Modern art, primitive style

Betty White
The artist Betty White's work has an ethereal quality. Photo courtesy of the artist

By Jacqueline Sexton - August 2, 2007

Toronto artist Betty White is showing a selection of her distinctive works on paper, including pencil drawings and some collages, at the Chilmark Public Library. The pieces depict dream-like figures and faces with expressions of sweetly expectant innocence floating in a creamy white firmament.

White's style sneaks up on you, takes you into a world that is a little like a warm cocoon. No conflict, no threat. No hard edges. Her work is not easily pigeon-holed, and viewers may respond on several different levels. The works clearly appeal as a strictly pictorial, decorative achievement.

But some viewers may speculate about where the images originate. The artist's past? Figures from myths? The subconscious? The answer may be all of the above.

Betty White calls herself a Modern Primitive and says of her art: "In my early works, I used sticks occasionally but mostly paper, molded, torn, wrinkled, in order to achieve a lot of texture. Mostly, the work is one of a kind, highly personal and done in chalk pastel and pencil." She also does clay and wooden sculptures.

Catherine Tammaro, a reviewer for Voice, a Toronto inner-city neighborhood newspaper, sees White's work as emanations of the artist's soul. "The artist successfully demonstrates her life's landmarks in personal, accessible and moving works of art.... It is the universal experience of family life, music, and awareness of death filtered through her specific understanding and her particular execution of materials, which attracts, then snares the viewer."

A native of Worcester, Betty White graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Colorado, and subsequently apprenticed with noted Brazilian fiber artist, Olly Reinheimer, in Rio de Janeiro. Later, living in Canada, she taught art at the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal, The School House in Toronto and ran a papermaking course for teachers at the Children's Museum in Boston. Today, she is senior artist at Montcrest, a private school in Toronto, where she teaches all phases of art to children in grades four to eight. For the past 25 years, she has lived in Cabbagetown, a Toronto inner-city neighborhood of Victorian houses where writers and artists of every stripe dwell, along with politicians, businessmen, and working class people. "It reminds me a little of Beacon Hill in Boston," she says.

She has exhibited her work in France, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, in Boston and at the Chilmark branch of the Bank of Martha's Vineyard. Her work is in the collections of The Reader's Digest, The Canada Council and Art Bank, as well as in private collections.

Betty White is no stranger to the Vineyard. She first visited when she was 17 in the early 1960s when she pursued the rite of passage familiar to many off-Islanders, some of whom, in fact, never left. She was a waitress at the Harbor View Hotel. "I fell in love with the place and have been coming back ever since," she says. "James Taylor and Maria Muldaur were singing at coffee houses in Oak Bluffs and around... I kept coming back, summer after summer, and now my brother, Allen White, owns a small house in the Campground, so we continue to visit." She remembers giving a kite-making workshop at the Chilmark Community Center's summer program, and another at a summer camp in Gay Head.

For the last few years, she has been renting a camp from the Lynch family in Aquinnah. "I always feel it is a privilege to be able to stay in their family enclave. I like to be in Gay Head more than anywhere else because I love the isolation," she says.

Betty White art show, Chilmark library, South Road, during regular library hours. Show runs through noon on Friday, August 10. 508-645-3360.

Jacqueline Sexton is the Chilmark town columnist for The Times.