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The Sit-Down with Betsy Hickok


If you see a lady with a ladder circling your favorite tree this fall, she just might be Betsy Hickok. Musician, writer, and “leaf artist” extraordinaire, Betsy discusses a creative hobby that brings her close to nature.

LV: Tell me about your art, what you do.

BH: Each fall, I go out looking for the most gorgeous leaves I can find in a variety of colors and shapes. I collect and press them, then create designs using the leaves against various types of paper—and I often use acrylic paints in the backgrounds, too. This process enhances the natural colors of the leaves, which, when you really start to pay attention, are incredible. Finally, I frame them.

LV: Why leaves? What’s the appeal of this medium and how did you get started?

BH: First of all, I grew up in Vermont, the foliage capitol of the world. However, making art out of leaves first came about after I moved to Iowa 20 years ago. I don’t recall the first time I picked up a leaf and thought about turning it into art—but through the years I have become progressively more aware of and interested in the design element of leaves. They are so beautiful, especially in the fall. Sometimes the leaves are so vivid that you can’t believe the colors are natural. My early pieces involved spray-painting leaves and arranging them in frames as gifts. About four years ago, I made some extras after I met my partner Hans, who is truly a gifted painter. I liked helping him with art shows and learned about the process of possibly exhibiting my creations. One year, I brought along a few of my pieces and was amazed when people bought them! The process just blossomed from there. I began to use larger frames and combine colors and textures to really showcase the leaves.

LV: What does the process involve?

BH: To me, what I do is more craft than art. I mostly work with three frame sizes: 5 x7, 10×26, and 14×40. Each fall, I venture out to collect a variety of leaf shapes and colors from the most extraordinary trees I can find. I have learned through trial and error which leaves keep their color best after they are dried and manipulated. I have even figured out which trees around Iowa City and Coralville produce the most colorful leaves, and I go back to some of the same trees each year. What makes my process a little nutty is that I rarely pick up leaves that have already fallen. Those leaves have already started losing their color, and, as I like to think of it, their “juice”—their life and brilliance. I actually carry around a small stepladder in my car—along with lots of sealable plastic bags—all through October and November. I stop beneath trees that look interesting, set up my ladder, and then hand-pick the most perfect leaves I can reach—finding ones that are whole and without blemishes. I also have to think about the scale of the leaves, and getting multiple sizes, because I often mix different leaf types on a single piece of artwork. I’m sure many people have seen me out in their driveways, picking their leaves. Eventually I’ll become known as the “leaf lady” of Iowa City. If people see me, they usually say, “Great, go ahead and take them; fewer leaves that I have to rake up.” Once I left my stepladder in the middle of a sidewalk. Of course, this being Iowa City, I returned a day later and it was in the exact same spot.

The most time-consuming job is pressing the leaves. It can take me an entire evening to lay out three to four gallon-sized plastic bags of leaves between layers of blotting paper and paper towels. I’ll usually press maybe ten to 20 layers between two large pieces of foam core board and then place a heavy object on top. During “high leaf season,” you might see layers of these boards pressed under the weight of my living room chairs. After two weeks, I remove the leaves layer by layer, careful not to break them, and place them in sealed bags by leaf type and color.

I then go into “production” mode with the pieces. I’ll cut the background paper, squares of matte board, and other handmade papers to layer in interesting ways—with an eye toward making the colors of the leaves really sing. That’s when I know a piece is right. It’s not unlike creating a setting for jewels—with the leaves being the “jewels” that are the last item to be mounted. Sometimes I use metallic paint on the paper as well. Once I have my materials assembled, the fun part begins. I really do think carefully about how I layer my papers and leaves to create the perfect combination. Every piece is really, truly unique. I often remember exactly where I found a particular leaf. Sometimes when I sell a piece, I’ll say, “This is a really special leaf. I’ve only found a very few with this particular coloration.” They must think I’m a bit crazy!

To finish up, I glue leaves onto the squares, spray them with a clear and shiny acrylic to bring up the color and preserve the leaves (if kept out of direct sunlight, they can hold their color for years), then I glue the leaf squares onto the background and frame the piece.

LV: What about nature inspires you?

BH: This is my way of connecting with nature. I love the idea of permanently capturing these vivid colors of the most gorgeous time of the year. I love the incredible process that trees follow to turn out their leaves and that the colors these leaves “turn” in the fall are their actual colors—but you only see the brilliant hues once the chlorophyll leaves them. I like the idea that leaves show their “true colors”—and are at their most beautiful—just when they are getting ready to let go.

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I love that the trees know when it is time to “shut down,” to turn within themselves and stop sending energy and food all the way out to the leaves. Like the rest of us, they know when it’s time to hunker down for winter, to center and preserve their energy. And then I love that they throw these leaves out all over again in the spring. Trees are steady—for me, they are a metaphor for something you can count on, a metaphor for constancy and strength.

What has been most exciting for me, though, is the discovery that others feel the same connection with nature and the same affinity for leaves. It’s so nice to see others connect with my work and want to take it home with them. People like the idea of bringing nature inside. And some people are just leaf fanatics like me.

LV: How can people see/buy your art?

BH: In Iowa City, you can find my work during the holiday season at The University of Iowa Thieves’ Market, the first weekend of December at the Iowa Memorial Union and at the Eastside Artists Holiday Show on the second weekend of December. I’ll also attend the Beaux Arts show in Davenport September 6 and 7 and the Galena Country Fair October 11 and 12. If you’re interested in arranging a time to see my work, you can always e-mail me at betsy-hickok@uiowa.edu.

LV: Other hobbies and interests?

BH: Even though I’ve become really involved in making leaf art, my main creative interests are music and writing. I moved to Iowa from Vermont in 1987 to get my MFA degree in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—and I liked Iowa so much that I stayed. I’m also a singer—I performed for 10 years with a group called Too Much Yang, and I still perform as a jazz singer in local venues. I still write poetry and sing—but it can be difficult finding the time to do all three.

LV: What’s your Day Job?

BH: I’m a senior editor and writer at the UI Foundation, where I have worked for eight years. In this role, I get to put my passion for writing to good use helping to raise funds for the university. It’s a good cause and a great organization—everyone there is completely committed to making the UI the best that it can be.

I share a home in Coralville with my partner, Hans Olson, who paints gorgeous Iowa landscapes that you can see at www.hansolson.com and designs web sites for artists and others. We also have a cat, Nikita, who doesn’t do much of anything except look good. She is pretty much a living pillow with feet.


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