As an undergraduate at American University, Betsy Stewart was required to take a painting course. In her first class, the instructor asked how long she had been painting. “Since the time this class started,” she replied, checking her watch. A background in modern dance, Stewart was simultaneously taking master classes with choreographer Merce Cunningham. He invited her to audition for his renowned modern dance company. At an arts crossroads, Stewart chose the path of painting.
However, the advice of Merce Cunningham carried over to her professional painting career: “Find your own voice, be an original.” She knew he meant that she should do what he succeeded in doing: find her own niche; do not replicate anyone else’s work. “So I have always fought against being influenced by another artist’s work,” she said.
Using her knowledge as a combined art history/philosophy major, Stewart developed a philosophy about her artwork based on her life experiences. She had been hiking in the Amazon, kayaking in remote Adirondack lakes and ponds, climbed all 46 Adirondack peaks, unearthed antiquities in Saudi Arabia and was accepted into the Explorers Club, Cosmos Club and Philosophical Society. Stewart became fascinated by what’s below the surface and dug deeper into the unseen world of nature. Interconnectivity, up close and in space, became the theme and underpinning philosophy of her paintings.
Betsy Stewart’s paintings dive deep below the horizon line. Luminous colors and dynamic patterns fluidly converge, expressing nature’s captivating beauty and biodiversity hidden from the naked eye in pond water. Why the focus on pond water? “When the sun shines on shallow ponds,” she noticed, “it illuminates detail in colors and shapes. You can imagine the microscopic world under the surface: a drama of teeming life and abundance of biodiversity within the pond ecosystem. What we cannot see is what is really important.”
For many years, her paintings examined the interdependent, microscopic life found in pond water, and by extension our own fragile position in nature—a view that may not be readily apparent. “I hope when people look at my paintings, they realize that what they are seeing represents what cannot be seen without a microscope or telescope,” says Stewart, who studied biology and chemistry textbooks to research the microscopic forms she paints.
The artist is also fascinated with the workings of the universe. Her paintings bridge micro and macro worlds, exploring and expressing the connections in nature from a droplet of water to the vast cosmos. Stewart’s “Biocriticals” series considers the ambiguity and interconnectivity between those worlds.