Betty Scarpino: Coming Full Circle

Betty Scarpino at the workshop of her friend Suzanne Kahn.

Several weeks ago, John Scott, a woodworker friend and real-life brain surgeon, suggested that Betty Scarpino would make a good profile for this series. “Don’t know if you know Betty,” he wrote, “but I’ll place her for nomination in your series! She’s a fantastic woodturner in Indianapolis, with pieces in museums all over the country.”

As it happened, I did know of Betty; she’d been in my sights since the early ’90s, though we hadn’t met or even corresponded. Every so often I came across her name as a woodturner.

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“Betty is super!” John wrote back, adding, “Susan and I have a couple of her pieces that we purchased from her when she had a small showing in her house many years ago, before she was represented in galleries. I almost choke when I see what her pieces sell for now!”

I was interested in Betty not only as a highly skilled woodworker, but also as a woman who has been practicing her craft for decades while raising two sons, for some of that time as a single mother. But what really got me hooked was her surprising statement that while she’s best known for turning, her great love is carving.

“Gentle Impressions.”

We spoke on a Saturday morning in March. Betty was in her garden in Indianapolis with Diesel, her son Dan’s chocolate Labrador, who’s under her care while Dan hikes the Arizona National Scenic Trail. With springtime birdsong in the background, she told me she was getting ready to deliver a work titled Gentle Impressions to the Indiana Artists Club exhibition at Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art) later in the day. The juried show had serious spatial limitations, which made it a challenge to decide which piece to submit. Betty’s small sculpture was awarded second place by the jury.  

Betty has shown her work in many galleries around the country. A quick look at her website reveals an eye-popping list of museums that hold her work in their permanent collections, among them the Renwick Gallery, the Yale University Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Art Museum, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum and Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood – an impressive achievement for an artist. No wonder her work is valued more highly today than it was early in her career. Until the last 10 years, Betty was far better known at the national level than in her adopted state of Indiana.

“Slow Dance,” 2020. Maple.

Early Life

Baby Betty with her mother.

The second of four sisters, Betty was born in Wenatchee, Wash., in 1949. Her mother worked at home full-time; her father was an entrepreneur who ran a pawn brokerage and sold sporting goods through stores in southern Idaho and Kalispell, Mont. Because her family moved often, she describes where she grew up as no single location, but “all over the Pacific Northwest.” She attended five different schools in third grade alone; by the time her parents celebrated the 25th anniversary of their marriage, they had moved their family 25 times.

Betty’s older sister, Cindy, her mother, sister Barbara, father, Betty and Carol in 1959.

Betty married Phil Scarpino in 1971. Having spent two years in the army during the 1970s, Phil jumped at the opportunity to attend graduate school. They were living in Columbia, Missouri, where Betty worked full-time as a computer operator and was also training to program computers.

Phil’s evenings were always busy with school, so Betty decided to enroll in a night class. The only one available was woodworking; she signed up. Soon, she was so taken with the work that she quit her job to attend classes full-time. She graduated in 1982 with a degree in industrial arts, the curriculum for which included training in furniture making and the use of woodworking machinery. She had basic instruction on the lathe, turning a bowl and the pedestal for a table, but after that, she learned by doing.

Betty and Phil in Montana, 1970.

During her time in college, Betty also took classes in the art department. She wanted to carve wood sculptures. After graduation, she considered renting a shop where she could build furniture, but soon discovered that renting a workspace would not be practical, especially after she had her first son, Sam, at the age of 34. So instead of investing in a shop, she bought a lathe. The American Association of Woodturners had started up in 1986, “a vibrant, active, inclusive organization that it was really easy to plug into,” she says. Betty edited their journal from 1990-1993, then started to make more of her own pieces, and quickly became known in the turning field.

One of Betty’s first turnings was the pedestal of this table, which she made as a student in 1980.

Phil is a faculty member at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in American history and historic preservation. His job brought them to Indianapolis in 1986; their second son, Dan, was born there.

After Betty and Phil divorced in 2000, Betty continued to piece together an income from a variety of sources. She sold her turnings; she wrote a regular column about turning for Woodworker’s Journal for three years; for six years she was editor of theAmerican Woodturner Journal. She also made money – good money – from turning demonstrations and teaching, and has taught at Arrowmont and Anderson Ranch, to name just a couple well-regarded schools.

What Does ‘Round’ Mean?

“I just made regular bowls to start with, like everybody else,” Betty says. But before long, she began to adorn her bowls with carving. Her sculpting instructor at the University of Missouri had had a lathe in the back room of the art department; she talked with him about using the lathe to make sculpture. “I was 25 when I first went to an art museum!” she says. “I knew nothing.” Her instructor had always said, “’Round objects turned on a lathe are not interesting,’” so in her curious, boundary-pushing way, Betty decided to explore “the vast potential of what resides within ‘round’ objects,” in part by “deconstructing lathe-turned objects.” She’d turn a disc, cut it apart, do a bit of carving and explore what lay beneath the surface. She also appreciates the metaphorical dimensions of this technique, comparing the process of exploration and refinement to that of what some might call soul work. “We’re always working on ourselves, our lives,” she says. “My sculpture’s like that. I turn a disc, then cut it apart, then reconstruct that in a way that’s lifelike and energizing and satisfying.”

“A Touch of Grace.” 2020. Maple, walnut, acrylic paint.

Making a Living as an Artist

Collectors of art in wood were key to Betty’s livelihood and creative development in the 1990s and aughts. “As soon as I made something, it sold,” she says. Betty increasingly worked on sculptures that had nothing to do with turning. “That’s really where my interest has been all along,” she points out. “Until then, I never had the opportunity to explore that kind of work fully. When you have 20 people buying things because they’re turned… I just plugged into that and made money. I enjoyed it. That’s why I ended up becoming known as a woodturner when really that’s not my main interest.”

Betty (second from left) with Suzanne Kahn, Merryll Saylan, Betty’s son Sam and Sam’s wife, Laura, in Philadelphia, 2018.

Considering that her main interest is carving, it comes as a surprise to hear she didn’t study it at university. Her knowledge about the field was far more basic: “I knew that you used a gouge and a mallet.” Betty leapt right in, learning along the way. Today she carves primarily with power tools and generally prefers reciprocating tools to rotary carvers, “because I can find the line better,” she says. Her favorite is an Automach reciprocating carver; she also uses Arbortech tools.

Betty has been through some real twists and turns as she has worked to support herself as a woodturner and sculptor. “Galleries used to exist,” she says bluntly, alluding to the devastating effects on brick-and-mortar-based businesses due to the Great Recession, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. She used to be associated with several galleries that sold artists’ work around the country, but many have closed. Today, exhibits such as the one at Newfields provide visibility. She uses her website to sell existing works and garner new commissions. She also appreciates the value of plain old word-of-mouth. “Along the way, I have had two very generous women patrons who have helped me,” she says. The broader woodworking field has benefited from the Windgate Foundation, which supports the teaching of craft and art in many ways, such as donations to the Center for Art in Wood, a new dorm at Arrowmont School for Arts and Crafts and support of woodturning at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.

Although Betty’s work is held by prestigious museums, many sculptures spend much of their time in storage and are only brought out for exhibit in the occasional show. Betty’s work is labor-intensive, so her limited output constrains marketing through galleries.  

“If you’re a craftsperson you can market your work in a craft store or sell it online. There are also craft fairs, etsy, etc. But my work doesn’t sell well in those venues,” says Betty. Today, her work ranges in price from $3,000 to $12,000 – art-world prices that demand a specific marketing niche or connecting with just the right buyer.

Retirement is not on Betty’s radar. She intends to be carving a sculpture on the day she dies. Now that she has the time and resources to devote to carving, without having to worry about sales, she is excited to see her work evolving to in-the-round sculpture. Betty has come full circle to her first love: carving wood.

Sam, Betty and Dan on Betty’s 70th birthday.
Betty (second from left) with her sisters on her 70th birthday.

– Nancy Hiller, author of “Kitchen Think” and “Making Things Work”

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