Visual Vernacular: Betsy Huete
Betsy Huete, “Methods in Scholarship (Glass Houses),” 2015. Photo: Alex Barber
An artist and writer who is enamored by nostalgia, Betsy Huete takes this often sacred notion and examines it from all angels including the good and the bad. Starting with written words from her own hand, sculptures arise out of the original texts that live and breath as their own entity. Her latest exhibition at Art League Houston, A Collection of Babysitters, is based off of the eponymous book series read by many of the women born in the eighties and growing into the nineties. The Babysitters Club by Ann M. Martin, the famous children’s fiction series, serves as the focus for the show in which Hutete engages with questions many females grapple with including those on friendship, camaraderie, jealousy, loyalty, and love. She assembles her original poetry by taking phrases from the first eight volumes of the series and reshuffling the words into her own written work. Sculpture also comes forth from the poems, offering organic developments of the words. Huete took the time to answer some questions about herself and the ongoing exhibition at Art League Houston.
Free Press Houston: Art and writing was something that snuck up on you in life. What were your interests growing up and how did those interests shift later on?
Betsy Huete: I played soccer from the age of six all the way through college and it took up a huge chunk of my life. I had little interest in art until I took a sculpture class my freshman year of college, and I kind of fell in love with it from there. As far as writing goes, maybe I had more of an interest in that as a kid. I remember I would write well thought-out, impassioned letters to my mom when I got in trouble or I thought my brother was being obnoxious. Do all kids do that? Probably.
But a serious interest in writing — both in poetry and criticism — didn’t really come until later, until I was in the middle of grad school. I received encouragement from professors and mentors to pursue writing, which in turn gave me the confidence and motivation to keep trying at it. The prose poems I write now (including some of the ones in this show) came out of a frustration during grad school of trying to meld text and sculpture together. Although they were things I was interested in jointly, combining the two always felt forced, and it wasn’t until I separated them that I felt more liberated and comfortable with what I was making.
FPH: What was your first encounter with the literature used as the basis for the show?
Huete: I just remember opening the first Babysitters Club book one summer when I was in elementary school and not being able to put them down. I think I rifled through like twenty-six or twenty-seven of them in a few weeks. They’re addictive. To be honest, I totally enjoyed rereading the first eight volumes while writing my chapbook.
FPH: What are some of the themes of the books that you explored? How did you relate to them as an adult verses in your youth?
Huete: Because the books revolve around a group female friends, I’m particularly interested female friendship and everything that constitutes: loyalty, jealousy, love, trust, (mis)communication, (in)security, fun, familiarity. It was really interesting thinking back to how safe and comfortable I felt while reading them — while Ann M. Martin (the author) dealt with some serious problems like divorce, remarriage, second families, sibling rivalry, and even death, there was always the sense that everything would be sorted out by page 110 or so.
The series also delves into entrepreneurship since the girls start their own babysitting business and it really takes off in their suburb. So I’m also interested in how female empowerment is represented and problematized in popular culture. I think it was important for girls in my generation to have an example of a group of female friends who take the initiative to do something productive with their time, something they care about, and hey, make a little money while they’re at it. But the entire premise is very gendered, centered around care-taking and domesticity. So the underlying message of the series also translates to “You can do anything you set your mind to! (as long as you adopt every single stereotype that has been prescribed to you in the meantime).”
As a woman in my thirties looking back at this series, I’m more interested in the kind of meta-narrative Martin adopts in her writing, who was a similar age when she started writing The Babysitters Club. She acknowledges that a lot of the stories are tangentially autobiographical, so it begs the question: why is every story so tightly controlled? Why is it so manicured and sanitized? Where’s The Babysitters Club: Kristy Loses Her Tampons?
Truthfully, you couldn’t pay me to go back to the age of twelve. Boys still think you have cooties and girls act like buttholes at that age. I remember being pimply and awkward, constantly feeling misunderstood. But I also remember feeling like my friends were my entire world. My point is that adolescence is vastly more complicated than the way Martin depicts it. On the other hand, I think perhaps the series brought a sense of solace to girls, who like me at that age, felt wholly uncomfortable in their own skin.
FPH: How was it as a writer and artist to interpret something that is associated with adolescence?
Huete: I think not just for myself, but for a lot of artists and writers, adolescence is a gold mine. It’s emotional and uncomfortable, nostalgic and abject. But other than just being interested in the idea of adolescence, I’m also interested in the way it is packaged and reconstituted in popular culture. It’s fascinating the way people repackage their own memories.
FPH: What do you hope viewers gain from the exhibition?
Huete: I hope viewers get out of this show what I got from making it, which is to see nostalgia a little differently than something that is kind of silly, or something that gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling. I’m not saying that it isn’t, or shouldn’t be those things but I do think there’s more to nostalgia than that, which is a kind of exertion of control over the way people privately or collectively remember something.
“A Collection of Babysitters” is on view at Art League Houston (1953 Montrose) through September 17.