Betty Jo Costanzo is an abstract artist who lives in Seattle, Washington. Her serene paintings are full of motion and beautifully blended colors.
I enjoyed talking to Betty Jo about her artistic background.
Jason: How did you first become interested in art?
Betty Jo Costanzo: At a very early age I was happiest when drawing and dancing. Copying maps was my favorite challenge. I recall that I spent most of my time looking at the intricacies of the contour lines of each country, focusing on getting every nuance. Later my mother enrolled me in a drawing class at the Portland Art Museum. Our subjects were taxidermied animals. I was in heaven! Later in Sao Paulo Brazil in 6th grade I was introduced to Guitar brand oil pastels. They were very creamy and easy to blend! I copied The Gleaners, circa 1897 by Jean-François Millet. It was at this time that I was hooked.
The dancing took the form of a very crude interpretation of ballerina moves with a jump rope and a tutu that my mother made me. This was the beginning of my love for modern dance and later Butoh dance. I see now that my love of movement came from these carefree times romping around the house in my tutu using my jump rope to pull my limbs this way and that.
J: Are there other artists in your family?
BJC: My grandmother on my mother’s side did everything from teaching piano to making hats and purses, jewelry of all types, and painting on china. In my early 20’s we took a watercolor class together at a community college in Portland. I learned from her how to see and listen while keeping myself always challenged with creative projects. Maybe this is where my love of many things germinated that later led me to explore a variety of media including installation, performance, video and sound.
J: Did your family encourage your art?
BJC: My mother played a huge role in my pursuit in the arts. I paid my way through college as my family was not able to assist the five children through college educations. This didn’t matter because I was determined to pursue my education in the arts. It helped tremendously that I always had my mother’s awe of what I did and her enveloping moral support. I remember the many phone calls to my mom complaining about how little money I had as an artist and how I had no job security in my second decade of full-time teaching at a private art college. Her response rings in my ears to this day… “Well Betty Jo, who chose this profession?” This quickly shut me up because as always she offered a brilliant reminder of my active choice to be an artist as well as educator. Thanks Mom!
J: How much art related education do you have?
BJC: I have a BFA in Drawing from California College of Arts & Crafts, a Certificate in Gallery Management from California College of Arts & Crafts, and an MFA in Painting & Performance from Mills College.
J: What is your medium?
BJC: In 2008 when I moved back to the Pacific Northwest, a slow shift back to painting occurred. Previously several colleagues from the Bay Area told me that they wished I would get back to painting, that while they loved my other work in performance, video and sound, it was my painting that they missed. Now I work and paint in oils from memory of striking landscapes and animals, and with reference to video capture of these landscapes that I specially create and process myself to heighten movement.
J: Describe your style and subject matter
BJC: TimeSCAPES, Landscapes in Motion is a project of videos and paintings that began in 2008. I am always collecting one minute video and sound clips that I edit into short film loops. I play these in the studio all day, over and over until I no longer have to look at them directly. I paint on 4 to 8, sometimes 16, works at a time, working onto the surfaces the motions of my body, translating this movement of color and reflection into semi-abstract paintings.
J: How did you develop your style?
BJC: Back to the Tutu… My love of dancing and movement has always been at the core of my drawing and painting. It seems that gesture in my own work and later in my teaching would keep me happy and on my toes. In graduate school at Mills College I also worked very large. But I had a problem to solve: my drawings were fresher and had more energy than my paintings. Then it dawned on me; remove the brushes and just paint with my hands. This was perfect because, like my drawing, I could physically be in or on the surface with my entire body. Dancing and movement are my friends.
J: What drew you to your subject matter?
BJC: My life’s experiences have been the source of my work throughout my career. Lately and most especially since moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Puget Sound and becoming a cancer thriver(!), my work has been about our planet’s beauty. The movement of the water, the sounds riding on the wind, the color dance reflecting light, and all of this actively surrounding me – this is the subject of my video capture and then paintings. I search this out or really I just pay attention and capture what is there with my camera. Then in the studio I am surrounded, a full 360, inside this beauty. My videos loop and my paintings move, either completed or in process. How much better does life get than this?
J: What do you feel is unique about your work?
BJC: My use of video and painting to create living movement (as described above) is what sets my works apart from most abstract or semi-abstract painters.
J: When did you sell your first artwork?
BJC: In undergraduate school and right off my drawing board after coming back from the zoo with my Animal Drawing class at CCAC in Oakland: a prismacolor pencil drawing on paper. The subject was a very live ostrich!
J: Are you a full-time artist?
BJC: Yes, since leaving full-time teaching in 2008 I now have the blessing of working full-time in my studio!
J: How do you promote and expose your work to potential buyers?
BJC: All my career I have entered juried shows, participated in invitational shows, visited galleries and museums all the while nurturing as much networking as was natural for my personality. This I have to admit is very hard for me. I only went to openings where I knew the artist or was likely to see work that pulled me in. While teaching full time I was in numerous shows. From 1991 to 2006 my works were exhibited and available for rental and sales at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Artist Gallery. I sold and rented many works and had several 2-3 person shows.
Since leaving full time teaching I now am able to devote more time to promotion and exposure. I am still figuring this out; I guess I always will be, as the technology is forever changing the nature of this beast. Right now I work with the usual suspects including the use of social media, my website, printed pieces like post cards, catalogs and business cards.
Another thing I did when shifting to full time studio work was to get the advice of a fellow painter whose work and exposure is where I want to be. We have similar backgrounds in the art world, only she started working gallery representation heavily and selling her work many years before I could find the time from my teaching duties. She is my ‘go to’ person for advice along the way.
I currently have work at the Gray Loft Gallery (an alternative gallery in Oakland), SAM Gallery in Seattle (similar to SFMOMA Artist Gallery) art consultants, online art galleries, juried and invitational group shows, and recently a solo show as a result of a juried show.
My studio is part of Equinox studios in Seattle. When I first arrived in 2012 we were 55 artists and artisans, now we are 125 and growing. Our Artwalk, every 2nd Saturday, brings many folks through my studio.
I am not so good at selling works right out of my studio and there are many more things I know can add to the mix. One of these is compiling the names of all my collectors (although I might need ‘Dr Peabody’s Wayback Machine’ for this!) along with current addresses so that I can write to them with news, send them my beautiful catalog, and mostly let them know I am an active artist producing new works all the time. I started this a few years ago by reconnecting with SFMOMA Artist Gallery in San Francisco and asking for help.
J: What do you feel has been your greatest challenge in selling your work?
BJC: Selling my work encompasses many aspects of marketing: research, outreach, frequent correspondence, and so forth. My greatest challenge is that I don’t want to do any of this. All I want to do is produce new works.
As it is, I spend too many hours per week getting my work in front of the public and gallery owners. I do all of the aforementioned tasks, plus some.
My greatest challenges in selling my work:
1- I don’t like selling. I want my works to sell through galleries and art consultants;
2- Implementing better time management in my art practice;
3- Getting rid of my attachment to outcomes.
J: What do you feel you’ve been most successful at in your art, and in your art business?
BJC: I have been devoted to, and successful in, making work and getting it into the public realm since I was 18.
Over the past 8 years I have been most successful at creating a large inventory of strong work. My other strength is my determination to make a very good living from my work while increasing my recognition.
I can do all of this because I am both a good teacher and a good student.
J: What other jobs have you held?
BJC: Right after my BFA I held the position of Hoffman Gallery Director at the Oregon School of Art and Craft in Portland Oregon. Wow, that was that a perfect example of “INTO THE FRYING PAN”. It was a full time job running two separate galleries, which was two full time jobs – sound familiar? I lasted 15 months and did 5 years worth of work for the gallery and school that later became accredited: Oregon College of Art and Craft. Woof!
Later after my MFA I taught art for 17 years as a full-time (more accurately, year round) art professor at a private art college in the Bay Area. Teaching was a natural destination for me. Initially I taught at three colleges simultaneously. Eventually I was able to drop the two community colleges to work full time at California College of the Arts. Teaching has provided an incredible learning experience and there was never a dull moment. To be clear, my challenges with job security, health insurance and a decent wage always had an upper hand. When I wrote my resignation letter I knew that if I continued teaching full time I would forever be unhappy. It hasn’t been easy, but I am sure glad I took the leap!
J: Do you have a daily routine?
BJC: Yes, I get myself ready for a full day in the studio. I arrive and work. Then I am home at night and, if I am lucky, with time for the gym and swimming. I gotta say, the studio is my number one priority.
J: How much time do you spend in the studio on an average week?
BJC: I now get to spend 40 to 60 hours per week in the studio and I am in the studio every day unless family or other necessities requires my attention. I also do some of my art business work at home.
J: How much work do you produce per month on average?
BJC: My working process fluctuates from actual painting, recording video on location, editing videos in the studio, to preparing surfaces, painting, correspondence, promotion, preparing works for exhibitions, gallery research to promotional and social media. So now that I’m working in smaller sizes the number of works will increase. Prior to 2016 my previous sizes ranged from 42 x 60 to 60 x 128.
In 2016 and on average, I have produced about 4 paintings per month.
J: Who is your favorite artist from art history (and why), and which of their works is your favorite (and why)?
BJC: Jay DeFeo (1929-1989) was and still is my mentor. I studied with Jay at Mills College in Oakland California while in the graduate art program. In the summer after completing my MFA, Jay and I traveled together for three months. It started with a backpacking safari in Kenya in which we climbed Mt. Kenya. This later shows up in the paintings of her last two years and in my work from that period as well. On the same trip we spent time in London, Rome, Florence, Paris, Berlin and East Berlin. When we returned she was diagnosed with cancer and passed two years later.
Jay DeFeo’s most well-known painting, The Rose (1958–66), took almost eight years to create and contains more than one ton of oil paint. While I am speechless in front of this work and all the other paintings created at this time, it is her entire oeuvre that continues to draw me in. I am personally connected to the small paintings Jay did after our trip together. These oil gems are small-in-size but not so in stature, like “Red Summit,” My Last Valentine,” “Room with a View” and “Dove One”.
There are numerous works that I have encountered in my life that pull me in and render my life different. There is no language for these types of reverberations. How fortunate for us all, and especially me, that Jay DeFeo has left us with so many.
J: What are your interests outside of your art?
BJC: I LOVE swimming, and in the summer we have an outdoor olympic sized saltwater pool on the Puget Sound! The summer is one time that swimming takes almost equal footing to the studio! I also love social dancing i.e. tango or blues dancing (have not done much of this lately).
I visit my art family in the Bay Area as often as I can. I spent most of my adult life there and I have a lovely bunch of friends there that I miss a lot. Mostly I just have time enough for being with my husband who is an incredible fiction writer and runner.
J: Thank you, Betty Jo! To see more of Betty Jo Costanzo’s work, visit bettyjocostanzo.com.