Painter Betty Watson finds inspiration in traveling life

by Amy Kingsley

During part of the 1950s, artist Betty Watson lived with her husband Bob and two young children in a deteriorating grand dame of a residence known as the Hotel Albert in New York City. At night the two adults would often flee the cramped confines of their suite, taking refuge in the bar across the street.

That institution, known now and then as the Cedar Bar, sheltered some of the leading artists of the time. Within its paneled walls, painters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning argued about the emerging abstract expressionism and the future of figurative art, sometimes with one of the Watsons.

This period in New York City is just one anecdote in the longer narrative of Betty’s life and artistic career – which has spanned five decades and all three US coasts. Throughout it all, her dedication to her husband and the craft of figurative painting has remained constant. The Green Hill Center for North Carolina Art will be hosting an exhibition of her paintings, ranging from Betty’s earliest paintings to some completed in the first half of this year.

Betty assesses the current position of figurative painting thusly:

“I think it’s right with us now,” she says. “I think Abstract Expressionism taught us to look at things in a different way, and I’m very interested in what’s happening with computers. But for me it’s about the sensuousness of the paint.”

Although Betty has always adhered to figurative drawing and painting, her art has evolved alongside her migrations. A native of Passaic, NJ, where she and her husband met at the orthodontist’s office at ages seven and nine, Watson started her career at the Art Students League in New York City. Her conservative parents disapproved of the nude drawings she toted back from the city, but Betty continued to pursue the arts at Wellesley College, where she also studied art history.

Art once again brought her back to the city through a teaching position at Barnard College. On a bus into Manhattan she became reacquainted with Robert Watson some 15 years after their original meeting in Passaic. Their chance reunion led to courtship and marriage.

The couple’s first move out of New York took them to the gritty side of Baltimore, where visits to strip clubs inspired Betty to loosen her academic painting style. A subsequent move to the Berkshires in Massachusetts after Robert obtained a teaching post at Williams College meant another shifting of gears for the young painter, who began painting landscapes of the hills.

In 1953 Bob, a poet, took a job in UNCG’s English department alongside Randall Jarrell and Peter Taylor. Betty pulled up stakes again and started an MFA program at the same time, including a lithography course she undertook while pregnant with her first child.

“I learned more about Abstract Expressionism in Greensboro than I did in New York,” she says. “Even though in New York you felt like you were at the center of it all.”

The couple has lived in Greensboro on and off ever since. During one of their numerous breaks from the Gate City, Bob and Betty lived in an artists’ colony in Provincetown, Mass., where she once again redefined her painting style. The paintings from Provincetown, several of which adorn the walls of a guest bedroom in her home, feature torsos, whole or cropped, against a backdrop of purple shadows that threaten to envelop them.

Betty and Bob’s traveling period took them to the San Fernando Valley in California and Key West in Florida, watery places where Betty’s attention turned to the submerged body. In California, after a series of small tragedies, the Watsons settled into a small house with a swimming pool. It was a first for Betty, but she soon found out that pools were the norm in the southern part of the state.

“I had an underwater camera and underwater goggles,” she says. “I just loved the way people looked. People look so wonderful when they are floating and so graceful.”

The underwater paintings might be the best known to residents of Greensboro, said Edie Carpenter, curator at the Green Hill Center.

“Betty is one of a group of artists who have been connected to the Green Hill Center for a long, long time,” Carpenter says.

But for all her grounding in Greensboro, her later years have taken her even farther from home than the early wanderings. She and her husband have traveled all over the world, to Morocco, China, Europe and other places.

Her most recent paintings reflect a personal perspective on world travel, occasionally depicting landscapes as seen from an airplane window. Clouds, which floated onto her canvases during the Key West period, now appear inverted in her work, the view coming as it does from above them.

As she and her husband’s lives have coalesced, so too has their art. Betty still works every morning and has an incomplete canvas in the garage titled “Travel Dreams.” In it, a sleeper floats below a passenger plane.

“I keep right at it,” she says. “It’s always been that way.”

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