Arts January 13, 2009

Betsy Pearson . . .

Living as Art

Betsy Pearson is a walking lesson in life. Gracious, well spoken and exceedingly kind (but not, I think, to the point of dishonesty), she is inspiring in a time of living otherwise.

Betsy is an artist—some would say, "a real one": She has an art degree, and has shown her work in galleries, worked in New York City, been commissioned, and been published. It’s possible, of course, to go on and on about the beautiful and technical qualities of her art; but Betsy is so much more than this. The way she lives is art. The stories of her life—her family, her log cabin, her writings, her paintings—provide the background, but it is more the way she is loved that explains Betsy Pearson.

The day of our interview, her husband and one of her sons gathered with us around the kitchen table in Bob and Betsy’s sunny log home west of Bellevue. Like sweet sentinels standing guard, the men were hovering not over Betsy, but over her story—fearing she would sell herself short.

Her writings and her paintings provide the background, but it is more the way she is loved that explains Betsy Pearson.

Bob Pearson tells me that his wife can be very modest, so he’s going to be sure that I hear all there is to tell. He says this proudly, but without boasting, in a warm and easy way. “Well,” she smiles. “I guess we won’t get away with anything here then, will we?”

Scooter, the parrot, scrambles over to the side of his cage for a little head-scratch, gently lowering his head to Betsy’s finger. He closes his eyes. If parrots can smile, he does. >>>



It would be easy to write a sort of Norman Rockwell story about Betsy—growing up in the Midwest, studying art at the University of Kansas, and launching her fledgling career in NYC before marrying her gunnery officer sweetheart in the WWII era. There’s an endearing American nostalgia in the vision of this young couple comparing notes as Bob wrote for the United States Navy. Later, they worked together as writer and graphic designer on Shipmate, the monthly alumni magazine for the U.S. Naval Academy. “We had a good time doing that together,” she smiles, her eyes softening.

A serendipitous path through advertising work took Betsy to the New York Herald Tribune, where she created a column about parenting that ran for the next 17 years and was syndicated internationally in more than 70 newspapers. During those days of writing—a daily column, mind you—she brought up three spirited children, and never missed a single deadline. In testament to her sage advice and, just as likely, her irresistibly engaging persona, two bound collections of her columns were published. The first, An ABC For Mothers, was published in 1955 by Simon & Schuster and combined Betsy’s talents with those of Charlotte Heimann. Later, Grossett & Dunlap published How to Amuse and Outwit Important People Under 10. Betsy’s writing brought her a measure of celebrity, certainly, but she shows no sense of self-importance. “Oh,” she says, looking at Bob, “We’ve certainly had some fun, haven’t we?”

The fun has included a few more books: Several years ago, Betsy combined talents with a couple of friends to produce Come Fly With Me, an illustrated children’s book of poetry about Sanibel Island, a favorite respite off the coast of Ft. Myers, Florida. Most recently, Betsy created A Sun Valley Journal, a charming book filled with her paintings of well-known events and locations here in the Valley. The book signings were attended by more members of the Pearson clan—son Ridley was there with his newly released novel, Peter and the Starcatchers, along with his daughter, Paige, the muse behind Ridley’s story.

A walk through the Pearson home reveals examples of Betsy’s work that haven’t been bound between covers. Her landscape paintings are unmistakably Idaho scenes, most certainly painted by someone who has closely observed, over a considerable length of time, the light and color here. They are infused with the very spirit of the places they represent. And that reveals something else about Betsy—she is a keen witness of more than just the visual. Her love of the scenes she paints brings to her work a nearly tangible presence. Somehow, she has painted the sound of red-winged blackbirds in the willows along Silver Creek.>>>



At least as much as Idaho is the essence of her paintings, Betsy is a part of this Valley. A perpetual volunteer, although she professes to have “cut back” on that, Betsy’s mark rests quietly on many local events. Bob and Brad laughingly recall the huge paintings Betsy did for the Sagebrush Equine Training Center’s annual Cowboy Ball. Ten feet high by 40 feet long, Bob enthuses. Oh no, says Betsy, not quite. She thinks they were closer to 17 or 18 feet long. For Brad, the real story is more about scale than size: “Can you imagine this nearly 83-year-old woman climbing up and down the ladder to paint that canvas? Up to paint, down to get perspective, back up to paint a little more, then back down . . . Up, down, up, down.” The logistics didn’t deter her, though. A year later, Betsy tackled art projects for the Community Symphony and the Animal Shelter, and several more paintings for the Sagebrush Center.

Like many of us who visited a friend here and then decided to stay on, Betsy and Bob arrived in the Valley via their son’s Western adventure. Brad moved to the foot of King Mountain in Idaho’s Big Lost River Valley. He aspired to ranch there and, perhaps, given the spirit of the mid-1970s, grow a few organic crops. Bob and Betsy came out for a visit, and ended up buying 240 acres near their son. (Land was then $39 an acre, Bob remembers.) Everyone eventually migrated to the Wood River Valley, including daughter Wendy and family, who have a second home in Gimlet.

With sparkling eyes, Bob leans forward and recounts that it was Betsy who secured the land where their log home now stands: Sitting in the Silver Dollar in Bellevue, Betsy mentions that she’s searching for some land nearby. In typical saloon humor, a guy laughingly tells Betsy he’s got some land she could buy—except that “there’s no access from the road, so you can’t get to it!” The guy continues to chuckle at his joke, but fate intervenes. Also in the Silver Dollar is the man who can give Betsy an easement for access to that parcel, and he offers it to her. Betsy shakes the hands of the landowners and tells them they have a deal. The year is 1978. It is a Valley real estate deal guaranteed the old-fashioned way—with a handshake.

“Betsy was the architect and building supervisor on this house,” Bob says proudly. Betsy had worked one summer during WWII with an engineering company, where she had learned to draft. So, with her new piece of land in front of her, she drew up the plans for their log house, and then “worked with a carpenter in the neighborhood” to build it.>>>



She recounts the story of one of the workers, “a lovely young woman” who wore a tool belt over her hand-crocheted bikini. “She was very good at building,” Betsy remembers. Indeed. The woman, Cindy Mann (now sporting OSHA-approved attire), still works in the building industry here in the Valley. Their land seems vast and open, exactly the kind of place people dream of when they aspire to move to America’s West. Framed by snowcapped, rounded hilltops and edged with cottonwoods, aspens, pines, and willows, this is Idaho at its purest. “We actually only have five acres,” Betsy smiles. “But, since all of our neighbors have much larger pieces of land and we’re right in the middle, it feels like we have much more.” That was a very lucky night at the Silver Dollar nearly 30 years ago.

Most certainly painted by someone who has closely observed, over a considerable length of time, the light and color here, Betsy’s paintings are infused with the very spirit of the places they represent.

The house is well loved and fully lived in, family photos comfortably scattered about, rugs gently worn by the passage of many feet. It is a simple but lovely home, one that embraces inhabitants and fortunate visitors alike with a palpable sense of poignant memory, and an almost contradictory sense of never-ending youth (there is, for instance, a permanent grass volleyball court in the yard). It is easy to imagine that it has always been so.

Memories of the family’s Connecticut home surface easily. It was, Betsy remembers, “a wonderful place where people gathered.” Her sense of fun and adventure shines in the story Brad recounts of his mother touring all the young cousins through the Museum of Modern Art, and then spreading out huge lengths of white wallboard on the lawn at home. Handing over all of the old house paint in the basement, she challenged the kids: “Now, let’s see what you can do.” Brad, inspired by Jackson Pollock, flung and splattered paint with wild enthusiasm.

Envisioning a broad lawn filled with children painting huge masterpieces, I sense the presence of a creative muse in every aspect of Betsy Pearson’s life. In my mind, as in an 8mm-film format, I see joyous, rambunctious vitality pouring out of the Pearson home and into scenes of picnics, footraces, kite flying, and even Brad’s pole-vaulting pit for practicing in the yard. The children grow to become writers and teachers, and to raise children of their own. But, always, it is the laughter and the love that is most apparent. This is the art of living fully and well.

Deb Gelet, begged to write this story. Then, she realized she was writing about a writer who married a writer, and raised two more writers. (Oh. And a teacher.) Although her own insecurities nearly paralyzed her, she would do it all again just for the honor of sharing time with Betsy Pearson.




This article appears in the Summer 2005 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.