Artist 2 Artist with Betsy Alwin

Fellow Rosalux artist Ute Bertog speaks with Betsy Alwin about making art in New York City, artists and writers that continue to inspire, and how true failure and patience can lead to success in the studio.

Did you want to be an artist as a kid? What did you think that meant and are you living the artist life now, from the point of view of your younger self?

It always sounds like a cliché, but I knew I was going to be an artist from an early age. Drawing was always available to me as a kid, and was a “practical” skill that was encouraged by my parents and teachers. I liked to go out and build things in the woods all day, but strangely, it never occurred to me that this was a possibility as an art practice. When I started college, I studied art in the pursuit of being a medical illustrator. Then I thought I should be a painter. Then, after putting off taking the required 3D course, my painting teacher mentioned that he thought I enjoyed “banging around” in the sculpture studio more than working in the painting studio. He was right. I became obsessed with sculpture and pursued an MFA in sculpture at Illinois State University.

I remember that, at high school graduation, we had to write a letter to ourselves to be opened at our 20th reunion. I remember vividly congratulating myself on my successful art career in Montana and that I speculated that I would own a successful art gallery there. I only just visited Montana for the first time last year on a trip to Yellowstone. I’m not sure why I thought that was a good idea. My actual art life took me to Brooklyn, NY, where I never imagined living, much less for 14 years.

When I think back to my childhood, I didn’t have any artist role models. Both of my parents were extremely creative people but, having been born in the Depression, they did not think of art as a means unto itself. Artistic talent was a hobby at best and possibly an accessory to a different, practical end. While my parents were not particularly unsupportive, they didn’t know how to guide me or give any advice. I had to find my own way and also figure out how to pay for it. It took a long time and a lot of exposure to different experiences for me to find myself as an artist.

Who were the artists that inspired you as a young person? Were there particular works which you identified with or was it more of a general sense that you had about being creative?

Ha! My high school art teacher was a duck stamp painter and he pushed me to take AP drawing. We were not exposed to a whole lot of contemporary artists but I really got into Caravaggio -really into him. He was a rule-breaker, innovator of the Baroque and that resonated with me. I laugh even now.

Knowing that I wanted to pursue some kind of art career and not aware of what kind of career to expect, I joined the Army National Guard to help pay my way through school. Though that meant that I had to give up two of my H.S. summers to military training, I am glad now that I had the presence of mind at 16 years old to avoid big college loans.

One of the greatest benefits of joining the Army was that I got to “travel” to other places (my family never went on trips and I had barely left the state of Minnesota) and I made friends all over the country. When I was 18, I traveled to Washington D.C. to visit a couple of Army buddies there. They took me to the Hirshhorn Museum. There I saw Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture "Blind Leading the Blind."

It really grabbed me. I had never seen anything like it before. It was the first time I had ever experienced a non-representational sculpture that evoked such meaning. The idea of this shocked and thrilled me (I know, sheltered life- sorry Carravaggio!). Although I went to college still determined to be an illustrator, this sculpture and the rest of Bourgeois’ work would inspire me when I finally took 3D and dropped my pencils to pick up the hammer.

Louise Bourgeois, Blind Leading the Blind, 1949 sculpture
Louise Bourgeois, Blind Leading the Blind, 1949

What art and artists do you look at now? Do they give you the same feeling about art and art-making possibilities as when you were young?

I am still inspired by Louise Bourgeois. I used to take my students to the Modern Art Foundry, in Queens, where we would often observe them working on one of her spider sculptures. It is impressive how she worked on her sculptures until her death. She was extremely particular about the details. The work was led by her wit, emotion and ferocity. If you haven’t seen the biography of her, The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine, schedule it ASAP.

I am not sure there is another woman sculptor working right now that captures that same intensity, but there are so many artists that I admire, especially in this pandemic horror show. I think right now, I’m really into controlled chaos and artists who are working with the absence and presence of the body. To name just a few: Diana Al Hadid (controlled physical craziness of amazing mixed media), Julia Philips (sculptures with uncanny dislocation of the body), Nairy Baghramian (strange forms that also recount the body –you saw them at The Walker Art Center a couple years ago), Nick Cave (serious and fun), Tunga (deceased now, but his work brought me sheer joy when I saw it in New York) and