MONK: I’d like to start at the beginning of your extraordinary artistic journey into the poured-paint practice with a question about your relationship with first-generation abstract expressionist Paul Jenkins, who became your mentor.
I’ve seen in an interview you’ve talked about when you walked into a New York gallery and saw the paintings of Paul Jenkins for the first time – and so affected and moved were you, you cried. Later you got in touch with him and he became a mentor for you, for several decades. What was it in that epiphanous moment of encountering the paintings of Paul Jenkins that stirred your soul, exactly? And was there a specific painting that did it?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Well I walked into Gimpel & Weitzenhoffer Gallery in 1978 in New York, the entire space was filled with enormous canvas paintings by Paul Jenkins. It completely stunned me. It was a “color storm” of the most incredibly powerful poured-paintings in primary colors. My body went numb and I wept. It was a soul-stirring experience that took my breath away. As I studied each painting, I had (what I now know) was an out-of-body experience. It was the entirety of the exhibition that filled my heart, mind and spirit.
MONK: It sounds like a destiny moment too, for his creative impact on you was substantial. Is that a correct reading of what you feel about it? How did it change your life?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Absolutely — in that moment, my life was changed. It made me question all art. What does art bring to the world? How does abstract art in particular affect the viewer? I asked myself what my work would contribute. At that moment, I knew I had to re-evaluate my artistic journey and determine a better path, one of making a more powerful statement. My sweet little watercolors were not enough. I felt in my soul that I needed to develop a more meaningful painterly vocabulary.
MONK: What sort of teacher was he? Did his wisdom sharing go beyond the techniques of poured paint?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Jenkins never considered himself a teacher to me. He took the time to frequently review my slides. He pushed me to work large, eliminate subject matter and focus on time, space and color. When I visited him at one of his exhibitions in New York in 1988, I was expecting that we would talk about his show. Instead he took me into the office and told me that I was ready for a show and implored me to have professional photos taken of all my work. He also introduced me to his friends, such as the renowned artist, Enrico Donati. The three of us had dinner one evening and I was thrilled to be a part of their discussion of the NY art scene. They treated me as an equal.
MONK: Pushing this further, in your experience is it realistic to talk about a guru relationship between artists – creativity is after all a shared wisdom as well as an intuitive expression? Do you teach yourself?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: I do teach, but in the form of private one-on-one tutorials. Working with carefully selected artists, we move very quickly over a two-day period. I enjoy the mentor role, and take pride in helping them in their developing careers. Teaching and mentoring keeps me on my toes, which I truly value.
MONK: Our magazine explores conversations around art, consciousness and the soul – and the more shamanic aspects of creativity, whether for example, the artist feels guided in their practice. Your beautiful luminous high-color paintings do indeed seem inspired and often representative of quiet, contemplative – even mystical states. Do you actually feel as if you are channelling something beyond your own imagination?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Many of the paintings feel like they just appear. That is my goal, actually. The ones that are labored over look too composed. They end up in the trash.
MONK: Watching videos of you at work is often quite mesmerising – as if you are led by the paint and by color. There also seems to be an aspect of ‘Chi’ flow around the composition – slowly chasing the energy similar to the way the Eastern practice of Tai Chi gently manipulates energy in curving movements. Do you ever practice Tai Chi or is that a wrong reading and is it simply a technical part of the poured process, tilting the canvas and allowing the flow of paint? Paul Jenkins was of course very interested in Eastern spiritual practices.
BETTE RIDGEWAY: You are very perceptive in seeing the “Chi” in my work. Over the years, I’ve learned to work with and in the flow. I’ve slowed the process down, making it more of a ritual – a celebration of the paint and the water which, as you point out, is affected by the energy around it. Yes, Jenkins influenced me greatly in the investigation of Eastern spiritual practices. He gave me books by Ouspensky and Gurdjieff in 1980. I still refer to them from time to time. Through my studies I have learned that the greatest gift a person can have is the gift of the imagination.
MONK: How do you begin a canvas? What comes first, composition or color? Or something else – an emotional state?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: I strive to let the color direct ME. The first pour directs the second, then the first two direct the third. Much like composing music, the form evolves naturally.
MONK: Do you have a religious practice yourself that you’d be comfortable to share with our readers?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Before I begin a painting, I meditate for at least 30 minutes. This creates an opening through which the painting can “flow.” Keeping an open mind, I don’t have an attachment to the outcome (unless I’m working on a commission).
MONK: You’ve travelled a lot in your career and experienced many different cultures. What country has most affected your artistic self in terms of taking their wisdom into your own practice?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: The travel to more than 40 countries has certainly informed my work. Living and working in Madagascar was undoubtedly the most influential. The colors of that culture and the reverence of the Malagasy people for their spiritual roots influenced me a lot. The beautifully uncluttered life there helped me value the small things in life and to appreciate, more deeply, the beauty of nature.
MONK: Have you ever painted a canvas which you step back from and wish frankly to never sell – because there is such a bond?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: I have created several paintings over my six decades of making art that I loved and cherished. My wonderful mentors taught me, however, that the art must go out into the world. It is not for us to keep. Like children, they come through us, but they do not belong to us.
MONK: Other than Paul Jenkins are there any other painters who have been influential in your career? You are seen as a part of the second wave of American abstract expressionism and yet your painting seems so luminous, joyful and inner compared to the first wave of existentially intense and psychologically complex, darker dripped paint (Jackson Pollock, Will de Kooning etc). How do you relate to them in your own mind?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: That first generation of abstract expressionists took great chances and threw out all the rules! They gave us, especially Pollock, permission to experiment. They worked in New York during very turbulent times, and their art reflected that. I’ve been reading lately about the five most important female artists of that period (Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell and Grace Hartigan) and I continue to be impressed by the ways in which they dealt with their struggles. Each of these artist’s works have influenced mine. I was fortunate in the mid-70s to have Grace Hartigan critique my work. An extraordinary experience.
MONK: Do you feel more of an affinity with the colour field painters – Mark Rothko for example – whose softness and exploration of color was a journey around our unconscious nature and the romantic aesthetic of the sublime?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Color field painters, especially Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, really speak to me. Spending time in the Rothko Chapel of the Menil in Houston was a highlight of my life. “A stillness that moves” was a meditation that continues to fuel a contemplative practice in me.
MONK: A question about technique and material. Acrylic seems like a really miraculous modern invention for the painter. Of course water plays a central role. Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto had a metaphysical theory that water contains intelligence and the human consciousness can affect it. Does that resonate at all, that there is an aliveness about water-based acrylics that firstly, painting with oil couldn’t achieve, and secondly, somehow captures an almost supra-natural energy and spirit that is indeed so dominant in your paintings?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: Before the current availability of acrylic “flow” paint, I used heavy body paint that I thinned with water in a blender. A tedious exercise, but the results were extraordinary. Fortunately, Sam Golden developed a high-quality acrylic paint in the mid-80s which changed my life. Indeed, there is an “aliveness” in these paints, which I never could see with traditional oil paints. The transparencies and the rich pigments truly changed my work and my life.
MONK: Your work is largely abstract. Do you miss figurative painting?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: I have no interest in painting in a figurative manner. The solid foundation that figurative painting gave me undergirds my abstract work, however.
MONK: What books which have made a spiritual impact on you could you recommend to our readers?
BETTE RIDGEWAY: There are too many books to list, but one that I return to is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
Others are The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, Arnold Kotler and Dalai Lama XIV.
For young students I recommend Spirit Taking Form: Making a Spiritual Practice of Making Art by Nancy J. Azara.
Top image: Botanica
NOV 2020 Sophie Levy Burton MONK