Abbie Cottle on Imagining the Divine


Exhibition Title Wall: Imagining The Divine

What was your original vision for the exhibition, Imagining The Divine: Religious Mythology and Art? 

I first started to think about this exhibition during my junior year and from the beginning I knew I wanted the show to focus on some aspect of religion. Since I’m a religion and archaeology double major I felt the study and presentation of material culture related to religious beliefs would be a perfect combination of my academic interests. Much more importantly though, I feel strongly that religion is a topic that is worthy of, and necessitates, more discussion in the public sphere. There seems to be a particular hesitancy in American culture to talk about religion with individuals we don’t know well, and I think this is a mistake. One of the reasons religion interests me is because I’m interested in people. I’m interested in how they think and how they feel and what is important to them. So often religion is what people turn to in times of great hardship and in times of profound jubilation. Religion is obviously an influential and vital force in many people’s lives and to understand other people better we should try to understand their beliefs. In that vein, it was always a goal of mine that this exhibition be a way to foster interfaith dialogue both on campus and in the wider community. From the nascent stages of the exhibition planning I knew I wanted religion to be at the center and I also knew that I wanted a variety of world religions equally represented. I wanted the breadth and diversity of some of the world’s faiths to be on display while also highlighting some of the similarities they share. From an artistic standpoint, I also wanted the exhibition to be visually interesting and eclectic by including objects featuring a range of media. With all of these considerations in mind, I hoped the end result might be something which lent itself well to an extensive and inclusive audience and hoped the show might provide “something for everyone” so to speak. 


Israeli, Reb Shalom of Safed, Jonah and the Whale, twentieth century, print: color lithograph, 17.8. x 21.9. Gift of Meyer P. and Vivian O. Potamkin, 1989.1.67. 

Your exhibition, Imagining the Divine, was unfortunately bisected by student’s departure from campus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The show is up for another two weeks, what do you think students and staff on campus can gain from visiting? 

 There’s so much to be gained from visiting a gallery exhibit. Social distancing actually presents a nice opportunity to look more closely at the objects and have a sort of private viewing of exhibitions since Covid-19 restrictions require fewer people in the space. Also, in such a stressful time, viewing art can be incredibly therapeutic. Since many students are stuck in a fairly small space either in a dorm room or apartment and are restricted to campus activities, visiting an art exhibition would be a fun change of scenery and change of pace. We’re very lucky to have such a great art museum at Dickinson and there’s no better time to take advantage of the opportunity. I also think viewing art in person is crucial because you can’t possibly grasp an object’s power by simply viewing it on your phone or computer screen. For me at least, art has an intangible energy and presence which you can only properly appreciate when in the same physical space as the object. 


Balinese, Monkey King Sugriva, Hanuman, and Monkey Warrior, twentieth century, shadow puppets: hide, string, sticks, hair, 24 x 8 x 0.75 in. (60.9 x 20.3 x 1.9 cm). Gift of Joseph Ellis, 1985.8.19.5, 4, 16. 

Do you have a favorite piece in the exhibition, or would that be an oversimplification of your relationship with the objects? I believe the cliché question is if you could own one of the pieces which would it be? 

This is a difficult question to answer because every piece in the exhibition is so interesting and I have such a deep connection to all of them, having spent so much time choosing each one individually and having taken so much time during the research process to uncover all the secrets they held. If you count the Balinese Ramayana shadow puppets as one collective piece, there are seventeen objects in this exhibition, and I could definitely answer this question seventeen different ways. So, I’ll say that ONE of my favorite pieces in the show is the Thai Teapot. It was the first that I picked for the final object list in the exhibition. The process of deciding which objects to include in the show was long and more involved than people might realize. I had to delve into the online database and look through the nearly 10,000 objects we have in the Trout Gallery’s permanent collection. Once I had some objects in mind, I looked at them in-person with Jamie (The Trout Gallery Collections Manager) in the vaults to see if they were right for the show. One day after examining all the objects I’d selected to view, I spotted the Thai teapot sitting on a shelf across the room in the lower vault. I was astounded by how vibrant it was and was curious to learn about the stories and beliefs it represented. It was love at first sight, and I knew immediately that I wanted to include the piece in the exhibition. It’s also one of my favorite objects in the show because it beautifully embodies the complex nature of religious expression, and more specifically, the fascinating syncretism of Hindu and Buddhist traditions found in Thailand. Though the vast majority of the population identifies as Buddhist, many individuals have shrines to Hindu deities in their homes, pray to Hindu gods, and perform Hindu rituals, and one can even find Buddhist temples adorned with images of Hindu gods. The motifs depicted on this teapot are drawn from Buddhist mythology, but some of the figures are Thai adaptations of Hindu figures. I love every object in the show for a variety of reasons, but the Thai teapot has a special place in my heart.  


Thai, Teapot with Hindu or Buddhist figures, nineteenth century, metal and ceramicware: brass and porcelain, 10.8 in. (27.3 cm). Gift of Mrs. Lloyd Gamble Cole, 1967.1.14a, b.

 Did curating this exhibit impact or shape any of your postgrad career desires? 

Curating this exhibition definitely reaffirmed my love for the study of religion. Ideally, I’d like to continue learning and exploring my passion for the subject in graduate school someday 

Photo of Abbie Cottle



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