In the wee hours, when her neighbors in Niskayuna are snug in their beds, Betty Bumgarner is wide awake, creating artwork in her pajamas.
“I paint at odd times. Morning is the best time, but sometimes it’s the middle of the night,” says the 82-year-old artist. “I paint every day. It could be 15 minutes or it could be seven hours.”
On Saturday morning, Bumgarner will bring dozens of paintings to the Schenectady Stockade Outdoor Art Show, where she has exhibited for more than 15 years and is now one of the oldest artists.
At last year’s Stockade show, Bumgarner, who paints in both abstract and representational styles, was honored with an award from the prestigious Oakroom Artists, a juried group of Capital Region talents.
60th Annual Schenectady Stockade Outdoor Art Show
WHAT: More than 100 artists exhibiting paintings, drawings, sculpture, graphic art, textile art and photography outdoors in Schenectady’s historic Stockade District
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Prizes awarded at 2 p.m. (Rain date is noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.)
WHERE: Ferry and Front streets, Stockade District, Schenectady
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 374-7355, www.stockadeartshow.com
“Her exceptional design skills coupled with a thorough understanding of the use of color and values made her the perfect choice,” says Karen Rosasco, a longtime Oakroom Artist.
As member of both the Schenectady Art Society and Colonie Art League, Bumgarner has exhibited at the William K. Sanford Library and Pruyn House in Colonie, Schenectady Community College, Art Night Schenectady, the Broadway Art Center in Albany and in the Catskills in the Twilight Park Historic District of Haines Falls.
Never too late
What one would never guess from looking at Bumgarner’s award-winning paintings is that she took up art later in life, when she was in her 60s.
But Bumgarner, a warm and witty woman who is quick to laugh, is happy to share her story, to encourage others on their creative path.
“I was born after the last Ice Age,” she jokes. “I thought I wanted to be a concert artist — [on] piano.”
She grew up in Washington and attended American University and then the Peabody Insitute, where she studied music education.
“I discovered I wasn’t a performing artist. I just wasn’t that good.”
She married, had two children and for many years taught piano in her home.
“Off and on, I would take an art lesson. I dabbled,” she says.
Click here to read about former Schenectady mayor Frank Duci's contribution to this year's art show.
Because her husband was a chemical engineer, the family moved around the mid-Atlantic states and then to New York’s Columbia County, where they kept horses on a 60-acre farm in Old Chatham.
In 1973, when she was 44 years old, Bumgarner’s husband died. She stayed in Columbia County for a while but later moved to Niskayuna to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. For years, she worked in Troy as an administrative assistant at Vanderheyden Hall, a center for children with developmental, emotional and behavioral problems.
Picking up racquet and brush
At age 60, when she retired, she says she was determined to do two things: “play tennis and paint.”
Bumgarner joined the Schenectady Art Society and the Colonie Art League and learned painting techniques at workshop after workshop. It wasn’t long before she was winning ribbons at local art shows.
“Turned out I was a lot more talented in art than music,” she says with a laugh.
Rosasco was her first teacher, and Bumgarner became one of a group of art disciples who traveled with Rosasco on painting and sketching trips to Europe.
“We’d stay in inexpensive places where we could walk to museums and churches,” says Bumgarner.
Because she was a gardener, Bumgarner’s early paintings were inspired by the flowers in her backyard.
“They tell young writers to write what you know. So I started with flowers. I knew them,” she says.
Bumgarner often sketches or photographs flowers, then brings those images into a small bedroom-turned-studio, where she paints in acrylics while seated at a drafting table.
In the living room, one of her abstract paintings hangs over her piano.
“Magnolias,” she says of the colors and shapes that barely whisper leaves and petals.
“I started by abstracting flowers and now I’ve gone purely to nonobjective art,” she says.
“Sometimes the paintings are so easy, other times they are not. But I always have a picture in my head of what the next one is going to be.”
Bumgarner, who suffers from arthritis and spinal stenosis, says the deep thought required of painting has become her passion and her pain reliever.
“The best way to handle that is to paint. You concentrate on that to the exclusion of feeling the pain,” she says.
Helga Prichard, another Oakroom Artist, first met Bumgarner at a tennis match years ago, before they became artist buddies.
“Her love for organic shapes and color comes through whether she paints realistic or abstract images,” says Prichard. “She does not shy away from exploring new approaches, which makes her paintings exciting and unique.”
Ten years ago, when Rosasco decided to stop teaching regular watercolor painting and show students how to explore shapes instead of subject matter using acrylics, some of her students dropped out, but most, including Betty, stayed with her.
Prichard and Bumgarner both belong to this informal group, who call themselves “The Firehouse Artists” because they used to meet at a firehouse in Duanesburg.
“I am proud to say they are all winning more prizes and getting into national shows because they have abandoned sentimental subject matter for the love of the pure elements of art: shape, color, form, texture, value and line,” says Rosasco.
The 20 artists, who now meet monthly in each other’s homes, don’t paint together. Instead, they pick themes to inspire their abstract works.
Early this year, Bumgarner took up yet another art challenge. She’s the new teacher for a class in watercolor painting at the Glen Eddy retirement community.
“I’m having a lark,” she says. “I had never taught art before.”
Bumgarner has six students, men and women. The class, which meets on Friday afternoons all year round, is open to the public, not just seniors or Glen Eddy residents.
“They think I’m the bee’s knees,” she says.