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Inside the Studio: Betsy Alwin

Betsy Alwin is a mixed media artist exploring her works' unique relationship between strength and fragility. Coming from a traditional background in sculpture, Alwin’s structural works are built with an experimental yet simplistic approach. While Alwin has been trained in traditional methods, we spoke about her recent willingness to think outside of her previous understanding of materials and push the boundaries. This approach has allowed her to test the limits of structural balance and form.

Her art has graced spaces both nationally and internationally, Betsy is now residing in Colorado where she is expanding her process with new access to materials and artists at Anderson Ranch. In our conversation, we dove into the reasoning behind her decision to explore certain ideas, her background, and her thoughts on being willing to break the rules when working with materials. Read on to learn more in this exclusive interview with Betsy Alwin.


Uplift, 2018 - Porcelain, flocked rebar, painted polyurethane foam


You have spoken in an online workshop about your interest in exploring the dichotomy between strength and fragility in your work. What drew you to this dichotomy and why do you choose to explore this in your works?

I’ve always been interested in thinking about the human condition and absurdities. In my later years, I was thinking increasingly more about how something like strength and fragility are typically viewed as things that are diametrically opposed. I came to realize that they are very much a part of the same thing and that they rely on each other. I am interested in the reality where they meet, and showing that you can't have one without the other. Life can be quite fierce, but also very fragile. Those realities come through in metaphors with material

experience.

My materials themselves embody strength and fragility. The use of porcelain in combination with materials like steel rebar reflects this dichotomy. The steel rebar is used as somewhat of a drawing element in my work that can appear both structurally sound but also very soft and malleable.


Underdog, 2022 - Porcelain, reinforced concrete


You mention that this moment of wanting to explore the dichotomy of strength and fragility came later in life. What was the focus of your works beforehand, like when you were first starting to make your artworks?

I was thinking about the built environment more, which there are still elements of in my works today. But I used to think about the idea of built environments, how we may or may not have control over it, and how it reflects back to us our own bodies and selves. This approach isn't

entirely different now but early in my career I was thinking through ideas of control, for example where you have control versus where you don't have control in respect to your environment. I made some public interventions in architectural spaces, explored some kinetic work, and also did some work with found objects including transforming them into absurd vehicles.

The one piece that I finished before I started on this new body of work, was a solar-powered hammer that kept hammering mercilessly all day from morning until night. With that piece I was thinking about the idea of working and doing an activity over and over that doesn't necessarily make sense. After finishing my hammer piece I felt a need to go back and work with a studio-based focus so I could really dive deep into my materials and ideas. I had a real longing to do this because this is how I was traditionally trained. I used to live in New York where it was hard to have a studio practice along with enough space for all the things I made. Because of my limited space in the City, I did a lot of project-based work. I was responding to sites and situations where I was invited to make a piece. Now that I've got more space, the work is more about me diving into my own self and reflecting.


Wrecker (Pearl), 2022 - Stoneware, flocked chain, hardware


In learning about ceramics and working traditionally with materials, you were taught to follow the rules. You have spoken up about being more willing to break the rules in recent years. I'm curious how you've stepped out of your comfort zone in your process. How have you gone about breaking the rules?

Well, sometimes it's from naivete. When you’re working with a material that you are not entirely sure of, you can do something that people who know the material probably wouldn't try. I have a background in working with materials traditionally and I know the materials enough to be able to push them to their limits. Sometimes I think about how I can’t/shouldn't be doing certain things with materials, but what if I just tried? What if I just approach the material with a bit of a nudge and push the boundaries of what has been taught traditionally? I believe you can break the rules if you know the rules, but you can also break the rules out of this naivete. You just have to be willing to take a risk and possibly fail. This is an important part of being an artist which can be very daunting to many, especially when working with expensive materials. Breaking the rules is putting things together that aren't meant to be together and in my work sometimes pushing the limits of balance. This goes together with my ideas of exploring things that are diametrically opposed. To create a conversation between two opposing forces is somewhat breaking the rules.


Stabilizer, 2022 - Wax, flocked rebar, concrete, wood


Are there any artists or people that have been most influential to your creative development?

Artists that influenced me from the very beginning include Louise Bourgeois who didn't get recognized in her career until she was in her 70’s I believe. She had been working with art her whole life and was on the sidelines without much attention. I very much appreciate her dedication and material honesty. I also admire Julia Phillips who is a contemporary artist that I met recently. She works with mixed media in a different way, questioning how the body is supposed to function and questioning how the world functions around it. I've had countless teachers who have been very influential, who have pushed me and have been very influential to my process, I simply couldn’t name them all.


Rise, 2018 - Porcelain, painted wood, flocked rebar


Are there any experiences in your past that had a significant impact on shaping your artistic style or vision?

Yes, I went to Skowhegan School Of Painting & Sculpture which was a big influence on my life. I worked there after being a participant and had the benefit of meeting a lot of people over 5 years. A truly great experience I had that shaped the way that I work is teaching. I was at the Cooper Union co-teaching foundry, doing mostly metal casting and thought my students should know how to do some other things. One of my professors had taught me slip casting so I thought this would be a good thing to teach to my students. When I started to teach this, I began getting really interested in slipping again. I don't know how I got the idea, but one day I tried dipping lace into the slip, draping it on paper, then firing it in the kiln. This ended up being a big process in a lot of my works, utilizing slip and lace to create very interesting patterns. I got very excited when I started to utilize this approach because it was new to me and something that I had never seen before. I also spent a summer with Betty Woodman and other ceramic artists at Skowhegan where I witnessed people wrapping clay in paper and firing it, which caused the paper to burn away. The culmination of my experiences at Skowhegan and teaching were really big in shaping my work.

What's the biggest challenge that you face in your process when working with so many different types of materials?

One of the difficult things for me is to develop constraints. As an artist with a lot of skills, materials, and access to things at my disposal, this can seem like a great thing. But I believe you can truly do more with less. Making sure I set my own boundaries can be the biggest challenge for me. I get very excited about a lot of different materials and techniques, so to be able to sit down and make a work using limited materials in a certain way can be difficult at times. Being very experimental, I can sometimes combine too many materials and elements that end up being too much for the piece. It's a constant battle in trying to find the middle ground of having constraints, but also allowing myself to be free enough to experiment within those constraints.


Torso, 2019 - Porcelain. stand is plaster and rebar


Where do you see yourself evolving as an artist maybe 5 years from now?


I think I will continue to work with the materials I currently work with, but I will change the way that I work with them. I'm hoping that I will have the benefit of scale in the future. I will continue to do research in developing the forms I make and how that can be experienced by the viewer. I might let my work be a little bit more traditionally ceramic which I can do with more wood firing and soda firing at my current location. I see my work evolving to be much more materially informed. I will likely continue thinking about dichotomies and contradictions coming together. I see myself experimenting more with balance, space, and creating objects that make viewers more aware of their own bodies and their relationships to these ideas.

Are there any works of yours that hold special significance to you?


There is a work called “Lightness of Being” which was the first time I put a direct reference to the body in a piece. In the middle of the night, I got the idea to cast my arm and make it a porcelain lace arm. I was afraid to do this because I thought it may be too literal, but I made it and paired it with other materials that became a self-portrait, which embodied these kinds of autobiographical moments. The sculpture has multiple elements and talks about so many things that I want to talk about in my work including vulnerability.


Lightness of Being, 2018 - Porcelain, flocked rebar, wood, cast polyurethane foam


What does being an artist mean to you?

I think artists are driven to be artists because they're the people thinking on the edge of reality. They are people who are living in a place of resistance because to be an artist is somewhat seen as an anarchist kind of resistance to the norm. Being an artist is a way of life that isn't always very easy, and comes with many complications aside from the financial which most people seem to point out first. But it's more about that struggle to express what you want, to be acknowledged, to have philosophical conversations, and to change the world. Art is trying to get you to see something that hasn't been seen before, so to be an artist you have to be brave. Alwin will be showing works in a solo show next year, although dates have yet to be announced.


She currently has works on display in Palm Springs, CA at the Rubine Red Gallery.


To learn more about Alwin’s works and keep up to date with her latest shows, you can follow her using the links below!

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