AN INTERVIEW WITH

BETSY

HERBERT

WE CATCH UP

WITH THE

EXTRAORDINARY 

YOUNG
 

ON SOME OF THE BIG

 

ARTIST

QUESTIONS

WHAT WAS IT THAT LED YOU TO BECOME AN ARTIST?

Taking “artist” to refer to the characteristic of being driven to create - and having perhaps a heightened perception and responsiveness to the creative potential of things in this world – instead of the professional title of someone who creates art for a living, same answer each time: it’s not a choice, there is no “decision” or set of events that leads you to becoming such a thing, you just are. Or you aren’t, or you kind-of-are or kind-of-aren’t. If you split artistry into its constituent components – the insatiable urge, the tug, the “need” to create; sensibility as to what exactly it is you’re being driven to create; the facilities and resources to do so, etc. – these are all things you can have, and you can either have them strongly, or weakly, or some strongly and others weakly, and so you fall on a scale. It’s not an either/or thing, and it’s largely pre-programmed.

HAVE THERE BEEN ANY PARTICULAR EVENTS WHICH

HAVE HELPED EVOLVE THE DIRECTION OF YOUR WORK?

IF SO, WHAT WERE THEY?

Pretty sure my high school art education played a big role. It’s no secret that curricular “art” lessons spell out the death of inborn creativity and breed ugly habits of mind that can kick the true “artist” right out of anyone - to get the grades you have to stick to the brief and colour within the lines and shade neatly and get your proportions right and obsess over mimicking every last drop of existing works. It’s prescriptive, it’s restrictive, it’s hypocritical, and you fall right into it – at that age you hold the grades handed to you as a hallmark of ability, you beguile yourself into thinking you’re being “correct”. But this is the exact reason I say it has evolved me. You can’t not do your homework. Of course it messed up my conception of art for a while, of course it clouded my ability to see what it truly meritable – but I’m sure that’s reason I am able to see it so clearly now. It was a slow, gradual, dawning realisation - and process of disentanglement, correction, liberation – that became stronger and stronger over the last two years, but I’m sure I wouldn’t feel the kick so strongly if I hadn’t experienced what is probably it’s antithesis for so long.

The second big event was moving to Bristol – and leaving my town, and living alone amongst millions – the “ripening” phase, so to speak. In Bristol there’s a lot of water, and a lot of lights, and a heck load of people. Even where it’s ugly it’s just so damn beautiful. And there’s so much production, so much output – structural, intellectual, creative, economic, everywhere you look. You kind of get infected. You might run out of time, but you’ll never run out of inspiration.

HOW DO YOU FEEL YOUR STYLE HAS DEVELOPED?

From realistic to abstract, in simple terms. It’s understandable. No kid can draw realistically, so if you get close you’re hailed and encouraged to the point where that’s what art becomes for you – that and only that. For me photorealism was the goal, the hallmark of a “successful” piece. I couldn’t understand abstraction in the slightest - realism was what felt natural and right. It could hardly be more different now. Everything I never understood before has fallen into place with a clunk, and I’m pretty much left with open horizons in all directions. And in art there is no gold standard, no “true North”, so the number of possible steps to take really is infinite. But of course, there is still subjective degrees of quality, personal standards of “good” and “bad” -  so the process now is to take rash and reckless steps in all such directions, follow instinct, and learn on the job.

WOULD YOU SAY YOUR ART IS PRIMARILY EMOTIONAL OR INTELLECTUAL IN ITS BASIS?

Neither, initially. I deny they are emotional simply because I never create art based on emotion or conflicts of mind which stem from personal events. (For two reasons – first, they are personal, and no one cares; and second, they are transient, and often stem from displaced logic, and I see no reason to crystallise something which by definition is in a constant state of flux.) Neither is it “intellectual”; the intellect is rooted in language, and the means to explore intellectual ideas is with words. Art is such a visual thing – of course the topic matters, and you can certainly use art to vaguely express a societal or political idea – but it’s just surface-level, you can’t be specific with what you want to say, and you put yourself badly at risk of misinterpretation. It’s just a picture, pigment on a page – it’s falling into the eyes, and eventually the mind, and God only knows whose mind it’s falling into and what’s happening to it once it gets there. So you have to be forgiving, and allow for anything. You create for the aesthetic satisfaction of the only mind you know, your own - because the day you start creating for anyone else’s is the day the joy in art is lost on you – to the extent that the whole process becomes rather self-indulgent. But then comes a curious and resonating after-effect: just as no-one can help being moved in some way by music, neither can they by visual output. The conglomerate of colours, textures and shapes that you curated according to your own principles and perceptions will become something else in the eyes of another. It’s unlikely it’ll be the same as you intended, but it’ll be worthy nonetheless. And here’s where “intellectual” and “emotional” come back into it – even if the intention was neither, the creation process and the final product can end up being both, depending on to whom the work is exposed. After all, it’s possible to understand things through art which are impossible to understand with the intellect; to be moved by art in a way in which it is impossible to be with words. And therein, perhaps, lies the grounds for sharing something which was initially created in an act of self-absorption and self-service, for your mind alone.
 

What artists do you find particularly inspiring?

At the moment: John Larriva, Casey Baugh, Nicolai Fechin and Simon Prades for technique; Eva Ullrich, Akihito Takuma, Geoffrey Johnson, Won Sou Yeol, Martin Lechner-Carré, Christian Hetzel, Maurice Sapiro for originality/atmosphere; GMUNK, Viktor Fretyán, Jeremiah Shaw, Nicolas Lalli for digital work. And Armin Mersmann for patience!

Is your art introspective or shaped by those around you?

I would say “introspective” in the fact that it draws from conscious knowledge and is directed by inner materials and instinct. All art comes from the self, so will always be covertly about the self. But to say it’s introspective in the purposeful soul-digging sense of the word is not correct; there are no spells of deep and reflective self-examination going on during that time. It’s a very outward-focused process; your thoughts are directed externally, your focus is on the page. But “shaped by those around you” – no, not at all. Other people never have an influence. They can be there, they can not be there, it makes no difference. Of course, you can be influenced by other people on the more general, “you should do art” scale - other existing artists become inspiring to the extent that they show you what is possible, and act as living proof of the practice-makes-perfect paradigm. But another’s work rarely directly influences my own, nowadays – and if it does it always feels kind of off. The best work is created when the image is just there, in your head – you and you alone know exactly what you want to create, you don’t need to go off trawling the web for the leg-up or bleating to find someone to hold your hand and guide you through it.

A great deal of your art focuses on the human form. What aspects of this appeals to you? What is it that you hope to explore with your art?

I think the answer to this is obvious – we are human. It is only natural to be concerned with what we are. It’s the reason we study Neuroscience and Philosophy, it’s the reason the main character in films is human, the main topic of song lyrics is human experience... it’s normal. But there are two sides of being human – the biological “fact” of it and the subjective experience of it. So you can explore “humanhood”, “us-ness”, in two ways – by depicting the outward fact of it - the placement of a character in context, the visual signs of emotion, the beauty in the human form; or by trying to communicate the mental landscape of what it feels like to be human, the everyday theatre performance, the analytical and emotional acrobatics of existing as an animal mind in an increasingly inanimate world. And I’m beginning to realise that depicting the outward fact of it – though the simpler option – can be a little noxious to the experiential fact of living; it breezes over too much, it covers up too much, it “pretends” too easily. So much of what goes on mentally never makes it to the surface, never manifests as expression or movement. Appearance is a throw of the dice, and only marginally modifiable. I think true justice to the depiction of a human isn’t necessarily served by following the lines of their coincidental, unchosen, exclusive, 3D form in space. So I have a lot more to explore in coming years. And, my, the rest of the world exists too!

You’re very accomplished with a great many fields of art, from sketching to photography to oil painting and beyond. Which medium is your favourite to work with and why?

Oil, without a doubt. It’s the most fluid, the most liberated, the most daring. With oil you can let the medium “take over”, in a sense. You have control over the outcome, but only to an extent. It’s a game of probability: each stroke either works or doesn’t – i.e. it either mildly improves or mildly ruins the painting - and your degree of experience is what dictates the statistical likelihood of each outcome. So if you pay close enough attention as to what succeeds and fails enough times, you can gain “skill” and increase the likelihood of any one stroke being successful. But still, every time you hit the knife to the board you’re taking a risk, you’re testing your chances. And therein lies the thrill of it. Being “accomplished” is far off, I tell you - I have a heck of a lot more to learn, and a heck of a lot more work to put in. But the process of learning is exhilarating beyond words.

For more of Betsy's work, visit:

www.betstyherbert.org

© 2016 OUTCAST STUDIOS LTD

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