Tell me a little bit about you!
I am from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and I’m currently based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I earned my BA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 and my sculpture MFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 2017. I will tell a few anecdotes to describe what my working process feels like.
While I was at RISD, a case was filed against me to clean up my studio because it was hazardous. There was a letter and meetings and everything.
Me and my friends were trading studio catastrophe stories the other day. Here is one of mine: one time in my studio I was boiling a pot of hot glue sticks in a skillet and the hot glue ran over the sides of the skillet and went onto the frying pan. The pot and the skillet burst into flames about the length of my arm. I grabbed a can of ALDI’s chicken noodle soup that happened to be sitting beside me, opened it, and poured it over the flame, extinguishing the fire.
Last story: I secretly built a pool in my studio in the night (about 2 inches deep of liquid, the liquid was a mixture of vegetable oil and water) and then my apparatus burst and the liquid went everywhere. I rushed around to sop up the liquid. While I was running around, my phone beeped at me. I looked at my phone and I had two missed calls and a message from my friend who resided in the studio below me at RISD. The text said, “hey, something is leaking from your shiz”. My studio (room 504) had leaked into the studio a floor below me (room 404).
When did you first discover art, or realize you wanted to make it yourself?
I decided to commit myself to my art in 2012 when I declared the studio arts major at the University of Pittsburgh. I actually went to the University of Pittsburgh to be a sociology major. I found sociology too easy. I like being an artist because I think it is the most challenging, but rewarding path I can take.
What ideas are you exploring in your practice?:
My work veers toward the intersection of sculpture, performance, and installation; and is defined by a series of radically disparate multimedia projects unified by their intentional unpredictability, use of unstable materials, and orchestration of situations in which my body and/or a constructed space are subjected to various hazards and forces of disorder. With each piece, my intent—although never completely pre-determined—is to push a range of materials to the limits of their utility, while placing myself in precarious circumstances that simultaneously function as metaphors of emotional/psychic vulnerability and pure demonstrations of intentional disarray. Generally, I make a mess—but it’s a purposeful, highly textured mess.
The germ of each piece is found through imposed limitations—in space, time, on my own perception/mobility, etc.—which leads to improvisation. I begin by putting myself in a bind; then force myself to find the beginnings of a project within a night or a couple hours, scrambling to figure out key parameters of which I did not/could not conceive in the planning stages. The initial restrictions and disorientation—especially the feelings of being rushed, confined, and otherwise pressured—reinvigorates me, spurring the discovery of new processes, and contributing to the final evolution and shape of the project. I attempt to pair this process with one or more of my ongoing obsessions/areas of interest, such as: how the mind and body respond to their surroundings when they’re overwhelmed or immersed in extreme conditions; and how certain materials behave when applied to tasks for which they’re wholly unsuited.
Some degree of personal vulnerability and/or seeming ruination is present in all my performances, which in turn evoke certain responses from the audience, ranging from befuddlement and fascination to genuine sympathy or solicitousness. (Audience members have occasionally offered to help me during what they perceived as a moment of distress in the midst of my performance.)
In contrast to practical labor—and even most art—my work involves extensive preparation, toward no precise goal or predictable outcome, but rather the opposite: to create a uniquely precarious situation whose exact results are ambiguous and actually lead to disruption and upheaval. The specific thematic ideas that I wish to communicate with my work are important to me and essential to my art, but the work has other dimensions, which naturally emerge from the process of engineering a situation whose “moment of truth” is variable. This makes each piece—and my work as a whole—a vehicle for possibilities, achieved through transient/unknowable states. Above all, I am trying to create an effect based on certain assumptions, within a definite structure and clear parameters; but within these guidelines, randomness, even personal risk (certainly public embarrassment), are not just potentialities, but expectations.
What is your process like?
I relate to Sol Le Witt’s description of a creative process in his letter to Eva Hesse that involves a roller coaster ride of self doubt followed by fulfillment followed by further self recriminations. Making art is agonizing, fun, challenging, exhausting, entertaining, emotional all within each project.
I’m currently integrating storytelling into my practice with my most recent series “2015-2017”. I’m interested in approaching autobiography in a different way that is more akin to Tracy Emin’s Bed in which the artifacts of daily life offer an intimate portrait of a person. I’m also reconsidering my use of color with this series and thinking about color to categorize and stabilize.
I do like to work on multiple things at once. I tend to have the problem of too many ideas. I tend to think and experiment a lot and then shoot out the product for my work in a quick, intense burst.
Do you have a mentor, or a piece of advice (or both), which has influenced your practice?
I’ve had a lot of really amazing teachers/mentors at both the University of Pittsburgh and RISD that are important to me. Two questions that mentors asked me that were impactful: “So what?” and “What is urgent about your practice?”. Both of these questions are trying to get at the same thing. They ask: since you can make anything in the world, why is what you’re making urgent to be made? Why should anyone care? So what? Questions like that reminded me to always keep pushing what I’m doing, stay unsatisfied, and make sure what I’m doing is worthwhile to be made.
Things that I’m grateful I’ve ignored:
I’ve been told to not make work for myself and I’m glad I’ve ignored that.
I’ve been told to stick to a project that I wanted to move on from and I’m glad I’ve ignored that.
I’ve been told I’m too small to be a sculptor and I should lift weights I’m glad I’ve ignored that (because I can’t change my size so I’m glad I didn’t beat myself up trying).
Describe your studio.
My studio is a mess. It’s probably the messiest studio you’ve ever encountered. There are numerous unfinished projects, spiller coffee cups, rotten coffee cups, shattered ceramics and plastics, broken tools…. all entangled with each other. You can’t see the floor. Everything in the room gets churned into each other.
What do you find most daunting, challenging, or frustrating about pursuing art?
I have trouble balancing my own thoughts, wants, and opinions against what other people say. I take what others say and think more seriously than I do my own thoughts a lot of time. I have trouble trusting myself. I have trouble sharing my art and artistic motivations with others because it feels vulnerable.
If you could sit down for dinner or a drink with anyone, who would it be and what would you chat about?
I have a lot of female imaginary heroes I would like to talk to. I’m not sure if that counts. Could I sit down with Jane Eyre and Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I like Buffy and Jane Eyre because I feel inspired by how females are depicted in horror, but also because Jane Eyre is my moral hero. I try to be a decent person and kindness is really important to me. I like Jane Eyre because she is just so staunchly, unwaveringly moral. Buffy is just a badass. She is brave. Two traits I would like to embody as a person and an artist is to be brave and ethical. I value these traits in artists and artwork. I really respect artists who bravely push their work and ethically conduct themselves based upon what their individual moral standards are.
What are three words you would use to describe your work?
Performance, time, material
What do you do when you find yourself in a creative rut?
I’ve never just run out of ideas, but I have had times when I hate all of my ideas. I just keep working if that happens. Just keep throwing things together and eventually something will turn up. Or, I work on things that are art-related, but not art (like applications to shows, residencies, jobs).
What do you love most about your medium? What challenges or surprises you most about it?
I like the freedom of being a performance/sculpture artist. The problem of freedom is too much freedom is daunting and then I get confused what direction to go in or how to judge or evaluate what I’m doing.
What do you need or value most as an artist?
Probably my privacy. Because I’m so affected by other people I have to get away from them during portions of my creative process.
What keeps you creating?
I’m not really sure how to describe it. I have a compulsion to make things. I have a curiosity to see things in front of me. I like to be in charge of something. I want to connect with people.
What are you working on right now?
I have a project in my studio happening right now that is mostly secret. It involves highly realistic representational sculptures that I make myself, installation, and performance. I work on that and casting blocks of my belongings from 2015-2017 at the same time.
Find more at juliabetts.com and on Instagram @julia_betts!
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