Artist Feature: A Conversation with Betty Turbo
She is partially responsible for some of the pops of color in our valley, one of the main reasons the town of Corvallis can boast glimpses of the weird and wonderful. She’s a mainstay in all the greeting card racks, and a personal hero for making all my animated and papier-mâché food dreams come true. Introducing the inimitable Agnes Barton-Sabo, better known as Betty Turbo.
Though she has been crafting and scheming up projects in the Willamette Valley for over a decade, Barton-Sabo grew up in Alaska. From there, she moved to Rochester, New York, for school, where she studied photography. Rochester is home to the Kodak headquarters, so it made for a sort of mecca to all those drawn to the life of aperture, lens, and film. While she considered it a worthwhile experience, Barton-Sabo says that by the time she finished her degree, she realized photography wasn’t the route on which she wanted to continue.
That education wasn’t all for naught, however — when asked if she calls upon her schooling, she said, “I definitely feel like I built a lot of skills during that time that are not at all a direct line to what I’m doing, but that were useful to me.” The skills she speaks of are the heavy-hitters, the ones that can transfer to all mediums of art, all areas of daily life and big-picture life.
“It was a lot of learning about myself socially, how to communicate with my peers, a lot of intense time management, and a sort of inclination to go really hard and be prolific and experiment with things from every possible angle.”
She says she still approaches her work that way, from that integral foundation built during that time. And while she notes that these days there’s less of an emphasis on the stringent need for a college degree in order to secure a job, she acknowledges the privilege of school.
“I think it’s much less of a straight line for college being necessary to a lot of things, but I think it’s so inaccessible to so many people, it’s a shame that everyone doesn’t get that playground experience to experiment and try things out.”
Corvallis has been her latest playground for years now. As someone who has struggled to strike the gold in the way of local creative outlets and offerings, I was curious how The Betty Turbo siphons inspiration while living in this small town. While not without charm and beauty, Corvallis isn’t necessarily known for its buzzing art scene. Barton-Sabo attributes some of this to the disparity in demographic here — a town largely populated by young college students or those of retirement age. Barton-Sabo explains how that gap can be a little lacking.
“It’s really hard to find stuff happening in between those, especially if it’s any kind of alternative, fringe, weirdo groups? Forget about it.”
But Corvallis and the local area aren’t to shoulder all the blame — Barton-Sabo notes that making connections and finding community as an adult is simply a difficult task when not situated in an institution that fosters such relationships.
“It’s hard to find a community when you’re an adult outside of a school environment, or if you don’t work a day job and go and see people every day.”
As an artist who creates from her home studio, Barton-Sabo has to work to find those interactions in other ways. Sometimes this means traveling to Portland or Seattle, occasionally even to New York for work. She says she longs for more of a local “weirdo artist community,” but also a community that supports these kinds of artists. After a moment, she remarks, “I guess weirdo artists really can’t afford to live here … it’s no longer a place where that’s possible, because housing is so crazy.”
So what’s the solution? Barton-Sabo said that at the moment it’s hard to know. Like many of us, she’s felt the weight of both the national and global state, saying, “The whole world is just a lot right now. It’s hard to make heads or tails of it.”
Though the past few years have undoubtedly been a lightning-round of hard-to-hit curveballs for all of us, Betty Turbo has found a way to maneuver through, with a slew of bright, beautiful artwork in tow. To get there, however, it took a change in direction. When the pandemic hit, her online business started to drop off. Primarily selling cards and digital prints, she started to realize that something needed to shift. No stranger to a pivot, Betty Turbo turned to sculpture. Describing that moment of switching mediums, she said, “I wanted to do something different, I didn’t want to sit in front of a screen, it wasn’t filling me up. I wanted to make something in physical space.” And from there, a papier-mâché menu was born.
“We Feed and Nourish Each Other,” Barton-Sabo’s latest collection, was on display over the summer at The Corvallis Art Gallery. It was an array of fun, fake edibles brightly painted and pleasantly arranged. From a party tray of pickles, olives and pepperoncinis, to uniformed rows of deviled eggs, to a sizable stargazy pie, the little room within the gallery was filled with color and whimsy, and completely sculpted from paper and glue. One of the most notable offerings was a six-plate evolution of cake slices to VHS tapes (for our younger readers, please ask your parents about VHS). The inspiration behind the collection? Spending time in the kitchen. The artist said it was a mainstay location for her when the pandemic first hit, partially because it still felt like an artistic place to be.
“That’s not unrelated to creative flow. Sometimes you just have to be in a different space, and it can feel creative to make something physical and engage your body in it.”
She continued the comparison of cooking to her artistic output, saying, “It’s somewhat of an experiment and it produces something that makes people happy.”
That’s what we get from this collection. It’s magical and dreamy, it’s fun for the sake of it, and it’s really easy to walk away happier after having experienced it. I know I did.
While it can be a trying task to carve out a creative space as an artist, and seek out the community that supports that creative space, local artist Betty Turbo continues this work, and we’re all the better for it. She is a magical staple of our town, brightening the corners and offering up oddity and surprise whenever possible. I feel comfortable speaking for the rest of us “weirdo artist” types out here in saying that she is keeping us nourished and fed.
See more of Betty Turbo at https://www.bettyturbo.com/
Find amazing prints, greeting cards, pins and t-shirts in her shop at Betty Turbo Etsy