The Artist Philosopher

Beth Racette seeks to explore and reveal the systems of the world through art.

On a beautiful, bright day, Beth Racette welcomes me into her home studio. White light streams through windows, illuminating a series of vividly colored round paintings she has tacked up to the wall. Some are finished pieces, ready for her next installation; others are studies she has just begun. “I don’t know where they will take me,” she says as she ponders them. The complete images will represent the earth in the exhibition “Systems of Abstraction,” featuring Racette and fellow artists Jill Olm and Leslie Vansen at Overture’s James Watrous Gallery from July 12 through August 19. Racette’s pieces in the show are each unique, meditative abstractions related to her musings about science.

Racette was born into a medical family in Wichita, Kansas. By the time she was in high school, she was already quite serious about making visual art. Since she was a teenager, her art has usually been about her own need to explore the world around her and to synthesize the chaos of the mind. Following a BA in history and liberal arts at Rutgers, she went on to get an MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts. In her installations, she tries to communicate her thoughts about pressing issues.

As a sculptor, Beth uses recycled materials, reassembling them into objects that lead her, and ideally the viewer, to new understandings about human development. Her objectives as an artist are less about creating a thing that someone wants to own, and more about establishing a space for conscious reflection, conversation, and meaning.

In Racette’s latest body of work, she is trying to depict Gaia—the earth as an interconnected being, a living entity of which we are all a part. Racette is engrossed by systems theory, particularly underlying processes and properties that organize life; for instance, the idea of Earth and everything in it as a holon (something that is both whole and simultaneously a component of something larger). Likewise, we, who inhabit the Earth, are individual entities and also part of this bigger web of life. Racette’s work considers how the microscopic mirrors the macroscopic and vice versa. She attempts to explore how the earth as a system is interconnected and flows. Ultimately, she reasons that our survival and salvation depend on our ability to cease exploiting, polluting, and overpopulating our planet and our system.

The message behind her work in “Systems of Abstraction” may sound didactic, but her art is more about her own need to seek understanding than about moralizing to others. “I want to pursue wonder and mystery rather than convince others of a viewpoint. I hope my art can inspire curiosity and awe.” While Racette’s art is very personal and philosophical, there is greater meaning in anything that helps us better understand our world, and in so doing, ourselves.

For more information, visit her website at bethracette.com.

Karin Wolf is the arts program administrator for the City of Madison Department of Planning and Community and Economic Development and the Madison Arts Commission. Her freelance arts writing has appeared in Sculpture Magazine, Public Art Review, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.