Bette Laughy

From April 28 to May 16th, Bette Laughy and Val Robinson showed at the Fort Gallery in Langley, B.C.. Unfortunately I was travelling at the time and didn’t get in a timely blog notice of the exhibit.

I was there for the opening, though.

Bette Laughy had several smaller paintings, mostly the same size in a 18 x 24 inch range.  I was rather confused about these because the were such a radical departure from her previous work. I had a feeling that she had just taken a course from Bob Ross, the television art-lesson presenter. It wasn’t the Bette Laughy that I had ever seen before. These were landscapes with ponds, lakes, waterfalls or woodland glades.

So when I got back from my travels, I asked her for some photos of her work that had just been shown. It would help remind me of her paintings and I would present a few for her and help me to find a commentary.

She wrote me this:

With respect to my show, I consider it to be quite raw. My background is in music, writing and graphics. I have the knowledge of technique in all three to feel confident to just go forward, freely, to express anything I want. In painting, I did not have that confidence, and was very aware of my self-critique and inhibition. I felt I had to draw everything out in detail first; I was copying photographs; I became a stick-person artist in any workshop; I could not work past that inhibition. Paintings took a long long time and a very painful execution. If you want to see some of my former work, my website is www.bettelaughy.ca

About six months ago, I put all my paintings in the basement. I threw out my photographic reference. I put blank canvases all over my walls. I put away my acrylics and watercolours and worked only in oils. I overdosed on Bob Ross. I put away my tiny brushes. I took out very big brushes and several palette knives. I experimented with mediums. I did landscapes and florals, which I’ve never done before, but I thought about what people want to buy as opposed to what I want to say. I became as mundane as I could possibly be. I didn’t care – was just happy that I could complete a painting in a matter of hours instead of a matter of weeks.

It’s been like a brisk sea wind blowing through my art practice. I’ve always felt that being close to water cleans out my mind, my soul. It was very hard to make myself let go, and still is, but it has been a good discipline. I don’t draw my paintings any more; I paint them. I leave my reference – if I use it at all – on the other side of the room, only referring to it if I really need to find out what something actually looks like. I think about grounds, harmonies, transparents and opaques, soft and hard edges, contrast, center of interest, composition – anything but subject. I thought I had become very loose indeed until I had this wonderful opportunity to show with Val – guess I still am a little on the tight side.

I will go on to draw back into this lush medium, to apply the technique to portraits, to think about what I want to say. Two steps backwards to set the stage for taking one step forward. Fun. Relaxation. Good stuff.

Those words of Bette’ Laughy’s all of a sudden made perfect sense of her exhibition.

It’s a brave thing for an artist to do, to step out of the comfort zone and into the unknown. When I looked at Laughy’s previous work on her web site, I see some quite original imagery. It’s bold. It seems to have a link to computer-generated imagery. For instance, there is a piece called Warm leaf, cool leaf and it’s evident that Laughy has been playing around with pushing the colour balances. She’s used her computer reference and then painted with acrylic.

From an outsider’s point of view, Laughy’s earlier paintings were controlled but experimental in the imagery. How was a viewer to know that this artist was beginning to feel boxed in by her realism? Or as I like to say, she had painted herself into a realistic corner and then could not get out!

But Laughy knew. And Laughy took that brutal, almost soul-wrenching step to figuratively go feet first back through the wet paint to find a new way of painting – a way out, no matter what happened.

If I had tried, I could not have expressed it better than she has, above. Her determination resulted in a series of paintings which step out of her norm and which have given her a new way of handling paint. And for this, I say Bravo!

That being said, these paintings looked so much like Bob Ross’ work that it was uncanny.

Laughy said, ” but I thought about what people want to buy as opposed to what I want to say” and I think that this is a mistake, from my own hard experience.

First, any time I have ever followed through on a thought to paint something because it might sell, I’ve fallen on my face. Anyone I’ve spoken to who has tried it admits to the same. When the artist’s personality and personal choices are absent from a work, it’s tangible. It doesn’t feel right.

Secondly, Laughy has an interesting perspective in her earlier work. I like her subject matter and her previous explorations into abstraction.  What’s needed now, it seems to me, is for Laughy to carry on with her feeling of freedom and go back to some of her own imagery, to her own point of view, bringing to it this liberty in brush and paint handling, while putting back in the depth of idea.

The creative block – writers’ or painters’ block – that freezes an individual, preventing them from finding interesting subject matter or interesting explorations on the technical side of painting,  is a frustrating thing. It happens to us all.

In an earlier blog, I addressed this cycle which I see as akin to the humanist philosophy of seeding, growing, reaping and laying fallow as a personal growth pattern.  For an artist, this usually translates into a period of learning how to paint technically, then a marrying of technique and idea. Next is a period where these two seem to flow. Production is easy because technique has been mastered and the ideas are developed.

At the end of  such a productive period, all of a sudden, there seem to be  a paucity of ideas, and the technical facility begins to feel false or surface-deep.  It’s too easy to do what one knows, but it has become boring to the creator of it even if the viewers still need to ponder it in order to grasps it. And since the artist is so steeped in it,  he or she doesn’t care whether others think it is interesting or not. The principal thing is that the artist has run up against a brick wall.

Coming out of artists’ block is a challenge. It needs a kick start. Sometimes this is accomplished with setting oneself a technical challenge – even if it is not founded in meaningful ideas. Sometimes returning to a former discipline like life-drawing will at least keep the technical abilities up until a new theme has been found. Sometimes new ideas will come out of doing automatic drawings or paintings, ones that don’t ask for anything but freeing one’s mind before laying down marks and images. It’s abstract and without too much premeditation. It requires a game plan – like using only three colours, making marks with the full width of a brush; or like using a huge brush and making oneself try to draw things realistically. It’s grist for the mill. Eventually something comes out of it – not necessarily, maybe even hopefully – not something one expected.  Et voila! A new direction slides into place and a new track for art adventure begins.

Laughy is her own best critic. She understands what has happened in this series and is prepared to continue forward in explorations with her various media. It will be interesting to see what comes next for Bette Laughy.

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2 Responses to “Bette Laughy”

  1. Bette Laughy Says:

    Thanks for an interesting insight. I’m gradually realizing what I was doing intuitively with this project. It’s our ego that makes us self-conscious, and I have been working to defuse that hindrance. The fear of being exposed as we colour outside the lines, the fear of exposing that our work isn’t sufficiently serious or significant – throw it all out there and get it over with, and learn some new techniques at the same time. I am finally “getting it” that painting is an illusion, not a copy. We don’t paint trees; we paint shapes and patterns that look like trees. We don’t copy scenes; we paint hues and values and our own compositional take on it so it looks like a scene. Great blog!

  2. Sonya Chasey Says:

    I agree with what you’re saying about this artist especially regarding the idea of what people want to buy. Having looked at the earlier work I can see why you’d be initially so surprised by the painting featured at the top. Personally I would choose one of the previous paintings rather than this one which is considered to be what people want. I do like the digital image of the leaves though.

    In the end I think as artists (& why not simply as human beings too)we have to be true to ourselves. I expect the factors of whether the work sells or not are many & sadly they are not necessarily always based on quality.

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