BISBEE — On Saturday, the walls of the Central School Project will come alive with art filled with swirling color and powerful women.
The gallery is honoring the career of local artist and author Betsy Breault, who has been living and making art in Bisbee for 50 years, with a two-week show that displays a half-century of her work. Such retrospectives allow people to see “a lifetime” in the artwork, said Laurie McKenna, Central School Project executive director.
“You see the commitment, you see the brilliance of the person,” she said. “There are two foundations in Bisbee — the industry that was here before, copper, and the people who came when the mines closed, most of whom were artists in the ‘70s. And (Breault) is an amazing productive pioneer of Bisbee.”
The exhibit features over 50 pieces of art, with at least one for each year that Breault has been working and living in Bisbee. Some of her paintings took decades to complete, the artist said.
“A lot of my work will span 30 years — if I have it around, I never stop working on it,” Breault said.
Breault, now retired, first moved to the hills of Bisbee in 1968 when she was in her early 20s, after her then-husband, Ted Breault, took a job at Cochise College. Her artwork has appeared in Bisbee’s galleries before: she had the opening exhibit for Cochise Fine Arts, which used to be on Subway Street, and also co-owned La Chasse Gallerie in Old Bisbee for 10 years, a place frequented by poets, artists, and children.
Myths and legends from Southwestern Native American culture, Mexico, and South America, are major influences in Breault’s work, she said.
“Mythology, both ancient and the myths of our time, the myths that are evolving, especially between indigenous cultures that are native to an area and migrant cultures that are traveling through that area, (inspire me),” she said. “Also, the role of the woman — how that’s protected by mythology, and how that’s expanded.”
Many of Breault’s paintings depict fantastical, detailed depictions of the narratives and figures from those stories.
Walking among the paintings she is setting up for the gallery show, Breault pauses by a painting of a colorful female figure looming over a crowd of reptiles, one of her pieces that was influenced by a little-known mythical figure.
“This is myself as Santa Rosa — she was a saint from Lima Peru — and here she, or I, am seen blessing 1,000 lizards,” she explained. “She had very peculiar habits; she didn’t want to appear attractive to men, so she dipped her hands in acid.”
There are tales like this behind many of Breault’s paintings, which are primarily done in oil and a type of printmaking she designed called “munecas de papel” (paper dolls). The fantastic, narrative element is what makes them such a delight to take in, said McKenna.
“I’m excited about Betsy because her work is so vibrant and detailed,” she said. “It feels like fantasy, buts it’s drawing from ancient myths — and it has a very powerful female voice.”
Breault’s creative work and storytelling isn’t limited to painting. In summer 2018, she published a book called Sellers in the Kitchen: Romancing the Ghost of George Wiley Sellers. The book explores the life of Bisbee cartographer and artist Sellers, as well as Breault’s experiences living with his spirit in the home she constructed over his former dwelling.
“Now, what is now my kitchen was once his house. I’ve lived with his ghost for 28 years,” she said. “He did the relief map in the courthouse, and he was a member of the Cavaliers, and he was an artist who was active back in the ‘30s and ‘40s, so (the book) is about him and a subsequent generation of artists who came after him.”
Breault’s book will be available for purchase at the gallery, along with her art. Refreshments will be served at the opening reception, and a fiddler will serenade attendees, she said. Breault hopes those who stop by will enjoy the complex themes of mythology, humanity, and nature that she explores in her art, she said.
“I hope they might have a heightened sense of ecology and the interaction of different species and cultures, to put it in a nutshell,” she said. “And I hope they might find it interesting.”