Person of the Week
From Clay to Cloth: Betsy Himmelman Creates Art
Betsy Himmelman is proprietor of Promethea Pottery and an art teacher at the Haddam-Killingworth High School. She now teaches art remotely and sews masks for those in need of protection from the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Betsy Himmelman )
Despite an injury that hampered the use of her right arm, Betsy Himmelman got behind her sewing machine to create masks for those in need of protection from the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Betsy Himmelman )
The ceramic pots Betsy Himmelman creates are nature-inspired and eye-catching. Some have a mottled or marbled effect; others have earth tones with a hint of brighter hues that add interest. She inserts artistic elements that include leaves and ferns burnished into a pot’s curved sides or handles on a lid made of gnarled driftwood fastened by twisted metal.
No two pots are the same.
If whimsy is more a patron’s style, Betsy also has colorful toad houses and small saucers with imprints of plants or silhouettes of dragonflies.
Pottery is a recent passion for Betsy. She is proprietor of Promethea Potters, named after the Promethea moth.
“I came up with the name because of most of my firing techniques. They are alternative firing, done outside in a gas-fired raku kiln, fire pits, or sawdust fires. I’m like a moth to a fire. I currently work by myself, but my retirement dream is to open a ceramic studio locally,” she says.
Her pottery has been exhibited and sold at places such as The Audubon Shop in Madison and the CT River Artisans in Essex. She has also exhibited in various galleries.
Over the years, she has worked with other forms of art including jewelry, drawing, painting, photography, metal sculpture, quilting, and clothing design.
“I’ve always been a ‘maker.’ I’m driven to create. I can’t not make stuff,” she says.
Betsy’s desire to create art, along with her interest in a wide variety of materials and the goal to share her skills, make her an effective art teacher at Haddam-Killingworth High School (HKHS).
“I love to share my love of art, so becoming an art teacher just made sense. I couldn’t have picked a better career; I love what I do,” she says.
She seems to share her artistic inclinations with every member of her immediate family.
John, her husband of 37 years, writes and illustrates children’s books. Her son, Jeff, is an illustrator and art director for a mobile game company, and her daughter, Lizzie, is a portrait photographer.
Lately, she has channeled her artistic talents to making masks in response to a friend’s request for protection against the coronavirus outbreak.
From Potter’s Wheel to Sewing Machine
The pandemic that temporarily closed schools didn’t stop Betsy’s drive to create. Indeed, even an injury she sustained in November that left her in a cast on her right arm did not hamper her from fulfilling her teaching responsibility.
She still teaches her students remotely, balancing research work with hands-on projects that allow students to use whatever materials are available to them.
But she also knew she wanted to help health care professionals and essential workers on the frontlines, so when a childhood friend who works in a nursing home in New York posted a request for masks on Facebook in early March, Betsy’s creativity again kicked in and she determinedly got to work.
She temporarily set aside her potter’s wheel and got behind her sewing machine.
“I had surgery to repair nerve damage from a shattered elbow, and lost a day or two, but was able to continue sewing with my left hand. I got some help cutting fabric, which was tough to do in a cast,” she says.
John notes her tenacity.
“She’s probably made thousands of masks by now and has been sending them to hospitals, doctors, nurses, EMTs, grocery workers, and anyone who asks for them. She mails them out at her own expense and drops them off when she can,” he says. “Betsy has been at this since [the staff was] sent home from school and shows no signs of slowing down. The sewing machine is running about 10 to 12 hours a day.”
By Betsy’s own count, she’s made about 1,500 masks; at the Killingworth Pharmacy alone, she has sent at least 250 for anyone who needs them.
The work is a welcome activity, Betsy admits.
“These masks really did give me a purpose,” she says.
“For one, I’ve learned how to make better masks. I began to add a pocket for coffee filters—to increase protection—and a wire to help the mask form-fit around the nose. I also experimented with different elastics and ways to hold it in place comfortably. I’m now working on a more comfortable design for workers who need to wear them over long periods of time, and I plan to start working on child-sized masks,” she adds.
To request masks from Betsy, email Betsysbeads@gmail.com.
As a teacher at HKHS, she derives much of her satisfaction from seeing her schoolchildren realize their own artistic inclinations.
“I get great joy from the successes of my students. I’ve had students win scholastic art awards, get their work into shoreline art shows and several substantial scholarships with their work, as well as selling it,” she says.
Aside from teaching at HKHS, she taught for 10 years at the John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River. Her summers, too, are immersed in teaching: For the last 24 years, she taught younger children at the Killingworth Land Conservation Trust’s Platt Nature Center.
Both her parents were teachers, she says, adding “I’ve known since middle school that I’ve wanted to be a teacher, too. I was also an artist, so teaching art seemed like a natural fit.”
Betsy pursued her career choice by completing her B.A. and M.A. in art education.
When pottery captured her attention, it brought her much artistic and teaching fulfillment.
“I became serious about pottery about five years ago,” she says. “We decided to make ceramics a full-year course at school, and magic happened. My students started turning out incredible work. The better they got, the better I needed to be. That’s when I went back to grad school for pottery. I started taking any workshop or class I could in ceramics. The impact was huge, as I plan to be a full-time potter and pottery instructor once I retire, which will allow me to continue in my passion, teaching.”
For the time being, Betsy is glad that she has been able to direct her creativity to help produce face masks for the community.
“I believe we all feel the need to do something to help those who need it during these crazy times. This is something I am able to do,” she says.
But she is quick to credit others who have stepped in to help as well.
“I’m not the only one doing this. There are women in Killingworth, the state, and the country putting in long hours making masks and making them available. Just in Killingworth, there’s a woman collecting masks through the Town Hall to give to hospitals, another woman who hands them out at the Transfer Station, and others quietly doing their part to help,” she says.
“I learned how awesome it is seeing everyone coming together to help any way they can,” she says. “Everyone from first responders to people just staying home.”
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