Betty Dai: Traveller, Designer, Artist, Photographer, Teacher and a Curator | ArtSocket Gallery Magazine

Betty Dai

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Interviewing a loved one for a magazine is a strange endeavour. Betty and I have been together for over five years now; there isn't that much that we don't know about each other. But I do believe that her story as an artist and a traveller deserves to be read from her telling. So here I am, "interviewing" her for ArtSocket Magazine.

Betty is cool as fuck
Where are you right now?

I am in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

How did you get here?

A 14-hour flight from Toronto to Beijing via Vancouver. Fifty-plus hours of riding trains across China. Can't even count how long I spent on the busses going across Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. So in short, very uncomfortably.

That's a hell of a trip. But before you stepped on the plane due Vancouver you had to get rid of most of your possessions back home. All those things that you got and placed neatly in our apartment are now either in the trash compactor or at someone else's house. How did you do that, what pushed you to get rid of all those things?

Travelling is something that I've always wanted to do. Growing up, my family and I moved every few years. It feels natural for me to pack up and go somewhere different. Part of the reason I left was because I was going down a career path that didn't inspire me at all. Looking back, I think I would have eventually left even if I had an amazing job. Travelling just feels a lot more natural to me than staying put.

Betty's little brother is a hipster, apparently.
One of Betty's inspirations to draw was her little brother. She hasn't seen him for years until she finally made this trip. The first stop was China, where her parents lived together with her cute little sibling. He's a total hipster now.
You say you left because your job wasn't inspiring enough. If I understand you correctly, there are probably very few positions out there that could keep you in one place. Moving seems to makes you happy. Do you think there's a link between feeling or being creative and travelling?

I want to say "Yes" because I love travelling, but I don't think so. Creativity is elusive; it just comes and goes. Maybe I was more creative when I was miserable. It works for country singers.

Lol ok. I do appreciate your honesty. If I may, I'd like to add that in my opinion some of your best creative work has come out after or during your trips. Could be a co-incidence. So tell me, what are you doing here in Chiang Mai?

I am an English teacher. I teach grade 6.

And what do you do for fun?

I don't have fun anymore. I'm a teacher.

Betty's student
One of Betty's students. She told me that he'd put his hand up every time she asked the class a question. He rarely knew what actually to say once called upon in class.
That's rough. Teaching is a lot of work, no doubt. The students are mighty cute though so I am sure it is rewarding.So what were up to in Canada before you took off on your world tour?

I worked in marketing. I also did some design on the side.

You're right, doesn't sound like anything inspiring, at least not for a person like you. I know you as a girl who loves to read and draw. I also know that you took those passions with you on the road. Can you tell me how did you make that work?

It was nice to draw and travel at the same time. When you explore for such a long period, it's good just to take a day off from being a tourist and go to a coffee shop and use my hands, memory and imagination. It gave me time to reflect on the things I saw.

I read almost every day, as always. Only, this time, I have all my books in an e-reader.

Let's talk a little bit more about your art. I'd like to call myself an artist because my love for composing music, writing, making films and photography. But I can't draw. Never as good as you, even if I tried. Your style is unique, simple and beautiful. What's your secret? Do you have any formal education?

No, I don't, but I did take an art class with a neighbour for about five years. He was supposedly a big shot artist in Shanghai, but I don't think he has painted anything in the last two decades I've known him. Anyways, I was trained in the "classic" style. Which means that I spent hours shading fruits.

Betty's Animas
This is one of the drawings from Betty's "Animals" series.
Haven't seen you shade any fruits. Perhaps you now have your own thing going on. How would you describe your style?

I don't think I have a style. I'm an artistic teenager. I'm still exploring.

I see. Your work does set itself apart from anything I've seen so far. At least through casual observing. Do you have any influences when it comes to painting your pieces?

I love going to galleries, but I can't give you any names. Sorry.

All good. Let's talk about your technique and the materials.

Being a backpacker limits the kind of materials I can use. To do my ink drawings I really just need a few things. None of them take that much space:

Betty's ink stone
"Traditional Chinese ink stick and ink stone, brushes (I have two: a small one and a big one). Pencil and eraser".
Super cool. My favourite is the ink stick and stone of course. I still remember that kid in Beijing hostel. He got really stoned and enchanted with your tools. Couldn't stop grinding the ink. Everyone was quite impressed actually. It felt so smooth and silky dragging it. Let's see how it's done.

Sure! (video below)

It was a sunny afternoon. Betty sat at the table by the bay window and laid out her drawing book, pencil, ink pen and eraser. She then spent the next ten to twenty minutes setting out the lettering and the shapes using HB pencil. While she was drawing, we talked about the ink stone she bought in Tunxi and whether she was using it to draw in a traditional Chinese style.

"Traditional artists use these tools for their calligraphy and their line drawings (like the paintings of Mount Huang Shan). I make my ink the same way, but I draw in a western style. I make the lines using an ink pen bought at a regular art store and shade using the ink stone ink."\

After she was done marking down the image with the pencil, she drew on top of the lines with her art pen. Adding thickness where needed and straightening the lines as she went. A few minutes later she went into her drawer and got her ink stick, ink stone, her two brushes. A porcelain brush rest and some water.

A few drops of water that she poured onto the ink stone quickly filled with color. As she slowly ground it in the liquid began to look like a black mirror. I tried doing it myself - it felt very smooth and weirdly satisfying. Back and fourth, back and fourth until the mixture produced the right amount of dye.

It took only a few minutes to stain the image. It gave the work full dimension and substance. As with aquarelle these things can't be dwelled on for too long - otherwise the paper becomes deformed, and the colors become dirty. Her most extended image in production took two days and only because she took a break to refresh her mind.

This article is an edited version of what was originally posted on October 21, 2014.