Artist / Author Betsey Mulloy: Out of Africa [elan magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
It was after reading Betsey Mulloy’s book, “Your Secret Name: Finding Your Special God-Given Identity,” that the Rev. Ben Mugarura knew he had to meet the author.
It didn’t matter to Mugarura (the chaplain at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda) that Betsey lived in Reston, Virginia. It was 1991, and his country was still reeling from the havoc wrought by dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s.
The reason Betsey’s book made such an impact on Mugarura, she believes, is that in the early’90s, the women of Kampala had taken over top jobs at universities and businesses in the years following the massive killing of Uganda’s men-but few were willing to take on leadership roles in the church.
“The Reverend asked me to speak to the women at Makerere University [known as the Harvard of Africa] and encourage them to take part in guiding the religious movement in the country,” she says.
Within weeks of his call, Betsey boarded an airplane bound for Kampala.
She has returned three times since to Uganda, for after she helped the Rev. Mugarura bring more women into the church, Betsey went back to lead seminars, host retreats and offer art and writing workshops to women in other areas of the country as well.
“I think that all too often women take on a tremendous amount of responsibility, but never really come to value themselves,” says the self-proclaimed feminist who since the late 1960s has been on a mission to empower women. “I have always tried to use writing and painting to help women realize the incredible contribution they are making.”
A native of Tyler, Texas, Betsey was a fashion illustration major at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, then switched her major to literature before her junior year.
“I never could quite choose between art and writing,” she admits. “So I studied both.”
After getting her degree in 1967, Betsey got a master’s degree in English literature at the University of Missouri, and continued to study art with well-known painters in the area.
After graduation, she
taught English at the university until 1972 when her new husband,
Michael, landed a job with General Services Administration
in Washington, D.C.
The couple bought a house in
Reston, had two daughters (Meg,
now 27, and Kit, 23), and Betsey
started a new career as a freelance
writer. She wrote for several federal agencies and the American Institute of Architects and co-authored a book called “America’s Forgotten Architecture.” She also collaborated on several screenplays for TV and a film for the “Sesame Street” series.
For the time being, she left her art behind.
Then, Betsey had a bit of a crisis. “Writing Your Secret Name,” which discusses how God creates every person with a unique character and mission to fulfill, proved to be the balm.
“At 27, frustrated in marriage and career, I found myself returning to the religion of my childhood, long since abandoned in my quest for individuality,” she writes in the foreword of her book about becoming a born-again Christian. “I had become a new creature. And truly, I felt new motives, new joy and certainly a new peace in my heart.”
The book was published in 1987, and not only did it attract the attention of the Rev. Mugarura, it helped Betsey rekindle her passion for painting. “I just couldn’t hold it in any more,” she says.
In the last two decades, Betsey has studied with some of the region’s most popular art teachers, including Thomas Morris at the Corcoran College of Art & Design in Washington, D.C, and Joyce McCarten at The Art League School in Alexandria.
Those artists have given her different perspectives and ideas on how and what she could create, and as a result, Betsey’s portfolio ranges from abstract paintings filled with bold color and texture, to pen-and-ink portraits of children.
It is stylized paintings based on her trips to Uganda, though, that is her current focus. Almost always Betsey gets her inspiration, and reference material, from photographs taken by her daughter Meg.
“After my first trip to Uganda, I knew my daughters had to see this amazingly fascinating country that is filled with beauty as well as pain,” Betsey shares, pointing to the horrifying fact that young Ugandan girls in the northern part of the country are often abducted and forced into sex” slavery. “I’ve taken Meg with me twice, and always we have experiences and see things that shift the way that we see the world.”
In June 2002, pictures by Meg-who this year is finishing her master’s degree in photography at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California-accompanied Betsey’s paintings at a joint exhibition at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Reston. The show was entitled “Wandering Eyes.”
In 2004, she was back to painting full-time. Her series entitled Scenes of Uganda was featured at the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Inspired by the days she spent traveling in Africa, Betsey’s current paintings portray the people of Kampala doing everyday things-balancing jugs heavy with water on their heads, holding babies as they wait for assistance outside a rehabilitation center in the war-torn North, cooking a meal over an outdoor fire pit.
“Not to romanticize it, because these people work incredibly hard and lead really tough lives, but they look like butterflies to me,” Betsey says. “The colors of their clothes, the grace with which they walk, the intensity in their eyes—it’s really beautiful.”