Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Beth Winterburn is a Memphis artist who has a knack for seeing a dynamic beauty in human relationships that many of us miss. Merging her childhood love for creating with her professional training, Beth has created abstract pieces that have put her on the map internationally in the art world. Beth joins StyleBlueprint to talk about her journey, but specifically, she hits on the impact small town living had on her creativity, Instagram from an influencer’s perspective, and what advice she would offer artists who are just starting out. Join us as we hear more from our newest FACE of Memphis, Beth Winterburn.
Can you tell us about the evolution of your style? How did you get to where you are now?
The stuff I did at first was driven by what I thought might sell rather than what I loved. Back then, I was painting very literally. Supplies are expensive and I needed to make sure that what I was painting was going to sell to cover the supplies.
But in reality, abstract work made me come alive. I did it for myself because I never thought it would sell. One day, a friend asked for a piece of my abstract work and that’s where it all began. In addition, I took all three of my styles at the time — birds, flowers, and abstract — to an art show and the abstracts sold the best. Still, I had to learn to trust myself. Even if people didn’t buy it, I loved it enough to keep doing it. For the longest time, when I was asked what my job was, it was hard for me to answer with, “I am an artist,” and I think that is the case with lots of artists.
What is your favorite part of the creative process?
The experimentation, for sure. I was almost a chemistry major. I love the science behind color theory and color mixing. That’s why I love abstract art so much — everything is an experiment! Everything is unpredictable. With all of my other styles, I could control the outcome. This feels like a guide is leading me and saying, “This is where you go,” and then I have enough knowledge and experience to take it from there. I like that it keeps me on my toes like that.
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How important is social media to artists these days?
It’s a catch-22. It’s free marketing and because it is a visual platform, it’s perfect for artists. When I got into it, there was no algorithm and no manipulation. It was more of a journal or diary. Now the whole thing is manipulated and is all about who can get ahead. With social media as it now is, we are losing the ability to play, mess up, and experiment. It’s been said that because of social media, people now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. Artists can’t and shouldn’t submit to the expectations and pressure put on them by this way of thinking because it will kill an art career.
I will say this, though: one thing social media has given me is an artist community that I am really grateful for. These people are worldwide and they are my friends. I wish I could get a cup of coffee with each one of them! We are all super supportive of one another because we know social media can be a real thorn, so we cheer each other on regularly and that does make it worth it.
You’ve been picked up by several big companies like Anthropologie, Crate and Barrel, and West Elm. How has that changed your art or the path you are on?
It has given me confidence, for sure. It has helped me settle into my style. For me, art is a way of communicating. It’s like having a good conversation. When these places pick me up, I realize, “OK, this is relatable. Other people are experiencing something with this work and I am glad.” Also, it helps give me a breather from a business standpoint. I get six weeks off in the summer because my work is still working for me.
What inspires you and how do you decide upon your color schemes?
Over time, I’ve realized my work is about interpersonal relationships. I use color palettes because of the psychological impact I think they will have on the viewer. I draw on my architectural background and ask myself, “How will this feel when you move through a space? Will it promote tension and/or movement in a room? Will it encourage intimacy?”
It’s a mathematical process for me, too. I have a background in photography and I use the rule of thirds a lot. Using the intersections of the grid helps our psyches to relax. I never want emphasis in the center or the corners. I’m always asking how I can make my work complete and resolved, but not tied up with a bow. The viewer should leave with tension, but have enough resolve to be able to walk away.
Like relationships in life, there are so many different dynamics. Introverts are always interacting with extroverts, and quiet people with gregarious ones. With color, I am always thinking about how they will interact in similar ways. Will one be pushed out or alone? I could explore this topic of relationships in art for the rest of my life. It’s a conversation that will never get old. There always has to be a little undoneness to it.
What percentages would you assign nature and nurture for their roles in your artistic journey?
I would give nature 60% and nurture 40%.
My older brother (musician Dave Barnes) and I are both creatives. We grew up in a tiny town and there wasn’t a lot of entertainment. Because of that, we were forced to be creative and we thrived on that. I was making art as a kid and so was Dave. We have a younger brother, Brad, who was in fifth grade when we moved out of that small town. Now he’s a financial planner. We laugh about that. I can’t say for sure how influential our childhood was on our future vocations, but I will say our parents encouraged us to be whoever we were created to be. They were very supportive of both of us. I never felt held back.
Art is in me and has always been. I can’t not do it, so maybe it’s actually 70/30, with nature being 70. But would it have turned into a career without nurture? I don’t know.
What advice would you give an artist who is just starting out?
Practice your craft a lot. Make really bad art. Don’t put it all out there. Social media is driving people to produce collections rather than practice. You have to make lots of mistakes. You have to have some naive confidence, knowing you’re going to screw up. You can’t expect success. For every 5-10 successes, you’ll have 15-20 pieces of bad art.
People often dog art school, but the beauty of art school is that failure is allowed there. “Crit” (criticism) is ruthless feedback and you need that. Without crit, you won’t grow or learn. People who aren’t in school tend to not submit themselves to the cruel process of the critique. That’s why art school is worth it — it forces you to deal with your demons. It’s a safe place to mess up and try again without the whole world watching.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
I have four things: good sleep, structured/scheduled/routine alone time, exercise, and gardening.
Thank you, Beth! To see more of her work, visit bethwinterburn.com.
All photography by Ashleigh Coleman unless otherwise noted.