Out in Yonkers: Elizabeth de Bethune Paintings Reflect the Diversity of a Community

“Michael and Robert”
Oil on Canvas
48″ x 36″

In a recent obituary of Shelly Weiss, the iconic LGBTQ activist was quoted from a 2015 interview in which she stated, “I realized that the arts were a prime vehicle to change consciousness.”

Figurative artist Elizabeth de Bethune has implemented this philosophy in a series of compelling paintings showcased in “Out in Yonkers: Portraits from the Yonkers LGBTQ Community.” Reminiscent of the psychological insights of Alice Neel, de Bethune presents what she terms “the poetics of an LGBTQ world.”

The series’ concept evolved after de Bethune visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Mesmerized by the Agnolo Bronzino portraits of the Medici children, the canvases planted seeds of inspiration. She was motivated to capture for posterity the lives of LGBTQ residents of Yonkers, where she has lived for twenty-eight years. Responding to the Bronzino full-frontal images, de Bethune noted, “The fact of their existence really impressed me.” Her goal was to have her portraits speak to an audience similarly.

Translating a tradition from five centuries ago to a contemporary setting, de Bethune set about “creating a record of existence” in her role as a “visual storyteller.”

The undertaking is particularly significant in 2024, with the current struggle against a rising tide of American illiberalism. The othering of minorities may potentially lead to a loss of civil liberties and an erosion of legal protections.

The exhibition catalog shares de Bethune’s artistic process, and includes interviews with her subjects. Her preliminary studies in gouache and acrylic reflect an energy and immediacy as she first connects with her sitters in direct observation. As she got to know each individual, it influenced their construction as “forms in space.” Documented are the “underpaintings, often in bright colors,” and then an intermediate phase with the figure blocked in. “I used color to resolve the backgrounds rather than an overly descriptive visual vocabulary,” de Bethune told me.

Witnessing that evolution adds to experiencing the paintings. The viewer can see the brush strokes of scumbled surfaces and the imprint of the palette knife, while recognizing elements of previous iterations.

The dialogue with each individual yields context to the backstory of those who agreed to be part of the project, an example of a “marginalized community” captured and interpreted for a wider audience. Since de Bethune’s sitters came to her studio, elements reflecting their intimate surroundings are absent. However, each personality is meticulously captured by choice of clothing and posture.

Oil on Canvas
48″ x 28″

When I visited the exhibit, de Bethune was running through slides in preparation for one of the many talks she has given. She spoke with a small group of visitors, starting with information about her formation as a creative. “I come from a family of artists who drew their way through childhood,” she said. Self-describing as a “painterly realist,” she referenced capturing “a moment in time” in her informal depictions of domestic life in a “lesbian household.”

Using the luminosity of oil paint to embrace “emotionality while challenging the picture frame,” de Bethune emphasized the role of memory and narrative in her work, evidenced by the frequent appearances of family, friends, and local settings as ongoing themes.

“It’s the challenge of who is queer,” de Bethune said. “People outed themselves for posterity.” She spoke about “persecution and erasure,” underscoring, “To not be erased, you must be visible.” She underscored that the sitter’s self-identity created an “assertion that helps others.”

Oil on Canvas
48″ x 32″

As de Bethune wrote, “In the 1970s, Harvey Milk encouraged queer people to come out wherever they were, to increase awareness not only of the ubiquity of LGBTQ folk but also our incredible diversity and ordinariness. In my own fashion, I’m answering Harvey’s call.”

The exhibit will be traveling to other venues in the future.

Photos: Courtesy of Elizabeth de Bethune

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *