Of Place and Time: Betsy Bauer’s layered paintings and collages capture the rhythms of a place

By Dottie Indyke    (Southwest Art, Summer 2006)

“The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place,” Barry Lopez, the esteemed nature writer, opined in a 1997 essay. “If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.”

Personal relationship with place exists at the heart of Betsy Bauer’s artwork, and two places in particular, which are the very opposites of one another in mood and palette. In Italy, she draws inspiration from the spirit and intrigue of ruins that connect contemporary humans with their ancient counterparts, from the sweeping drama of opera, and the rolling, cypress-accented hills that overflow with olives, lemons, and figs. In her New Mexico home, Bauer, 47, observes the bands of lavender, pink, and gold that illuminate the evening sky; she studies the patterns in cracked earth and in datura and yucca; and she wonders at their ability to bloom so luxuriously in the face of drought and constant sun with which New Mexicans must contend.

These elements show up in her paintings in literal and metaphorical ways – as old Italian librettos and antique book pages utilized as backdrops, as realistic landscapes and botanicals, and in the scratched layers of paint and glazes she uses to suggest the ravages of time.

A decade ago, the melding of Italy, history, botanicals, and landscape for which she is best known today first took shape when a colleague gave Bauer a page from a late 19th-century Italian book. She began printing and painting directly onto faded opera scores, pages from gardening-books, and personal letters yellowed with age. Nowadays she scours antique bookstores for crumbling leather-bound volumes with handsome typefaces and incorporates astronomical notations from books by Copernicus that lend her paintings an air of cosmic mystery.

Early on, Bauer concentrated on trees, plants, and flowers, superimposing ferns, water lilies, and sunflowers on these paper antiquities and cleverly blending words, or lines of music, with visual imagery. Influenced by the shape of the letters or the rhythm of the printed music, she painted with oils, then glazed, to elicit color and texture. Gradually she expanded to landscapes and added her signature craquelure frames, which combine a contemporary look with the appearance of age. 

Back in 1976 when she enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art, Bauer was a passionate surrealist working in the same vein as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. In the college’s gallery she met cutting-edge artists of the era, and she experimented with performance art, combining the visual with music and theater. “My last year in school, I explored mark-making,” Bauer recalls. “I did a 10-foot mural of tiny little white brush strokes, like grass lined up in rows, on a black field. It was on the verge of minimalism.” 

Seven years later she moved to New Mexico and in this austere area her urban aesthetic seemed out of place. “New Mexico was such a contrast to New York City,” she says. “In New York, you’re lucky if you see a piece of the sky or a little patch of dirt. In New Mexico, the landscape is huge but there’s also an intimacy. I’m always aware of individual plants here, maybe because they have to work so hard to live. ”

On her first trip to Europe, in 1980, she roamed through France, Spain, and Italy with a tent and cook stove on her back and gave herself an art education not offered in school. “Before, I’d been exposed to the Renaissance only through art history classes,” Bauer says. “Going into cathedrals, seeing art, was very different from looking at slides in a dark room in Philadelphia.”

She has since been back to Italy more than a dozen times, most recently for a two-year stint with her family. In Strettoia, Bauer, her partner, and children made wine and picked olives alongside the four village families. Each day they would help themselves from the abundant chestnuts, pomegranates, and grapes that grew on the roadside. In the changing skies she noticed a subtle, watery pale-blueness that was in stark contrast to the sharpness of the light in New Mexico.

Since her post-art school years, Bauer’s career has been on a steady trajectory. T first she worked as an animator for cartoons, television, and children’s film in New York City. But in New Mexico, though she visited every graphic designer, animation studio, and television station in the area, she came up empty. In retrospect, she reflects, her inability to find work was a blessing. Instead, she improvised and took a job as a landscaper. For herself, she planted a garden of sweet peas, love-in-a-mist, and giant sunflowers. This seemingly humble activity laid the foundation for the art that was to come.

A breakthrough came in 1995 when she took her portfolio of paintings-on-librettos to the Santa Fe Opera. Ever since, the company has mass-produced notecards and posters of Bauer’s illustrations of productions from “La Traviata” to “Carmen.” Opera, for Bauer, is the personification of Italian culture, the perfect symbol of its reverence for the past. Her 2006 rendition of “The Magic Flute,” which will be performed as part of the Santa Fe Opera’s 50th anniversary season, is an evocative depiction in pale pinks and greens of a sparse desert landscape that represents the mythical Egyptian palm groves of the opera story. A summer show of her work at Hahn Ross Contemporary Fine Art in Santa Fe coincides with the opening of the opera.

Bauer’s paintings, which have been exhibited at the National Academy of Sciences and in galleries in Santa Fe, New York, and Washington, DC, are collected by museums, major corporations, and government agencies, from American Express to Hallmark, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and the State Department, which has placed her work in U.S. embassies in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and La Paz, Bolivia. Bauer is perpetually experimenting – with printmaking, drawing, and collage, with a range ofmaterials and degrees of abstraction. She describes printmaking as analogous to planting seeds and painting as a way of digging deep into the earth.

“Printmaking really informs the process of painting for me. With painting, I can focus on one idea. For example, in a landscape, how the color of the sky is an influence or how the mountains are far away,” she says.

Lately she has been leaning toward a looser style that revolves less around detail and more on dominant, color-filled skies. “I’m always pulled between abstraction and realism,” she confesses. “The paintings I most like to look at are abstract because I love the physicality of painting itself. I try to work abstractly, but I’m not quite there. Realism always creeps into my work.”

With the adoption of two daughters from Calcutta, Bauer has found Indian symbology creeping into her work; her exhaustive collection of Italian antique and art books has expanded to include similar volumes from the South Asian subcontinent. “I’ve spent years looking at old Indian miniatures,” Bauer says. “The Mughal Court particularly interests me. These are paintings done in the 1500s and 1600s, around the Renaissance era, by artisans commissioned by emperors. I love their intimacy, color, and age, and the way they stylize plants. I’m inspired by tiny pieces of these paintings – primarily the landscape, trees, and animals.”

A recent extended stay in England has also had a significant impact. Bauer became closely acquainted with a rural village in Kent, including its pub, church, and village green. Every day she walked through the sheep fields and along the footpaths, past a glassy pond. Through the seasons, she noticed the varied hues of the leaves, the reflections of water on sky and land, and the color shifts that came with the passing mist. She was amazed by the infinite shades of gray in the atmosphere. When she returned home she made “Sunrise River,“ a pastoral scene of a meandering stream, flanked by placid banks, stately trees, and a mellow pink-blue sky, from which emerges the curlicued calligraphy from a page in an old English botanical book. The painting may signal Bauer’s entry into a new, impressionistic stage of her career.

While the landscapes of Italy remain her central subject, bits and pieces of these other places play supporting roles – the cagey animals of India, the evanescent countryside of England, and the dazzling harshness of New Mexico, where Bauer has lived for nearly two decades.

Her studio provides the perfect aerie from which to view the local landscape. Located 10 miles south of Santa Fe at the foot ofPiedra Negra Mountain, the two-story building has a loft offering an eastern panorama that frames the pinon-covered hills like a painting straight from nature. In the opposite direction, the view is of an undulating adobe carpet abruptly curbed by a semicircle of mountain ranges. On a clear day, Bauer can see all the way to Mt. Taylor and the Arizona border.

“The layering of old calligraphy and music gives a sense of history, mystery, and a link to the past,” she says of her work. “I think the paintings are similar to travel – romantic travel – with a sense of discovery. Travelers lose the outer layer of themselves and begin to rediscover what makes them passionate about life.”

Dottie Indyke is the Santa Fe correspondent for ARTnews, a columnist for the Albuquerque Journal, and a contributor to Sculpture and Santa Fean magazines.

Bauer is represented by Hahn Ross Contemporary Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Sears Peyton Gallery, New York, NY; Addison Ripley Fine Art, Washington, DC; Weber/Winfield at Winfield Gallery, Carmel, CA.