Dual Vision: In Conversation with Betty Brownlee

Betty Brownlee is a contemporary realist painter who lives and works in Detroit, Michigan. She graduated from Wayne State University with both a BFA in weaving and an MFA in painting. She has taught various art classes at College for Creative Studies, Wayne State University, Detroit Institute of Music Education, and Henry Ford College.Her work has been exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, the Kresge Art Museum in East Lansing, the legendary Willis Gallery in Detroit, the Michigan Opera Theatre, the Detroit Historical Museum, and most recently at the Annex Gallery in Highland Park.

How did you come to work with your specific collaborator? Did you know them before this? Were you familiar with their work?

I had know Cristin for a long time and had worked with her on one other project – I taught a small group of mutual friends drawing – in French. We both love the French language and culture and I’m also a great admirer of Cristin’s work and the material that she uses. Another common interest is fashion. So it made total sense that when I was invited to be in the show, that I would choose Cristin as a partner.

Before the actual process of making, what was the process of deciding on what to make like? What was the making process itself like?

We both have different work methods so it was interesting to work with someone who was more research-oriented. Driven by our desire to incorporate French language into our piece, we watched six Jean-Luc Godard films together (pre-Covid) and based the work on his language, images and ideas. So our work became a critique of his films.

Even though we both wanted to work together side-by-side, we weren’t able to do so because of Covid. So the actual piece was created in the same space, but we worked on different days. This way we could see the scale and look of each other’s work as it developed. I created the paintings and Cristin created the banners. We spent many hours talking to each other by phone and texting during the process. But we already had a good foundation of what the piece would be, before Covid hit.

The idea of silkscreening was Cristin’s idea. Neither one of us had much experience, so we took a workshop together (again, pre-Covid). The silkscreening is another aspect that joins our work together and provides unity to the work. It was a welcome idea to me that gave me a different method of working that I hadn’t thought of before.

What new possibilities were offered through collaboration that would not have been possible working alone? Did you feel any disadvantages compared to working alone? 

The most important thing that happened between us working collaboratively, for me, was the dialogue – the push/pull of ideas and the initial brainstorming.  The only minor disadvantage was timing – not being able to improvise or do things impulsively, like I would do if working solo.

Did working collaboratively provide you with any insights that could be extrapolated and used outside of art in either a personal or political context? Were there lessons learned that could be used in other aspects of life? What did it teach you about democracy?

The project reinforced the important aspect of communication between two people in order to come to a resolution – much like the politics of dialectics. Because we were very close in our viewpoints originally, any discrepancies were quickly worked out. Cristin and I had a lot of practice talking to each other while making the project, so this practice made it easier to talk with friends and family who held different views than my own. It also made it easier to talk about sensitive issues with colleagues where I work.

Going off of the title of the exhibition, how do you and your collaborator see your specific work differently? 

I really believe that we came together as one for this project. Because we worked so closely together, we did see the final piece in a very similar fashion. Two visions = one piece.

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