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.
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 Hannah Levy (simple gestures and materials).
How did you go about the start of your career? Were you showing right away or did it take you a while to get that going? Did you establish a studio practice right off the bat, go to grad school, spend time in another career; what were the early days of your career all about?
Would you be surprised if I said it was bumpy? I really didn’t have very much guidance until I got to graduate school. The expectation was that we would all go on to get teaching jobs in some far-flung art department in the middle of nowhere. One professor told me that I had best get started and “work in the trenches!” (Soooo inspiring! Like teaching much?) Though I had initially invested in pursuing an MFA with the intention of teaching, with all that I had been exposed to, it troubled me to think I could go from one end of the classroom to the other over a summer. What could I teach art students about being an artist if I hadn’t really done that yet myself?
Unsure of what to do and quickly running out of time before graduation, I almost threw a dart at a map to see where I would go and just give it a try. In a stroke of luck, I invited the school's visiting artist, who was visiting from New York, to breakfast at a local truck stop. He asked what I was going to do after graduation and I told him I really didn’t know, but I would probably just move somewhere and try to get a studio. He suggested I move to New York and get a job in the Sculpture Department at The Cooper Union, where he worked, to help run the sculpture shop and do some teaching. He’d put in a good word for me. This seemed like a pretty good idea, so I planned on that.
Meanwhile, I had applied to the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture and found out that I was selected for their summer program. This couldn’t have been timed better as it would set me up with an instant network of friends in New York City, all of whom were just starting out like me.
Driving out to New York, I did wonder if it was a huge mistake. It was scary! I had never lived in a big city before, so the only thing that kept me on track was the rationale that if 8 million people can make it there, it couldn’t be that hard. One week after I moved there, September 11th happened. I was on the subway on my way to work when the planes hit. Not knowing why we had been kicked off the subway, I scrambled to street level and saw the towers burning from the Brooklyn Bridge. It felt like a huge gut punch to move to New York City only to have it be ruined shortly afterwards, but this event would tie me to New York City in a way that I otherwise would not have been.
Three recent MFA graduate roommates and I shared a half-finished loft near Pratt (run by the Greek mafia, this is another story, but suffice it to say that we “won” in court with the caveat that there was a small chance we would end up at the bottom the East River…). We divvied up the space for us all to make our work. I had a small table in a corner with a wall. It took some adjusting to develop a methodology for making work. It helped us all to be working on our work in our small community of basement studio tables.
Because of the stress of 9/11, and all the adjustments of living in a new, over-stimulating place, I began to make monofilament drawings. These were really meditative and required intense concentration. I would string the filaments from the ceiling to my desk to the wall and weave these complex line drawings in space that you could walk around. The line drawings would depict infrastructure such as power stations. They were incredibly difficult to document with a camera, as this would flatten them.
A gallerist came to my studio and wanted to show them. He said it would be ideal if I could put them in a box so they could be sold to collectors. Knowing that the most important part of these works was the way that they changed as you walked around them, I refused. No gallery. No regrets. I had watched a few of my friends get approached by galleries and get locked into a certain way of working that “sold.” I thought I was too young to know all that I was doing, and there was a lot for me to develop. I knew I had to have patience and discipline.
It was about two years before I was included in a meaningful exhibition. I started showing in cities around New York City, like Hartford, CT, Paramus, NJ, Collegeville, PA, Islip, NY. I thought I would circle the city until I found an opening. My big break came when I got a show at the historic A.I.R. Gallery, through their Fellowship Program. It was quite an amazing opportunity and I then had my first New York Solo show. At that time I was making some very different sculpture that had evolved over a number of years and benefited from finally working in a professional studio over three years in.
How has failure set you up for later success? What was your favorite failure?
Failure is a funny idea. It has become a buzzword, but even as people talk about how you have to fail and that it’s important, failure only works when it is absolutely mortifying; when you didn’t see it coming. My best failures are when I go for broke on an idea. Sometimes this is a failure of process. I think a material is going to do something and it totally doesn’t. Something collapses or looks wrong.
It is important to give yourself time to learn and overcome. At other times, there is conceptual failure. A long time ago, Buzz Spector, an artist in Chicago, was in my studio. I was complaining that an artist I liked had made this work that I thought fell short. Buzz rebuked, “Well, Betsy, we can’t be great all the time.” That has stuck with me. You can’t move ahead without some stinkers. The take away is that hopefully, these failures happen during your work in the studio and you don’t have to show anyone. That isn’t always possible.
My biggest failure was both technical and conceptual and led to what I’m doing now. I was trying to make a mushroom with lace and ceramic slip. I didn’t know the materials yet and I had to form a relationship. I also had to grapple with what kind of object I wanted to make and what made sense to me. Though I am fascinated by mushrooms, they turned out not to be the right kind of imagery for what I wanted to convey.
What are you working on right now? Is it a continuation of styles and themes that you have worked with in the past or are you trying out anything new? Do you place more value on taking risks or refining your work over time? How have the events of the last half year that happened near and far impacted how you think about your work? Has your process shifted?
I am using this time to work through some new techniques and materials. I have thought a lot about who gets to see my work, why it should exist and where it should be. I am adapting some of what I am doing to be able to exist outdoors. I want to develop this kind of flexibility because it reflects the flexibility that we all have had to develop over the past ten months. I would say that I’m doubling down on motifs of the body in my work but also want to free up some of the processes that I’m using.
Almost all of the components in my sculptures take an enormous amount of time in process. Even before the pandemic, I have wanted to experiment with more immediate forms. Again, I think that this has a direct relationship to the coping I’ve had to do during this time. There is something to balancing process-based forms with more spontaneous gestures -like planning for the future while simultaneously living in the moment. Isn’t that the existential reality that we all face right now? Anyway, lots of failures, but that’s okay. That’s how we get to the goods.
I am always intrigued by the materials you use, at once strong and seemingly inflexible, yet you are able to bend them according to your needs and wants. Can you tell us a little bit how you came about using those materials? I am especially curious about how you came to use porcelain slip.
Like a lot of things in life, several events led to other events that paved the way to my current body of work. Ceramic slip came into my studio practice through teaching. I was teaching casting at The Cooper Union and was always introducing new techniques. Another professor had started a fun “ceramic club” and I remembered that I had learned how to cast slip in college. I hadn’t made a slip mold in years, but I decided to make one as a demo for students and then started making some for myself. I got a bucket of porcelain slip and I really liked how it felt and that it could have a “body” as it dried.
I had recently had a solo exhibition at the Islip Art Museum and coming down from that, I felt that I was not entirely happy with the direction of my work. I felt pretty strongly about what I wanted to convey, but felt that the sculptures I was making had veered off the mark. They were very technical and I felt that they were less and less about sculpture and more about engineering. I felt a little lost in the studio for a while after that.
During that time, my husband Frank and I came to Minnesota to visit my family and while we were there, we found this amazing mushroom. Its beauty, its ephemerality, and its temporality so inspired me…and ruined me. I could never make anything that conveyed all of that! So, I went back to the studio in Brooklyn and started experimenting with slip. Somehow, I got the idea one day to incorporate lace into the slip forms. I made this mushroom out of paper and draped it with lace and slip. I fired it and it was a bit of a sad disaster. But! It wasn’t all a disaster and some of the things that I liked about it I was determined to work through and develop.
I also realized that the mushroom motif was not the right thing. I was trying to use an ephemeral, fragile motif to convey an ephemeral, fragile idea and this literalness was not going to work for me. I continued experimenting with the technical aspects of materials while also developing forms that would convey what I wanted about strength and fragility.
I am a ferocious reader, always on the lookout for new inspiration. What are you currently reading, art-related and otherwise? What book, article or review has most influenced you in your art-making?
This past summer I zipped through Weather, an entertaining novel by Jenny Offill. I also read “How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” by Jenny Odell and it was extremely inspirational. It was a great book to read during this time when I find myself distracted by so many things. To my partial dismay however, it wasn’t really about how to do nothing (I was so looking forward to that!), but doing things that are not deemed productive. Since this describes a good percentage of what has to happen in an art practice in order to get to something good, it was a great affirmation. I highly recommend it.
I am currently re-reading The Transfiguration of the Commonplace by Arthur Danto after finding it in a stack of long-lost references. I seem to have slept through many passages of this book in grad school -but thinking about my work to date, I must have absorbed some of it. I had recently started reading “Negative Horizon” by Paul Virilio in search of some reciprocal philosophy for this time, but it proves to be pretty negative and it made me anxious. It is kept near the toilet now.
If there was anything that I have read recently that has inspired me in the studio and in teaching it has been the book “Making and Being” by Caroline Woolard and Susan Jahoda. I highly recommend this book right now.
For fun I read Martha Stewart Living. This may surprise people and it surprises even me, sometimes. I’m not much of a homemaker, but I love to cook and sometimes Martha’s team comes up with a killer decorating idea. I recently re-subscribed to the New Yorker (I like the cartoons) and get Dwell with my Walker Membership. Dwell articles are hit-or-miss, but sometimes there is a great story about some silo-turned-posh-pad that makes you wonder why you don’t choose to live in a folly yourself.
What is your most unusual habit?
I cover every possible surface with my stuff. As soon as I clean and organize, I am busy filling up surfaces again. It’s a never-ending cycle that I’ve come to be at peace with. Once I thought I should limit my surfaces to thwart this behavior but then everything spills onto the floor.
Could you share an inspiring image with us? Whatever that might be for you.
I am including the image of the mushroom I talked about earlier in the interview. It’s a chicken of the woods mushroom. Isn’t it crazy!!!??? You can see why it would both inspire and daunt a sculptor.
Betsy Alwin has created sculpture and installations using a variety of media, most recently incorporating concrete, steel, wood, and plaster with her ceramic slip castings. Her work is represented by Rubine Red Gallery in Palm Springs, CA and she is a member of the artist cooperative gallery, Rosalux, in Minneapolis, MN. She has exhibited her sculpture and public art at national and international venues, in numerous group and solo exhibitions. Betsy received her MFA in Sculpture from Illinois State University in 2001 and is regarded nationwide for her innovative sculpture curriculum. You can see more of her work at Betsyalwin.com.