Painting the abstract through the familiar

Exhibit: A Baltimore artist draws inspiration from hands, envisioning and amplifying them as landscapes.

Howard Live

April 24, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

At Tai Sophia Institute for the Healing Arts in North Laurel, hands are important for administering treatments and offering comfort.

But the most prominent hands at the institute might be difficult to recognize at first, represented in bold abstract paintings on the walls of the lobby and hallways.

Betsey Heuisler, a Baltimore artist, has been drawing inspiration from small areas of human hands - wrinkles in the skin, the space encircled by the thumb, overlapping fingers - for a number of years. Her work, Healing Hands, is on display at the institute through May 22.

Heuisler used to paint landscapes. As she observed land formations, she said, "I always saw the body." Then, she thought, "What if I paint the body and draw the landscape out of it?"

Now, when she takes an area of the hand that can be measured in inches and paints it on a canvas measured in feet, she creates in the rounded shapes and shadows suggestions of hills, caves and sky.

She explains in an artist's statement on her Web site: "I exaggerate, amplify and simplify areas of composition until the work begins to hover on the edge of ambiguous abstraction. At [the best of] times, several layers of meaning emerge."

One canvas, inspired by her father's fingers, looks like boulders, so she called it "Rock Man."

Heuisler said painting her father's hands was meaningful because he suffered from Alzheimer's disease and touch was an important way for her family to connect with him.

Heuisler's work "ties into what I consider to be universal patterns," said Walter Gomez, owner of the Gomez Gallery in Baltimore, which represents Heuisler.

Some people see the hands in the paintings, he said, and others just find the abstract shapes satisfying.

"Even the abstract shapes retain a strong sense of familiarity," he said.

The darker areas, where shadows and spaces are, also can suggest shapes such as trees, people and animals. In one, the shadows between the large curving shapes look like a woman swimming, Heuisler said. In another piece, she drew only the shadows, which remind her of dancers, and placed them on a light background.

At Tai Sophia, "It is the first time the new space has been used as a gallery and it's very exciting," said Dianne Connelly, co-founder and chancellor.

The institute, which teaches acupuncture, herbal medicine and applied healing arts and offers master's degree programs, moved to a new building less than a year ago. "Everything we are doing is some form of connecting with the rest of life," Connelly said. " ... Betsey's Healing Hands exhibit is really a way of pointing out the beauty of having offerings for each other."

Even if you don't recognize the shapes of the hands immediately, she added, "you can tell that it is the contour of sensuality."

Heiusler, who was a member of the institute's board of trustees, also teaches life drawing at the institute, using live models.

She said it is an opportunity to learn about the human body and the artists' creative spirits.

A Baltimore-area artist for three decades, Heuisler earned a master's degree at Maryland Institute College of Art in 1971.

For the next five years, she traveled to 36 countries with her husband, working, teaching and enjoying local cultures.

Along the way, she exhibited prints in Morocco and paintings of women in Afghanistan.

She co-developed a program for students at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, with a grant from the National Institutes of Health, on using art to see the human body. She taught at Maryland Institute College of Art in the 1990s and started a program there taking students to Mexico to paint each summer. She was head of art at the Gilman School in Baltimore from 1996 to 2000.

Heuisler still teaches, helping children through the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. For the most part, however, she is a full-time painter, working in a studio in the Hampden/Woodberry area of Baltimore.

She expects she will continue to explore the possibilities in human hands for a while longer.

"One stays with an idea until it lets you go," she said.

Healing Hands is on display at the Tai Sophia Institute, 7750 Montpelier Road, North Laurel, through May 22. Information: 410-888-9048, or

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