Interview with Julia Betts

Julia Betts was born in 1991 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania and is now based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 2014, Betts graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA, she left with six awards and two undergraduate research grants. After earning her BA, she completed artist-in-residence programs at Second Sight Studio (OH) and Bunker Projects (PA). In 2015, she began at the Rhode Island School of Design and she earned her MFA in Sculpture from RISD in 2017. Since graduating, she has participated in group exhibitions in Brooklyn, NY at Microscope Gallery, Reart Space, and Flux Factory. 

Her work veers toward the intersection of sculpture, performance, and installation; and is defined by a series of radically disparate multimedia projects unified by their intentional unpredictability, use of unstable materials, and orchestration of situations in which her body and/or a constructed space are subjected to various hazards and forces of disorder. With each piece, her intent—although never completely pre-determined—is to push a range of materials to the limits of their utility, while placing herself in precarious circumstances that simultaneously function as metaphors of emotional/psychic vulnerability and pure demonstrations of intentional disarray. Generally, she makes a mess—but it’s a purposeful, highly textured mess. 

AA: So, I hear you’re an artist. How did you discover that being an artist is what you wanted to pursue?

JB: I originally went to the University of Pittsburgh with the intention of being a sociology major, but, as I took art classes in college, I became more and more passionate about art. I realized I wanted to be a studio arts major in my sophomore year. I was unsure in college what I would do with my studio arts major. It felt very right to me to become a studio arts major and to commit to being an artist.

AA: Describe your studio and process. 

JB: My studio is usually the most messy studio that a person has ever seen. My process begins within restraints that end up being significant to the ultimate feel and concept of the finished work. For example, to find the beginnings of a new project, I give myself a time restraint ("I have to figure out a new process within a few hours or a night") and the beginnings of the project is found within that time period. That mindset of being rushed and confined is integral in the final evolution of the work. 

AA: What draws you to chaos and the unexpected ways of making work in your practice? 

JB: I have a comfort and familiarity with chaos. It is a comfort with discomfort. I set up systems and works meant for upheaval and accidents. I value making the least amount of aesthetic decisions possible in my work. I value removing my control in my work or limiting my ability to know exactly what something will become. I see these limitations on my control and unexpected results as metaphors for psychological and emotional situations in life. 

AA: Name one thing you can't live without in the studio? 

JB: I don't use any tables or tools particularly. I use the floor constantly. Maybe buckets, I use a lot of buckets. 

AA: If someone were to draw one conclusion from viewing your work, what would you hope that would be? 

JB: that's a tough question. My work varies so much from piece to piece. I hope that I make work that connects to people emotionally, but also challenges them intellectually. I hope I make work that hits multiple meanings and emotional tones. I hope to forge a communion to others through the vulnerability of much of my work.

AA: What are you working on right now?

JB: In my studio I'm still working on my project "2015-2017" and I'm also working on a new project that I'm more secretive talking about. "2015-2017" is a project that I started in grad school at RISD. In this project, I embed my belongings from 2015-2017 in plaster time capsules. First, the belongings are sorted by color (red, brown, white, orange, black, blue) and then I insert them in plaster. As part of this piece, there is a book detailing the contents of each brick and telling stories of moments when each object within the plaster changed colors. I am currently still making blocks and writing. 

The "secret project" that's beginning in my studio is an installation in which I perform within. That is vague but it is still very early on. It is connected to 2015-2017 because I am again working with everyday objects and monochromatic color schemes. But while 2015-2017 relied on all things accidental, I am putting more of my hand back into my work with this new project. I am taking more control. 

AA: Who or what are you listening to when you’re creating work?

JB: I work in silence actually. I get lost in what I'm doing and it never even occurs to me to put on music. 

AA: What are you reading or watching and does it affect what you are making?

JB: I'm really into Sci-fi. My favorite sci-fi shows are Star Trek: next generation, Rick and Morty, Battlestar Galactica. I like shows and movies that challenge mentally. I try to challenge myself mentally when I'm making work too. I don't think that most of my work has a particular sci-fi aspect to it though. I used to make a lot of work that dealt with digital and physical bodies, but my work has gone away from that direction at this point. My work sometimes has a macgyver-ness that I believe is inspired by sci-fi. I think the quirky solutions that I use to problem solve stem from my interest in far out places and unknown peoples. There is a certain amount of idealism and humanism that has been instilled in me from sci-fi. Many of the sci-fi shows I mentioned question what it means to be human. They question what it means to exist in the world and what a person owes. I think all artists work are in some way a microcosm of the world as they interpret it. 

AA: What is your favorite thing about being an artist?

JB: I like the freedom of being an artist and being able to express myself. I’ve often felt unable to express myself for many reasons so art gives me that outlet.

AA: What is your least favorite thing about being an artist?

JB: I am often uncomfortable with the sharing of my artwork before I'm ready. Grad school involved a lot of critiques to really fresh or in-progress work. 

AA: When you’re not making artwork, what would one find you doing? 

JB: TV, movies, out for drinks, traveling to NY, reading

AA: What's next for you? 

JB: I have no idea what will become of me. I've found out already that I kind of just have to go with the flow and see what opportunities arise and apply for everything and just wait and see. 

AA: Which artists inspire you?

JB: Janine Antoni, Eva Hesse, Tracey Emin, Sarah Ahmed, Cathy Wilkes, Francesca Woodman, Mika Rottenberg, Kevin Beasley, Gregor Schneider, Sarah Oppenheimer, Bryer P Orridge, Doris Salcedo 

AA: What advice would you give to a fellow artist who might be reading this?

JB: Make things that are genuine to yourself. Don't make things because you're trying to please other people. Don't make things that you think you're supposed to make. Make things that you are intimidated to try to make. Don't waste time making things that don't matter to you. 

AA: I like to think of artists making artwork the same way as chefs cooking in the kitchen. At first, it may seem intimidating, but once you gain a little confidence, the possibilities of creating tasty meals are endless. With that being said, every famous chef has a catchphrase. What’s your catchphrase in the studio?

JB: I made these recipes based on your idea of chefs and kitchens...

Recipe 1:

one part idea 

three parts effort

Recipe 2:

One part listen to everyone 

one part ignore everyone 

Recipe 3:

One part trust yourself 

One part question yourself 

Recipe 4:

One part think about the world 

One part make art for yourself 

Recipe 5:

One part have plans 

One part plans are dumb 

Connect with Julia through her Instagram @julia_betts and view her website

Window Screens (2016)