Beth Lo was born in Lafayette, Indiana, to parents who had recently immigrated from China. She studied Art under Rudy Autio and assumed his job as Professor of Ceramics at The University of Montana-Missoula’s School of Art when he retired in 1985. She has exhibited her work internationally, and has received numerous awards including The University of Montana Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Award in 2006, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist Fellowship Grant in 1994, the Montana Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship in 1989, and an American Craft Museum Design Award in 1986.
What was the most difficult for you when you finished school?
The most difficult thing after grad school was the sudden drop of a support community, people that understood what I was doing. After grad school, I applied to jobs and came close in a couple, but didn’t end up getting a job. Thank goodness! So I moved to a little town south of here, Hamilton (Montana) and started a community art center. We got grants and we taught community classes and had our own pottery studio. That’s also when I met these amazing musicians who became friends and formed the band, The Big Sky Mudflaps.
Audience is a major concern. Who is your audience and how do you create community with what you do?
When I was teaching community classes, there was not a lot of common ground among my students in terms of a contemporary art aesthetic. I started a contemporary artist lecture series and brought artists from Missoula and Bozeman, to bring their ideas out and we got a pretty good audience for them. Some people would just scratch their heads. We brought one artist, my former UM colleague, Dennis Voss, who said what he wanted to do as a contemporary artist was to create a true wilderness that was like a cone from the middle of the earth to outer space that nobody could invade that; something that you couldn’t fly over it or have radio signals going through; a completely clean environment. This was a conceptual, contemporary art idea, and bringing that to a rural community was great. Most people were laughing—but they were very supportive even if they just kind of scratch their heads and would say “oh okay”.
In my own work I started making images with cows and pigs and geese and stuff like that on them. I thought even if I put these in weird contexts maybe the work would be populist but also resonate with the contemporary art audience. I used imagery that resonated with childhood as well, such as birds, and tigers and lots of animal imagery that I would airbrush onto vessels and odd forms. Figuring out the question of audience and community were the biggest questions for me after grad school. I also wanted to be part of the local community, I didn’t want to be elitist. I thought about a few artists who I feel have done that–I think Akio is an artist whose work has very, very broad appeal. I have work of his in my university office and people from the swimming pool (next door) would come by and look at that work and go “oh, what’s that? that’s interesting”. So that became my goal for a while. That goal has loosened a little bit and I don’t feel now like I necessarily have to appeal to everybody. I think it’s kind of impossible but at the same time I have some work that’s pretty accessible. I think my drawing, my cartoony kids, are pretty accessible and people of many walks of life and backgrounds can respond to it the humor and the memories, the oddness of the characters. Like my mom, for instance — “oh, that’s it! this is what you should do!” So if she can get behind it, then I think the message is pretty broad and yet I think the work is still breaking some boundaries and moving the aesthetics forward.
Do you think you still stay connected with the community through your children’s books? Also, when did you start doing those and what was the driving force behind them?
The children’s books are clearly meant for a broad audience and have somewhat of an educational appeal. The driving force was really that I wanted to do something with my sister. Family is really important to me. Most of my work is derived from looking inward more than outward and then extrapolating and generalizing from my own experience. Sometimes I think we as artists feel like we’re doing this for the world but there is actually a very strong selfish or self indulgent component in being an artist. The idea of family is really important theme in my work and it occurred to me that one really small way that I could give back to my family was to collaborate with them because one of the great things about art is how great you feel when you’re doing it, –it is so enriching to work to create something and to be playful in that way.
My sister Ginnie and I are very, very close, we’re best friends. We had a great childhood and always felt we had a children’s book in us,. So we took corresponding sabbaticals and decided to do a children’s book. That first book just flowed with no back steps, everything just came out really easy. The writing was easy, the images were easy ,the publishing was easy, everything was easy. The second book was much harder. In any case we both got such a great kick out of it. We did book tours together it was really fun. The other sort of giving back that I do with family is collaborating with my mom Kiahsuang Lo who is a traditional Chinese brush painter. We have had a great time with her decorating my pots and having shows together and stuff like that. It’s been very gratifying.
I didn’t know your mom decorated your pots or that you collaborated with her.
I have a whole series of works where she decorated a fair amount on my pots. It was mostly vases and cups. I would do a vase and then I would decorate part of it and leave her horizontal bands, and make suggestions a bit in terms of what to do. Just her touch gives my work this kind of authenticity that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Like how my calligraphy is very childlike and hers is really good.
Does she do most of the calligraphy?
No, actually I do most of my own calligraphy although I have used some of my mom’s and also I have created stencils and decals of the calligraphy of my aunt in China (Luo Hui Yan) who gave me some of practice sheets, so that the calligraphy looks really sharp. She’s an exhibiting calligrapher and her handwriting is really beautiful.
Speaking of shows, when you got started exhibiting your work, how did you find galleries and did you know they were right for what you are making?
I think that times were little bit different in those days. The ’70s and ’80s– that would be my emerging period, I guess. I would look for juried shows to enter that was the first thing. Then from those juried shows I could get a little exposure and then somebody sees the work and invites you personally. I didn’t really have to rustle up too many shows. And even in this little town of Hamilton, population 3,000 at the time, we had an exhibition space in our studio. We would have little exhibitions there, even national invitationals. You have to try all venues from big to little. But for me the juried show path was definitely the door and then you get a little mini review, then the bigger show–it just happens. But now, for instance, NCECA shows were all handled by the galleries and museums. Not like what they are now where everybody does all their own promotion and carts their own work and sets it all up and takes it all down in two days. There were just less people doing it. It’s much more competitive now.
Do you see any other disadvantages for emerging artists besides the competition?
I think the Internet is a little bit of a disadvantage even though it’s also an advantage in that you certainly see a lot of work and you can learn technique very quickly. Information gets spread so quickly. But I think the work starts to borrow ideas so readily that you don’t have the time to develop something on your own. You can’t go a day without seeing something that looks a little better and then you want to try that. I think it’s really easy to be influenced and I think sometimes too much influence is maybe not so good. Also, things move so much faster now so a whole trend, the look, the idea changes faster. Something is old hat so fast and that’s not fair! What I tell students is that I feel like everyone’s got something unique and if you can really find the core of that, that’s what I would recommend to do the most. Really, just be true to yourself –and the good news is that you just aren’t like anybody else!
You talked about how you moved to Hamilton and you’ve basically stayed in this area for a while. How important do you think that living in the greater Missoula, MT area has been to your career?
I know it’s been good for me as a person. I just fell in love with Montana. I think it was partly the time that I arrived. It might not be quite as open as it was back then –but Montana gave me a feeling I could just start fresh and anything goes. You could be whatever you wanted to and that’s how I got involved in music too because,,again, it wasn’t so crowded. It was like ‘oh there isn’t a swing band here, we’ll be the swing band. There’s nobody playing washtub bass in town I’ll play washtub bass.’ Even a funky band could actually get hired and get paid. My first rental in the Bitterroot Valley was $30 a month shared by five girls. You can’t do that anymore, so you don’t have that kind of openness an optimism, but still, this is one of the least populous states in the lower 48. You can have that sense of space around you, the physical space of course but also the mental space. The small population is also an asset. I was talking to my sister in Oregon who also has access to beautiful country, but I know my governor, I know my representative, the mayor, the head of the DEQ. I know these people personally and I have access to them, I can actually joke around with them. I think it’s just much easier to have interpersonal relationships with people here because there are so many fewer people. There is probably some statistic of how many people you meet in your lifetime or something like that, and if you’re meeting 20% of the population of an area you have more of a chance of having access to people who are creating policy.
So, location has greatly influenced your quality of life?
I think that that sense of space is important. Again saying the Internet is a problem, that sense of mental and personal space where you feel like you can hunker down in their studio and just let things develop. I think that’s part of it . I think nature, beauty and recreation are good for the soul, they give you a balance from work, you get refreshed. I remember something Trey Hill said once when we were talking about how he decided to move back to Montana. He said –“you know I don’t even get out that much but it is important that I know it’s there.” We are all busy people. I think knowing that you have access is half the battle! Stress relief!
So how have you made the time to keep up your university job, your studio work, music, writing and you’re also a mother and a wife. How do you balance it all?
Most people have more than one passion. I think for me, everything I do just develops sort of slower. I’m a children’s book author with two books and I only make X amount of art in a year. However, when I’m working, I do think I have very good focus. Sometimes I think I’m too focused and then that creates empty spots that other people don’t have. My social life is a little bit limited and my house is a wreck. I don’t repair anything anymore. I know a lot of people who do a lot with their homes and that would be nice. What I’m doing now is just hiring it out a little bit more, trying to get my home into better shape. I just think everybody figures out their own little pacing and mine has worked pretty well for me. I have to say music is a really great psychological benefit. It puts you in the present. It’s really fun to make music, and you do it with people and it’s very freeing– it’s the antidote to too much alone time. It provides a social life and is a unique kind of communication—when playing with people or harmony singing you develop. It’s just communication and that’s a good thing.
How has your balance changed since your son is not living with you anymore. Did you have a routine when he was here?
Yes. Somehow you just have time for raising your kids. Tai was an incredible napper- 3-4 hours at a time. You fit in your work around the necessities. I’m lucky that I have my husband David Horgan who is very involved in Tai’s life. My husband is a musician and he does some writing too, but with very flexible hours. He had many more jobs than I did as a professional musician so we often had different working hours. He was really supportive and took a lot of the responsibility of child rearing.
Did you have a routine where you came home from school and X amount of time?
I did not have a routine. I just would just carve out time whenever I could and that seemed like it worked okay. I’ve read about people who get up at 5 AM and work for two hours before their child gets up, I could never do that. I would work late more. Like all of us artists when you’ve got that deadline you just find the time somehow or another even if you’re just completely stressed out. Other things just take a backseat- like cleaning house or cooking!
Having a partner it seems like was integral to making those deadlines.
Absolutely. I also had a cousin in Hamilton, Vivian Yang, also a potter, who really helped us with Tai. She was his favorite and primary babysitter. My mom and my sister were all really helpful often coming to visit us from Oregon and we would go there a lot, too. We just had lots of support and help from friends and family.
Is it easier now that you’re older to try and keep some sort of balance in your life?
I think so. I think I’m a little more relaxed. I’m definitely more relaxed with my career. I don’t feel anxious about it .I just want to work and to feel good about working. I just hope I always want to work and that it always feels good. And I hope I always want to play music. There’s not too many role models for playing music as you get older– well there’s Mick Jagger he’s still doing it —but when do you stop? I don’t know if you ever actually decide to stop. I just want to keep doing art and music as long as I can. Try to achieve balance and stay aware that creativity is necessary for my well-being. Maybe if you keep the awareness, then you achieve balance. It’s a good question, really good question.
You talked about the community you have with music, but how do you keep in touch with the ceramics community?
I think that the University is really good for helping me keep up with the ceramics world, also the Archie Bray foundation. Those two organizations in particular, and then my students and former students. The Clay Studio of Missoula. I have had a nice little string of students who are all off doing their artwork, and teaching and that’s great. I’m somewhat connected with the people I went to grad school with. But I haven’t been in close contact with a lot of them. I didn’t end up having that close of a graduate group, maybe because I was sidetracked by the music thing. Even though it wasn’t necessarily true for me, your grad group can be a really good support for a long, long time.
Do you keep in contact with people who are outside the ceramics field, like in other art forms?
Yes, I have lots of local friends who are in various media and semi-local people who have lived in Missoula or have lived in Montana and maybe don’t live here anymore. And you constantly meet new people.
You were talking about how you were applying for jobs when you first got out of school. Was your goal to be an instructor?
My first goal was grad school right into teaching. That’s what I thought was going to happen, and I got thrown for a loop when I didn’t get the offer! I got close on a couple jobs and I did an interview with a community college in California and they were saying ‘oh yeah we want you’ and ‘you are our first choice’ and then I get this form rejection letter. At the time I was really broken up about it. But it turned out to be a good thing. I stayed in Montana, moved to Hamilton and we started this art center, Art City, and we were just doing our own thing, and I didn’t really think about applying for jobs for years after that. In the beautiful Bitterroot Valley, I just wanted to experience life and people, and make work. It was a bit of a post-hippie, back to the land movement and “make it happen where you are, with what you have”, kind of attitude. Sort of like Frontier Space here in Missoula in a way. Bring what you need to you. You don’t always have to leave. Work with your community. That felt really good, and eventually we did get grant support to hold our art classes –including contemporary arts and traditional arts –we taught both –which was pretty neat. We also had support with our studio. Hamilton is a little bit different from some rural communities in Montana because of the Rocky Mount lab. It is a US Government funded science lab and they do a lot of N. I H. research there. The lab brought in people from all over the world. One man, originally from New York , Bob Smith, owned a few downtown buildings. He was very supportive of the arts and of the younger generation in town. The rent that we paid him for our studio was about $15 a month. We built a kiln and taught classes and built a wheel. It was idyllic.
So why did you leave?
A sabbatical replacement teaching job at UM came open and I thought I should try for it– and I was kind of missing being involved with contemporary art. I was in awe of what was going on at the university so thought I would apply. I actually think I was the runner-up,–they chose somebody else and that person couldn’t do it –so I got the job for a year. I worked with Dennis Voss, the artist I mentioned earlier, the fellow who wanted to make a “cone of wilderness”. This was after Rudy (Autio) quit. After that one great year that Dennis and I taught together, Dennis quit. I got hired on as the main ceramics professor and I hired Eddie Dominguez in a one-year position and then IKris Nelson the second year and then we got Tom Rippon in a tenure track position after that.
So luck is a big thing, and I think attitude is really important. You have to be really open, and I think you have to be positive, you have to be nice and get along with people and listen well, and you need to be somewhat organized. Perseverance, that’s the next thing. You look at the people who have finally gotten a tenure-track jobs and mostly they’ve had to move around. A lot of them have to go teach one-year positions here, half-time there. You have to pick up and move and that’s a lot of sacrifice. It could take a while before that final really good comfortable position that suits you comes along. I think the great job is there for a lot of people– if you keep at it pretty soon you are left with only the people who really want to do it.
We talked about the Internet maybe being a disadvantage and advantage. Do you see any other privileges or disadvantages today that were not there when you were just starting out?
I think that when I started out there was a modernist canon for contemporary art, what you could and couldn’t do. In graduate school I was told I couldn’t do decoration, for instance. I grew up just on the beginning of the time when feminist exploration of the personal was being explored. I would say there’s a real benefit to there not being too much of a canon, although there is a big emphasis on content right now. However if you look at forms of art these days, it’s kind of anything goes. I was just talking with (Art History Professor) Rafael (Chacon) and he was saying there is a lot of outsider art at the Venice Biennale, and that gives credence to my idea that you just need to find your voice and develop it –because I think that that is what people are looking for is something that’s really fresh. I say the Internet is good, especially for students, but after a while you kind of have to just believe in yourself. Balanced with a little bit of audience sensitivity.
Do you think graduate programs have become more open-minded about students finding their own way and their own voice?
I’m not sure. I feel there are a lot more hoops they have to jump through in grad school now. When I went to grad school it was “just go work”. I like that philosophy. I talked to Judy Pfaff when she came as a visiting artist, and she said ‘just give them a place, just give them space and they will work’ . And either she or Rudy said ‘you can’t keep a good student down.’ I’m definitely more of the hands off variety of teaching rather than prescribing stuff for people. I think it can be confusing to have too many different opinions. That’s one thing I like about a group critique when you have faculty together they come to a consensus. If you listen to a lot of people one on one, you can be led into very opposite directions.
What do you find exerts a stronger influence on your work: success or failure?
Success. I’m pretty aware of my audience so success is based on audience. I usually agree when something is applauded, and most of the time the audience pretty much follows my intuition. When something is successful I look for a variation on that success. I often go to my past ideas, and right away it’s in my sketchbook. I just know I got great feedback for that idea, and it worked. I go through my sketchbook or sit down and draw, and let ideas flow. I look at my old drawings and I find something that looks like it has potential, and say let’s pick that up again. Pretty direct I think. Failure is good too sometimes, because I can try to see what is needed and I can follow it a little bit further. There are a few things I feel like I’ve still got to say that haven’t been too successful so I’ll indulge myself a little bit, follow that track, and maybe nobody will like it but I still want to make it. I’ll put that type of work in a show where I don’t have to sell. But even so, whenever I show I still have a desire to please the audience at least a little bit.
Is there any other advice that you would like to offer to emerging artists?
To work hard and persevere, listen to yourself, trust your instincts, and remember you have to survive. If you have one bit of advice to take, make sure that the process feeds you. Don’t look at the final goal so much and if you can’t take the steps to get to the goal then follow a different route. Make sure that the getting there is satisfying. I think that’s what I try to pass on to my students.
Can you talk a bit more about living in Montana?
Before coming to Montana I had never experienced having a relationship with the land. After my first summer in the Bitterroot Mountains I understood what it felt like to stand in relative isolation amid incredible natural beauty. The fact that the population of Montana is so small and the land so magnificent allows for a kind of openness of spirit that I think is conducive to the creative process. There is room here to find one’s voice, and those of us who are involved in the earth-based art form, ceramics, are doubly inspired.