A career retrospective blossoms amid art school uncertainty


The delicate flower paintings of Betsy Batchelor are part of a colorful career retrospective on exhibit at the Cope House Gallery in Germantown. Meanwhile, the Mt. Airy artist also has other important things on her mind - the future of art education. 

The associate professor at Arcadia University in Glenside is worried about the recent closure of the University of the Arts (UArts) and the decision by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) to end its degree-granting programs.  These storied institutions, each with a national reputation, have been institutional stakeholders for more than a century.

This is a challenging time for all colleges and universities,” Batchelor told us last week. “It is not just art schools that are closing. All of our institutions were affected by COVID and are still recovering financially. Add to that the simple reality of demographics. There are fewer college-age students, and the same schools are competing for a shrinking college-age population. 

“Art schools have an additional vulnerability as they require facilities that can add significantly to the cost of operation,” she continued. “As an alumna of the University of the Arts (when it was called Philadelphia College of Art), I am deeply saddened by its tragic ending. My heart aches for the faculty, students and staff.” The loss of the schools “will change the city for the worse,” she said.

Batchelor has dedicated a career to teaching visual and performing arts to students while also continuing her own artwork, a sampling of which will be on display through June 26 in “The Flower Paintings” exhibit at The Cope House Gallery at Awbury Arboretum. The show features 33 original works that are installed and organized in the exhibit in response to each piece’s scale and presence within the gallery.

The depictions of flowers, in both small and large scale, were painted in gouache and oil between 1991 and this year.

Batchelor was born in Wilmington, Delaware, but has also lived in the Bronx, New Jersey, Kansas, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York State and Rhode Island. After attending PCA as an undergraduate, she earned an MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. Several years later she moved to Philadelphia and has lived in West Mt. Airy since 1982.

“I had an inner life as a child that found refuge in art,” Batchelor said. “I have a distinct memory of being particularly fascinated with color. In first grade, we made pins for our mother out of plaster, where we poured pigments into the plaster, and I remember watching how the colors moved through the material and being transfixed. 

“The sense of wonder I felt in that experience was a funny kind of crystalline moment. As a teenager I became involved in theater productions and thought about acting, but the inner life that comes with making art had a greater hold on me.”

Batchelor's work has been shown at Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, New York University, Millersville University and several fine arts galleries in Center City. 

Her recent exhibitions include a curated show, "Between Matter and Experience," at University of the Arts, a juried exhibition at Woodmere Art Museum and a collaborative project, “Women in Trees,” with four Cuban artists and four Philadelphia artists. The collaborative pieces were shown in Havana, Cuba, and Penn State University. Batchelor has been awarded grants from both the Pennsylvania State Council on the Arts and Rhode Island State Council on the Arts.

Organizing her work for the career retrospective was a chaotic challenge Batchelor described as “madness” that came at the end of the semester when the school’s final critiques were due.

“The framing of the work was a monumental effort because of the sheer number of pieces, and the gouaches needed to be framed under glass for UV protection,” she explained. 

Batchelor said the paintings traverse the real and the imagined. “In my work, I try to locate my human experience in the vast, expansive and mysterious world that goes far beyond what we can know through the touch and measure of our senses,” she said. “I reflect on our smallness in the face of the great mystery of the larger world.”

The Cope House Gallery is located at Awbury Arboretum, 1 Awbury Road in Germantown. You can see “The Flower Paintings” for free between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

For more information, visit awbury.org or call 215-849-2855. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com