The handcrafted marionettes lounging shoulder to shoulder on the corner cabinet shelves in Betsy Kellum’s art studio serve as her muse.
About 18 in total, the varied wooden figures mirror their living counterparts — rabbits, cats and clowns, even the legendary Charlie Chaplain. Oil paintings featuring some of these playful marionettes will be included in Kellum’s exhibit opening Friday, Oct. 7, at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Her interest in marionettes was sparked by an image she saw in The Washington Post during the 2012 presidential election. The newspaper uses images of Pinocchio in its truth-meter ratings of political rhetoric.
That was her impetus to include Pinocchio in one of her paintings, Kellum said.
Finding a Pinocchio puppet that she could use as a model wasn’t easy. She scoured the internet and finally located a wooden Pinocchio marionette from Israel that she used along with a donkey and an elephant to create her painting “BFF: Strings Attached.”
The trio of marionettes sits together on top of a draped American flag with the silhouette of the U.S. Capitol building in the background.
“They are schmoozing,” Kellum said.
During her search for Pinocchio, Kellum discovered a wide array of marionettes. One she particularly liked, a doctor with a frazzled Albert Einstein hairstyle, was handmade in Czechoslovakia as was the Charlie Chaplain figure now resting in her studio.
When Kellum is working, she uses a spare leaf from her dining room table as the stage for her various still lifes. She carefully places the appropriate marionette on the stage, and spends hours precisely positioning each piece of the model to match the image she has in mind.
“There is a lot of preliminary work to get it to what I want it to say or be,” she said of her painting process. “That’s the fun part: figuring out what I need and don’t need.”
Kellum’s painting “Emergency Surgery” features her eccentric doctor marionette fixing a torn American flag, putting it back together with a miniature sewing machine she already had in her studio.
“It’s a comment on this presidential election,” she said, smiling. “Most of my paintings either tell a story or make some sort of statement.”
One of her favorite paintings highlights a rabbit marionette that was a gift from her painting partner at a workshop in North Carolina.
“I knew it had to be ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ” she said of the theme of her painting.
She borrowed a pocket watch from a friend and also found a Queen of Hearts, teapot and teacup along with a mouse for the setup. She then placed each piece on her makeshift stage and began positioning.
As she was painting “I’m Late,” she realized that those four characters were too pronounced for her vision. She wanted the rabbit to be the main focus.
So “I glazed them down to be in the rabbit hole,” so to speak, she said, adding that she also put the Cheshire Cat’s grin in the painting.
An unapologetic realist like her mentor, artist Diane Tesler, Kellum believes that realistic art has to be a step above the real object.
“It has to have some element to it that captures your eye,” she said.
Ironically, when she was growing up in Alexandria, Kellum had no interest in fine art. Her creative outlets at the time were dance and the French horn. After college she had a career as an elementary school teacher and then as the owner of an exercise class business.
Art entered her life in the mid-1980s when she was in her late 40s and she and her husband were raising their children in southern Florida. One day she was walking past an empty storefront and saw an oil painting with a sign saying, “Come paint with me,” a pitch to study with artist Lynne Pittard.
“That is what inspired me,” Kellum said. “That’s what got me painting.”
The family moved back to Northern Virginia in the late 1980s, and Kellum began studying art with Tesler at The Art League School in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Old Town Alexandria.
“I was hooked,” she said. “I’ve been painting ever since. My biggest interest is still life.”
With their children grown, Kellum and her husband relocated to the Richmond area in 1996 and have lived in Powhatan County for the past 10 years.
Today her work is evenly divided between the two mediums she enjoys: oil and pastel.
“I’ve never been somebody who finds this little niche and develops that,” she said. “I use different mediums. It keeps me excited about art.”
She plans to display more than 20 paintings at her show. Most are from her marionette series, but she will also have several paintings on display that she created for her “Back Roads” series, inspired by the book “Back Roads: People, Places and Pie from Around Virginia” by RTD writer Bill Lohmann and photographer Bob Brown.
“When their first book came out, I read it and loved it,” she said. “I kept thinking this would be a great series of paintings to base on that book.”
She and a friend traveled during the winter to Monterey, one of the destinations in the book, and Kellum spotted a herd of Oreo Cookie-colored Galloway cows.
“I wanted to paint the cows in the snow,” she said. “I went to the field, and it was freezing cold.”
Jenni Kirby, owner of Crossroads Art Center on Staples Mill Road, is a fan of Kellum’s work. The artist has been displaying her work at Crossroads for about 15 years.
“Betsy always picks a subject matter like the marionettes that other people don’t gravitate to,” she said. “She looks at items she has sitting around and creates a show about them.”
Kellum’s work is very organized and precise, Kirby said.
“It’s unique for an artist to be as organized as she is,” Kirby said. “Her work is very down-to-earth and so is she. And, she always seems to put a little bit of whimsical in her pieces. There’s always a little something that makes you smile or giggle. Something that pulls you into the piece.”