Betsy Stewart: Capturing the Microscopic Cosmos

By Robert Luce

Not many artists can say the specimens they draw inspiration from can fit into a petri dish, but then not every artist is Betsy Stewart. Her abstract paintings depict the microscopic life found in pond water. “In my new series, “Biocriticals”, I am interested in creating an ambiguity between micro and macro: what is happening in microscopic water as well as events in the cosmos,” she says. “If I am successful, my viewers will determine for themselves whether they are seeing particles/matter through a microscope or through a telescope.”

Stewart is one of several artists whose work will be on display at the Center for Great Apes Endangered exhibition in Miami, December 5 through the 9 at Miami Club Rum Distillery. “My work on view includes a piece from each of four different series that share a common theme,” explains Stewart. “I examine microscopic, mutually dependent life systems found in pond water. Giving these images a presence speaks to our fragile position in the cosmos.” In anticipation of the event, we chat with Stewart about beginnings, galleries and the Center for Great Apes.

When did you realize you were going to be an artist?

I have always felt I was an artist. From childhood through my junior year in college I studied modern dance. I particularly loved the movement and structure of dance. When I was introduced to painting through a studio arts requirement, I found the creative aspects of placing paint on a canvas to be reminiscent of choreographing a dance performance. My compositions to this day play with the elements of color, form and movement, choreographed in harmony with the natural world. The career change was seamless, and I have never looked back with regret.

What was the first piece you ever did?

I was, very early on, influence by Amedeo Modigliani who was a primary figure of modernism. His mask-like faces and elongation of form inspired me to create a head of a studio model that exemplified these tenants.

What is a typical day for you? Walk us through your process.

"Aquatilis No.12 (side two), 2010, 75"x 8"x4". Acrylic and sumi ink on wood.

“Aquatilis No.12 (side two), 2010, 75″x 8″x4”. Acrylic and sumi ink on

My morning is normally spent on art related work such as making arrangements for my future gallery shows. I reach my studio in the late morning where I work steadily until the end of the day. I work on one singular piece at a time, adding multiple layers of transparent acrylic paint imbedded with ink drawings. Like a composer hearing the overall composition, I have mapped out in my mind’s eye where all the key subject matter will be placed, but the rest happens in a very automatic intuitive way with each paint stroke leading to the next mark. My evenings also tend to be related to art given the fact that Washington, DC has many museum activities in the evening and there are endless gallery shows.

How do you describe your work?

The voice of my work is truly reminiscent of the philosophical writings of the great environmentalist John Muir who wrote: When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find that it is attached to the rest of the world.” I explore the connections in nature from a droplet of water to the vastness of the cosmos.

What type of person do you paint for?

I paint, first and foremost, to please myself. I would imagine that I am painting for an audience extremely sensitive to the forms I create and the colors I use. Since I have recently sold three major paintings to a corporation that employs molecular biologists and physicists, I may unconsciously be seeking an audience that can appreciate the science underlying my work.

What exhibition are you most proud of and why?

It is very difficult to single out just one exhibition, as each one has been challenging and satisfying.  Having said that I am quite proud of my latest exhibit at the Ian Tan Gallery in Vancouver where I presented my recently completed 7’x4’ “Bioverse” series to an audience totally unfamiliar with my work, who expressed interest and appreciation for it with meaningful purchases.

"Metascules No.5", 20012, 67"x47". Acrylic and sumi ink on canvas.

“Metascules No.5″, 20012, 67″x47”. Acrylic and sumi ink on canvas.

What are some of your favorite museums and galleries? Why?

I am partial to galleries that select artists who have shared sensibilities and also employ great skill in mounting their exhibitions. I visit galleries that take chances on new media. I am as impressed with museums that have iconic collections as well as smaller museums that emphasize creative curatorial depth. For example, the exhibits at the Vancouver Art Gallery astounded me recently. Each floor featured shows with unusual, provocative themes; the art was installed with a flair for design including the use of unusual color on the walls. The wall text was succinct and informative.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge when painting?

My biggest challenge when painting is constantly to discover fresh and insightful new ideas while expressing my own voice.

How did you come to be involved with the Center for Great Apes? 

I first became aware of the Center for Great Apes through fellow members of the Explorers Club who had been active with the Center. Since I greatly admire the work of the Center, I was most pleased when I learned that Octavia Gallery, who are handling several of my paintings, was going to be exhibiting with them in Miami. I was delighted when I learned that proceeds from sales would go in part to the Center.

Why is it important for people get involved with the CFGA?

It is important to get involved with the charity and I strongly support their goals: the great Apes are in grave danger and their fragile environment must be protected.

For more information on Betsy, visit