Q&A with Betty Spackman, Artist and kitsch expert

I am an artist. I make things. I paint pictures. I make things and paint pictures and tell stories.

January 18th, 2008

Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.

Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?

Betty Spackman: I am an artist. I make things. I paint pictures. I make things and paint pictures and tell stories.

Comment: What first drew you to this work?

BS: Ever since I was a child I liked to make things. It just took me a long time to realize it was okay to make things—to be an artist "when I grew up." I thought that I could not be an artist because I wanted to help people when I grew up. I liked art so I thought it was selfish. I thought I would have to be a nurse or something like that. When I became a Christian this problem was even more complicated because I wanted to please and serve God. I didn't know how to do that as an artist. It took me about fifteen years to finally reconcile my motivations. It happened when I finally understood I had to be a child. It happened when I understood that God was more interested in me than in my gifts and what I could do for Him. It was when I understood that it was what He did in me that counted that I could let go of trying to please Him or people by what I did. I learned that it was not only okay to be an artist but that it was a responsibility, a privilege, and a joy. And, I learned that art can help people. One must make daily choices to love one's neighbour in whatever way is presented—making art or making dinner for someone. Our job is our daily activity where we can practice integrity and serve others and be creative, be it as a banker or lawyer or dancer or mother. But our real work is to love God and love our neighbour.

Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?

BS: I will tell you one. When I was in undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto I was working on a small installation piece about communication. Part of it was two three-foot-high drawings of my mother's ears. I pinned them on the wall in the space I was working and went to get some materials I needed. When I returned the drawings had been ripped off the wall and thrown into the garbage. I was shocked. There is an unwritten law in any art school that even if work is bad you never throw it away without finding out who it belongs to and if they are still working on it. My teacher was furious and went to try to find the person responsible. She returned quite awhile later to tell me that one of the men who worked for the University doing janitorial services was partially deaf and when he saw the drawings he thought someone was making fun of him! He responded accordingly. Of course his response was extremely emotional and totally illogical. These drawings had each taken several hours and were formal renderings ready to be mounted and exhibited. The drawings were not aggressive graffiti nor intended in any way to offend him, as I had no idea about his disability. However, if I wanted to explore communication in that class this incident gave me the best lesson about it I could ever have had. I learned that meaning in art is found as much in the viewer as in the intent of the artist, and I have never again relied on art to communicate a predetermined message. This is a very important lesson for Christians, or anyone with a message they want to tell. We have a choice to make propaganda or to make art. Making propaganda is easy. We simply illustrate our message and hope it communicates—which it most often doesn't, except to the initiated. Making art is more difficult. When we make art we have to allow transformation, in ourselves as well as our work, sometimes to the point of even wondering if our "message" is there at all. If we are true to ourselves, to God and to the process, the work will speak, and it will say a lot more than our prescribed agenda would have allowed. As the artist, if I have ears, the work will also speak back to me.

Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?

BS: I think of something an older Christian woman once said to me. She said, "If you are standing on an iceberg and it is melting under your feet, stay there even if it is painful. But if you are standing on an iceberg and your feet start to freeze, get the hell off!"

Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?

BS: My life is complex and so is my art. I do multi-media installation work as well as painting, video, sound, graphic work, illustration, and so forth. I am influenced by many ideas, and I am affected by my emotional responses to many things (and people). I appreciate a variety of cultural aesthetics. I like things that are real but have come to understand that truth is sometimes best told through fiction. I like the complexity of simplicity—like how bees dance, and the sound of children's giggles. Although there are several recurring themes in my work, each project I work on has its own sources of influence and references. I also know that my relationship with God directly influences what I do. My spiritual life lessons are manifested visually in my work and when they are, when I see my own work, the good and the bad, I realize how little I know, how little I "am." I am grateful that as I work, I am at the same time being worked on by my Creator. This takes the pressure off from trying to perform for God and instead to stop, look, and listen.

Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?

BS: My habits change depending on where I am living—and I have lived in many different situations, communities, and countries. My routines also change if I am teaching or doing other jobs besides working in the studio. Most often I spend the early hours of the morning writing and answering email and somehow trying to listen to God. Once I pick up a paint brush or a hammer it is just hard work dictated by the process of the particular project. Right now I am cleaning animal bones, building objects, sewing with string, writing text for sound work and constructing and writing a book—all for the same installation project. When my arm gets sore I sit and think. When my eyes are tired I take a break. And, oh yes! ? I have a Jack Russell terrier who is often the one in charge of my routine and most of my breaks! She lets me know when it is good to leave the computer and go for a walk and when it is good to ignore the work altogether and have some time to play.

Comment: What are your favorite tools?

BS: Images and words are my tools. But I will say my favorite practical tool at the moment is a very simple little hand drill from Holland that I seem to use for everything. I also appreciate hammers and the right knife for the right job, the drill, the jigsaw, and, of course, my much-needed tape measure! I love perfect paintbrushes and I love the old tattered ones. I drool over a blank canvas and on the computer can spend way too many hours working with Adobe Photoshop. When I am in Canada, my most necessary tool is my vehicle—usually an old, rusted version of a vehicle I would actually like to have to use. I don't really like cars and they are a constant problem for my ecological conscience—but I always need one. My vehicle has often been my house-on-wheels, no matter how small or large, my way to a job, the possibility to transport art work and dogs and old ladies to—wherever—and a means for me to move onto the next adventure. In another century, a horse and wagon would have done just as well.

Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.

BS: One project I really enjoyed came from an invitation to participate in an event with sixty of the top artists in Upper Austria—making objects that would fit into cigarette-sized boxes to be sold out of vending machines in front of all the major museums and galleries in Vienna. Even the catalogue was produced to fit into one of these cigarette boxes. The intent was to make art accessible and affordable to the public—and the public responded to these five dollar boxes enthusiastically. The vending machines were sold out in two days. I filled the 75 boxes we were given with little bagged treasures I found on the beach of Lake Ontario where I used to walk my dog. Anja Westerfroelke (with whom I collaborated) and I also created baseball-style laminated cards that went with each object and had an individual URL to a web site where an image of that object brought you to all the objects shown in the context of three stories about industrial waste and nature. I enjoyed this project for the political statement it made, being a part of a large art community, and sharing in Vienna, found objects I had collected in Toronto.

Comment: How do you plan your work?

BS: I make sketches, and lists, and then update the sketches and update the lists. I do research on line. I make models. I make more sketches and journal about my feelings about the ideas in the sketches. I make more lists, more sketches. I pray about it. I sometimes talk about it. I use grocery money for materials so I can get started and then I dive in—with more processing than planning as I go. For many years I collaborated with Austrian artist Anja Westerfroelke. She was a planner and a detail person. Every measurement was precise and thought out. She would think and plan for seven days and then have the thing she wanted. I worked differently. I would make something everyday for seven days and then have the thing I wanted. Our results were often the same but our process was different. We found the balance we had together very beneficial—though often very difficult.

Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?

BS: My life and work are not separate. The art and the friends and the money and the places to live and the family and the teaching and the writing and the travel and the health and the thinking and the giving and the living and the worry and the wonder—all take place in the same fragile moment.

Topics: Arts
 

Betty Spackman, MFA, is a multi media installation artist who has exhibited internationally and taught at various Universities in Canada and the US for 15 years. Her book, A Profound Weakness: Christians and Kitsch, a personal journal about images of faith in Popular culture, and her own struggles with the relationship between faith and art, was published in 2005 by Piquant Editions, UK.

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