Chaotic Happiness and Other Adventures

Photo by Matt Rose
Photo by Matt Rose

Mark Bettis has been painting since he was a child. Of course, he received the same advice from guidance counselors that most young artists do — art isn’t to be taken seriously as a career. But after 20 years as an art director, working in marketing and design, Bettis is finally where he wants to be — a full-time painter with a new spacious studio at Cotton Mill Studios in Asheville’s River Arts District, with his eye set on teaching and making larger work. “I learned that I just shouldn’t try stuff that isn’t my passion,” he says.

This passion is for large textural paintings that tend toward abstract landscape. Some titles reveal this: “The Ridge,” “A View From the Hill.” Others allude to more emotional states: “Chaotic Happiness,” “Serenity.” They are all bound by an interest in mark making, a fascination with line and color, among other elements of design, and a response to his environment, both urban and natural.

Bettis has embraced a variety of landscapes in his life — from an upbringing in Chicago, to his studies at Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. “One was too cold, one was too hot,” he says, smiling. He would spend summers in Asheville, and during the country’s economic downturn six-and-a-half years ago, he decided to make the move here full time. Within a few years, he had picked up painting again, transitioning from a home studio to the Wedge, and now to the Cotton Mill Studios, a stately anchor of the district.

Though the future is bright, Bettis still admits to challenges within his style. “Abstract is difficult sometimes,” he says. While he does make sales from his studio at the Cotton Mill, his work sold in various galleries in the United States assists with his income.

Of course, for commissions, which he greatly enjoys making for clients, not being able to have sketches beforehand is potentially problematic. But those who appreciate his work are happy to see where suggestions of color or size take Bettis, who embraces a mix of traditional and modern even in his own home. “Just because you have traditional furniture, it doesn’t mean you need to have a naturalistic painting of a mountain scene to go with it,” he remarks.

Bettis does do mountains, however, albeit subtly. “The Ridge” gives an implication of landscape, but eloquently tiptoes the line of abstraction, as well. A jagged line bisects the composition’s warm browns and oranges, dividing land from sky. It could be a sunset, as implied by the overall palette and dabbling of intense red along the line.

“I love when people see what they want to see out of it,” says Bettis. Buyers have even rotated his canvases to achieve a different effect, and he claims not to mind.

Beyond beautiful scenery, decay is another inspiration. Bettis photographs some of the more neglected buildings around the River Arts District and remarks, “I love old crackling walls — aged things.” “Gravity Attracts” reveals this — a predominantly light-gray composition that brings to mind a peeling, water-stained wall.

These neutral values contrast with the saturated orange, blue, and pink graffiti-inspired linework that dominates the lower part of the composition. A white plus-sign cross is the emphatic, recognizable element — a mark echoed in many of his other works.

“Gravity Attracts” comes from his most recent body of work, adequately entitled Textures. Derived from his process of working with multiple layers, and with various media such as cold wax, marble dust, and graphite, the pieces are tempting to touch. Cold wax is a material about the consistency of Crisco, to which he adds oil paint.

Building up layers takes time, sometimes weeks, as he waits for them to dry and then cuts into the thick surface with paint thinners, or pattern-based materials such as bubble wrap or drywall tape. Applied to a wood panel, the deep texture invites adventure. “I can scrape as much as I want. I can be more bold.”

Though he enjoys that process, Bettis works on paper, as well. While he says they’re more “subtle” than works on panels, some visual results are unique to paper. The title “Moss Gathering” gives a hint at what inspired the yellow-green, turquoise, and brown composition. But it’s the pale-blue marks at the top of the piece that are the most striking, almost photographic in their allusion to falling water. It’s an effect of materials colliding that can only be achieved on paper.

Bettis has a full plate this fall — an opening celebration for his new studio in September, followed by beginning and advanced painting classes in October and November. Commissions are lining up for larger works, made possible by his new studio.

He is also proud to have his painting “Radiance” selected as the signature piece for the Western North Carolina AIDS Project’s upcoming annual benefit auction. (WNCAP’s highly anticipated “Raise Your Hand” event happens on October 11.)

“I want viewers to feel illuminated and comforted by the emotions of tranquility and peace that inspired me in creating this painting.”