Always open to the new-and-what-if possibilities, Betty Busby creates fiber art using technological innovations and unconventional materials to create work with inviting texture. But the voice of textile roots is strong with traditional fabric, paints & dyes, needle & thread and her trusty old Singer working alongside her iPad and spun bonded nonwoven fibers.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Yes, I was always there. In grade school, when it came to career day, the boys aspired to be policemen, firemen, soldiers or other action figures. The girls were almost all nurses or stewardesses. Since I loved reading, I announced that I would be a book illustrator.
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Fast forward a few years. Dad was determined that I attend Princeton. But when I looked at the course catalog, there wasn’t a fine art major. So I chose the Rhode Island School of Design, causing quite a bit of kicking and screaming from the parental units!
Happily for them, my younger sister ended up at an Ivy and became a physician, redeeming the family honor.
Why textiles? Why mixed media?
Textiles are tremendously versatile. I am constantly playing with new materials and techniques, and especially value the amazing textures that can be achieved. When I go into a gallery these days, I always think that the paintings on the walls look mighty flat!
Do you have a mentor?
Although I only spent the last semester of my senior year with him, my teacher Jun Kaneko has been a huge influence on my life and work. His dedication to his career and work ethic have been qualities that I have always tried to emulate. Although we have not been in actual contact for many years, he will always be an inspiration.
Which artists do you admire? What draws you to their work?
Yayoi Kusama leaps to mind. She has overcome incredible obstacles in her long career. Upon moving to the US in the late ’50’s, she pioneered full room installations and conceptual art. She was copied by many of the prominent artists of the time. She’s in her 90’s now, but continues to oversee her immensely popular Infinity Room installations all over the world.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I have spent quite a bit of time working with grade school children in the art room. It’s extremely gratifying, because kids that may not respond well to the traditional structure of the classroom can bloom when offered new ways to express themselves. The language and basics of art appreciation and drawing are skills that can and should be taught. However, the impulse to create new work that is beyond what has been learned is not found in all individuals. And that is fine. Art can be an enjoyable activity even if it’s not groundbreaking all the time.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser? Do you visualize your finished work before you start it?
Of course I visualize the piece before starting; however, I leave myself open to changing it at any time during the process.
What is the spark that inspires you to begin new work?
I’m always bursting with new ideas. Sometimes the impetus can come from new materials or techniques that I am experimenting with and want to see on a larger scale. Or it’s the desire to take the concept of a completed work and push it in a new direction.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
Yes, there are recurring themes; however, I refuse to be locked down to a specific look. It’s very important to follow your heart. I feel that the people who won’t try something new because it isn’t their style could be really missing out.
Yes, I do work in series, although it’s not a formal approach. An older idea can be revisited after several years and other works have been created; so the pieces that relate to each other in a series aren’t necessarily chronological.
What role does technology play in your work?
In a way, it’s huge. New materials are being developed all the time, especially in the spun bonded non woven materials world that I have been working with for many years now. Testing the various nonwovens for their individual qualities intrinsic to the material and the ways they can be combined with traditional fabric is the springboard for many projects.
However, in another way, I am fairly traditional. My quilting machine is a track mounted commercial Singer straight stitch machine, not a purpose made longarm, and its abilities are quite limited. I also value handwork for its unique qualities that can’t be achieved any other way.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Several years ago, I decided to try to save my eyes for sewing, so have turned to audio books for my reading. Hilary Mantel’s books on Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII are particularly absorbing. In these turbulent times, there are several current event podcasts that I follow as well.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I keep a file on my laptop that’s like a personal Pinterest. So images that I may want to expand on one day all go into that. I’ve been using my iPad to draw cutting designs quite a bit as well, but I almost never will sketch out an actual project. I do that with the real materials on the design wall.
Do you work actively on more than one project at a time or focus on one piece from start to finish?
I have a rule – when a project gets to the stitching stage, I must finish it before beginning another. That includes, sleeve, label, photography and entry into the database. It works for me, because I’m always dying to start another thing, and it helps to get over the “hump” – that point that happens in most pieces where it becomes a drag, and you’d rather be doing something else.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
Yes, I do both. As anyone that travels to teach can tell you, it’s an incredible amount of work. So I have been taking more limited engagements these days to stave off exhaustion.
Where can people see your work?
Interview posted May 2020
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