A Studio Visit with Beth Bojarski
August 27, 2015
It’s amusing that Beth Bojarski describes some of her artwork as “small and sassy” when Beth herself happens to be a pint-sized, saucy lady with a quirky personality and an affinity for oddities. Beautiful.bizarre got the opportunity to meet small and sassy Beth (and her cat) at her at-home studio in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If you met Beth, you would quickly make an association between the artist and the artwork; it is absolutely fitting that she makes delightfully strange characters with interesting dispositions. Her works are chock full of wit and are dripping with engaging absurdities, breathing life into awkward characters with a story to tell. While Beth has received comments from art viewers about how “scary” or off-putting her work is, we think they are the perfect blend of beautiful and bizarre.
Beth isn’t afraid of making works with satirical religious commentary and promoting individuals with flaws which are embraced as a play on the dichotomy between pretty and ugly. She explains that she is absolutely not mocking the subject, but maybe taking a tiny jab at individuals with a limited view on the world and sporting unfortunate closed minds.
“I don’t try to mock anyone, that’s never my intention. Whenever I do someone that’s awkward or has something that’s a little off, to me they’re beautiful. I’m mocking anyone who doesn’t appreciate or see the beauty in that.”
Ailments and oddities are welcomed in Beth’s world. A definite connection can be made between the characters and style of Mark Ryden. Both artists produce characters in an introspective, solitary state with oddball curiosities and clever narratives interwoven in the fabric. Both artists exhibit a masterful level of technicality and likability.
It is certainly easy to understand Beth’s success, as she has a contagiously positive energy and a zest for life. Her quirk is exhibited through her sense of humor, her love for polka dots, and her commitment to unapologetically creating works outside of convention. She paints (while seated on the floor, interestingly enough) because creating is satisfying and necessary but thankfully, people are drawn to her style, personality, and narratives she displays on her birch panels with eclectic frames. Beth flows through life with ease, stressing how working hard and going in the right direction is perhaps more of a substantial aim than planning meticulously and over-obsessing the details.
“I think you just have to be as present as you can and take things as you go. I don’t start a painting with any idea at all, even as far as the subject is concerned. When I put the paint on, it goes on unevenly. And so the way the paint goes on, I start seeing shapes in it. I paint and un-paint because I’m trying to figure the painting out as I go along.”
The home she shares with her husband and fellow artist, Mark Winter, is modest in nature but is filled with unique treasures and various artworks collected from various art fairs and artist friends. It’s safe to say Mark and Beth support the arts and understand the importance of collecting art to support fellow artists, to decorate space, and to invest in being surrounded by engaging visuals. In the summers, while Beth spends her days pouring over her work for upcoming art fairs around the United States, Mark is at his vast studio in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin welding and conjoining random scrap metal parts to create charming robotic characters.
Both artists grew up with art influences but slowly found their niches and experienced a fair amount of success over the course of fifteen years. Beautiful.bizarre got the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Beth, discussing her process, her path, and her life as a self-made artist sharing a life with a fellow self-made artist. Conversations eventually spawned into a discussion of the climate of a digital presence for artists and the current climate of contemporary art.
“That was always my concern when I got started but then there was a point, doing it enough that I did know. There are brushstrokes that have to get cleaned up. There’s a level technically that I have to see cleaned up. Once a character is figured out, I could paint over him another five times because I’m building layers. There’s a point where the definition is all there, I can see it, and that’s usually on the fifth layer. I start out with a big brush and end with a tiny brush that puts in the really dark darks and the highlights. So it just hits a point where there’s nothing else to hit. So I just go, ‘yeah, I think I’m done.
It’s not like I have a product that I can turn out really fast. It’s such a little commodity, so I get it to where I want it and then I send it out there. I fall in love with things but when they get snatched up, I love it because I have to create more. There are things that I love but it’s wonderful that they found their homes.”
Discussing nature and reception of her work:
“I typically have a good reception to my work. I get the other end of it as well. Just like, ‘oh how scary’. Scary is the number one thing people say. That’s why it’s important for me to have ones that tell stories because the second people start reading and seeing the sass, I think they become more comfortable with the characters they’re seeing. Then they’re not so bad and it softens them a little bit. It drives my mom crazy to hear the negative feedback. And I say, ‘mom, I don’t want everyone to get my stuff.’ If I was trying to get everyone to like my stuff, it would not look like this.
You’d be surprised who finds whatever that piece is funny. Sometimes it’s just that character in that moment with whatever it might say and whatever the theme is that just completely pulls somebody in. And I have people that saw a piece, that will consistently come in every year and will say, ‘I should’ve bought that piece four years ago, my favorite piece and I didn’t get it’. It haunts them. I love that I have paintings that haunt people. That means that there was something in that particular piece that grabbed them and pulled them in. But it also keeps people coming back to see who the next round of people are.
A nice chunk of paintings have a mystery to them ,where if you put it up in your home and you have people over, I see them as conversation starters. Ten different people can look at a painting and see ten different things. I’m just doing and creating what I feel is right and trying to put something out there with a story and a message. Thank God people are connecting with it.”
Discussing education and transformation:
“I went to school in Grand Rapids, Michigan to a school called the Kendall College of Art and Design. It was a good school for illustration so that’s what I went for. When I went there, everything I did was paintings, photo-realistic, really technical, really tight with representational detail work. When I graduated I wasn’t painting for myself because these paintings were taking me so long. I was putting hundreds of hours in trying to make the pieces perfect. There were no personality in the pieces and that isn’t conducive to me.
My dad opened a gallery in Milwaukee and said, ‘I want to put some of your work up as well. Can you do some pieces for me?’ I had been playing with oil paints and having fun with it. I put them on the wall and everything went. It was successful right away. The characters were quicker and I was telling a story.
I like still putting words on, I like the sass, I like the silliness. When I started out doing the really raw stuff and putting them in my dad’s gallery, they were a lot quicker, a lot sillier. (Pretty crude, pretty raw and a lot more cartoon-y) Slowly then over the years, I’ve been inching back toward that technical finish I had from school. I like that things are getting tighter and I’m gaining more maturity to the characters but they are still awkward enough that people still see my work in it. It’s been a slow climb since I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. You always have to grow as an artist otherwise people are going to grab some pieces and be gone.”
Discussing art fairs:
“For the most part, I go to shows and I love to just sit and watch people, and engage with people. I think it just gets implanted in the back of my mind. I don’t think consciously that I want to paint that person but it just gets stored. When I’m trying to figure my board out, sometimes a moment just comes out. People crack me up.
Mark’s mother started doing art shows. Because she had done them, you have someone who guides you and helps you figure out what you need to do. We have now built up a clientele in cities we wouldn’t have if we strictly did gallery shows. There are some really great artists at art shows and people look down on them thinking it’s not reputable because you’re not in a gallery. I personally like knowing where all my paintings go and having that connection with people who buy my art.”
Discussing her process:
“All of the sudden I think I might a sense of what it could be then I start seeing something else and it starts spinning into a whole new idea. It keeps me engaged with the piece I’m working on and present as I’m painting. As I’m painting, I’m really focused on what’s happening on the board the whole time. I tried sketching and putting ideas down but when I do a sketch, I feel like the excitement was in that moment of creating the sketch and then I fall in love with the sketch and the painting is never the first idea. The power was in the sketch and when I try to make it big or see it through to a finished painting, it’s boring and less exciting. It’s never as great as the little sketch was.”
Discussing her relationship with Mark Winter:
“The best part is just that he’s an artist and understands when I’m having a bad day and things aren’t going well in the studio, and we can talk each other through it. He’ll help me check proportions while I’m painting and he’ll throw ideas out, I’ll bounce ideas off of him, and brainstorm. Plus he loves the kitchen and loves to cook. So as he’s cooking, we’ll have a glass of wine and I’ll look at his work and we’ll talk about it. We’ll talk about if it’s done, if it’s working. After all this time, we really have found the balance. Maybe when Mark is having a good stretch, I’m not. It’s such a balancing act and we’ve figured it out.
Sometimes I get back in the studio and I think ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ It’s awkward every time I come back in. In my head, I have this feeling that I’m not going to come up with anything new anymore. And a lot of artists go through that, they think their best stuff is behind them and that they’ve lost their touch. But Mark gets that same feeling. Like, ‘I forgot how to do this’ or ‘that was it, I’m done’. So we just hope we don’t have the same feeling at the same time and for the most part we haven’t. I get a sense if he’s having a harder time and we both can’t be there at the same time. So one of us backs up and takes care of the other and helps them get through it. And we always get through the hump.
On the art show circuit, there are a nice amount of other artist couples and it is really interesting just how they work back and forth with each other. It’s fascinating.”
Discussing her characters:
“I need to be locked in to find the characters. Discipline comes from going to shows and having half the paintings sell, and I have another one coming …so I get excited. I fall in love with each of my characters and I get excited to find out who the next one is going to be. I love actually painting, I love the feel of it, I love being in my studio. It’s not hard to say, ‘I’m going in the studio’ and getting lost in it.
No matter who my awkward person is, or what my issue is, I want it to be something where you listen to what I have to say. And the best way to do it is through humor or an awkwardness. I want you to see whoever my character is, that person is somebody that just needs a hug, just needs a little love. There’s a tenderness.”
Discussing online presence and keeping up with the digital age:
“It’s hard to keep up with. You can find artists that are a lot more online and really good at marketing themselves. I’m really trying to be better. I don’t want to over-saturate myself though. I don’t want to put myself out there so much where people are like ‘oh, there’s another one.’ I just put little hits out there every now and then. You really do have to find a balance. I set up a blogspot for when we do have available work. There are images and it’s clean and simple. So many people find us that way. I do have a Facebook page as well. I try to give an announcement when I’m getting ready for a show and where I’m going to be. I wanted to do more of what I’m working on, but I don’t like showing midway too much because sometimes it’s not what it’s going to be. I’m a delicate flower that way. I can be picky about what gets out there and how much of it.”
Discussing her plans for the future:
“I want to do really big. I don’t know necessarily how I would do really big if I did a booth so I have limitations based on that. But I think I would find a space to display it, it would just become a gallery piece. I’ll figure it out, I just want to do it. I want to get in there and create a big story.
I think I want to send some more messages out there. I’ve done it subtly with words and humor. We all know that to get your point across, if you do it in a funny way, it’s going to be received better. I have an artist friend who is absolutely just taken by the fact that I swear in my paintings and when I do use words, I use profanity. But I use it in such a soft way. I think you can do in a crude and in your face way and I think there’s a way to do it where you’re hugging someone and slapping them in the face at the same time.
There’s a point where you’re kind of cruising along and things are going well and I’m doing things that are making me happy and then the world kind of breaks through. You sense things and things are getting weighty and I just think ‘I have to do something’. I feel as an artist I have a responsibility. I should be doing more. I feel my work lends itself to be able to throw it back at people.”