A Conversation with Betsey MacDonald in her Studio

Betsey MacDonald is a painter and artist from Clayville, RI who works on the second floor of her barn studio. Betsey creates in oil, watercolor, pencil, pastel, charcoal, collage, and printmaking and has also illustrated three children’s books. A juried member of the American Academy of Equine Art and the Wickford Art Association, she has had more than 25 solo exhibitions. Her work will be on view through November 2020 in Sprout Providence featuring a group of recent paintings.

Can you describe your typical day when working in your studio?

I’m retired. I taught school for thirty-five years, Chemistry and Biology for twenty-five years and art for ten. I used to fit it in. I really don’t know how when I had a full time job but…I was still pounding out art and having shows. Now my days are more my own. I’m able to go to the barn where I paint as well and I do my best thinking there while I’m cleaning up. Then I go up to my studio which is small – I only took half of the barn – so it’s half of the hay loft. I come up here and work. I have windows that look out and can see the horses. I have three rescue dogs that hang out under the easels. I’m kind of away from it all except for the animals.

The view from Betsey’s barn

I think painting is the most mindful thing that I do. It’s the only time my brain isn’t scattered or thinking or worrying about things, because I really have to think about every move I make. When you’re mixing colors you have to think about do I want a warm brown or a cool white, what kind of shadow, you have to think about that and the direction of the brush stroke and is it right, does it look like the animal the person wants it to look like. I don’t think about any other junk.

When I taught school everybody talked about critical thinking in the sciences. I always thought there’s easily as much critical thinking in art because every move is a decision. You come up with a problem that you then have to solve. And very often they don’t get solved the way you want so it compels you to make more.

When did you start doing portrait commissions?

I probably started doing commissions in my twenties. I’ve been doing animal portraits all my life and I finally got the nerve to do one with people. It’s not all that different, just some confidence and a different palette. So I thought is there a way to do one with people and animals? So far I’ve done just family members and a self portrait as well. The two oils I’ve just recently done both show rescue animals, and people with their rescue animals. I’d like to focus on that for the coming year. This show (currently at Sprout) is a preview for what’s coming up next fall.

If I think about my reason for wanting to do people with their animals,  I think its important to me to do, but also to highlight what animals bring to people. That’s some of what I’m thinking about when I do it. That they certainly, especially now with covid, are wonderful company and they give you an excuse to have to be outside if it’s a dog. But they really teach if you pay attention, to live in the moment because animals do that. They don’t fret about stuff that did happen or is going to happen.

At home in her loft studio

There’s an American Indian quote by Chief Seattle, “If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man.” That literally brings tears to my eyes every time. And I think that’s a very important thing they bring to us along with company, and comfort. They make our lives so much more joyous with them than without them.

What inspires you to create artwork?

I don’t think it’s a conscious thought. You just have to do it. It’s a compulsion. Many years ago when I was in school it was “uncool” to be wanting to draw and paint horses. I always wanted to paint horses and dogs while everybody was doing abstract work, but it was too ‘sweet’, too ‘sentimental’. Really in the course of a lot of years of school only a few teachers every gave me permission to do that. A guy Stephen Fischer at Rhode Island College – Stephen just said, “Betsey. Paint what you love!” Duh, you know. He said “Look at me, I’m drawing trees.” It kind of gave me permission to just do that.

I’m ‘just a portrait painter’ but finally, I’m okay with that now. It’s what I do and it’s just something that was always difficult as an artist because it  wasn’t modern or trendy. I just want to paint animals in their environments. I feel lucky because finally I have a studio space where I can leave everything around and I’ve never really had my own space like that. I used to have an area in my home I had to keep clean. Now I can leave all my supplies out and go back to it. I’ve got varnish and mediums all around me.

Can you talk about your vegan series?

My boots are rubber. My horses have rubber bridles, something fake, when I can make that choice. I knowingly don’t buy rabbit skin glue or a horse hair brush. I don’t think we have any more right to abuse an ox from my dog. Somehow I feel that that’s important to paint as well because I want to better understand animals in life, but also in their death and what they have to endure. I taught Chem and Bio too and there’s so little difference in the nervous systems in a dog, pig, cow or us. Certainly our brains are different but they feel pain exactly the same way as us.

What do you have coming up and where can we find your work?

I have a show coming up at Sprout CoWorking in the fall of 2021, about best friends or best buddies. Some of it will be, I’m hoping interactions between animals – two lions – their relationships between species and between us and them.

In April for Earth Day, the Creature Conserve Project was delayed this year so the new date is Earth Day in April 2021. I have a huge drawing of coyotes. I did a dead coyote I saw that someone had skinned and put in a tree, so that’s in the center and it’s surrounded by portraits of coyotes just to show how different they all are from each other. I have a show in Block Island at the Spring Street Gallery that’s coming up next summer and that’s all “reflections”. It’s animals as they’re reflected in different water.

Enjoy more of Betsey MacDonald’s work on her website at https://bmacdonald.net/.

Painting by Betsey MacDonald


  1. Are you doing any watercolor instruction in 2022?

    1. Hi Margaret, are you looking to hold watercolor classes at Sprout? Or looking to take a class with Betsey – If Betsey, please get in touch with her on her website at https://bmacdonald.net.

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