Wind Blows South, 28" high
Princess of Nigeria, 21" high
Ray and Betsy smile while displaying the fruits of their restless creativity.
You can’t retire from being inspired
Meeting Ray and Betsy Shaw is a total revelation, a beacon of hope for what retirement could be, at its best. You wouldn’t know it from their gracious, easygoing manner, but what grounds them in this cheerful calm—Betsy always wearing that smile!—is that they each have their private passions.
These are not the passions of youth, however, dangerous and quickly worn out. This is what happens when two inspired people had to wait their whole lives to let their creativity fly, and now have all the time in the world to do it.
Ray was a high school band teacher “for more years than I care to admit”; Betsy had an interior design firm for 28 years. So their work was creative. And both of them loved to tinker and touch things—in his case, wood and clay; in hers, exotic fabrics. But their jobs never left enough time for it. “My time was dictated by my clients,” Betsy says with typical understatement, her leisurely drawl giving away a lifetime in east Texas.
They had planned to retire in Angel Fire, where Ray and two friends built them a house. But it proved too cold. So they moved instead to Ruidoso, where they fell in with a group of artists who challenged them with the retirement crucible: “What next?” Who do you serve now?
For Ray, it was probably never a question. He was always building things: furniture and cabinets made of found objects, animals and pots out of clay. For Betsy, the answer started with what she had never been able to indulge: her fascination with antique and ethnic fabrics. “I love the fact that the fabric itself is a piece of art,” she explains. “I just have a passion for handcrafted objects.”
Walk through their home in Bernalillo, where they moved about a year ago, and that much is obvious. The rooms spill over with folk art, colorful fabrics, a glorious excess of pillows, and fanciful textures all begging to be examined and touched.
Just big enough for the two of them, the newly built home in the Bosque del Rio subdivision is half given over to workshops. She has hers inside; he has his in a kind of garage, plus his music room. And then there are her fabrics.
“She has to have all her stuff,” is how Ray puts it. “Needless to say, I’m a collector,” she admits. Betsy’s cozy studio contains shelves and drawers and piles of exotic fabrics, beads, stones, deer antlers, turtle shells, and carved masks from Africa and Mexico. From these she assembles her “female spirits,” slender figures that start out as a used bottle and end up as outrageously bedecked goddesses.
“Costuming is my passion,” Betsy explains, “but I had to start with a figure.” The arms started out made of clay and then became antlers. The heads might be anything from a turtle shell to the vertebrae of an oryx found by the side of the road.
“I guess I never gave up playing with dolls,” she says with a wink.
Follow the antlers and clay, turtle shells and beads through the rooms filled with folk art and pillows, and you will land in Ray’s workshop, where antlers and feathers find new life as Native American-style masks mounted on wooden pedestals. Each one is unique, says Ray, and despite their Hopi and Navajo borrowings, he maintains they are stylized and express personality—not spirits.
“I’ve always made things,” he notes with the prevailing understatement, referring to a herd of clay horses waiting to be raku-fired; slab plates with press-molded designs; large sheet-metal wall pieces covered with silvery wooden fish on magnets (“moveable art,” he quips—his own invention); and a room full of the aforementioned masks, each made from a split aspen log that he harvested himself in Angel Fire.
When he’s not in his workshop, Ray is busy writing music, currently a suite about animals native to New Mexico. And then there’s his other hobby: stump removal, an avocation he sheepishly admits enjoying.
“Neither of us can sit still for long,” he says of the couple’s restless creativity. “And it’s always nice to make a buck, but we do it just for the love of it. It comes from a deep appreciation of artistic things.”
Each morning they get up, says Ray, and head eagerly to their individual projects, whether music, clay, fabrics—“a lot of it is just experimentation.” Before long, five o’clock has arrived. And it’s a good thing he isn’t wealthy, Ray adds, because he’d probably be welding too.
“We share out work with each other. We get so excited when Bets finishes a doll. She says ‘Are you ready?’” he relates with a twinkle. Married 46 years, with two grown children (one of whom is—surprise, surprise—an artist), their partnership seems to be anchored in mutual respect for the other’s medium.
“I have a deep respect for what she did professionally,” Ray says, shaking his head. “I was in awe of it.”
He mentions several times with a hint of embarrassment that they did not set out to make money from their creations. “If I never sold this stuff, I’d probably be out on the highway trying to give it away,” he says. “And I did give it away, at the start.”
But the pleasure they take in their work communicated itself through their figures, who come across as cheerful and innocent, blameless because they are homages, one realizes, rather than copies of the folk art the Shaws admire.
Both Betsy and Ray have seen demand for their dolls and masks grow at craft fairs and in galleries. They are the featured artists at Rockin’ R Gallery in Placitas during the month of May, and will be guest artists at the Corrales Studio Tour on May 1-2. In August, they show at the Nob Hill Gallery in Albuquerque.
“Our art is an outgrowth of New Mexico. We love it here—everything is an inspiration,” Ray says reverently. “This part of the country is just filthy with good artists. So we never stopped growing,” as he sees it. “And we evolve. Our work evolves.”
You couldn’t ask more from retirement.