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Arts & Culture

Ten questions with Artist Foundation of San Antonio co-founder Bettie Ward

Photo: Bryan Rindfuss, License: N/A

Bryan Rindfuss

Bettie Ward and Gary Sweeney

A friend of mine once came up with an idea for a party, in which each invited guest had to bring an interesting person with them. If I was ever invited to an "Interesting Person" party, I would probably bring artist Bettie Ward. A native of San Antonio who divides her time between here and Santa Fe, she's an accomplished artist, singer, and co-founder of the Artist Foundation of San Antonio. I interviewed her in her colorful/whimsical/ funky arts compound near downtown.

What was the first artwork that had an impact on you?
I am guessing Jackson Pollack. All that throwing paint around was totally thrilling to me as a teen. Those modernists turned me upside down. To think that was art! I made a piece of art when I was 14 about racial integration, but my teacher at St. Mary's Hall told me (this was in the 1950's) that if I was unable to make bluebonnet paintings I could not be an artist.

You have a remarkable story about running away to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco as a teenager. Can you give us a brief recap?
I remember sitting on the bus thinking about my parents and what it would be like when I got to San Francisco. It took my parents about a week to find me, and then they came out and helped me find an apartment on Cathedral Hill. I spent time with a Hell's Angel I met in Golden Gate Park, was a groupie with the Steve Miller Band, and one of my good friends was the Saudi Prince who later murdered his uncle the king! It was a magnificent and free experience. I came back after about a year because my father was ill. He died not long after that in 1969. His death was a major event in my life. All the fun was over.

You did a famous series of embroidered pieces, which were sewn by native women in San Miguel de Allende, whom you taught to embroider. The imagery is chock full of nudes, complete with detailed genitalia. How did they handle the task?
One woman only worked on the pieces in the closet, when her husband was asleep. Others laughed while they sewed. The work has a strong sense of silly humor.

You have a beautiful singing voice. Did you ever have to choose between a career in art and music?
I used to sing in a bar in Austin, sometimes with Joe Ely, when I was about 19. I heard about an audition for an off-Broadway rock musical and got the part. I was also in a Joseph Papp production called "Stomp" for about a year. It was the era of nudity on Broadway, and yes I was. There was a lot of infighting and jealousy amongst cast members, and they were not kind to me. It pushed me back to Texas, and I then moved back to Santa Fe and studied crafts with Indians. Amazingly, I was able to make a living and raise three children from my paintings.

Is it true Taj Mahal sang at your wedding?
Yes! He asked me to join him, and I sang back-up for him. It was great!

Dang, girl! Who's the most interesting person you've ever met?
Maya Angelou. I crashed a party to meet her once. She invited me back, and that time I met Oprah.

What three things never fail to bring you pleasure?
Doggie love, human sex, and hot chili sauce.

What made you want to establish an arts foundation?
There was a need for one. The foundation has given over $400,000 to all disciplines of the arts in San Antonio.

Both your father and your son achieved great success, too.
My father was Lafayette Ward, a rancher and oilman: a community leader here, and a big-hearted man. My son, Pen Ward, has been nominated for an Emmy twice for his animated series Adventure Time on Cartoon Network. This year, he is listed in Forbe's "30 Under 30."

One last question: How do you account for your sunny disposition?
I am the sun! I am the big, round, beautiful shining star in the sky, and I am warm and golden.

Couldn't have said it better myself. •

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