Lys Beckman has a distinct sense of beauty. It pervades every part of her life. It fills her work, and leads her to seek out pieces that involve this particular aesthetic. She gathers things that intrigue her, allows them to coexist and then arranges them so that collections take form. Her installations have ranged from large to small, and these activities have grown to include her everyday living. Beckman has produced dozens of bodies of her own work, and also collects the work of artists who move her.
Her work is multi-faceted, all-encompassing, and influences absolutely everything she does. She is at work on her art constantly, all day, every day. There are always more projects going on. Beckman is currently working on approximately 10 different projects, each containing 15 to 100 different pieces.
Beckman is a self-taught artist. She went to school briefly for film and photography, then left school and worked at a museum. In her early art, she focused on bookbinding, then moved into painting, then large-scale installations of meticulously altered objects. Collection and painting have been the core of her focus over the last five years. "You can't teach people to be artists," says Beckman. "I've always been fortunate in having artists to consult that knew quick answers to my particular questions and made themselves available to view my work and tell me what they really think. This way of learning is ideal for me. "
For Beckman, collection is the central element in of all of her work: objects, her own paintings and the work of others. She has amassed work by artists such as Renatta Ivona Stojkowski, Jeffrey Eisenberg and Gwen Avant, who is her favorite living painter and whose work she describes as "sacred." Beckman creates by force of necessity and allows her own work to lead her in directions that she dutifully follows. Her series of miniature portraits are one example of her prolific output. She created hundreds of images of people on small paper scraps. "When I first moved to Boise from Madison, Wis., I went from a huge warehouse studio to my studio here, which was a wee table," says Beckman, "so I miniaturized my work.
"Social codes were so different here, and I didn't understand them," she says, echoing the experience of the newly arrived everywhere. "I didn't have a place in the community, and I didn't have my people, so I holed up and created dozens of tiny portraits." Some of the portrait miniatures were shown at the Stewart Gallery, and several graced the cover of the Boise Weekly July 27, 2004. "I love that they are so small that they are able to provoke a very private response," says Beckman. "Some function as mirrors. People will ask me about a specific piece that they remember years after they first saw it."
As artist Kelly Packer says, "She is an artist and a painter in the truest sense of the words. Her whole world is geared toward producing work. Those little portraits are so fantastic; they just pull you in. Each one is so rich with layers. She seems to work with the surface rather than against it, rather than imposing her notions on it. She works and works until she sees little passages she wants to keep."
Beckman's process of creating keeps each of her projects going concurrently. "Any one of my pieces takes an average of about three years to complete," she says. She works on several different projects at the same time, spreading all the pieces out before her and letting the work assert its own direction. "Allowing them all to coexist means the unique paintings have to really resound if they are to be heard above the din," she explains.
The variety of her work feeds her process. "It's all essentially the same body of work," she says. "Some paintings need to be small and have someone's face, and some need to be much larger than the viewer, heavy with the building tension of a storm—its charged air, lightning, low thunder and downpour. One type of painting informs the others. When I see a pattern in the work, I collect them together into a body of work that can stand on its own." Part of her studio is given over to a small library of her work, consisting of bookcases filled with boxes. Each individual box contains a complete exhibition. Her assemblages of shoes and cuffs made of paper are well remembered from the "Materiality" show at J Crist Gallery in 2006.
Living the life of an artist has forced her creativity to take some interesting turns, as her choices of material demonstrate. "I'd paint until I ran out of paint, so I'd collage until I ran out of glue," she says. "There's always something else, a pencil, a match, scissors." At one point, she began working with square scraps torn from grocery bags. Her series of brown paper drawings are exquisite, with fine details showing the extent of the attention and care that she allows each piece to have. "The limitation was so consistent and yet the opportunities for experimentation remained limitless," Beckman says. "Some of my very favorite pieces are in this body of work."
Recently, Beckman combined her talents in one unexpected place: She had an accidental show, in the form of a yard sale. On a whim, Beckman put together a few of her paintings, several of the objects she collects, some of her finery, and put them all out for sale. "My paintings are so serious," she says, "that I didn't think that shoes and finery could fit in. When I arranged everything, it was so visually rewarding. It was beautiful and the response was wonderful. It was so much fun that I'm doing it again this month."
This unique way of displaying her work reflects Beckman's own experiences and concerns about the contemporary art scene. "Putting up a show is prohibitively expensive," says Beckman. "By the time a painter has finished a piece, they are already in debt for it. It seems like there are fewer venues and collectors out there, which means there are less people dedicated to pursuing, sustaining and furthering exceptional work. An important part of our society is endangered."
The challenge of making a living as an artist is a familiar story, but that doesn't make the efforts of those who try to do it any less valiant. "In a way, I feel the challenges have made me more serious," she says. "I've defended a responsibility to my work, secured the materials and the time and the privacy it requires to stay true.
"Even counting the stretches of living without, when everything else sucks, it never slips my mind that I keep regular company with great art and collections that will outlive me," says Beckman. "Sometimes, that's enough."
Over the next month, Beckman will be documenting her collections and having another exhibition and sale. Like-minded collectors and artists with art to trade, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.