In time for Chanukah, Betsy Besl has created chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs), in a way that only she can.
Betsy Besl exudes creativity. She just can’t help herself. Everything she touches turns captivating.
She’s always working on a project, usually multiple at once. In time for Chanukah, Besl has created chanukiyot (Chanukah menorahs), in a way that only Besl can.
As a little girl growing up in Cincinnati, she made tiny books, about an inch square, out of pieces of paper that she had made drawings on, punched holes in then bound together. Her mother, an expert needlepointer, taught Besl the craft, but the child gave the works her own mark by creating her own fanciful designs, like caterpillars and colorful mushrooms. Her artwork was often small, and always whimsical.
“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing art,” says the University of Michigan school of fine arts grad and mom of two adult daughters. When those daughters grew a little older, Besl went to work as a teaching artist at Temple Israel’s Early Childhood Center in West Bloomfield, where her joy of creating art was enhanced by working with children and their families. But even then, she thirsted for more: She taught art to middle- and high-school kids and adults. She held workshops for teachers on creativity in the classroom, stressing the importance of kavanah, Hebrew for “intention.”
“That’s always been very important to me, the idea of teaching with intention, and understanding why we are doing what we are doing with these children,” she says.
Naturally, Besl is also drawn to objects, often lost and forgotten or cast-aside objects that she finds beauty in. And she stores these found objects, sometimes for years, until their time comes to be resuscitated, transformed by Besl into works of art so that others will see their beauty, too.
She began embellishing vintage teapots with found charms, costume jewelry and more to create Specialteas By Betsy (she loves that they represent a combination of home, family, comfort and art).
She creates tiny sculptural mushrooms, replete with miniature creatures, insects or other details (“I’m just a sucker for cuteness,” Besl says. “I love anthropomorphic animals, fruits, vegetables, cute little faces and expressions. They are so happy and joyful.”) She launched Mi She-Bei-Rocks, found stones she handpaints and embellishes with Jewish symbolism in honor of the Mi Shebeirach, a Hebrew blessing often recited for people who are ill.
Most recently, she found a new use for her collections of thousands of trinkets — chanukiyot. Kitschy little figurines, salt and pepper shakers, miniature porcelain doll shoes, watches — in Besl’s hands, all is fairgame. They are whimsical and adorable, but this project has extra meaning for Besl.
Four years ago, Besl was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and associated thoracic cancer, putting an end to her 18-year career at Temple Israel. “My whole world was the kids and the families and teaching,” Besl says. “I missed being in a Jewish environment, interacting creatively with children. I wanted to find a way to stay in touch with some aspect of Judaism and the playfulness of being with children. And I wanted to make something that wasn’t only pretty, but useful.
“Most Jewish holidays have a serious undertone, which is important. But I wanted to bring out the joyfulness, too,” she says. “With the chanukiyot, I found a way to stay in touch with some aspect of carrying on Judaism. A mom bought a tea set chanukiah for her one-year-old’s first Chanukah, and another bought the “Time” chanukiah for her son at college. People have bought them for their teenage children, who I taught at temple when they were age 3.
“I felt a loss when I couldn’t meet the new incoming families at the temple and in our community. Even though I don’t meet the families in person [for health precautions], I’ve gotten to connect with new families.”
Besl has a favorite quote from Mr. Rogers, which she says helped her find her direction: “All I know to do is to light the candle that has been given to me.”
“All I’ve ever known is to create things with an almost childlike vision,” Besl says. “I thought, ‘You don’t paint landscapes and portraits. All you can do is continue doing what you’ve been given and shine brightly.’ Perfect for Chanukah.”