An interview with our artist Betty McGowan

11 June 2019

We talk to artist Betty McGowan from Ontario, Canada.

Please describe your artwork style.

I am a non-objective abstract artist, working in numerous mediums and on numerous surfaces.

What’s your background?
This is my second career. After spending many years in education. I am making up for lost time with my art studies.  I have been painting and studying about 10-11 years now.

How long have you been an artist?
I have been painting about 11 years, and consider that I have been an artist for about 6 years. Before that, I was a hobby artist.

Who or what are your biggest influences?
My paintings have been heavily influenced by the Painters Eleven, a group of Canadian abstract artists influential in the 1960’s. In addition to that, the American abstractionists of the mid 20th century, in particular, Helen Frankenthaler have had an enormous influence on my style.

How have you developed your career?
A student of Helen Frankenthaler, Lila Lewis Irving, and her protege, Bianka Guna,  have helped me refine my work.  Their critical influence has been vital in my development from a hobbyist to a professional artist.

Which current art world trends are you following?
Where do you create your work?  I have a few locations in my home that I love to paint in, depending on the time of day, when the light is right. As a matter of fact, I paint all over my home, including outside.  I am like my cat!

What do you feel is the role of the artist in society?  
The artist in any society in any age portrays many ideas.  There is no one role for an artist because each individual chooses a different subject matter, medium, and method to present, his or her unique voice to the world.  Some choose to comment on politics, on society, on social justice or injustice.  Others choose to portray beauty.  It then becomes the role of the historian or art critic to interpret that artwork in terms of the cultural climate of the time and location in which the artist lived and worked.

What techniques / mediums do you use?
I work primarily with acrylics and water media of all kinds.  In addition, I am adding more collage elements to my paintings, as well as using more acrylic mediums currently available on the market. For example, there is a new product called copper cinder which gives a beautiful sheen and texture to your work.  So this opens up such a wide variety of techniques it is difficult to name all of them here.

Which is more important to you, the subject of your painting, or the way it is executed?
This is a great question!  Because I paint in a totally non-objective style, there is no “subject” to focus on.  I begin, of course, with a plan or a sketch of a pleasing composition, and with a thoughtful consideration of the colors I will use in the painting, but the process takes over after that.  While I am painting, I am constantly thinking about the techniques, the strokes, the colors and the overall composition of the artwork.  The painting begins to take on a life of its own, and sometimes a new direction.  The idea of a subject has disappeared completely from my thoughts.  While I am engaged in this process, sometimes a different, but related “subject” will pop into my head and provide me with another avenue to pursue another canvas.

How do you feel when you are letting your emotions loose on the canvas? 
I love it!  I feel I am “in the zone!”  I just want to keep on painting and painting and painting!

What project are you working on now?
I recently completed my “Paleolithic”  series of paintings, inspired by a documentary I saw on the Lascaux caves.  I got to thinking about how a non-objective artist from the 21st century might treat the cave paintings.  I am now exploring collage elements and am pondering some new ideas for a new series based on Canadian indigenous culture.

Any current or up-coming exhibitions?
My solo show in Oshawa, Ontario, entitled “Evolving” has just finished. It featured some older works which pointed the way towards my evolution as a non-objective artist. Prior to that, I participated in a group show called “15 Reasons to Live”.  This show is being re-configured and will be displayed at a new venue to be announced.  In early 2020 I will again be holding a solo show. This show is scheduled to open in March.

Where do you find your ideas for your work?
Another good question!  Many sources supply me with my inspiration.  As mentioned above, sometimes it arises out of my paintings themselves.  The Paleolithic series came from a TV documentary. The idea for a series related to our Canadian indigenous culture has sprung from numerous sources:  it is a prominent current event item on the news and is an important topic of discussion among many Canadians, as we come to grips with past injustices and the current reality of an undervalued culture living in the midst of a wealthy  country.  The Art Gallery of Ontario, and indeed, many art institutions throughout Canada, are now recognizing this important heritage.  I feel that I would like to honour it in my own way.

Is there an artwork you are most proud of? Why?
I am so lucky because I have a few!  Two of my Paleolithic series have won awards and been featured in many recent juried art shows.  The first one is entitled “Lascaux 1”.  It has a ton of different elements to it- charcoal, conte, paper, paint, and acrylic mediums, combined together to produce a raw exploration of painting on a cave wall.  Another is “Cave Face 2” which recently won an award, and features the appearance and texture of a cave wall, which might have been painted on, thousands of years ago.  It is a more mysterious painting and combines prepared papers as well as paints and mediums.

How do you know when a work is finished?
It just feels right. Sometimes even I am not sure. But a good rule of thumb is, if you are not sure, don’t add it.  Wait.

What is your most important artist tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
My studio is a cornucopia of tools, paint, canvas,  etc.  To narrow it down to one tool is virtually impossible.  But I will try.  Several big brushes?  Probably.  On a painting in any given 2 hour period, I will use as least 10-12 brushes, so that’s probably the best answer.

Is there an element of art you enjoy working with most? Why?
I am not sure that I have understood the question, but for me, it is the whole creative process which drives me. Right from my first concept, through the selection of colours and mediums, and surfaces, and then into the brush strokes, techniques, and execution of it.  That is what I enjoy.  At each step of the way, in non-objective art, there is a total decision-making process.  Is this the right colour here? What do I need there?  How can I achieve the idea I have in my head?  That to me is what I find enjoyable.

I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to address your questions.  Hope you enjoyed this discussion as much as I have.

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