After a lucrative business career in textile printing, Beth returned to her roots. She started with art classes, eventually earning a Master in Fine Arts at age 50. Today, she creates large commissioned art projects for public works, and consults on such projects as well.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in New Hyde Park, NY on Long Island, in a very middle class community—we were one of the first communities right over the Queens line. My brother was two years older than me and we were great friends. It was mostly an idyllic childhood in an “Ozzie & Harriet” environment. My father worked and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Although she was a fantastic homemaker—she cooked and sewed all of my clothes (and taught me to do both) and our friends were always welcome at our house—I could sense a longing within her. She was liberal, easygoing, and smart. Dad was the disciplinarian and very strict. Great with numbers, Mom was Dad’s bookkeeper. I think I sensed that she had no power; the power was in who held the purse strings. I was aware that I wanted power. I remember holding meetings in my bedroom where I was the “boss” and talking to my employees.
Due to the times, 1950s, and being Jewish, the subliminal (and not so subliminal) message was that the male child was important and the female child not so much. A female was expected to marry and have a family, so why invest in her? I was never encouraged to create art and never felt talented at home. However, there was a pivotal moment in first grade when I was chosen, along with a few other children, to create a mural of my family. Mrs. Pinto rolled out a large brown paper onto the floor, gave us each a six-foot section, and told us to paint. I felt special as an artist. I can still picture that painting—it was so large!
At some point, I guess my parents knew I was talented, as I do remember taking art classes as electives all through Junior High and High School, and my parents did enroll me in some art classes after school. As a teenager, I was the Assistant Art Counselor at Camp Laurel in Maine.
However, when it came time for college, my parents felt that an art curriculum was a somewhat limited education. They knew I was a very good student and suggested I go to a liberal arts college and take art classes as electives, which is what I did. When I graduated in 1970—in three years; “rushing” has always been my mantra—with a BA in Liberal Arts and a well-rounded education, I was qualified to do nothing. I was floundering and anguished as to what I would do for a career.
My dad told me to move back home to Long Island and go into New York City and find a job in “anything art.” It was great advice and led to my first job in textile design because I could type and had an art background. I was a secretary in the morning and the Studio Director put me in the studio in the afternoon to learn how to design prints for fabric.
I changed jobs seven times in eight years because each company paid me so little. One large company, Burlington Industries, gave me a $5 raise at the end of the year, so I went job hunting to get $25 more a week—I was “networking” before the term was invented! Through the connections I made, I got the idea that I should be in business for myself. I launched my own business with a partner as a print converter (converting raw goods into finished goods). My finished product was millions of yards of printed fabric. My customers were the manufacturers who needed fabric to make into garments. Their customers were the retail stores.
Twelve years later, and in business with my partner, I was married with three children, living in a 5500 square foot brownstone my husband and I renovated, with a weekend home on a lake in Pennsylvania. I made money beyond my wildest dreams, when that was never my ambition. My decisions in life have always been to do things that make me happy and feed my soul.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I had started my business when I was 26 with a male counterpart, with whom I had incredible business chemistry: Without talking, we each knew what the other was thinking and we were extremely successful together. I was the creative end, he handled the financials, and we both sold. Twelve years later, we had close to forty employees and sales representatives in California, Dallas, and Canada.
Then my business partner met and fell in love with a woman who was still in college (a 20-year age difference). She was jealous of anyone and everyone in his life, and did not want him in business with another woman. After a difficult year working in this environment, my partner offered to buy me out, or for me to buy him out.
I was shocked, yet I realized how unhappy I was on this work treadmill. I was running a huge business, my stepdaughter had moved in with us, I had three young children, three nannies (one live-in, one come-and-go, and one for weekends at the lake house).
I agonized at first, as my work was my identity and my income was needed to maintain our family’s lavish lifestyle. But when I pondered my situation, I realized I was just not interested in designing one more print on a piece of fabric. I had a yearning to be with my three small children full time (ages eight, six, and three at the time) and my soul needed to be nourished with art that was mine—not commercial. There was a hole in my heart; something felt incomplete and unused.
In 1989, at the age of 39, I took the buyout and received several offers to go back into business with new partners. I told my husband that I needed a year off, just to be a mother and to make art. I told all interested business people to call me in a year if they were still interested. I enrolled in the Art Students League of New York on 57th Street, where I went for a few hours each morning while my two boys were in school. I learned lithography then switched to oil painting from a live model. I picked the boys up from school each day and spent time with them and my infant daughter.
We still went to Pennsylvania each weekend, but I was enjoying New York City in a brand new way—even though I had lived there almost 20 years. I now could “smell the roses” and go to any event, museum, gallery, park. I finally had the energy to partake of all the incredible things New Your City has to offer. It was wonderful! I think I saw Broadway matinee shows for half price every Wednesday afternoon for a year.
What is your next act?
I am an artist and art consultant, based out of Coral Springs, Florida.
I love anything art. I create fine art in many mediums out of my garage studio. I am curious about new mediums and often take classes and travel to take workshops. Throughout the years, I have learned to work in glass, photography, woodworking, welding, and have created artwork in all of these mediums. I have always been a painter and am proficient in several mediums: watercolor, oils, and acrylics. I love to draw: pastels, oil pastels, and colored pencils. I am always making art, and often combine mediums. I have exhibited my art in galleries as well as the Museum of Art in Ft. Lauderdale.
My current focus is on creating public art works. When I apply for a public art project, the budget and medium are pretty much known. Extensive research goes into winning the commission in a very competitive field. I liken it to being an actor: If an actor is to play the role of a doctor, they will often shadow a real-life physician. The same process is true for me; I have to research a particular part of the country, and specifically the city where I am a finalist, then come up with a specific idea based on what I’ve learned.
In a project at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, for example, I was a finalist for a $20,000 budget for a new building called the Morgridge International Reading Center. Inspired by a group of laboratory scientists studying slices of the brain, they infused slides with colors and photographed them. The resulting images appear like brilliant, incandescent, abstract paintings. I created stained and fused glass to interpret the slide of the hippocampus, responsible for memory—vital to the ability to read.
I now have a public art portfolio consisting of ceramic wall projects, freestanding metal sculpture, and glass art (both stained glass for clerestory windows and a wall mural of slumped and fused glass). I have created bronze medallions, terrazzo floors, vinyl floors for two lobbies, and two outdoor plaza floors.
I just completed a 27-foot high by 14-foot wide glass tile mural for the new headquarters of Hacienda Development Corporation in Portland, Oregon. I worked on the mural on Hardie backer board in my studio, then shipped it to Oregon. I hired an installer in Portland and worked along with him. At the same time, I was recommended to a local developer in Florida, who needed a sculpture in a fountain for a new apartment complex he was building. I created a freestanding sculpture out of powder-coated aluminum. I could do both projects at the same time because I designed a model of the sculpture to scale and hired a metal fabricator to construct it. This freed up my time to create my glass tile sculpture in my studio.
“Celestial Dawn” wall mural, Portland OR
I have just won a commission in Charlotte, NC for a library renovation. They are building an extension and designed a second floor outdoor terrace. The call for artists listed a $51,000 budget for an artist-designed outdoor floor with artist-designed seating. I applied and became a semi-finalist. The Cultural Division flew me down and set me up in a beautiful hotel. I gave a 20-minute Powerpoint presentation to a selection panel and I won the commission!
I know I have earned my dues at this point, but with every project I get, I almost feel it is a miracle. And to use a cliché, “I feel so blessed,” because I get to be doing work that I love.
My art consulting consists of competing for contracts from municipalities. I am the Public Art Consultant, since 2008, along with a male partner, for the City of Lauderhill and the City of Tamarac, both in Florida. Public Art and Public Art Consulting are funded by a separate ordinance that a city decides to adopt. They usually consist of 2% (or less) of the construction budget for Capital Improvement Projects that a city has funded. The money is placed in a separate fund and earmarked for art only.
I find the consulting work by “calls for artists” and networking. These jobs are very competitive and include a comprehensive submission application. As the consultant, I am the person responsible for placing calls for artists and artwork for the cities I work for. For example, when Lauderhill was planning to build a new City Hall, meetings were set up all day long for me to meet with the Architect, Engineer, Landscape Architect, and Interior designer. We looked over the shop drawings for the buildings and in my role, I get to decide where I think art should be placed, and then determine a budget.
For instance, a double-height lobby was being built and I thought a suspended sculpture with lighting would be dramatic. Below the sculpture, I suggested a terrazzo artist-designed floor would be a great plus. Out of the $150,000 budgeted for art at City Hall, I allotted $35,000 for the ceiling sculpture, 15,000 for the terrazzo floor, and $17,500 for two painted murals.
I love the challenge of public art consulting, which allows me to use my expertise along with my people skills. I would love to get more consultant positions, whether in Florida or out of town. I enjoy lecturing on the side as well, being the juror of art festivals, and I have been a Gallery Director twice, which was also amazing.
I love the flexibility to control my schedule so that I can travel with my husband and grown children. When my husband retired two years ago, we took off in the car for two months—with no itinerary! Elvis was on my bucket list, so we went to Memphis. We realized that Anywhere USA has something interesting to see, whether it is an art museum, gallery, or museum—like Kentucky Derby Museum (Louisville) and Martin Luther King Museum (Memphis). Hotwire always got us into a hotel at the last minute at a reduced rate and Yelp got us unusual restaurants with good food and moderate prices.
I have never enjoyed time with my husband more. We have been together 41 years, and I thoroughly enjoyed being with him, driving from city to city. It was a very peaceful adventure, and I realized I was happier now than when I was pursuing achievement. It was an interesting epiphany.
How did you become an artist and art consultant?
In 1990, when we first moved to Florida, I focused on learning and experiencing new art mediums. Every day, I attended a different college or art guild (a guild is an organization formed by local artists to work together as a group), either because it fit into my schedule, or because I was intrigued. Monday was stone sculpture, Tuesday and Thursday was clay, Wednesday was outdoor landscape painting, and Friday was indoor painting form a live model. The experience was totally nourishing and it worked well with mothering.
After the first year, I was a “jack of all trades, master of none” and realized I had an innate ability to envision three-dimensional space, which translates into sculpture. As a result, I focused only on clay sculpture for the next few years at Broward Community College (BCC), and created a series of over 30 abstract heads. This process led me to start exhibiting in galleries and selling the work. From heads, I began a series of 7 foot glazed ceramic totem like sculptures. Again, I met with success at galleries, and was exhibiting my work, which added to the legitimacy of my resume.
There was a great group of serious “older” people like myself at BCC, who either worked at a day job, were raising children like myself, or had retired and were pursuing their passion. This college had an active clay guild, which held events and exhibits. Through the guild, I learned of a national conference held every year in a different City, called NCECA (National Council on Education for Ceramic Arts). When I attended my first conference in New Orleans, I was in ecstasy sitting among hundreds of artists, all following their enthusiasm.
After attending ceramic classes for the first few years at BCC, my professors suggested I take a sculpture class at Florida Atlantic University, a 4-year University in Boca Raton, as they felt I should be working in sculpture materials other than just clay. I followed their advice and was convinced to apply for the BFA (Bachelor in Fine Arts) program, as I only needed 30 additional credits—since I had earned my BA in Liberal Arts—and the required Art History classes would add to my art education. I was nervous as I had not studied and taken a test for 25 years! Still, I decided to apply, got in, and got straight A’s in all of my classes!
I loved the art history classes and had a yearning to continue for my MFA (Master in Fine Arts), but the closest University with a Sculpture MFA was an hour away, and cost prohibitive. Through networking, I found a school with a progressive “low residency” program, Vermont College of Fine Arts, that only required being on campus in Montpelier, Vermont for 20 days a year (10 days in August and 10 days in February), for two years. My three children were now teenagers and my husband encouraged me to attend. I was accepted into this program and began my first residency in August 1997. To use a cliché, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven—my two years were completely transforming. And when I graduated in 1999, at the age of 50, it was the first time in my life I felt I could really, really call myself an ARTIST.
I returned to BCC, where I had first attended clay classes, and became a Professor! They gave me two Art History classes to teach the first semester. I was scared and thrilled at the same time. I remained a professor at this school for several years, teaching assorted classes, and even became the College Gallery Director for two years. All of these jobs were never an ambition of mine, but I loved them.
While I continued to create art, sales were few and far between and the effort to build my reputation and resume in this method was unsatisfying.
I read about the field of public art in the back of Ceramics Monthly magazine, as ceramics was a durable permanent medium suitable for outdoor wall art. I was intrigued but faced a catch 22 because a major submission requirement was to provide images of past projects—I had none. I contacted my kids’ elementary school to ask permission to create a clay sculpture and mosaic mural on an exterior wall. They agreed, and I created a 20-foot long x 10-foot high exterior wall mural. I sent images of the finished mural to the Cultural Division in my County and got my first Public Art project from a neighboring town’s Landscape Architect. He contacted the Cultural Division as he needed a Public Artist to create a ceramic entryway feature into a park he was renovating. They recommended he see my mural, and I got the job, with a budget of $25,000!
I slowly started getting public art projects and left academia, as it was extremely time consuming for very little money as an adjunct (part-time Professor). However, I became quite an entertaining lecturer, having honed my skills speaking about art in my art history classes.
To this day, I get requests to lecture!
How hard was it to leave the business world?
It was very difficult. I am very clear that most people do not make change unless it is forced upon them. If my partner had not offered to buy me out of my business, I might have stayed (he went out of business five years after buying me out). Before my buyout papers were even signed, I was enrolled in art classes. It was heaven! I was creating art simply for the joy of creating.
When the year of “chilling” was up, I met with several businessmen (yes, they were all men), who had contacted me after my buyout. I was offered several attractive deals to go back into business. After one lunch, having been offered an incredible deal to go back into business doing exactly what I had been doing for the past 20 years, I went into a phone booth (yes, there were still phone booths at this time), called my husband, and started crying. He was very worried, and so was I. I could not express why I was crying other than the fact that I just didn’t feel right.
My family and friends couldn’t believe I really left my business, but everyone was incredibly supportive. I think they marveled that I actually did not want to go back into the same business. They thought I had a lot of guts to change my life so drastically.
What challenges did you encounter in your transition into the art world?
First of all, we could not afford our expensive lifestyle if I was not going to contribute financially through my business. And I was just not sure what I was going to do about that. This prompted our move to Florida, where the cost of living is lower.
The second challenge was depression. Although I was enjoying myself, I wasn’t evolved enough to feel that this was enough. The loss of power was acute. I went from being a high-powered executive where people marveled at my multi-tasking (before it was a trendy term) to replacing toilet paper and light bulbs in our home. I will never forget the first time I travelled out of the country with my husband. The customs officer asked my profession. I was silent as I was thinking for a second when my husband blurted out, “She is a housewife” I was horrified!
I have periodically suffered from depression. I can always feel it coming on—when I am confused as to my life’s path. I have always been an ambitious person and an over-achiever (I never felt good enough in my father’s eyes). If I am asked for something, I always have to give more than what was asked. No matter how much therapy I have received, and no matter how much I have worked on my issues, there are still times I become that “unloved” little girl. None of my friends and colleagues would believe this statement, as I am known to be the most positive person on the planet. I am everybody’s cheerleader, and can motivate almost anybody.
There have been times when I thought of giving up. I just wasn’t sure where I was heading.
I have to apply to 50 commissioned art projects to get the one. Sometimes as many as 300 artists apply for one project. The 300 are narrowed down to five, three, or two semi-finalists, and if I am still in the running I then have to come up with a fully fleshed-out idea to win the commission. So I can still lose at that stage. I liken it to the Oscar nominations. All five actresses are talented, but only one gets the award. The odds are daunting, yet I do get my fair share.
Still, I can have a week of opening up emails to rejections day after day, and it does make me feel like giving up. When that happens, I have to get away and do something else for a while. I remember feeling so horrible at some point I couldn’t get out of bed. All I wanted to do was sleep. My husband helped me through this period and invited me to work with him for a while. When the depression is less severe, I go do something new for a while, such as going to the beach, a movie, a Museum, lunch with a friend, a massage, anything to do something different until I feel refreshed again.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
As an artist, I have learned that I don’t have to be a workaholic to achieve the next level. I have learned that it is extremely helpful to get away from the constant work for a long period of time. Getting away from what you are doing is a creative act. Ideas will flow from a day or week in a totally different environment. It frees up the mind to think and problem solve.
I must be more forgiving of myself, and not beat myself up when I don’t have a lot going on. I have learned, when ideas are not flowing, to go for a walk, read a book, go to the beach, go out of town, nap. I cannot be productive all the time.
I truly have no regrets. Although my path has not been easy (if it were easy everybody would be doing it), I think it is important to love yourself, treat yourself well, give yourself all that you need without feeling guilty, and be good to your family and friends.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My standard cliché is: “If you do nothing, nothing will happen to you. If you do something, something will happen to you.” This is my mantra—and it really works!
Go for it!!! If a woman has any passion for anything, it is important to find a way to achieve that goal. When I wanted to go to graduate school at 48 years old, I thought my teenage kids were still too young for me to dedicate my focus on another path. My husband was very supportive and told me to go for it and he would be Mr. Mom. So I went for it, not even knowing what I would do with the degree. But I knew my passion had always been art, and I had never treated myself to my own art education. I got my BFA, followed by my MFA, not knowing where it would lead.
If a woman does not do this, and feels depressed and locked into who she is at mid age, she will never achieve her potential. Life is a long time (hopefully), and it’s important to always keep it interesting and challenging.
A lot of life is circumstances happen to you. Whenever adversity strikes, it usually opens up opportunity. At the moment of happening, it doesn’t seem that way, but humans are resistant to change unless they are forced to change. I thought I would be in my fashion industry business forever. Because my partner forced a buyout, it led me to reexamine my life. It was very difficult at the time; not knowing what I was going to do, but I kept exploring and taking new classes, and it opened up a whole new world for me.
Think about a passion. I have a friend who worked in Government as a parole officer, and ended up being on a SWAT team toward the end of her career. She retired and loves gardening. She is taking classes and hoping that something will lead her to a new career.
Choose, choose, choose, and then act upon a given choice, whatever that is.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a career in art?
To pursue anything art, start by building a resume. Join an art guild in your area so that you can begin exhibiting with them as a group in venues that the guild will find. Educate yourself by taking a class in your favorite medium (or learn a new medium that has always intrigued you) at a local community college. A college has a higher level of professionalism when learning a new skill, or continuing with a medium you already know—for instance, painting. The challenge of working with an MFA professor and other dedicated, serious students is a growth experience. It also starts the networking in your field.
Call your County Cultural Division and volunteer to be on an art committee. Again, this is networking in that you will be meeting important people in the arts. In addition, see if your city has a Public Art Ordinance. If yes, they will have a volunteer committee. Try to get on that committee as well.
Try to apprentice with another artist who is further along than you. I worked for years for artists who were working on Public Art projects and were glad for the extra help. If there is a “Studio Visit” night advertised anywhere near you, go.
Do anything art, and your networking will have begun.
What resources do you recommend?
Americans for the Arts is a wonderful organization dedicated to artists and advancing the arts in the US. Go onto that website, learn what jobs are available, and/or choose a conference that sounds interesting.
Guide to Getting Arts Grants by Ellen Liberatori
Locate and call the local Cultural Arts Organization, the local Public Art Committee, and the local Arts Guild in your city.
Do an Internet search of State or National Conferences (Americans for the Arts advertises this).
What’s next for you?
When I think of how far I have come in my field, I am completely amazed. It has been a long haul—15 years—to become recognized as a respected artist, consultant, professor, or anything art; people come to me. The most wonderful thing is that at 66, I feel I still have not reached my potential, and I am hungry to continue achieving.
Therefore, I hope I live long enough to continue to achieve all that I want.
Retirement is not in my vocabulary.