As a teenager, Christina Pettersson found a job as a telemarketer at the Vista Memorial Gardens & Funeral Home in Miami Lakes. "It was selling prepaid funeral arrangements, and I hated it," the 37-year-old artist recollects. "After about a week of making the phone calls, my boss changed my duties and I ended up doing a bit of everything, from filing to placing ashes in urns and helping put makeup on the cadavers instead."
But, she adds, "Everybody had a really dark sense of humor."
Pettersson channels those memories in "The Castle Dismal," her new solo show opening Friday night at Primary Projects, where she'll present several large drawings, installations, performances, and a series of weekly programming. The exhibit takes its title from the name Nathaniel Hawthorne gave the Salem, Massachusetts home where he wrote his novels, Pettersson says.
On view will be her largest drawing to date — a 12-by-24-foot graphite-on-paper piece depicting the ruins of a burned-down Mississippi cotton plantation. There's also an installation of a ramshackle horse-drawn funeral hearse carriage. And don't miss the wooden boat figurehead representing 19th-century Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind with her throat slashed.
"I adore the imagery of the beautiful Deep South," she explains, "the rage of Civil War defeat and slave revolt, dusty towns of Spanish moss, and crumbling plantations."
Pettersson was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and moved to South Florida with her family when she was 2. She was raised on the fringes of Dade County, which was filled with pastureland, cows, and horse stables. She recalls bicycling on the pavement of Interstate 75 before it opened and seeing handwritten signs at her elementary school that warned, "Trespassers Will Be Shot on Sight!"
Pettersson discovered her talent at an early age. She took art classes when she was 6, entered an art magnet program at 10, and then went to New World School of the Arts for high school. Her father, Bo, is an accountant, and her mother, Dianne, a homemaker. They both supported the creative efforts of the artist and her three siblings — her brother is an architect, one sister a social worker, and the other a zookeeper at Zoo Miami. They also inspired an appreciation for the South's literary heritage. "I always loved the writers, of course," she says. "I was raised on Faulkner and Boo Radley and the half-lit ladies of Tennessee."
During a recent weekend afternoon, Pettersson stands atop a scaffold. Dressed in a black mourning gown trailing an eight-foot train of fabric, she holds a lantern in one hand. She deftly puts the finishing touches on a soaring drawing with nimble strokes of a graphite pencil on the columns of the incinerated Windsor Plantation's ruins towering overhead.
On an adjacent wall, another large pencil-on-paper composition depicts a rambling tangle of kudzu full of flickering light and shadows. "This mayhem of the South, derived from the utter failure of the war and complete loss, is strangely its real source of power," Pettersson observes. "Dark knowledge that comes only from being on the losing side, beaten down, humiliated. This is what draws me into its queer darkness."
Later, in Primary's Project Room, the artist lifts a small boat from the floor. The vessel was nestled next to ceramic figurines of cherubs and swans. They were often placed on tombs to commemorate the dead, she explains. "The boat pays homage to the SS Sultana, a Mississippi steamboat that exploded in 1865 in the greatest maritime disaster in American history," she says. "It was supposed to carry only about 350 passengers, but there were more than 2,000 people aboard, mostly Union soldiers who had been released from Confederate POW camps. About 1,800 died. No one knows about the disaster, though, because the press focused its coverage on the death of President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, killed the day before."
The show is freighted with tormented echoes of a grieving national soul. During her exhibit's two-month run, Pettersson has scheduled a weekly raft of events, listed on the gallery's web page, to convey the forlorn spirit of a haunted age.
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As part of the O, Miami Poetry Festival, she has created a poetry nook at the gallery where visitors can thumb through her collection of the works of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, and the other Southern Gothic writers who influenced her show. "I want people who come in to hand-copy a poem or verse from one of the books onto stationery and mail it to a stranger chosen randomly from the white pages," she says.
Pettersson is also inviting the public to join her for a traditional fried chicken and champagne feast she organizes at the historic Miami City Cemetery each year.
"I started celebrating my birthday at the grave of John Alfred Ball — whom I share a birthday with — about eight years ago," Pettersson says. "It's always been just me and my love, but I'm really looking forward to sharing it with the public this year, especially since it falls on Memorial Day, when people would traditionally visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of soldiers and picnic and visit family."