When we featured the beautiful felt sculptures by artist Betsey Harries on our Mind Body Spirit Marketplace Facebook page last month, the response was overwhelming. Our readers found themselves totally captivated by and engaged with her wonderful, Native American inspired "Earth-Felt People". I'm so happy that I was able to contact Betsey and interview her for our artist series. What an interesting story and artistic process that bring these beautiful little figures to life. Hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did!
~ diane fergurson
MBS: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get started in art?
Betsey: My story is a little surprising, as I only started creating art a few years ago; my occupations prior to that were about as far from artsy as you can get. My first job out of college (where I earned my forestry degree) was as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, where I was a military policeman and Provost Marshal (what you call a police chief in the military). Following my military service, I practiced forestry in a remote area of the Missouri Ozarks and in northern Wisconsin for several years, followed by a stint as a writer/editor for a federal agency, writing and editing fairly dry and uninteresting technical documents. My desire to create beauty began to emerge on the weekends when I became interested in traditional Native American beadwork and started studying the beadwork of the Plains Indians.
MBS: From a technical standpoint, your sculptures are just amazing...but to me, they go way beyond that. They really seem to capture something very quiet, elusive and beautiful about Native American Culture. What drew you to Native American culture as a subject matter?
Betsey: I've always been impressed that Native American beadworkers created such beautiful works of art with whatever they had at hand. They could not order up 20 different shades and sizes of blue beads and have them delivered in 3 days time, as we can today. They had to use what was available to them, and I imagine they were quite intentional about recycling beads and other supplies. And you know, there are hundreds of nations of Native American people; today's bead artist could pick one single decade and one single geographic region of the country, spend the rest of your life studying the beadwork created then and there, and never master it.
Curiously, I never intended for my little people to represent a specific geographic area or nation of people. Many people assume my art dolls are Inuit or Alaskan, and it’s true that they all wear parkas, mittens, and mukluks. But I intentionally create some of their faces with dark clay, and some with very light clay. Their hair may be black or white or gray or red. They could be any of us who live in the colder regions of the world. .
They do have one important thing in common, though: each little person honors our spiritual connection with nature, music, and the arts. They carry positive messages: be kind to others, handle animals with great gentleness, respect the earth, delight in making art and music, and enjoy the movements of our active bodies. I named this line of my artwork, "Earth-felt People", to connect the respect they "feel" for their "earth" with the fact that I handsew their outfits from wool "felt".
MBS: What is your process when you create the "Earth-Felt People"? How do you go about it? Do you work on more then one piece at once?
Betsey: I make a skeleton of sorts, out of wire, to start. I don't use a pattern or jig; I form it by eyeballing it and bending it with my hands and trying to keep the dimensions within basic limits. Surprisingly, it almost always works out O.K. I then attach the head, which I make out of clay. I cut and handsew the clothes out of wool felt fabric (the patterns and templets took me FOREVER to perfect), and put them on the body; at this point, I have 3 or 4 different needles and threads attached to the clothes and it is a task to keep them all from getting tangled. Then I use fibers harvested from buffalo, alpaca, or sheep to make the little person's hair. I often make braids for the figures, because braids speak of female history and traditions, and also add a whisper of innocence. At this point, the really difficult step starts: the detail trim around the parka hood, mukluks, and mittens. And by now I've already got a good start on what the little person is going to be holding; I will finish that part of the sculpture as I get to the last steps of the whole process and can put it into their arms and hands in the final position, and secure the item in their grasp. I try to secure everything by sewing, rather than glueing, because it seems more professional and clean...and much more difficult, so I take pride in that. Sometimes, however, glue just can't be avoided, so I make every effort to make it invisible.
I avoid working on more than one little person at a time. This kind of art unfolds much more smoothly if I focus on just one piece at a time, from beginning to end.
MBS: Do you have an idea in mind what you would like the piece to reflect before you make it?
Or does the personality or theme of the "person" reveal itself to you after you finish?
Betsey: Ha! I always THINK I know what the little person will be holding before I start her. Once in awhile it takes a sudden turn during the process, and she turns out totally different than I envisioned, but that is rare. They take several hours to make - on average, 16-24 hours - so I have a lot of time to think about their stories and personalities as I sew, mold their heads, carve their paddles, or needlefelt the animals they cuddle. Since all of them reflect a message of peace, kindness, or happiness, those feelings surround my work area as I mediate on their stories, wrapping the whole process in joy for me. Lovely fun....
One of the biggest surprises to me is how I make all the faces basically the same....same expression, eyes calmly closed, a little smile....but just by changing the position of their shoulders, the tilt of their heads, a bit of slumping to the spine....each figure expresses a totally different emotion. This one expresses sadness, that one pride, and that one serenity; just like humans, their body language says so much more than their faces ever could.
MBS: Are there favorite materials that you like to use in your pieces?
Betsey: I do like to use buffalo hair to make the hair for my little people, but it can be hard to come by. The last batch I got was from a friend who was traveling across the Great Plains and took the time to gather some for me. I also use fibers from alpaca and sheep, and if I can get it from local farms, that's even better.
MBS: Do you have a favorite figure? (and why)
Betsey: My favorite piece is "Double Dog Dare", with the toboggan hurtling down the snow hill, and the rider covering her face, her braids flying out behind her. She's my favorite because people laugh out loud when they see her, and that tickles me.
A few of my pieces make people cry; the first time that happened, it took me by surprise and I had to think about what that meant, and my responsibility as an artist -- to create something so sad or so beautiful that it can make a stranger cry. It takes days to make each piece, so I have a lot of time to think about my little people's "stories", which I write down and position near their display cases. Some of the stories touch people's hearts more deeply than I understand.
MBS: What is a typical work day like for you?
Betsey: I work for 60-90 minutes at a time, then take a break to relax my back -- take the dog for a 15-minute walk, for instance. This type of work is very sedentary, and I spend much of my workday hunched over my work table focused on detailed sewing. I have a black cat named Lucy, who is both naughty AND intelligent (a dangerous combination in a cat), and she often sits near me and "helps". I listen to soft music, books on tape, or public radio, while I'm working. I love the freedom of a flexible work schedule, and sometimes work late into the night, and sometimes take an entire afternoon off to take advantage of a sunny day.
MBS: I see that you sell your work on-line. What has your on-line experience been like?
Betsey: When I started my business 5 years ago, I made the mistake of trying to launch into three separate markets simultaneously. I applied to several juried art shows, created my Etsy on-line shop, and traveled around the Midwest visiting and selling to art galleries and gift shops. In hindsight, I should have just picked one market that first year and focused on learning it well before adding other major challenges. (Live and learn, right?) My Etsy shop didn't always get the attention from me it deserved because the two other markets required so much time and travel. My Etsy shop has always served me well as a place where customers who saw me at art shows could rediscover my work and reconnect with me, but it's only been in the past year that my Etsy shop has had a visible presence to new customers who have never seen my work before.
MBS: What are you currently working on? Do you have any particular shows or sales coming up in the near future?
Betsey: I am working on several commission pieces right now, which I consider to be the most challenging of all. It takes a lot of communication with the customer who is ordering the piece to ensure that I "get it right" for them, without compromising the basic principles of "Earth-felt People". For instance, if someone asked me to make a little person carrying a rifle, I would decline to accept that order, as my figures all represent peaceful activities.
My show schedule is winding down for the winter, but I have an extremely intense schedule tentatively planned for next year, to include not only juried art shows, but also exhibitions at art galleries. I create my art during the cold winter months, when the roads in Minnesota are often snowy and not well-suited for safe travel; spring, summer, and fall is when I am very busy traveling to shows to display my artwork.
MBS: What have you learned about yourself that has surprised you since you started creating your sculptures?
Betsey: It might sound funny, but I'm surprised that I can actually do this -- make something unique and beautiful that people love and are willing to buy and display in their homes. Every time I dream up a new design and actually pull it off, I'm surprised and delighted. I never knew I had this beautiful artsy spirit within me; it sometimes feels like it's not ME who's creating the artwork. It's like there is something magical going on and I'm just the messenger that bringing the message forward. It's a wonderful mystery to me, and I feel very, very lucky.
MBS: What advice do you have for anyone who wishes to (seriously) pursue an artistic path?
Betsey: I would offer two pieces of advice. First, find a mentor to advise and encourage you. You can't expect yourself to know everything right from the get-go, and there is SO MUCH to learn. I have found the artist community to be very, very friendly and helpful. We all have been helped by other artists along the way, and we love to pass it on. Secondly, understand that your artistic development, and the success of your art business will not be a straight-line path. Don't be discouraged when things aren't unfolding exactly as you had envisioned them when your first launched yourself onto an artistic path. Detours are normal....just keep moving your feet!
Thank you Betsey!
Betsey's beautiful sculptures can be found online in her Etsy Shop or you can email her at
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