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Betty Spackman: The art and the conversation

by
22 July 2022

Her work explores what it means to be human and have faith. Report by Jonathan Evens

Betty Spackman

A painted panel from A Creature Chronicle. View more images in the gallery

A painted panel from A Creature Chronicle. View more images in the gallery

THE artist Betty Spackman’s installation A Creature Chronicle was to have been launched in Canada in April 2020, accompanied by a substantial programme of talks, panels, and conversations exploring the issues raised by the work. It was then to tour internationally. Covid-19 brought those plans to a sudden halt, and the 15-panel double-sided circular work sat unseen in a shipping container for two-and-a-half-years.

Spackman is a multimedia-installation artist. She has been working, teaching, and exhibiting internationally for more than 20 years, a pioneer among contemporary artists of faith.

Her works explore post-humanism, trans-humanism, human/animal relations, faith and science, sustainability, and sacrifice. Her art is thus right on the cusp of contemporary conversations, and she identifies ways for Christians to be at the forefront of thinking and action in these areas.

She has a considerable track record in enabling such conversations to happen, initially in relation to cultural objects and the stories connected to them. With a background in theatre, animation, performance art, and video art, she is now primarily an installation artist and painter.

She won a National Film Award in 1987 for a five-minute animation, A Bird in the Hand, and her early video work — much of which was made in collaboration with the Austrian artist Anja Westerfroelke — was shown at ARS Electronica, in Austria, and Long Beach, California, with well-known artists such as Bill Viola and Gary Hill. A Profound Weakness: Christians and kitsch, her illustrated book from 2005, is a commentary on images of faith in popular culture.

A Creature Chronicle is an installation project that, she says, “combines narratives of faith and science, using well-known art works as mediators and commentators in the circular collage of overlapping stories about who we are as humans in relation to all of creation, emphasising the questions and concerns around bioscience and technology”.

As a narrative-based installation that functions as a large two-sided, non-linear storyboard, the work is meant to act as a catalyst for dialogue — a physical presence to be walked around and sat inside, with visual stories to be “read” or discovered, contemplated, and discussed.

The multi-layered event she recently organised to launch the project was a symposium with guest scholars, musicians, storytellers, actors, artists, poets, and more, all part of a month-long series of talks and concerts. The live-streamed panel talks included “The Arts as Mediators in a Broken World”, “Ethics in Bioscience”, and “The Bible: Fact or Fiction?”, among other topics.

 

THE genesis of A Creature Chronicle lies in A Profound Weakness and her earlier project Found Wanting: A Multimedia Installation Regarding Grief and Gratitude.

“When I was writing A Profound Weakness, I was looking at the relationship between the real and the fake, and had put together some images of real bones and plastic crucifixes to talk about relics and representation and imagination.

Betty SpackmanBones and plastic crucifixes from Found Wanting

“Five years later, I did a major installation project, Found Wanting, which was a 3000-square-foot multimedia installation of animal bones, objects, sound, and video. One of the objects in that show contained a pile of real bones and plastic cruciforms, along with an image of Darwin which came from the earlier image in the book.

“The many animal bones in that exhibition, of course, brought up so many issues — killing, speciesism, genetic engineering, the in-vitro meat industry, and so on. I did a great deal of research at the time about factory farming and genetics and animal/human relations.

“When that show finished, I was basically out of work, and, through a series of difficult years, ended up for a brief time living in my car as I explored what to do next. During that time, I continued thinking about these issues, wrote a play about them, and started designing on my laptop what has become, about ten years later, A Creature Chronicle.”

 

SPACKMAN says that her “walk of faith and art-making are the same walk”, and that “the more I learn to listen to the Holy Spirit, the more I make work that is a reflection of that listening and learning.” As a result, “my art-making and who I am in Christ are both works in progress.”

Betty SpackmanA painted panel from A Creature Chronicle

She began her serious spiritual life and creative life in her early twenties, performing in street theatre and then co-directing a dance/drama troupe in Toronto, Canada: “Full of passion for my new relationship with God at that time, I was 100 per cent ‘in’ — body, soul, and spirit — to express that relationship, and share my new life with others.

“Although I was naïve and immature, I was completely committed to do my ‘art’ with all my heart. Of course, I had so much to learn — about my faith and about myself and about art — but being involved in theatre at the time when I was newly ‘born of the Spirit’ was the beginning of learning to listen to God for literally how to move and express myself.

“That has not changed, though now my body is 50 years older. I must still listen for direction, be it in life or a drawing.”

She does not think that someone is usually “inspired” to become an artist; rather, that “we just become aware that we ‘are’ an artist.” That is because “it is as much who we are as what we do. . .

“Sometimes it is not possible to work as artists because of circumstances, or one does not have the encouragement, help, or training to follow through in developing one’s gifts and talents. This is one of the reasons teaching has been so important to me.

“In some branches of — particularly Protestant — Christianity, there has been a history of discouraging, or even disallowing, involvement in the arts, particularly the visual arts, and for my generation it was a very difficult struggle to find affirmation as an artist of faith. Thankfully, there is now more freedom and acceptance of the arts in the Church — but, of course, now there are new issues to deal with.”

While not a pioneer in the art world, in Christian circles “I was perhaps one of the early artists of faith exploring some of these things — and was pretty alone at the time.” People such as the German artist Joseph Beuys were “among many who brought together all the things I love: material, performance, social engagement, installation, etc.”.

Such artists “were a constant inspiration, and were challenging both intellectually and artistically”, but were already on her radar, “because these were ways I was already beginning to work”. She went from doing animation into an Art and Art History programme at the University of Toronto, and then took an MFA at York University, Toronto.

“In those programmes, I was exploring work with different materials, experimenting with film projections, building objects, doing video and sound installations — and I went on to incorporate all these things in my various projects.”

 

SHE met Anja Westerfroelke when she was teaching workshops at the Christian Artists seminar in the Netherlands, where interdisciplinary artists of faith from all over Europe met each summer for a week. The seminar programme lasted for 40 years under the leadership of Leen and Ria Rivière, and was “a place where I met many artists from many disciplines who became lifelong friends”.

Westerfroelke invited her to come to Austria to do some work with her, in about 1991, and their collaborative projects continued for about ten years. They had some significant shows together in both Europe and Canada, and “I learned so much and am so grateful for that time of cross-cultural exchange and collaboration.”

Betty SpackmanA painted panel from A Creature Chronicle

Spackman views collaboration as “the most difficult and most rewarding thing I have experienced in art-making”, She continues: “I am always so jealous of my musician friends who can jam together so freely. It is not as easy for visual artists, but, when it does happen, it is for me possibly the most rewarding thing I have experienced.

“To trust and submit and respond to one another at so many levels is much like a dance. It takes discipline and practice and a lot of give and take, but, when it works — when two or 22 of you are working, and moving together as one — it is so very beautiful.”

As an educator, she hopes to have given her students “permission and courage and some help with skills that enable them to walk in their times and places using their particular gifts to the best of their ability — with passion and with love for their neighbour”.

As an artist and as the author of A Profound Weakness, she has made a stand against the mediocre in a fight for excellence. She says that she feels hopeful when she sees “young people being so brave and creative and willing to take risks and stand up for what they believe in, whether it is about climate or Christianity”. She is hopeful that, “through suffering, we are more likely to see truth and have empathy for one another.” Also, “that the arts and the Church are coming out/forced out of institutional silos, and walking the streets again, as did Jesus”.

She is “not concerned if the Church, as we have known it, falls apart”, because “anything that can be shaken, should be shaken.” As human beings, “we need to adjust to the times” — but “love on the other hand, does not change and ‘Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’”

bettyspackman.com

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