• December 2010

Artist and Author Betsey Mulloy Takes Us "Out of Africa"

By Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor & Publisher
Be Inkandescent Magazine

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, following the massive killing of Uganda’s men, women of Kampala had taken over top jobs at universities and businesses-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. After she helped the Rev. Mugarura bring more women into the church, Betsey has gone 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, 31, and Kit, 27), 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. She found solace writing her books, “Divine Love Song,” which is a commentary on the Song of Solomon, and “Your Secret Name,” which discusses how God creates every person with a unique character and mission to fulfill.

“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 and Design in Washington, D.C, and Joyce McCarten at The Art League School in Alexandria, Virginia.

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 has become her focus.

Almost always Betsey gets her inspiration, and reference material, from photographs taken by her daughter Meg (www.megmulloy.com), who is now teaching photography at the Art Institute of Austin in Texas.

“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 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, or 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.”

In the years since, Betsey has returned to Uganda two more times, and gone once to Ghana, to speak at women’s conferences and retreats.

“At Uganda Christian University, in Mukono, both my husband, Michael, and I have had opportunities to teach graduate assistants in the colleges of law, theology, and social work, and some principles of job-seeking in the global market,” she shares. “We feel privileged to contribute whatever we have in skills and experience to encourage and develop some of Africa’s future leaders, and truly believe that Uganda can be a huge success story.”

As for her own art, Betsey continues to participate in biannual exhibits with the ValeArts (www.valearts.com), and says she has been using pastels, collage, and acrylic inks in representational and abstract work.

“No matter what else I do, though, my heart continues to yearn for the people of Africa,” she admits. “I will never stop painting them.”

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