Lee Bethel

Imagine living lusciously, surrounded by light, meditatively going through the motions of life, possessed by a material that has inspired decades of romantic dedication. Lee Bethel wields the humble piece of paper like no other.

Everyone remembers epiphanies. They’re epiphanies! Whether they hit you in the mind, or in the body (or spirit), they are undeniable moments, sustained or fleeting, of deep connection to everything at once: every cog clicks, every synapse sparks. Revelatory. 

On my first day of art school the tutor gave everyone a sheet of paper and said, “You have thirty seconds to do something with that sheet of paper. No questions. GO.” Sheepishly, I held the paper in my hand and, like an animal in a herd, scrunched that piece of paper up into a ball: ninety per cent of the class did the same. The tired tutor said, “Great. you’ll be drawing, painting, sculpting that for the whole semester.” Shock, horror: my first impression of myself as a free-thinking art student had been annihilated. I wished I had torn or folded or wet the piece of paper, but no, there I was, one of the ninety per cent that will now spend the foreseeable semester dedicated to a scrunched-up piece of paper. How bored I was for future me already. But then, I had an epiphany: paper can be so much more than paper. 

Born to parents who were professional about paper (both working in the printing industry) Lee Bethel grew up intrinsically understanding the nuances of the stuff. Her youth was spent building worlds from paper: reverently folding, cutting, sculpting it into palaces her mind could wander, she recalls, “I never had to look for it as a kid, it was everywhere for me to make things with.” With her sitting in her studio, and me in my home, our faces floating in each other’s ambience, Lee and I are worlds apart, yet we find a common place we can commune – Lee’s apodictic connection with her material. 

Effortlessly, Lee’s studio hangs out among the trees and garden of her Bundeena home like old mates. The verdant green is where Lee rests her mind when ideas are commuting – it’s where she was gazing as she was trying to find the words to describe what Bundeena meant to her: “Luscious. Simply luscious.” She recounted the story of having landed where she was as having been one of fortune and hard work – having bought a piece of Bundeena in her twenties, it wouldn’t be until her forties that she would finally get to reside there. I quipped that her love of trees and seeds could be a way of her harmonising with paper – the Saṃsāra of it all – and that she was a master at controlling it, to which she humbly rebutted, “I’m not controlling the material; I’m simply nudging it. I don’t know enough about it to control it!” She said this while seated in front of what can only be described as the most intelligent yet playful handling of something that myself, fifteen years prior, could only muster into a scrunch. Pellucid yet bodied, static yet vibrating: a picture of light itself. There is a sense of movement without motion. Shades of white advance and recede, emanating rhythms and a temporal dimension that can only be felt in its presence. Like an oaf, all I can ask is: But, how? Lee beams, “It’s taken me twenty years to realise that I can rip paper, rather than cut it.” Aha! 

There is so much more than just (I say lightly) paper in a Lee Bethel painting. There is wax, paint, intimacy, and light: light itself becomes a sculptural material. The translucency of the overlapping and permeating shapes intuit space in an intensely dynamic play with shadow. The partial shadowing of each element intimates a flow that hovers between the visible and invisible, the material and the immaterial. Shimmering with roving subtlety. The use of whites, which, in some areas, are so light that several layers of paint are merely perceived. Lee mentions that these works are near impossible to photograph, “I’m putting space together, creating space with emptiness. They really can’t be captured through the lens; they have to be experienced.” 

Lee’s deep appreciation of organic form is perceptive and seemingly involuntary. She explains the light in her studio as if it is a tenant, the bugs that crawl through from the garden as gentle guests, and the process of preparing wax as a means to be still with her work. “I have a half-opaque roof with trays of pure wax sitting underneath so that over time they will become clear.” It’s clear that Lee’s intuitiveness with everything local is in deep symbiosis with her practice. She sources kilos of raw wax from a beekeeper a few suburbs over, and on quiet days, boils, stirs and strains it spiritly to “settle down and prepare through the labour of repetition.” 

The term “encaustic” is derived from the Greek enkaustikos, meaning inust, that is to be “burnt in.” Encaustic mark-making is aided using heat to melt and fuse layers of beeswax. Burning-in is the part of encaustic that mercurially sets it apart from other modes of painting. Its magical, “it’s a way of preserving, trapping, and coating that suspends time. Painting wax to paper allows me to consider the intimacy of the hand through the exaggeration of texture and how that tactility makes me conscious of shadows.” Using encaustic, Lee’s paintings possess an astaticism that tenderly captures the inner forces of nature and time. They’re kinetic. Curvilinear. Elementally nudging the migration of light in all its ethereal tenor. 

After a long robust chat about Lee’s paintings, I ask what possesses her. Why does she do what she does? She focuses off screen to the beckoning green beyond and with a partisan spirit she chuckles, “There are thousands of phrases, in thousands of dialects that describe the art of cutting paper. If you learn to swap hands, to rip up paper with the other hand, then I guess you’ve done a lot. I have so much more to do.” 

When I think of all the thousands of words that could possibly describe who Lee Bethel is and what she makes, one Danish word comes to mind: uromager – a maker of things mischievous and always on the move.

The article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022.

Taught by Time
15 – 30 July 2022
The Egg & Dart, Wollongong

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