29 April 2016

Sandra Betts interview: Art as Catharsis and Therapy

Woodland Pool by Sandra Betts, 2013,  w 18” x h 31”

Saint John, New Brunswick’s Sandra Betts has produced a large body of artwork inspired by her personal life journey, using hand-dyed fabrics embellished with embroidery, thread painting, fabric manipulation and other surface design techniques. Sandra has had 14 solo exhibitions and has participated in shows across North America and as far removed as Central America, Europe and Japan. Her work has been reproduced in many publications. We spoke with Sandra during a period of inactivity and reflection, while awaiting surgery.

Sandra, please tell us about your work.

My work is very personal. Each piece has a clear meaning and inspiration for me. Essentially, it’s a catharsis for emotions, most often triggered by my emotional response to an event in my life. Many of my earlier works documented my response to a personal health crisis. My cultural heritage, as a half Chinese Canadian, often turns up in my work, through colour and design choices. My more recent works include portraits, landscapes, seascapes and family-related pieces. These reflect the sense of peace, acceptance and serenity that I have been able to achieve through my artwork. 

Smoke Wraiths by Sandra Betts, 1998, w 18" x h 22"

Describe your journey towards becoming an artist who works with textiles. 

I grew up in Halifax and attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design before starting a 40-year career as an operating room nurse. While I enjoyed my profession, I maintained an interest in textiles. I had used a sewing machine from early childhood. Later, as a hobby, I continued to sew my own clothing and achieved certification as a sewing educator.

When my nursing career ended unexpectedly in 1998 due to a medical disability, my life-long interest in textiles became a full-time occupation and obsession. My career as an art quilter has been a journey undertaken as a form of therapy, and through it I’ve been able to achieve my new "normal" activity level. 

My piece, Smoke Wraiths (above), depicts my despair as I watched my dreams go up in smoke. Unvanquished (below) depicts how I was struck down by a lightning bolt but the creative impulses (circular arcs) helped me reach for the moon. Unvanquished has become my signature piece and has been shown in several shows, including Sacred Threads, the Road to California Quilters Conference and the International Quilt Festival (Houston).

Unvanquished by Sandra Betts, 2003, w 18" x h 22"

Tell us about your process for creating. How do you get from your inspiration to a final product?

Most times, my work is triggered by an emotional response to an event in my life, often involving my family. It may also be inspired by nature, whimsy, mythology, or my origins. 

Fabric speaks to me and quite often tells me what it must become. I’m strongly driven to try something new and different, to constantly learn. The question “what if---?” can require buying new and unknown supplies, a lot of my limited energy and a great deal of tolerance and support from my husband. 

Producing artwork for a given show theme is challenging for me, when I don’t feel that personal connection to the theme. I approach this by using a specific technique or a special fabric that "speaks" to me. Fishing Weir in Moonlight, the piece I made for  SAQA's My Corner of the World (Canada) exhibition, reflects my strong affection for Atlantic Canada. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else in the world!

Fishing Weir in Moonlight by Sandra Betts, 2015, w 40" x h 40"

Do you have a studio, or do you work wherever you can find a spot?  

Yes and yes. When I became disabled, my husband rebuilt our daughters’ empty bedrooms into a personalized sewing studio. Although I love my area it has since become crowded with my many art quilting and surface design supplies. A growing part of my fabric stash is stored elsewhere. Specialty machines, such as felting and Omni stitch, are set up in other rooms. For dyeing and burning I choose more well-ventilated areas. When the weather is nice I work outdoors on our large deck, also adapted for my work.

Tell us about your most memorable experience as an artist. 

When I first started making art quilts, I was told that I shouldn’t even enter a quilt show, causing me much insecurity about my abilities. Imagine my surprise and satisfaction when one of my first quilts, Siren of the Kelp, was juried into the Houston International Quilt Festival, and then, soon after, six of my pieces were published in the journal Quilts!

Siren of the Kelp by Sandra Betts, 2000, w 50" x h 50"

What fibre artists are you currently interested in, and why?

Four artists come to mind: Allison Holt, Maggie Grey, Valerie Campbell-Harding and Ken Smith. I admire the late Valerie Campbell-Harding as an explorer, a teacher, and an innovator. She introduced me to a variety of stitch techniques

Maggie Grey appeals to all my aspirations. Her work is original, inventive, imaginative, and most artistic. I enjoy her explorations of different techniques.

Ken Smith is the quintessential thread artist. He introduced me to the world of free motion, art quilts, thread painting. He taught me that there’s no 'perfect stitch tension'. He encouraged me to "step outside the box”.

Allison Holt is an expert thread artist.

Where do you see your artwork going from here?

I’ve reached that life stage when I feel that self-indulgence is not necessarily a bad thing. I want to follow whatever inspiration strikes me and not feel compelled to take on projects that are not inspiring.

I also plan to continue sharing much of my creative activity with Lois Wilby Hooper, a friend and fellow fibre artist. It’s wonderful to bounce ideas off one another without fear of being told they're absurd or undoable. So far, we’ve had two joint shows displaying our different interpretations of single ideas. How we each interpret those ideas as individuals has resulted in some very complementary yet very distinct pieces.

Where Has the Time Gone by Sandra Betts, 2013, w 23" x h 30"

To learn more about Sandra and her artwork, please visit her website, Individuelle

20 April 2016

SAQA Atlantic artists Penny Berens and Grace Butland exhibit with The Artist Way Collective in Annapolis Royal, NS.

Several years ago, textile artists Penny Berens and Grace Butland got together with other local artists to study Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. Out of this study group sprang the Artists Way Collective, a group that now consists of five artists: painters Sherry Caldwell, Nadine Belliveau and Giselle Beauchamp, as well as the two textile artists.

Their upcoming show, A Sense of Play, opens May 1st, 2016 in the Chapel Gallery of the Annapolis Region Community Art Council. The show features both textiles and paintings, including a group piece created by all five artists working together. A Sense of Play is on until May 29th, in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia.

05 April 2016

Summer Workshops at Lunenburg School of the Arts

Lunenburg School of the Arts offers workshops led by professional art educators and working artists, in the heart of Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a hub for arts and music

Three courses on offer this summer will be of interest to textile artists:

Spinnaker Seas: Silk Screen Printing on Cloth
Instructor: Nancy Price, MFA
Aug 8 - 12, 2016 / 10am - 4pm 
$400 + $65 materials fee
This course is recommended for all levels.

Beyond the Press: Print + Place
Instructor: Charley Young
Jul 18 - 22, 2016 / 10am - 4pm
$400 + $50 materials fee
This course is recommended for all levels

A Lunenburg Sketch-about
Instructor:  Emma FitzGerald
Jul 11 - 15, 2016 / 10am - 4pm
$400 + $25 materials fee
This course is recommended for all levels.

Read more about these and other courses on the LSA website.

03 April 2016

Report from Philadelphia, #4

Written by Chris Nielsen

More reasons to attend a SAQA conference:

12. Even when it is cold in the host city, it is colder in Atlantic Canada. As I write this it is sunny with a chilly wind in Philadelphia but there is snow in Halifax.

13. You will get excellent information from inspiring and informative speakers. On Sunday morning we were treated to a talk by Maria Shell which was highly personal and made references to the BeeGees and Karl Ove Knausgard's memoir as she talked about staying true to yourself as you reach for greater recognition as an art quilter. She also offered some practical advice for public speaking as an artist and for writing the various types of documents that will be requested from you. Last year her talk was so popular that SAQA made her speaking notes available to everyone. I will let you know if that happens again this year.

The final session of the conference was a presentation on copyright. The speaker was a lawyer and, impressively, he had done his homework on art quilts. He started by defining copyright and listing the rights are associated with it. I think he was surprised by the sophistication of his audience. Most of us knew that we hold a copyright simply by creating an original work. He followed up by reviewing some recent or significant copyright cases. The message we received was that copyright law is challenging since it requires the courts to interpret important but sometimes vague issues.

14. You will create new friendships in just a couple of days. There is no substitute for getting together with people who have lived your experience and with whom you can share the highs and lows to come. Add to that the fact that all of them have unique skills as artists and teachers which they will share with you and you will begin to wish that there was more than one conference a year.

Report from Philadelphia, #3

Written by Chris Nielsen

More reasons to attend a SAQA conference:

9. The weather!! I don't need to say more.

10. The opportunity to see great art quilts. The silent auction was held last night and it was exciting. Every year there are a few pieces that spark a bidding war and that buzz is fun. But for the rest of us it is like a giant trunk show. We get the privilege of picking up and examining work by people whose names we might know and those who we want to get to know.

Each year the conference organizers set aside time so that all the participants can travel together to see a major exhibition of art quilts. This year we saw Art Quilt Elements at the Wayne Art Centre. There were 66 pieces in this year's show and I learned something from each of them. There is no substitute for seeing textile art in person. Much of the most important detail is lost in photographs. Even so, I purchased a catalogue which I will be happy to share with you.

The 2017 conference is gong to be held in Nebraska in collaboration with the International Quilt Study Center. A new SAQA show called Layered Voices will open at the IQSC at that time. Based on the chatter at this conference and among members of the Exhibition Committee it will be a spectacular show. Check out the call for entry. 3D work will be considered as will other unique definitions of an art quilt.

11. The sense that you matter. You will likely get lots of validation of your decision to explore art quilts as a means of creative expression. But more than that you will have a chance to observe first-hand the ways in which SAQA changes in order to better meet its members' needs. On Saturday I experienced two such examples. The Exhibition Committee was given a slot on the program and they used that time to give a historical overview of the exhibition program which also involved some myth-busting. They also talked about current practice and addressed the changes which they are contemplating as a result of their survey of member interest and concerns. They will be sharing their PowerPoint presentation with the regional reps. Perhaps we can arrange to show it at our next retreat. I think you will be as impressed as I was.

Last night I was a part of a twist in conference programming which was a direct response to comments from past years. For Saturday Night Out conference registrants could sign up to dine at one of ten or twelve different restaurants. A volunteer gathered together the group and escorted them to the restaurant and then served as an informal host for the evening. I looked after a rowdy but fun group of 15 who ate at an Egyptian restaurant. I thought the experiment was a great success - it encouraged people to break away from the familiar and ensured that everyone had a dining partner. I hope that future conferences will include this component.

01 April 2016

Report from Philadelphia, #2

Written by Chris Nielsen

More reasons to attend a SAQA conference:

5. The weather is much nicer anywhere than in Atlantic Canada. It bears repeating. I went out for lunch and the office building signs said 78 degrees (what's that in Celcius?)

6. The keynote speakers are inspiring. Today we heard from Kathy Loomis. She talked about what she perceives to be the benefit of working series. Her talk was well-organized and included thoughts and examples from three other artists. On Sunday we will hear from Maria Shell who made quite a splash at the conference last year in Portland.

7. The students are inspiring. Every year SAQA arranges for local students who are pursuing a fibre track in a local arts college to attend the show and for four of them to appear on a panel to describe their work. It is stimulating to see what they are doing even if isn't to everyone's taste. The group this year was unified in their statements that their work flowed directly from their personal experiences and challenges.

8. Pecha kucha! Check out the link. This is the first time that they have done anything like this (and the idea to do it came from Maria Shell). Today 24 speakers talked for six minutes each. There were personal stories as well as practical topics on things like shipping. It was really fascinating to have an opportunity to know more about so many members. It's a truly talented group. The room was packed and people didn't drift way at the breaks so I am sure that it will become a feature of subsequent conferences.

Report from Philadelphia, #1

Written by Chris Nielsen

I will likely write a more detailed report on the sessions at the annual SAQA conference which is now going on in Philadelphia but I thought it might be fun to give you a sense of what it is like to attend this or similar events. As soon as I walked out of the airport I knew that I wanted to organize the information as 'Reasons to Attend a SAQA conference'. I think the first reason will give it away.

1. It is always better spring weather in the conference city than in Atlantic Canada. The conference is usually held on the last weekend of March. We all know what the weather is like at home. Here in Philadelphia the daffodils are up and their blooms are fading, the trees are leafing out, many of them are flowering and the temperature has been around 20 degrees.

The next two conferences are scheduled for Lincoln, Nebraska and then San Antonio, Texas. I am hearing amazing things about Lincoln and the International Quilt Museum and San Antonio is one of my favourite cities.

2. The organizers always seek out opportunities for attendees to visit local museums and galleries. They hit the jackpot in Philadelphia. There are too many venues to count but the most amazing is the Barnes Foundation. Check out the link and read about Albert Barnes and the astonishing art collection he created and preserved. It includes, among other things, 181 Renoirs and 67 Cezannes as well as lots of work by Matisse, Picasso and Miro. What is fascinating is that the works are hung many to a wall and there is a specific order and reason for their placement, all established by Barnes before he died. We all had an opportunity to go there for a few hours. I have to return for a day or two more to really soak it all in.

3. This is your tribe. The conference opened last night with a mixer which was meant to be an icebreaker. The organizers had developed an elaborate scheme which involved coloured tags which were to be matched to colours on the tables. We were then asked to answer, as a group, an art quilt construction question which was also placed on the table. Everyone ignored the game, even when volunteers came around to prompt responses. Why? People were too busy talking to one another even though most of them had just met. It is rare to see such a cohesive group. Looking around the room I didn't see anyone who was alone or even isolated within a group.

4. You will meet other Canadians. This morning I am going to breakfast with Mary Pal, Tracey Lawko, Heather Dubreuil and Maggie Vanderweit. The Canadians make a point of getting together every year. It's nice to have that connection.