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


  1. Wonderful to see your current work, Sandra, both here and in "real life" at the Yarmouth branch of Nova Scotia Art Gallery. Beautiful! Your name was a "blast from the past" for me, when I remembered email conversations spilling off from the "crazy quilt list-serve." And then I discovered your connection with my good friend Susan Lilley. Amazing how the quilting web continues to be woven.

    All the best!

    Phyllis Price, Broad Cove, Lunenburg County. NS.

  2. Interesting read, Sandra! I live Siren of the Kelp and I like Where Has the Tine Gone. It speaks to me.