Conversation with the Artist: Betsy Youngquist
All images are used with permission by the artist. Please do not use without permission or credit.
Image header credit: Pablo Korona.
A life long Rockford, IL resident, Betsy was born in 1965. Her parents worked as a schoolteacher and a lumber contractor. Recalling Betsy’s first time making art, her mother recounts how she inadvertently left a marker uncapped on the living room's coffee table. With it, toddler Betsy scribbled on the the marble tabletop. Betsy's Mom remembers how amazed she was with the accidental “drawing” and ran next door to her mother-in law’s house, exclaiming, “We have an artist here!” At 3, Betsy told her mother, in a calm and matter-of-fact way, that she was just her “earth mother” and that her real mother lived on another planet. Later that same year, her parents let Betsy stay up to watch the historic, first manned, Apollo moon landing. A few years later, Betsy’s family took an Airstream camper trip throughout the Northwest US and Western Canada, introducing her to First Nations, American Indian and Inuit artwork and people. Betsy attributes to that early encounter, her love of beads, and the power to incorporate mythological and spiritual understandings through art. To this day, she admires cultures where art is a sacred creation and acts to bridge the spiritual with the mundane. Betsy has been a professional artist for the past 23 years and co-owns Myth Gallery in New Orleans with her partner, R. Scott Long.
MOB: Who are you and what does art mean to you?
I believe art is a direct link to a universal reality. When creativity flows through an artist or someone is captivated by the experience of art, feelings of connection, grace, and instant understanding are part of that gift. The creative process is an awareness shift. It takes us into a realm of experience where we are greater than we know. There is so much magic swirling around all of life. We don’t always intellectually understand the solidarity of all living things on the planet from our varied perspectives, but if we open our hearts we can feel it. Art helps us become part of something larger and beyond our physical existence. It connects us on an energetic level and strengthens our insight into the unified consciousness of the planet as a whole.
Children with their vast capacity for wonderment weave tales of gossamer, create magic kingdoms, and pass through invisible portals to lands of untold enchantment. As we follow the Yellow Brick Road in quest of Emerald Cities, those portals become hidden to us, removing our access to the wonderland within. Creating art is a means to return to the looking glass and reenter the garden where flowers whisper and birds can talk. As my beaded characters emerge they carry with them tales from the other side of the mirror. I am grateful for the joy and astonishment experienced through this journey.
MOB: What are some current projects you’ve been working on, and what has been informing your work lately?
What I’ve been doing with my work is picking up some pieces that I started a long time ago. When I say a long time ago, some I started a year ago, some I started about two and a half years ago, and they’re all about the theme of loss. Scott and I lost a beloved pet parrot of 23 years about a month ago. I haven’t had any other personal losses during Covid, but I feel like there’s a lot of energy of loss in the air right now. I have these pieces swimming around in my studio: 3 beaded paintings, and there’s a carved loon that is going to end up having an area underneath where I’m going to put some of Theo’s feathers and a picture to create a memorial shrine for our beloved lost bird.
Womb, 7.75 x 5. Image: Larry Sanders.
Covid has been hard on all of us in different ways. Every single person on the planet has experienced loss through this, if they’ve experienced Covid in their area. I’ve had a really hard time engaging in my art during this time, and I know others have to, and I think it’s important to say that that’s okay. Because for so many people, art is our way that we touch our soul and we communicate and we learn and we process. It’s our refuge. And that’s a tough space to be in. When I’ve been trying to make pieces --and I don’t at all want to discount anything I’ve done--but anytime I’d try to start something, I’d have no confidence. I didn’t know what to do, and when I would start something I would undo it. My art is usually a refuge, and I don’t want to say it was like an enemy, but it wasn’t something I could connect into on a regular basis like normal. What I’m doing right now is beaded paintings. I was undoing a lot of my sculptural work which is a big process, but it’s a lot easier to do it with the paintings, so that’s maybe that’s a reason I’ve been focusing on these paintings.
They Came for Him, 13 x 17.5". Image: Larry Sanders
They Came for Him is a story piece about the day our dog died three years ago, and the reason I wanted to tell this story is it was such a profound day on all these levels to at the point at the end of that day, Scott’s saying to me, “Betsy, we don’t need any more coincidences, this is too weird.” I wanted to have a memorial for Chaco the dog, but I also wanted to remember all of the layers of what happened that day. This painting doesn’t hit on every single thing that happened, there’s one element that’s not in here, but most of the strange marvelous things that happened that day are contained in this painting.
I’ve noticed that when animals and loved ones pass, there’s a lot of magic around those times. It’s like birth as well as death. I haven’t had children, but I resonate with the idea that as we move from one realm to another, there’s a lot of magic that happens. That really helps us realize there’s a plan to it all, or that we’re connected and supported. My dog Chaco had liver cancer, and there were multiple coincidences the day we put him to rest. The vet was coming that afternoon to put him down, so we took Chaco to the local park off leash for the last time. I thought he was sniffing out morel mushrooms to show me, but he led us down a little path where there was a hidden stash of marijuana and a pipe next to a tree, as you can see in the painting. I thought, okay, maybe he was showing me what I was supposed to do! We take the little case and we go home, where the vet meets us to put him down. As it happened, in my mind’s eye, I saw past dogs that were his friends coming to get him out of the sky. And so that’s what this is in part of the painting. We had let Chaco lie on the cool concrete floor of the garage because he was breathing heavily and had wanted to rest somewhere comfortable. I had been holding him in the garage that morning before he died, as he was breathing hard. While there I got this flash in my head of elephants.
When I was in my early 20s, I went to a past life regression therapist. In one of my past lives, I was a young man in India and I was extremely thin and sinewy and connected to the natural environment. In that incarnation, the therapist had us go to our most profound moment in our lives in that lifetime. I was in a branch in a tree and there was a stampede of elephants that went underneath the branches. I'm like, oh, that I would think that would be everyday for this guy, but I guess that was pretty profound. The therapist led me through my death and I moved through the roof of a hut, went up into the sky, other stars came and met me and those were my ancestors. So I'd always remembered that but never really thought anything about it in my present life. I realized at that moment as I was kneeling down next to Chaco that he was the elephant. And I realized I had a relationship with an elephant that was beyond just a wild elephant in that incarnation. So I was just kind of like, whoa, that's a trip. That night, we're sitting there and I had some packages I had received in the mail that day, and I'm opening the first package and it's a stuffed elephant. I had forgotten that I had bought an elephant because I was modifying Steiff stuffed animals for a while. So, this whole day was just one thing after another and I wanted to remember it. When art can do that, when art can help connect us, be a bridge or a conduit to those parts of us that are beyond us, where we came and from where we're going to: that's what I get the biggest buzz off of my art.
Beast, 18 x 36 x 8". An unintended portrait of Betsy's late dog, Juneau. Image: Larry Sanders.
I was commissioned to create a beaded loon, Sister Moon, as a memorial to a loved one who died of cancer on the same day that my dog Juneau had died of cancer. The man who commissioned the loon knew that my dog had died on the same day as his wife Geri, so when I made the loon for him, the hidden compartment underneath it housed a small memorial for my dog Juneau. When I meditated and pictured myself on a beach, I’d see Juneau and Geri together on the dunes. When I wrote him a Christmas card that year, I told him about my experience and he knew exactly which sand dune without any explanation.
Sister Loon, 10 x 16 x 9". This is very similar sister to the commissioned piece, Sister Moon. Image: Larry Sanders.
That's what feeds my heart and my soul, you know, more than anything else. It's just kind of the art that helps me touch the divine and let me know and everybody else know, wherever we go, it's okay and we're supported. I think we need to honor that because it's in you know, mementos, memorials, etc. And even objects, I believe that all the materials that I use, I think they have energy in them from where they came from. When I'm putting things together, I'm weaving that energy together. And that when somebody responds to a piece, they're picking up on that energy on levels that I don't even understand. It’s like I'm in the backseat, and somebody else is driving the ship, and other people respond to it.
My Secret Garden (running rabbit), 14x9x6. This piece is a reminder to play in those magic gardens of childhood regardless of age. The mystery and wonder of a child's experience is captured in My Secret Garden as the rabbit transports its ward to a fantastical world, much like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Image: Larry Sanders
What I'm doing right now is trying to work on a big pile of old work that I've started and couldn't complete. So now I've just said, okay, I'm doing the paintings. I'm doing this loon for our bird Theo who died. It's been sitting here, two thirds of the way done waiting to be finished. I'm trying to go back a little bit and kind of revisit some of these pieces that I started that I've just lost my confidence in. Despite the past year, I'll be fine. I've been an artist for 20 something years, but right now, I was spun by COVID. We all just kind of entered a new paradigm. And I think it takes some of us a while to get our footing and we need to be kind to ourselves and give ourselves permission to take that time to find our footing. Art therapy is a thing, but what we don’t realize is we can do that for ourselves.
Voyageur, 8 x 5.5". Image: Larry Sanders.
MOB: What are your current influences and inspirations, other than what you’ve mentioned in your storytelling?
A big influence to me is getting new materials. Those of us who use found objects, it's a whole different ball of wax. I mean, colors have their energy but found objects can contain a lot of energy because they traveled and were interacted with. As we're making those material choices, I hope in my paradigm that I'm choosing materials that will help the whole narrative of the piece at levels I'm not even aware of.
Muninn (the crow) 17 x 17 x 11".On May 17th of 2018 our beloved dog, Chaco, passed over in our backyard surrounded by loved ones. Chaco’s backyard domain had always been a nursery for wildlife, and during the time of his decline in health and death, two baby crows were being raised by their parents there. Chaco was a dog who was very observant of the activity above his head. Scott carved two birds in honor of Chaco and the crows being raised in our yard. This first bird, Muninn, stands as a representation of memory. Behind the heartstone on Muninn is a chamber holding a copper vial with some of Chaco’s ashes inside as well as a bit of our dog's fur. Muninn is a guardian for the memory of those we hold in our hearts forever. The day of Chaco’s passing was filled with beautiful synchronicities amidst the sadness. We thank our beautiful boy for the gift of his life as it intertwined with ours for 12 1/2 years. (Image: Larry Sanders)
MOB: Can you tell us about your piece Metamorphosis?
Metamorphosis was a project I started when the Gulf Oil spill happened. And I was up in Rockford where I live and I had gone down to New Orleans to do Jazz Fest. At that point, the news had announced the deaths on the rig but had not announced that the gulf was being filled with oil, so there was this real weight over New Orleans after the disaster. After there was talk about what was happening to the Gulf, I had this overwhelming personal urge to do a piece about the oil spill, but had no idea what it was going to be about. I was inspired by an exhibition at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium that displayed just how destructive the spill really was. I was driving across the country and I wanted to take a different route, so I stopped by the museum and I wanted to see if I could talk to the director or a biologist or just someone who understood the gravity of what was happening.
I bounced from building to building, asking four or five volunteers until I got into the basement. They had their library down there and they called the biologist into the library. I went back to his office with him and it smelled like a fish tank gone bad: you could tell we were in a river biologist’s office and in the bowels of the building. So we sat down, and I had this conversation about the oil spill with this biologist about me wanting to do a piece and we came to the conclusion that the brown pelican was what I should use as the piece because it's such an emblematic bird for the affected area.
Metamorphosis, 17 x 46 x 8". A self-portrait of Betsy sculpted by R. Scott Long. This sculpture is an exploration of the human connection between the physical body, the natural environment, and spirit through a focus on life cycles. Image: Larry Sanders
We talked and talked about how dispersants would affect the ecosystems at the bottom of the gulf, farm runoff, and how the health of the Gulf was of huge concern for him. You know, he's a river biologist, but the dumping ground is the Gulf of Mexico. So we got to a point where we were both teary eyed. So I left and when I got home, I said, Scott, I need you to make me a brown pelican. So he made me a brown pelican, and my idea was to cover it with beads. I bought a ton of beads to match the colors of the oil spill (which is brown, not black) and I was just going to cover the whole pelican with oil beads that looked like oil. But the problem was, the pelican carving was so beautiful, I couldn't do it. So I ended up just making the pelican a brown pelican, so it was a beautiful piece, but it didn't solve my need to make something about the oil spill.
Metamorphosis, rear view. Image: Larry Sanders
I decided then we're going to make a portrait of me. And it took me a little bit of talking to get Scott to carve my body. But I stood there and I was basically in a mountain yoga pose, but I had my hands kind of outstretched like oil was dripping off of them. I was going to do the darkness of oil in beads all over my body. But, I knew from the pelican that I didn't want just dark. If I was going to do the dark, I had to have a little pattern in some kind of way to make it interesting to myself. After covering the sculpture in dark colors and getting to the oil part of it, I became more and more depressed by it. I felt suffocated by it. So I put it over in a corner of my studio and I let it sit there for a couple months. Then I took a chisel and I scraped off my work for two weeks, all of the dark seeds that were on that piece and I started putting color on the piece. It shifted and it became about restoration and hope that our harmony with nature wasn't focused on the negative devastation. It was focused on our relationship with nature. It just became this healing piece, and that was not my original intention. It was also this reminder that you need to listen to your creative muse. You can't bulldoze it, and I was trying to bulldoze it too much.
Metamorphosis, front detail view. Image: Larry Sanders
So this was a piece I made just for me. It wasn't necessary. It wasn’t going to be anything that was going to be in my booth at the art fairs. Metamorphosis traveled for three years within the state museum systems in Illinois. When she got kicked out of the museum due to lack of continued funding, Scott and I threw her in the car and she actually went on vacation with us to the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin -- we stuck her on a beach and did a video made with a drone and people started coming up and asking about her. She went in a waterfall, she went inside the Frank Lloyd Wright house, House on the Rock, and in front of the Art Institute. She even went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and had her feet in the water, went to Jazz Fest, and ate a beignet! Bringing her around, it was really interesting because I would say 80% of people would ignore her, but then you get that one person and it makes their day and they’re so fascinated by it. And they can touch it! That whole era of a museum and preciousness and how you aren’t supposed to touch things was just broken down because she wasn’t on a pedestal. She was free standing and accessible to people. I told her story of her getting booted from the museum and how she was traveling with us. Ironically, she was sold to somebody in the oil business in Texas. Metamorphosis was the most incredible thing I’ve ever been a part of making, and it was really about me getting out of the way to make her happen.
Interview recorded and transcribed by the Museum of Beadwork in July 2021. Thank you so much to Betsy for sharing her stories with us. You can see more of Betsy's work on her gallery's website, and visiting her Etsy shop here. She is also on Instagram, @betsyyoungquist.
- Heather Kahn