Metamorphosis was a project I started when the Gulf Oil spill happened. And I was up in Rockford where I live and I had gone down to New Orleans to do Jazz Fest. At that point, the news had announced the deaths on the rig but had not announced that the gulf was being filled with oil, so there was this real weight over New Orleans after the disaster. After there was talk about what was happening to the Gulf, I had this overwhelming personal urge to do a piece about the oil spill, but had no idea what it was going to be about. I was inspired by an exhibition at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium that displayed just how destructive the spill really was. I was driving across the country and I wanted to take a different route, so I stopped by the museum and I wanted to see if I could talk to the director or a biologist or just someone who understood the gravity of what was happening.
I bounced from building to building, asking four or five volunteers until I got into the basement. They had their library down there and they called the biologist into the library. I went back to his office with him and it smelled like a fish tank gone bad: you could tell we were in a river biologist’s office and in the bowels of the building. So we sat down, and I had this conversation about the oil spill with this biologist about me wanting to do a piece and we came to the conclusion that the brown pelican was what I should use as the piece because it's such an emblematic bird for the affected area.
Metamorphosis, 17 x 46 x 8". A self-portrait of Betsy sculpted by R. Scott Long. This sculpture is an exploration of the human connection between the physical body, the natural environment, and spirit through a focus on life cycles. Image: Larry Sanders
We talked and talked about how dispersants would affect the ecosystems at the bottom of the gulf, farm runoff, and how the health of the Gulf was of huge concern for him. You know, he's a river biologist, but the dumping ground is the Gulf of Mexico. So we got to a point where we were both teary eyed. So I left and when I got home, I said, Scott, I need you to make me a brown pelican. So he made me a brown pelican, and my idea was to cover it with beads. I bought a ton of beads to match the colors of the oil spill (which is brown, not black) and I was just going to cover the whole pelican with oil beads that looked like oil. But the problem was, the pelican carving was so beautiful, I couldn't do it. So I ended up just making the pelican a brown pelican, so it was a beautiful piece, but it didn't solve my need to make something about the oil spill.
Metamorphosis, rear view. Image: Larry Sanders
I decided then we're going to make a portrait of me. And it took me a little bit of talking to get Scott to carve my body. But I stood there and I was basically in a mountain yoga pose, but I had my hands kind of outstretched like oil was dripping off of them. I was going to do the darkness of oil in beads all over my body. But, I knew from the pelican that I didn't want just dark. If I was going to do the dark, I had to have a little pattern in some kind of way to make it interesting to myself. After covering the sculpture in dark colors and getting to the oil part of it, I became more and more depressed by it. I felt suffocated by it. So I put it over in a corner of my studio and I let it sit there for a couple months. Then I took a chisel and I scraped off my work for two weeks, all of the dark seeds that were on that piece and I started putting color on the piece. It shifted and it became about restoration and hope that our harmony with nature wasn't focused on the negative devastation. It was focused on our relationship with nature. It just became this healing piece, and that was not my original intention. It was also this reminder that you need to listen to your creative muse. You can't bulldoze it, and I was trying to bulldoze it too much.
Metamorphosis, front detail view. Image: Larry Sanders
So this was a piece I made just for me. It wasn't necessary. It wasn’t going to be anything that was going to be in my booth at the art fairs. Metamorphosis traveled for three years within the state museum systems in Illinois. When she got kicked out of the museum due to lack of continued funding, Scott and I threw her in the car and she actually went on vacation with us to the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin -- we stuck her on a beach and did a video made with a drone and people started coming up and asking about her. She went in a waterfall, she went inside the Frank Lloyd Wright house, House on the Rock, and in front of the Art Institute. She even went all the way to the Gulf of Mexico and had her feet in the water, went to Jazz Fest, and ate a beignet! Bringing her around, it was really interesting because I would say 80% of people would ignore her, but then you get that one person and it makes their day and they’re so fascinated by it. And they can touch it! That whole era of a museum and preciousness and how you aren’t supposed to touch things was just broken down because she wasn’t on a pedestal. She was free standing and accessible to people. I told her story of her getting booted from the museum and how she was traveling with us. Ironically, she was sold to somebody in the oil business in Texas. She sold on our very first Small Business Saturday as a new gallery in New Orleans in 2016. Metamorphosis was the most incredible thing I’ve ever been a part of making, and it was really about me getting out of the way to make her happen.
& LIFE OF META
GREAT AMERICAN ROAD TRIP
Interview from which excerpt above was recorded and transcribed by the Museum of Beadwork in July 2021. Thank you so much to Betsy for sharing her stories with us. You can see more of Betsy's work on her gallery's website, and visiting her Etsy shop here. She is also on Instagram, @betsyyoungquist.
READ MORE ABOUT HER SUCCESSOR, SALLY RIDE, AKA RABBITWHOLE, IN A SOON COMING BLOG POST