Saturday, September 15, 2012

Questions For Betsy Towns, Sculptor

Betsy Towns teaches Art History  at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her sculptures appear in public and private collections around the US including major installations owned by the city of Charlotte, NC. Her recent work -- ceramic and mixed media installations --  is now being shown under the title Recapturing Childhood at the Red Sky Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina.

How would you describe what you do?  
My most important mentor in sculpture is Xavier Toubes, who now works at the Art Institute in Chicago. He took my work seriously before I felt brave enough to take it seriously, and that made a huge difference in the way I valued what I made. In his lovely Spanish accent, he announced to me one day, “You are a maker of things.” It doesn’t sound so significant in my own tones, but it certainly approaches a description the activity in my studio. I make objects, carefully but playfully, and set a variety of stages for the objects to work with and against each other to create meaning. It takes a mouthful for me to say what Xavier said in six words.
Is this different than what other people think you do?
Yes. People see me teaching much more than they see me in the studio. Sometimes I find it easier to say, “I teach Art History,” than “I’m an Artist,” with all the baggage that word totes. More and more, I think of myself as artist first, but I don’t always claim that.
How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?
When I can’t make myself leave the studio.
How do you go about making choices? 
Many ways. I do a lot of sketching, take photos of work in progress to get a little distance and see a little more clearly what adjustments I should make, and I play with the things I make: put them on wheels, on spring, on see-saws and on each other. I bring them in the house and live with them a bit. I think about the work before I fall asleep and sometimes wake up with solutions.
How do you know when you’re done?
One of my favorite artists is Joseph Cornell. Both his life and his work (meticulously crafted habitats for found objects) fascinate me. He gave many of his pieces away as gifts (to Susan Sontag, Lauren Bacall, a few ballerinas, and others he loved from afar). Sometimes, though, he would go to their houses and take the work back, either because he realized the piece was not finished, or because he no longer felt they should have the piece. I don’t go that far. My work is finished when it sells. Until then, it moves around, tries on clothes, gets a new set of wheels.
What’s your workspace like?
I have a little wooden shed in the back yard—six feet by ten—with a porch about the same size, a lean-to shed to house the kiln, and a large work table in the yard. I like best to work outside, and just have the tiny indoor space to protect my materials and work on the coldest days. 
What are your essential tools? 
My hands, my eyes and my kiln. I also like to use spoons and forks and a few pencil-shaped pieces of wood.
What’s the most surprising tool you use? 
When I go to the dentist, I ask for their cast-aside tooth-cleaning tools. Stainless steel picks with various curved points, all terrifying.
What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from? 

Taking a real job. I keep learning so much from teaching, though, that I keep teaching.

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