Interview! Figurative Expressionist and Portrait Artist Betty Southerland

“It takes a massive amount of will and self determination to spend so much time and resources on something that isn’t very much appreciated in a world that wants to put a dollar sign on everything, so I have learned to be very protective of my free time so I can focus on the work that matters to me.”

If someone asked you to describe your artist self, what are the first words that come to mind? Since you practice several different disciplines (including graphic design) does this description change depending on who you’re talking to? If so, why do you think that is the case?
If all of the paintings I’ve completed in the past six years or so are viewed in a certain way, the story of me is told in a detail that I have very few words to describe. I would ask folks to look at my work closely and from different perspectives; some of the paintings look repulsive on the surface but if you stick with it, you will be surprised. My life has been that way: scary on the surface but deep and fulfilling beneath the façade. Suffering can be transformative. It’s no accident that freedom and transformation are recurring themes in my work. I don’t speak much in my daily life; words often fail me and I find them limiting. I trust my instincts and I am curious and experimental. Most of what I have done over the past six years was done as “practice” which allowed me freedom to enjoy making work without worrying about whether or not someone else will like, buy, or approve of it. I do a lot of photo studies because they allow me to enjoy the act of creating without thinking.

I have always been drawn to art and have known since I was four that it was what I wanted to do forever, though I was told throughout my life that artists don’t make money. This was frightening to me having grown up in poverty and been homeless as a teen. In order to survive in this world, without the usual forms of support and a limited education, I was guided into graphic design as a career. For 30 years, these skills have provided for me. I have had fun working with other designers/creatives and I consider myself very lucky to have a job that allows me to be somewhat creative and use technology in novel ways. I am always grateful for the opportunities but also felt like my own artistic voice was frequently lost in deadlines, client briefs, and demands. This is why it became important to start making art of my own that had no purpose other than to be created. Self-supporting from my day job as a graphic designer and illustrator affords me the money to buy the necessities and an assortment of art supplies, but not always unlimited free time to create. It is a balancing act that all artists face. It takes a massive amount of will and self determination to spend so much time and resources on something that isn’t very much appreciated in a world that wants to put a dollar sign on everything, so I have learned to be very protective of my free time so I can focus on the work that matters to me. I find that compartmentalizing the types of art I do for others helps me set boundaries on what I will or won’t do for money. If I can manage to stick to those boundaries, I make space to create what I want!

Yes! Let’s talk more about that: the product, the process, how the act of creation is fulfilling for you.
I enjoy the process of making art more than I enjoy having a finished product, although there is always an excitement in finishing a painting mainly because I get to start a new one. I find, however, that the finished pieces feel familial to me and I enjoy having them around, though I am not so deeply attached that I can’t let them go when the time is right. The pleasure is all in the making. I trust my instincts when “rehoming” my paintings. When it comes to making art for others, I do want to ultimately share it and I am inspired by the idea of secretly gifting folks with a little surprise or unexpected magic moment in a painting. It thrills me to think of someone owning one of my paintings and one day catching something out of the blue that they never noticed before. It’s even more fun when I get to see the recognition on their faces when they see a hidden element. I like learning new things. The discovery of new techniques, processes, and materials is what makes art fun and fulfills a part of me that felt empty for much of my life. In the past, I filled that hole with food or relationships, trusting others’ opinions over my own intuition, until I discovered that I really just needed to express myself with art. 

How did you find your way to art?
For several decades, I have been involved with graphic design but I hadn’t worked on my own (non-money making) projects. For about 20 years, I didn’t do much art at all. In the past, I felt overwhelmed with work and home and believed I never had much time for self-expression. This became a detriment to my spirit and literally made me sick. There was always an excuse for why I couldn’t paint/draw. I had a lot of people around me giving me vocal support but what I needed was to give myself time, space, and permission to create. As a young woman, I focused on what I felt the world expected of me and told myself “there’s plenty of time for all that later,” finding that there never was. After giving so much of myself away, my soul didn’t have the energy to create, it seemed. I was also afraid to share my work and I felt that it had to be perfect before I could show it. Following a car wreck that left me in a wheelchair for about nine months, I noticed that my old ways of being and relating to the world stopped working. My life changed completely and I knew without a doubt that I must make art. Not long after that, I became a single mother and I realized how much time I had actually squandered! This began a period of realignment and psychic transformation that unfolded over several years. Every excuse I had crumbled when I realized I didn’t have to worry about who liked my work or how to sell it or what happened to it in the end—I just had to make it. So I set about reorganizing my life to make it a priority while my intuitive voice said over and over: Just make art.

I set up little art stations all over my house so I could work on projects for a few minutes at a time if needed. I gave myself no limits and set a goal of using every art supply I had ever purchased which, at the time, were sitting in boxes gathering dust. In this way, I was able to hone in on materials and medium preferences, settling mostly on a love of painting, though I prefer not to limit myself to medium or subject, style, etc.

I also started saying yes to every creative opportunity that felt good, especially the scary ones like painting live which I now really enjoy! I watched my creative friends and learned how they made time for art: They stole their time back from the things that didn’t matter. I took materials with me when I left the house and every moment I had to wait for something became a moment I could sketch or paint. I streamlined my relationships and activities to include only the people, things, and events that served my soul. And I started posting everything online. This part was hard at first—there are some real tragedies of skill in my Facebook feed—but it was important that I get over myself and just make and share the art. Now, I have the courage to create without caring much what others think of me.

I once had a teacher say to me, “Art is a rebellious act.” Do you agree with this statement? If so, how do you use your art in a rebellious and/or political way (both the creation of it and the sharing of it)?
YES! I think of happiness and joy as the ultimate rebellious act. Art makes joy and joy makes art for me. This is why I encourage everyone who tells me they love art (usually followed by a bunch of “buts,” like, “I can’t even draw stick figures!”) to go home and make a bunch of ugly art as soon as possible. In our society, it seems that it is almost expected of us to be miserable and full of doubt. I always felt like I wasn’t allowed to do anything that didn’t make money in the end but I eventually found that if I do the things that make me happy, art is either the springboard or the result. I have discovered it’s important for me to make art especially when I don’t feel like it. My feelings will be settled in the process of creating.

What was the first piece of art you laid eyes on that evoked strong feelings for you?
In the second grade, I went on a school field trip to a museum and it was the first time I’d seen old master works. I can’t recall an exact painting that moved me the most but I was awed by all of them; I had no idea that sort of art was possible and I think I have always believed deep down that if someone else can do it, so can I. Realism became very interesting to me as a result. I also remember one pretty gruesome piece. The guide had us sit on the floor as she explained it but I wasn’t really listening. Back then, I couldn’t understand why someone would want to paint such a scary thing, though now I understand. As an adult, I remember being wowed by Frida Kahlo in the 1980s and reading everything about her life. And I definitely remember the first time I was able to see and understand a Mark Rothko painting, which cracked my heart right open.

As an artist, where—or from whom—do you draw your strength?
I practice meditation and when I can manage to settle myself down and be still, I am quickly reminded that everything I ever need to know is already within and flowing around and through me. Making art is actually the easiest form of meditation for me. In that flow, I am reminded that I can’t make a mistake because there are no mistakes and even if there are, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is love and love is more powerful than anything else. I am very happy to be able to see all the love around me most of the time. When I forget this or have trouble calming my mind, my son, sisters/family, friends, animals, and nature remind me. I feel really grateful for that.

12″ x 9″ oil on canvas

Betty Southerland is a rebelliously-human artist who makes paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media works exploring the human experience. Mostly self-taught, Betty has enjoyed a fulfilling career in graphic design, content creation, and illustration for a variety of industries and nonprofits while independently studying and practicing art. In 2014, she began painting consistently, studying realism, and creating work as an emerging figurative expressionist and portrait artist. In 2016, she began working with oil paints. She is a Saatchi contributor and a proud member of the Portrait Society of America. Her work appears in 500 Tangled Artworks and ADC Miami via Hungry Castle/Laser Cat. She continues to paint live and show her work in and around Dallas, Texas. Betty was honored to be interviewed during a live painting performance at EarthX for an upcoming documentary film, Last Look at Eden, which explores art in conservation.

Interview! Cabaret Performer, Monologist, and Storyteller Katherine Rose Turbes!

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“I strive to be ‘excruciatingly authentic’ as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances.”

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Monologue ideas: Who needs paper when you can use your thigh? (photos courtesy of @katharsis_ravyn_turbes)

If you live in New York City and have not yet heard the name Katherine Rose Turbes, you will. I first met Katherine (preferred pronoun “they”) at a Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders show. Katherine wore pink hair, a black lace dress, and radiated joy. I just had to get to know them. We chatted about how important it is for artists to support one another and their love of cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond. As I suspected they would be, Katherine’s answers to my super-specific interview questions were utterly entertaining and inspired. So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to… Katherine Rose Turbes!

I personally see you as a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional artist, but how do you see yourself? Do you identify as a singer, writer, performance artist, or all three? What came first? Are there any other facets of your artist personality that remain hidden or the general public has yet to see?

I see myself as a performer first and foremost, specifically a cabaret performer. I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always been a performer, but the choice to combine the two happened relatively recently, and I believe I’m far better at both skills when I put them together. As for singing, I’m not a conventionally good singer, but I like my voice and use it more as an acting tool than as something intended to sound pretty. Cabarets are often defined by the inclusion of music and I haven’t gotten to a point where there’s as much music incorporated into pieces I’ve premiered as there will be in future pieces, but that’s coming. I’m working on learning to play ukulele, though learning an instrument is a long and arduous process for me, but I aspire towards including ukulele in my future performances.

For someone reading who has never seen one of your performances, how would you describe them?

There’s this lyric by the band AJJ that goes “I hate whiny fucking songs like this but I can’t afford a therapist- sorry guys, here’s a solo!” and I feel like that really describes my work! Although, unlike the speaker of that song, I love when artists use their work to speak openly about their struggles. There’s this notion of “eloquence” described by the Dalai Lama, but taught to me by Kate Bornstein, that the essence of eloquence is “speaking a truth in a way that eases suffering” and that’s always my intention with my work. As such, I strive to be “excruciatingly authentic” as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances, especially since I know that kind of art helps me!

In one of your Instagram posts right after your Bluestockings performance, you proudly called yourself “one of the hottest hot messes [you’ve] ever been.” I loved that so much. It was a great reminder that perfectionism is NOT the goal here. When you’re writing, or memorizing a monologue, or doing the hundreds of other things necessary to prepare from an upcoming show, what are the different ways you try to stay out of your own head, avoid that self-sabotage impulse many artists have? How do you not only create physical and mental space for yourself but get to a place of (what I’m now calling) full-on, prideful bad-assery?

Oh goodness, okay, well the reason I made that post was because that level of, as you say, “full-on, prideful bad-assery” was a first for me and a long time in the making! One of my many less-than-stellar attributes is that my default is holding myself to nearly impossibly high standards, but luckily I know what helped me in that moment so hopefully I (and perhaps others) can replicate it. Firstly, I vehemently believe in and adhere to the theatre truth of “The Show Must Go On”! I was far from at the top of my game that night and debated not performing since I felt so unprepared, yet I decided that I’d rather risk sucking than not do it. Secondly, although, “comparison is violence” as Taylor Mac says, it helps me to remember how phenomenally imperfect my idols are. They take risks and give themselves permission to make mistakes on stage, and often work their mistakes into their pieces resulting in something far more captivating than if everything had gone precisely as planned. It has specifically helped me to remember a speech Mx.Justin Vivian Bond gave called “How To Take A Flying Leap,” in which they talk about how you mustn’t judge yourself too harshly or think about what you’re doing in the moment. You do what you know you have to do, commit to the moment, and focus on conveying your story to the audience. Remembering that people I admire are capable of that, and that their mistakes endear me even more to them, helps me to be more okay with my own inevitable imperfection.

When I saw you perform your piece back at the “Am I Write Ladies?” event in March, you were a beautiful, fearless lion. You were a force. When you were on that stage at The Footlight were you feeling that sense of fearlessness? If so, how do you tap into it before a performance? If not, how do you push through the fear? People are always telling artists that in order to grow, we need to do things that seem scary, and say yes before we’re ready. Do you believe that’s true?

Oh my goodness, I was shaking like a leaf! I wasn’t afraid in a stage-fright sort of way, but I was incredibly emotional and the stakes were extremely high! I knew that I’d devoutly rehearsed the piece and held myself accountable in making sure I was prepared, so I knew I had it in me to make myself proud and I knew what I was saying was important. For me, that’s enough! I absolutely believe one must take risks in their work, and, although it’s far easier said than done, I think one must be forgiving of one’s self if/when things don’t go as planned.

Whom or what currently influences or inspires you and how have you, directly or indirectly, incorporated those influences into your work?

Of all the questions you’ve asked, this is honestly the most intimidating, since there are so many people who inspire me! Here are my Top 5 influences at the moment (in no particular order):

  • Justin Vivian Bond! I admire Mx.Viv profoundly and have seen them perform more than anyone else, so it’s difficult to succinctly quantify their influence. They’re a force of nature and, as some have put it, “a cabaret messiah” so seeing them perform inevitably made me fall head-over-heels in love with the artform of cabaret. Being perpetually astonished by their shows made me realize the breadth of possibilities of what can be done with the cabaret format, and that this is something available to me to work with!
  • Kenny Mellman! Kenny is such an inspiration to me and, thus far, I think his influence is the easiest to spot within the work I’ve premiered. I reference it in the text of the piece itself, but “XO Tour Llif3 (à la “KRT”),” a piece I wrote and premiered last September, was directly inspired by his long-running show called Our Hit Parade. Like Our Hit Parade, my piece completely reinterprets / recontextualizes a pop song, and like Kenny’s version of “Dog Days Are Over” it pays tribute to the dead, by speaking their names so any audience who hears it can know and remember!
  • (It’s also worth noting that one of my biggest influences is the cabaret act/duo Kiki and Herb made up of Mx.Viv and Kenny, thus not only am I inspired by them as artists individually, but their collaboration is equally a source of inspiration!
  • Kate Bornstein! Auntie Kate’s book Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens Freaks and Other Outlaws is my absolute favorite book. As someone who struggles with their own mental illness and has had multiple friends kill themselves, Kate’s work is vital. Her mental health advocacy (and work in general) rejects respectability politics and instead provides authentic accounts of her experiences, thus making her advice empathetic, accessible and genuinely helpful. It probably sounds idealistic to say that I hope my work saves lives, but I know Kate Bornstein’s work does, so if I could somehow make something even a smidgeon as helpful as Hello Cruel World, I’d be extremely grateful!
  • Nath Ann Carrera! I’ve always admired Nath Ann’s encyclopedic knowledge of the people they admire and how they work their interests into their performances. Their most recent show that especially inspires me is their cabaret “The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton” in which they explore Dolly’s darker songs. What really resonates with me is the exploration of humor and morbidity, and how certain songs that seem over the top and campy were based on true tragedies in Dolly’s life. Although presenting these songs with deadpan humor, Nath Ann respects Dolly’s absurd sincerity and empathetically explains the contexts and real life parallels. Being able to embrace dark humor while respectfully portraying the stories of real people is something I truly admire and aspire to do in my work!
  • Taylor Mac! Taylor Mac creates in a grandiose scale, yet judy’s work is always
    personal. Mac is ostensibly guided by making sure that history (and by extension, the lives of people they lost) is remembered. Judy has spent multiple shows eulogizing their mentor Mother Flawless Sabrina, as well as other queer historical figures. Two pieces of judy’s that impact me the most are the riff on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” from The Young Ladies Of in which Mac tells the story of judy’s family and dead father. After reflecting on what seemed like an inherited curse of toxic masculinity, Mac leads the audience in singing the chorus of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. As Mac quietly looks out on the audience singing “What’s the use of wondering?” Mac says to judy’s father: “Dear Robert, this is my last letter to you. A singing telegram.” The video of it was removed from Vimeo a year ago but even thinking about it gives me chills. The other most impactful piece Taylor Mac performs is a ukulele song entitled “You can lie down or get up and play”. Both pieces feel cosmic in their ability to call to those who have gone. I had a dream once that described Taylor Mac as a “death witch”- I think that suits judy. I want to be a death witch too!

As for what inspires me, that’s simple: my lived experiences. My pieces are based on real events, albeit oftentimes stylized, and every story I tell about my life and my loved ones actually happened.

What is one thing that someone would be surprised to learn about you?

To me it’s surprising that there are environments in which I’m seen as mysterious, for instance at my day job. I’m a compulsive oversharer—I can’t lie, and I aspire towards openness, particularly in my work as a performer. Yet, at my day job, people are often shocked to hear that I’m a performer, since they think me subdued, quiet, and reserved, which anyone who truly knows me knows I’m the antithesis of!

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’ll be performing at Dixon Place on May 23rd at 7:30 PM as part of Dust Tea Shoulders’ CAMPFIRE! Queer Storytime! I’d love it if y’all could make it!

Katherine is a cabaret performer, monologist, and storyteller. Their work focuses primarily on personal narratives surrounding mental health, queerness, mourning, and healing from trauma. KRT often performs at Joan Dark’s long-running open mic Get On The Stage at Bluestockings Bookstore. They made their Am I Write, Ladies debut last March performing their piece Spring Cleaning. They’re currently working on an upcoming solo cabaret entitled #Trauma, along with many additional future projects!