. “They can be so reflective of matters that are deep-seated in history.” Even though grottos are now sold at stores instead of formed from seaside caves, this commercialization does not affect their significance in personal displays of devotion. They maintain a sacredness and can be encountered worldwide, from the ancient to the newly-manufactured.

This installation of grottos marks a shift in Edwards’ work. Prior to Gain and Cost, she focused on symbols of Americana such as the American flag. Recent pieces reconfigured the patriotic symbol and reimagined it in a different context. The Flag Project at Redline Arts in Denver, Colorado, borrowed from the tradition of quilt-making and invited participants to deconstruct the American flag in order to put it back together in a new form. This process of reclamation challenged the audience to physically alter the flag, as well as psychologically reflect on their relationship with it. Between The Flag Project and Gain and Cost, the careful consideration of objects in mainstream culture and identity continues to be at the focus of Edwards’ work.

For Gain and Cost, Edwards has cast a series of concrete grottos in collaboration with L.J. Campanella & Son, a family-owned lawn and garden statuary business, to accompany a larger grotto that she has created. Her grottos, which remain empty, invite the public to project and offer their own objects to the mythical stage. The detailed work that has gone into Gain and Cost speaks to Edwards’ serious contemplation of the subject and material. “A lot of care, attention, and labor goes into altering an object that belongs to the public,” Edwards says. “This isn’t just a flippant gesture. I want to pay homage to the community that the object came from.”

Edwards is currently involved with a roving curatorial project entitled WTN3SS, in which she and four other artists produce time and site-specific events that take place outside of traditional art spaces. The collaborating artists are Melissa Brown, Marie Lorenz, Virginia Poundstone, and Lan Tuazon—all of which are Socrates alumni.