‘An artist of the highest order’

When she retired from a long career in law, Betty Beer of Brookings turned to a field that she started dabbling in when she was younger.

Beer’s artwork, along with poems by regional writers, is being featured at the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council arts center through Nov. 22. An artist reception will be from 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10.

Beer graduated from Oberlin College in 1965 with a bachelor of arts in studio and art history and her first job was with the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. But Beer did not have a career in the visual arts; she practiced law. After retiring, she thought about what was doing at 8 years old, and she was drawing all the time.

“I started thinking about what would be a good niche,” Beer said. She said she thought about portraiture, remembering that she did caricatures when she was younger, including some in her high school yearbook. “I had an early interest in people.”

Beer said she liked the gestures people used, the non-verbal communication.

“I use that a lot in portraiture,” she said.

Portraiture is not something that is taught in universities, Beer said, so she had to go to a workshop.

“I found a portrait artist in La Crosse, Wisconsin,” she said.

Beer would stay with the artist for a month, learning techniques from the artist.

“I thought it was a 9-5 job, and my job was to get skilled,” she said. She would practice what she learned, Beer said.

There’s a saying that an artist does 1,000 miles of canvas “before you get good,” Beer said. She said she did a lot of little canvases in that phase.

“I threw away a lot,” she said.

One of Beer’s first projects in the Brookings Art Center was titled “New Pioneers.” She had just moved to Brookings from Illinois. She said she thought forward 100 years about people who were currently living in Brookings and how they would be celebrated 100 years from now. The list included Peggy Miller, the first female president of a land grant university, and the co-founders of Daktronics.

“It caused me to meet people I have never met or would have never met,” Beer said.

Retirement is a time for where you have to figure out how to meet people who are interesting, and portrait painting has been a way for her to do that, Beer said.

Even though her specialty is portrait art, Beer also paints plain aire landscapes and still life. She has been a board member of the Brookings Art Center and is a current board member of the Visual Arts Center at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, S.D.

The exhibit “Savoring” pairs her work with poems by regional writers.

“That’s been a fascinating effort, and I love it,” she said. Sometimes the poem came first and then the art, she said. “I just asked regional poets who I like if they would be interested in contributing. It really enriches the whole thing, to start out with one medium and add another, it’s so rich when it comes out.”

One of the poets featured in “Savoring” is Southwest Minnesota State University English professor Marianne Zarzana. Zarzana said she chose three portraits that she found compelling and had sent Beer drafts of her poems, receiving insightful feedback.

“By responding to Betty’s art, I wrote three persona poems,” Zarzana said. “Persona poems are written in the voice of another person than the poet. In one poem, I channel a middle-aged guy who lost his job to downsizing and plays in a blues band. In another poem, the voice is a woman juggler in a children’s pediatric unit. And in the third poem, a Native American woman tells her story of moving from the reservation to join the Navy and then work on wind turbines.”

“She’s just so amazing, working with it and so heartfelt,” Beer said of Zarzana. The Savoring exhibit was in Brookings at the South Dakota Art Museum in 2012.

Of the exhibit, Beer said in her artist statement that “realism without the truth of its essence is only copying. Even though my work is realistic, there is always some idea or feeling behind the image that is greater than the image itself: a universal. Poetry interacts strongly with my work, and I have been invigorated and stimulated by collaborations with these poets whose work is paired with my work. My themes center around life itself, and the saving of what is truly resonant about existence.”

“Writing and reading poems are reflective acts, similar to how I act and I’d like my view to reflect,” she wrote in her artist statement. “This means looking and thinking slowly. Savoring.”

“Betty’s artwork is stunning, both her portraits and the landscapes,” Zarzana said. “She’s able to capture the essence of people’s spirit in paint. And the light in her landscapes has an amazing quality. She’s an artist of the highest order. Working with her was an honor and a delight.”

Zarzana said Beer asked if she wanted to collaborate again. Zarzana said absolutely, and Beer mailed the art images.

“I thought I would be doing poems from portraits once again, but she’d sent five related abstract collages,” Zarzana said. “They were fascinating but writing about them was out of my comfort zone. I listened to jazz on Pandora as I wrote so those rhythms would come through in the poem. I was surprised at the poem that emerged.

“It bought out some deep connections I have with my ancestors. I never would have written this poem without Betty’s art, so I’m grateful for this creative partnership.”

Beer said one of her latest series is “Faces of Brookings.” Most of her subjects for this series have been referrals, while others have just dropped in as she’s working on the artworks in the corner of a bike shop.

Her eventual goal with the “Faces of Brookings” series is working with downtown Brookings to get the images on banners to hang on lightpoles throughout the town.

“I’m aiming for 100,” she said, adding that she’s done 22 artworks in the series so far.