Doll parts: Betsy Youngquist’s “Season of the Surreal”

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If you had a dream in which you rediscovered your childhood dolls as jewel-encrusted buried treasure, you might possess something resembling the shimmering yet solid works of Betsy Youngquist, a mixed-media sculptor from Rockford, Illinois. Her large-eyed human and animal figures, which combine vintage dolls with mosaic beadwork, are on display in Season of the Surreal, opening at Patina Gallery on Friday, Nov. 2.

Rockford is a manufacturing town about 75 miles northwest of Chicago, near the Wisconsin border. It is sometimes known as Screw City because of the large number of screws, bolts, and other fasteners that were produced there. Youngquist, who grew up in Rockford in the 1970s and ’80s, said that over the years, the components and foundry forms from the old factories trickled into the material base of local artists. “There are a lot of mixed-media artists here,” she said. “We all support each other.”

Youngquist exhibits her work widely and co-owns Gallery Two in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where she spends a few months out of the year. She holds a master’s degree in art education, which she earned at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after studying biology as an undergraduate at North Park University in Chicago. The biological emphasis of her college days comes through loud and clear in her work all these years later, but as a visual artist, she said, she is largely self-taught.

“I mean, I took color theory and classes in various practices, but no one was teaching what I was interested in,” she said. In graduate school, other students told her that beading and the type of mixed-media she appreciated was considered “craft” and not fine art — a standard, often aggravating art-world debate of the early 1990s that Youngquist left behind by leaving academia. Despite her proximity to the Windy City and showing her work there over the years, she has never considered herself part of the Chicago art community. An art critic from the city once showed up in Rockford and told her she must be a Chicago Imagist, which surprised her. Though the surreal nature of her work has some parallels to the group of late-’60s artists known as the Chicago Imagists, that milieu was operating a generation earlier and had ties to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which Youngquist did not attend.

“I told him that I just make things,” she said.

In her twenties, she lived at home with her mother and worked as a substitute teacher in local schools while also teaching art for the Rockford Park District. At the time, she was mostly doing watercolor-style painting using acrylic inks and embellishing her two-dimensional anthropomorphic figures with beads. She was teaching some teenagers about mosaic when she came home one day and decided to use grout to bead a piece of silverware that she snagged from a kitchen drawer. This opened the door to the work she does now. Her artistic preoccupation with very large eyes dates all the way back to art she made in high school. “I was doing these giant blow-ups of my dog’s eyes, a humpback whale’s eyes,” she said. She still favors grout or even backyard mud when making her mosaics, for which she uses vintage glass beads, crystals, and stones.

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Season of the Surreal is timed to coincide with Day of the Dead — the Mexican holiday that begins Wednesday, Oct. 31, and ends Friday, Nov. 2 — during which people gather to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. Many of the pieces featuring human faces and bodies look like children who have been broken and then put back together in a loving, almost ritualistic fashion. Little King is a boy in short pants. Crystals and stones stand out like scars on his face. He wears a crown of thick crystals and appears to be happy. “The Little Kings live both on and below the surface of the Earth,” Youngquist writes in a statement for the gallery. “Their crystal crowns speak of the subterranean realms they move through. … The more we break apart our concept of what it is to be human the more we open ourselves to the worlds and energies that surround us just beyond our reach.” Another glittering and finely detailed work is The Flower Summoner, a young woman wearing antlers and ensconced in a dress of witchy royalty. She is part of a larger Women of the Woods series that Youngquist sees as “fierce protectors of the wild flora and fauna that inhabit northern climates.” The Flower Summoner’s particular job is “to call forth the plants and encourage them to bud and flower.”

Though Youngquist was working with beading before she ever traveled to Santa Fe, she came here for the first time when she was in her twenties — penniless, putting nearly everything on credit cards — and then returned for seven consecutive years. She started selling some of her beaded flatware at Doodlet’s, the funky-folkloric store on Water Street, and found a sense of artistic community by visiting the local museums, where curators seemed to embrace as fine art the same things that had been dismissed as “craft” back home. She hadn’t intended, in her beading, to copy indigenous art of the Southwest, which she’d never seen close-up or in any quantity, but she was pleased to find a personal aesthetic connection to Native artists. A similar thing happened with the Women of the Woods series.

“After the three pieces in this series were created, it was brought to my attention that I was creating versions of Beaivi,” a Scandinavian sun deity, Youngquist said. “In Sami myth, she travels with her daughter Beaivi-nieida through the sky in an enclosure covered by reindeer bones, bringing green plants back to the winter earth for the reindeer to eat, and she is associated with fertility in plants and animals. She was also called upon to restore the mental health of those who went insane because of the continual darkness of the long winter.”

Youngquist said the Day of the Dead theme proposed by Patina Gallery was ideal, as one of the pieces she wanted to finish in time for the show was Muninn, a crow that encompasses the feelings she and her partner, Scott Long, have around the death of their Siberian Husky, Chaco. Chaco died in May 2018, crossing to the other side in the backyard after a long season of illness. While he lay dying, two baby crows were being raised in the yard by their mother, which Youngquist said was unusual. “We get plenty of baby birds, but rarely are they crows.”

The finished Muninn represents Chaco’s memory figuratively — in its form as a crow — as well as literally. Long, who creates the sculptural body forms for Youngquist’s pieces, left a void in the chest that they filled with a copper tube, inside of which is a vial of Chaco’s ashes and some of his fur.

“Chaco was my heart,” she said. “To me, the piece is the heart of the show.”


▼ Betsy Youngquist: Season of the Surreal; through Dec. 3

▼ Opening reception 5 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2

▼ Patina Gallery, 131 W. Palace Ave., 505-986-3432

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