Personal Stories of America at Work
The Evolving Artist
Painter, teacher, writer, and actor Betsy Franco finds creative success while moving from one medium to the next
“Betsy and I met in Bikram yoga many years ago. With her dark long hair and petite, fit frame, I thought she was in her late forties or early fifties, but she is the mother of three grown sons—all successful and creative artists. She asked that we not mention her age because she’s now acting and would rather keep herself open for younger roles. Our discussion explores her creative path and how it led to the successful work and art she creates today.”
– Chronicler Carrie Coltman
Even when I was a child, I knew what made me happy
As a child growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, I remember feeling delighted when I was drawing pictures, in school or on my own. Creativity was important to my parents, and they encouraged my art. I still have some of the drawings I made while we lived in Japan, when I was five and six years old and my father was an oral surgeon in the Navy. Throughout my childhood, I was drawn to art, poetry, and math, but I couldn’t have told you that then—I only see it looking back. At Stanford, I became a visual art major, specifically focusing on painting, and I met my husband Doug in a drawing class. We shared a studio together on campus.
Upon graduation, I couldn’t find anyone who could advise me about how to pursue a creative career. With hopes of making a living as an artist, at twenty-two years old, I took a portfolio of my oil paintings to the posh Sunset Magazine office. When I opened to the photos of my oil paintings, the interviewer looked at me strangely. She shook her head and said, “Um, what job are you applying for?” I quickly realized that with my lack of experience in the working world, I would need to find an alternative way to pay the rent.
Ma Bell and the corporate misfits
So, I worked for one year at Ma Bell, the phone company, and gained an appreciation for how I did not want to spend my time. However, I made a lot of friends—I am still in touch with many of them today. They were interesting and creative people who ended up in corporate America for a year in order to earn a living. Not only did I gain friends there, I also learned to be comfortable talking on the telephone, which ended up helping me when I was seeking work as a freelance writer, or later, talking to my editors. I believe everything I do eventually helps me in some way.
Following my first job, I worked as an assistant for an educational publisher, but when my husband was acquiring his MBA at Harvard, I went back to school, too, for my masters in education. Subsequently, I taught for five years, in grades K-12, except third grade, to improve my skills when I returned to educational publishing and in hopes of using what I learned to be a better mother someday.
First came love, then came marriage…
Then I happily started having children. I didn’t have as much time or energy for my own endeavors, but I knew that in order to feel sane, I had to create somehow. After my first son James was born, it became difficult to set up my paints, so I did an experiment. I transferred all my creative energy from painting to writing. I stopped teaching part time and worked part time as a freelance writer in educational publishing, mostly at Addison-Wesley Publishing. They presented me with a challenge: to write math poetry and descriptive opening stories for math textbooks. Years later, working for Scholastic, Inc., I was given a topic and a title and left on my own to write a book. This happened over and over again. For example, I was asked to write a book entitled Creepy Crawlies, and wrote thirty poems about bugs. It was a lot of fun. Approximately twenty-five books later, my Scholastic job had allowed me to write every day, improve my poetry writing, and be creative. I ultimately wanted to write my own ideas into books, but this was a stepping stone.
As if to help me, my young sons James, Tom, and Dave started giving me ideas for books. For example, Dave said, “Hey, my pinky finger is longer than it used to be,” and it became a book, My Pinkie Finger (2000). Fresh Fall Leaves (1994), based on my sons’ antics in the fall leaves, was actually my first foray into children’s book publishing, through Scholastic. It sold 100,000 copies in one month. There were more to come.
The breakthrough book
Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators was one of the best moves I ever made. Through this organization, I attended authors’ conferences where I met editors. After one conference, I sent a book of math poems to an editor from Simon & Schuster who had shown interest in my ideas. She picked two of my math poems from the collection and challenged me to write sixteen more in a similar style. I thought she had said sixty, so she had a lot to pick from! The book became Mathematickles. The math problems in the book have words instead of numbers, for example, nest – bird = stringfeatherstwigsleaves. There are even long division problems with remainders, such as autumn divided by wind.
Since James started school, I have walked to my local elementary school where I volunteer as the “constantly visiting author.” I continued to walk there even after Dave, my youngest, had moved on. On my walks to school, I observed nature and wrote children’s books that were lyrical and had mathematical references, such as Birdsongs, a backwards counting book. I wrote books about geometry in nature, such as Bees, Snails, & Peacock Tails. I wrote poetry collections about what I saw on the playground in Messing Around on the Monkey Bars. I wrote about concepts I saw in the classroom— Zero Is the Leaves on the Tree was one of them.
When my sons entered their teens, I started collecting poetry by teenage girls and got them published in Things I Have to Tell You: Poems and Writing by Teenage Girls. The catalyst was the book Reviving Ophelia, which disturbed me. Since I had three boys, of course, I compiled a book of boys’ poems as well, You Hear Me? I discovered vulnerability and emotion in the boys, and strength and confidence in the girls. There is much more empathy, wisdom, and character in adolescent writers than we, as a society, give them credit for. I respect teens and they know it.
My three sons
I am most proud of my sons—their warm hearts and their fearless creativity. Doug and I definitely nurtured their creativity and had materials around for them to create with. They had “junk” boxes where they kept personal treasures. They played imaginative games. They weren’t in many activities other than sports, until high school, when they chose their own pursuits. People ask how we raised them to be so creative. It probably started when my parents never said, “You’re majoring in art? What are you going to do with that?” Doug’s parents also encouraged him to study art and writing along with his math major. Our art professor Frank Lobdell encouraged both of us. All of this support for creativity affected our parenting and we supported our sons in the same way. I recognized that my sons had paths they were on, even if I couldn’t see them clearly. Of course, there were difficult times when they were teens, but art and creativity seemed to speak to each of them and helped them find themselves. Admittedly, we were very concerned when James dropped out of college, not because he wanted to be an actor, but because we thought he would benefit from a college education.
Nowadays, all three of my sons’ creativity inspires me. James is a successful actor, writer, director, and artist. He returned to school after becoming an actor, eventually studying for his PhD at Yale. Tom started the Firehouse Collective in Berkeley and is a sculptor, illustrator, dancer. Dave is a successful actor and writes screenplays. My husband is now back in drawing class. We all support each other. In fact, my sons all collaborated on my young adult novel, Metamorphosis, Junior Year. Tom is the illustrator, and James and Dave read the audio book. That was a mother’s dream.
Finding my voice
Professor Lobdell really influenced me because he instructed us to find our own way. He said, “Artists draw. Just keep drawing and you will figure out what your voice is.” He never required us to study the classics or traditional art theory such as perspective. Similarly, in writing, I take a stab at a genre, such as novel writing, before I take a course on the basics. That way, I can find ideas outside the box before I know where the box is.
In my writing, I find my voice by opening myself to ideas and help from the universe. That way, I never have to feel alone or that I have to create alone. Ideas float through my body or my mind, and I grab them.
I haven’t always been spiritual. As a kid I was lost. I was particularly lost as an adolescent, but as an adult, I felt a lot better once I realized there was something more powerful than myself in the universe. It made me realize that life was not necessarily logical, that I didn’t have to figure everything out, and that maybe I could just be open and miraculous things would happen. And they did. If I looked out for them, they would come. Before that, too often, I let the logical side of life worry me.
Paying the bills without a lot of frills
If you have the need to be an artist of any kind, listen to it. Get support from your parents or someone else who understands you. It is possible to make a career being creative. Someone in every generation gets to be an artist of every kind, so why not you? Just know that it takes hard work and stubbornness. It takes getting used to rejection; if you can handle rejection and not take it personally, you can do anything. Know that the creative path may not look like you thought it would, but see where it takes you. I thought I would be an artist, and I turned out to be writer—but who cares? It’s creative energy. When I am not creating, the world seems more gray; I get grumpy; I don’t really understand my place in the world. If I am creating I understand where I fit in. I need to express my world and how I see it in order to fit in. I used to wonder why this was, and now I don’t care why anymore.
Remember, you need to be as creative at making a living at your art as creating the art itself. If you can’t support yourself in your creative field, get a part-time job so you have some energy left for your creativity. I’ve made financial sacrifices for my creative life. I can pay the bills, but there aren’t a lot of frills. But when I need something, I ask the universe, and it usually comes in some form.
The empty nest
After Davy, my youngest son, left, I felt too isolated writing alone at home. I sat in on a poetry class at Stanford, which led to a drama class at Stanford Continuing Ed. The people in the drama class felt an emotional connection and committed to taking further classes together. Six years later, we call ourselves Studio-33 Actors Collective—we’re a very international, creative group with a wide age range, from twenties to eighties. Out of that group sprang a sketch comedy group called Suburban Squirrel. The founder and producer of that group encouraged me to write and act in sketch comedy, which gave me a more light-hearted view of life and led to my funnyordie video, produced by Judd Apatow Productions. Many of us are also in an improv group.
My son James’ agent told me I should write a screenplay, so that’s one of my current projects. And now I’m acting, with my sons’ encouragement. James even pitched me to be his mother on General Hospital after the head writer saw my video and remarked that I could act. What could be better than working on a creative endeavor with your son?
Who knows what I’ll be doing next year. But it’s very satisfying that things have come full circle in my family, that we’re all adults now, supporting each other in the arts.
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The Working Chronicles
The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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