Bettina Clowney’s Legacy

On February 22, 2020, InLiquid member Bettina Clowney passed away. Her husband of 50 years, David Clowney, describes Bettina as having a “tremendous force of personality and character.” As an artist and as a spiritual director for the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, Bettina’s legacy lives on in her icons and paintings, as well as in the lives of her many directees. 

Born Bettina Scull in Germany, she was 8 months old when her Air Force Colonel father brought his family back to the United States. Her exposure to art came from her dad’s constant sketching and her naturally-artistic mind. She was born with a natural inclination towards artistic curiosity as well as an innate artistic talent. 

Husband David praises Bettina’s natural artistic inclinations

While she was speedily developing her artistic talent and interests, Bettina was simultaneously discovering her spiritual side. She joined a Presbyterian youth group around the age of 13 and would complain that no one else took it as seriously as she did. While other teenagers were “playing footsie,” Bettina was learning about the Bible and started establishing in her mind a distinct reverence for spirituality, which would later be incorporated into her sacred imagery icons and paintings. The inherent sexism within aspects of the Christian institution disillusioned Bettina with the Church, but she never grew disillusioned with her own faith.

Bettina studied painting at Tyler School of Art, where she met David, her Philosophy professor with whom she stayed connected post-graduation. Painting took a back seat for the first few years of their marriage, as she raised their two sons, Peter and Matthew, and balanced the duties of being a pastor’s wife after David received his ordination. By 1980, she was back in the studio, where she painted for hours nearly every day until the last year of her life.

As she discovered what she had to say through still-lifes, figurative work, and abstraction, Bettina increasingly sought to integrate her art with her spiritual development. In the late 1980’s she began learning iconography, a practice which profoundly transformed both her spirituality and her art, and helped her see the unity between the two.

Bettina studied with Vladislav Andrejev, founder of the Prospon School of Iconography in New York, for about 14 years, mastering the techniques of 15th century Russian iconographers, and absorbing the spirituality they express. Many churches and collectors have commissioned her traditional icons. More broadly, iconography provided a way for Bettina to work spiritually, archetypally, and multiculturally; she embraced the intersection of different interpretations of spirituality. The visual language of icons began to appear first in some early sacred work she made, and then in her secular work. The sacred symbolism of iconography led her to Karl Jung’s archetypal psychology, and archetypes became a central theme of all her work.

David goes into depth on Bettina’s Icons

Outside of iconography, Bettina’s other works could be categorized into still lifes, abstract, and figurative work, but the materials are all related. She uses oil, watercolor, pencil, and photos to portray an ongoing energy throughout each series. There is a reverence she gives to each subject, even when the subject is a stroke of a line, or a glass bottle, or even a simple shape. Throughout these genres, Bettina emphasizes the concept of dimensionality and layers that represent the multifaceted nature of existence.

David describes Bettina’s painting styles

The theme of mysticism and spirituality can be seen as another thread weaving throughout Bettina’s works. From her clearly sacred iconography works, to her portraits, and even in her still lifes and abstract work, there is a sense of energy emanating from each piece. She uses line and light to portray spiritual energy and intelligence, something she started under Andrejev. Her figure paintings illustrate people in two or three different views to express the dimensions of space and time; the still lifes shed light and animate these “inanimate” objects; the abstractions marry the vitality of line and color together. These all connect back to her belief in a larger spiritual energy that flows through the universe.

David ties Bettinas religious themes with her paintings

Bettina subscribed to Jung’s concept called “Symbolic Life.” One lives a Symbolic Life by acknowledging and feeding the needs of the soul. Through painting, Bettina was able to live a Symbolic Life and fulfill her inner meaning, while simultaneously capturing and unveiling the souls of her subjects. 

David muses on the concept of Symbolic Life

Bettina believed in people as unfinished icons. She believed in art, faith, and the inherent spiritual power that lies inside the individual. And we believe in Bettina’s unceasing spiritual energy that lives on in her artwork and loved ones. 

Bettina Clowney is survived by her husband of 50 years, David, who is working diligently to preserve her legacy. Their eldest son Peter, VP for Stitcher podcast and excellent guitarist, lives in St. Paul, MN with his wife Julia and two children, Owen and Tadelech. Matthew, 13 months his junior, is a talented digital photographer who lives in Providence, RI with his partner Tracie, an educational consultant and singer-songwriter. 

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