Betsy DeFusco has called a studio on Spring Street in downtown Columbus her artistic headquarters for over twenty years. Her colorful paintings evolve one thin layer at a time. Across all of her series, light emanates from within each work. Her careful application of the paint achieves this goal, as well as a sense of calm and serenity. This is especially apparent in her Light Crossings series which feature overlapping stripes. In some paintings within this series, a calligraphic line cuts across the canvas in a playful gesture. This push and pull between planning and spontaneity mirrors how she approaches a new painting. I recently visited Betsy at her studio while she was preparing for an upcoming studio sale. This was cause to revisit past work, providing a road map of her artistic journey.
After studying art education at the University of Dayton, you didn’t teach, but rather worked in fashion illustration and then started a business drawing house portraits. Do any of those endeavors play a residual role in your work today?
The residual effect is that I used pen, ink and transparent watercolor for that early work, and I still prefer working on a white background. I work on a gessoed, white background and try to let the light come through. I also really like line, and I am always trying to figure out how to get more line into the work, harkening back to those pen and ink sketches. I learned the line drawing at my first job at a department store doing fashion art. That was so much fun. Party job!
What pushed you to make the leap from illustrative drawings to painting?
I knew I could probably have a bigger business if I kept going with the house portraits and prints I was doing, but I wanted to progress further and learn how to oil paint. So I went to CCAD and enrolled in painting classes. I loved it because it was a brand new medium. I had used acrylics, but I had never used oil and I liked it so much more. When my friend Marti invited me to share studio space at 55 E. Spring Street I jumped at the chance. I had always worked at home when my children were young, but I was ready to have a studio away from my house.
What was the first subject matter that you painted?
When I was about nine I painted a beautiful tree that stood alone in a field behind my house. I remember thinking I had to get it down on paper, it was so lovely! Fast forward many years to when I started in my studio, I painted landscapes and clouds followed by a bit of collage, always two-dimensional. The first time I did anything three-dimensional was in graduate school when I cut openings into my paintings. Some openings were closed off in the back, and some were open. I also experimented with different depths.
What was the significance of opening up the panels in that way?
I wanted another element in there since my work was getting very minimal. At graduate school, anything we put in our paintings was questioned to death. We had to answer every question about why each element was there. I could never do that, so my work became very minimal and still is, in a way. I believe in ‘less is more.’ The challenge comes in making works that still have a certain complexity. I got the idea for the openings in part because I was studying Asian Art. I was thinking a lot about Buddhism and Taoism. In Taoism, there is a quote about how it is not the jar that is important, but the empty space inside the jar. “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.” Also, “We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.” To me the opening represents our inner thoughts and dreams, and also refers to all the unanswered questions in our lives.
After you finished graduate school, you abandoned minimalism a little and returned to clouds. Why is that?
They had been forbidden in graduate school (”already done”) so I had to go back and do them. Which just shows you really have to do what you want to do. But then they became limiting. Any time I got too close to realism there was some structure I wanted to break out of. So I did the clouds in different colors, and then started my Pine Creek series that depicted reflections in water. Eventually I realized that it was more about the color than it was about the subject matter. That is when I started painting stripes and just playing with colors.
How would you define the category of painting your work adheres to most?
Landscape. Some of the big paintings in the Light Crossings series are more landscape-like. It is about the light in the sky and the earth. When I look at my painting I see sky, water and land, even if no one else does. I think many artists today try to straddle the line between abstraction and representation in an interesting way so that it’s not one or the other. That is kind of the big challenge for two-dimensional painters now. How do you refer to reality in a new and unique way that might be a little unexpected.
Your studio mates describe you as very orderly – with all of your brushes in a row. How would you describe your studio practice?
That is true! I cannot work if there is a mess around me. The ideal is that you come in every day and you put everything else out of your mind and just work with the paint. If things happen, they happen. I like to start early, but sometimes it is easier if I get things done at home first and come in with a clearer mind. I like to come in, put music on, fool around a bit, and just start working. I work on big things and little things at the same time. If I am getting ready for a show, I work on ten to twenty pieces at once. I find it helpful since I paint with oil. I like to use thin layers – so I do a thin layer, set it aside, and come back the following day and paint another thin layer.
How many layers do you think are on any given painting?
Probably at least forty to fifty. It seems like I work on some of them for a really long time, so it is hard to say exactly. I am a thin painter. I have tried to put the paint on thick, but I just can’t do it even though I love when other people do it. Maybe it is the whole minimalistic style of my work. I like calm and I don’t want that bumpiness. I also can’t paint fast. Just like the thick paint, I like it when people do, but I can’t seem to. I am reading a book called A Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman. It about the painter Camille Pissarro and his mother and there is a quote I just love. “Jestine had told me never to rush something I was creating, but instead to let it come into being as if it had a soul of its own.” Not sure why the quote struck me so, except that I love to spend time with each piece, and take my time. And, I love looking at work where you know that time was spent making it.
What artists inspire you?
My favorite artist is Richard Diebenkorn. He had three distinct phases: abstraction with a lot of movement, figurative, and color fields. I was thinking I was getting tired of him, but then I saw his work again in Washington DC a few years ago and it was breathtaking. I find it very healing to see those large areas of color, and I love his use of line. There are a lot of grays in his work, like in the paintings of Matisse. I am just starting to learn about the different grays you can get by mixing oil paints. I still go back to him and look at the colors. His figurative and representational work is also really nice.
What makes you want to paint more?
Painting is always an unanswered question. It is an adventure.