When Betty Foy Botts sits down to paint an animal, she goes on a spiritual journey. She may have an animal in mind, say a deer, but once her brush hits canvas, she doesn't let the typical laws of nature control her. The animal might be displayed in very un-deer-like shades of blue, yellow, and red, and Botts' broad brush strokes may convey more of the animal's movement than its actual likeness. The end result is a wildlife painting less like something you'd hang in a hunting lodge and more like what you'd see in a contemporary art gallery.
"In my paintings, you can generally recognize the animal and you can recognize movement," she says. "There's no doubt in anybody's mind what animal it is, they're just much looser. They're very much inspired by my love of the Lord and creation, and so all these animals, to me, take on a real spiritual aspect. They aren't just a painting of an animal. I feel like they have a spirit and a soul."
Botts says it's this abstract element of her work that separates her from the more realistic wildlife painters, many of whom will be participating in this week's Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. Though she's been a SEWE artist in the past, this year Botts will open a new show at the Michael Mitchell gallery on Feb. 16 instead, where she says she'll have more space to display her oversized paintings. Botts is calling the show All God's Creatures Great and Small and says the collection highlights the spiritual side of animals, from egrets to buffaloes.
Based out of Atlanta, Botts has focused on her impressionistic wildlife paintings for the past six years and frequently displayed her work at the Michael Mitchell Gallery while her daughter attended the College of Charleston. Over time, Botts says her work developed to include a larger variety of animals and a larger range of motion. In this newest collection, she particularly focused on capturing the movement of each animal.
"I love animals in movement, which is probably new for me because I went through a period where they were more standing still," she says. "Now I love the feeling of catching a bird in flight or a deer running or horses galloping or wolves chasing something. I love the feeling of the movement. What I'm trying to do is not capture it anatomically, but just the feeling of it."
Using everything from water-based paints and acrylics to stains and crayons, Botts creates her final image through many layers of paint, often on canvas or wood as large as six-by-six feet.
"On larger paintings, you really get the feeling of the bird taking off in flight or wolves charging at you or a bear in a stream," she says.
Botts started her artistic career drawing horses in her school notebooks as a child. Her early love of animals is what drew her to the subject matter as an adult.
"As a child, I was a cat lover, dog lover, horse lover. I was just in the face of anything that would let me pet it," she says. "So I feel like now I almost paint from memory of how the animals feel or how they are built and then I check myself with photographs or books that I've acquired."
For inspiration and accuracy's sake, her studio is decorated with deer heads and a collection of animal skulls that she uses to perfect the bone structure of the animals in her paintings. Though she started off focusing solely on deer, in the last several years she's advanced to bears, birds, wildcats, and other creatures. More recently, she's perfected capturing them in their natural settings.
"I think my work is more developed in the sense that the animals aren't necessarily so visible now," she says. "I've gone through periods where it's like the deer-in-headlights sort of look. And some of these newer ones are feeling more embedded to me. Like you have to look more to see the animals that are in it, which is how it is in nature anyway."
Botts doesn't stick to every aspect of nature, though. She says she purposefully uses unnatural colors on many of the animals, letting her indulge her imagination and the spirit of the subject.
"I really try to be somewhat irreverent. I want the essence of the animal, but I want the freedom to paint in whatever colors I feel like," she says. "So I don't want to have to paint all deer in brown, rust, cream, and grey. Why not paint a deer in blues and yellows and red? And that takes it to a different level as far as contemporary goes."
Botts says she uses her depiction of nature to celebrate creation, too, by including a meaningful Bible verse with each painting. She pulls from books of scripture like Psalms and Isaiah to focus viewers on creation, love, peace, grace, and joy.
"They're things that I think people respond to and we all need," she says. "Animals can be fearful, but it's wonderful to see a scripture that says, 'Don't fear. I am with you.' Or there's one I use a lot with my deer paintings which is, 'As a deer thirsts for water, so my heart thirsts for you, oh Lord.' I think when people see the painting, they feel what I've put into it and they feel the spiritual aspect of it. It makes for a much bigger experience than just looking at a painting."