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Painting beyond the pose, with Aleksander Betko

When Aleksander Betko met up with musician Rick Snell a few years ago, his former college roommate was still making a steady go of it the local bluegrass scene. Betko “hadn’t painted for several years,” working instead in corporate advertising, and “it was eating away at me,” he said. Snell’s response? “Just do it.”

So Betko returned to painting and now, this fall, he is one of 10 finalists in the GO Brooklyn Open Studio Project contest. The contest’s winner(s) will be featured in a group exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum starting on December 1.

Betko in his home studio in Carroll Gardens.

Asked how it feels to be recognized for his work by so many people – many of whom he doesn’t actually know but welcomed into his Carroll Gardens apartment for three days this September – Betko is humble, but enthusiastic.

“I wanted it more than anything,” he said. “It’s crazy; I can’t believe this. I got emails coming in and I choked.” But now, he says he “can’t think about it too much. It’s a busy time in my life. GO Brooklyn was a massive impetus. This year, I got serious, and realized there is so much more I have to do.”

"Human Nature," 30" x 40", Oil on Linen

Betko may be on a roll now, but the talent and passion that fuels his creativity has been in him from the beginning. Born in Poland in 1976 and raised in New York City from five years old, he grew up in “an interesting and pivotal time,” with Ronald Reagan as president, a Polish pope in power, and the “dangerous and creative” influences of New York City all around him.

“I was very hyperactive and aware in different things [and] my mom took notice and started to take my sister and I to museums and to explore the city,” Betko explained from his seat on a moss green couch in his living room, which doubles as his studio. “We saw it all: street musicians, punks, graffiti… I was in trouble as a kid all the time.”

"Negotiations," 40" x 36", Oil on Canvas

It was during one of those museum trips that a six- or seven-year-old Betko wandered away from his mother and into the dinosaur exhibit, where he spotted “a pile of bones” around which older kids were sitting and drawing. He went up to one of them and the following exchange ensued:

‘What are you doing?”

“Homework.”

“Can I have a piece of paper?” … “A pencil?” … “An eraser?”

Then, says Betko, he sat down next to the guy and got to work. “My mom was in tears when she finally found me,” he admitted. “Then she saw me, realized I was not creating a disturbance, was quiet and focused, and the guy told her, ‘he’s actually pretty good.’ So she took me straight to classes.”

Betko would go on to learn from notable artists such as Eddie Cadiz, Terence Coyle, Peter Cox, and Harvey Dinnerstein; he also worked at the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, an experience which reinforced to him that artists need not be starving. “We’re in museums – come on, someone, somewhere, is making money. Life, art, we can’t help ourselves: we have to do this.”

"Breathe," 18" x 24", Oil on Linen

Under Cadiz, he saw street festivals and ethnic art; with Coyle, he began tackling the puzzle of drawing from life. Cox was a living embodiment of the artist’s lifestyle that Betko dreamed of (he also wrote his college recommendation) and encouraged him to study Italian traditions, anatomy, and the grandeur of classic Italian painting. But it was under Dinnerstein’s tutelage that Betko said he became an artist. During this time, he also was influenced by the French academic tradition, particularly realist painters like Prud’ohon, Marcel Angis, Degas, and Vermeer.

“Along the way, I learned how to sharpen pencils, stretch my own canvas, mix my own palate… my hand is in it, like a mechanic has his tools,” he said.

Betko considers himself a realist painter who paints out of a fascination with life, distilling what is important. “There is nothing that is new, original, but as mortals, the thing we have is our own originality and innate reaction to what surrounds us,” he said. “It takes years [and] it takes an ability to tell your own stories.”

"Hearts," 4" x 34", Oil on Linen
In the paintings that visitors saw during the open studio tour, themes of human vulnerability, broken hearts, rawness, undisciplined expressions, daily life, love, escape, and life in the big city recur.

“My work is life in New York. If you tell a story, you have to tell a whole story. [My] topic matter is real people that live here in New York,” he explained. “I’ve gotten to know these people. What do they have to say? What do I have to say? It’s scary. When you harness it, that’s when you’ve become an artist. It’s not about a scantily clad woman; it’s about a breaking heart… You’re showing who you are and leave people with something that they recognize.

“It’s not about me anymore, then,” Betko noted. “I am allowed to be part of their most intimate world… to me, that’s an honor.”

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