The Roadkill Series – Topography & Typography, Geometry & Geography: By Bethannie Newsom Steelman
During this year’s Hot Water Hills Arts and Music Festival, local Hot Springs artist Bethannie Newsom Steelman will be showing her first ever solo art exhibit in the “Cat & Mouse Parade” mobile art trailer. The idea of engineering an easy and portable method for exhibiting artwork first became a reality when artist and carpenter Matt Parker organized the first group exhibit that took place outside of Emergent Arts. A skateboard art show, the first exhibit was a phenomenal success, which has led him to bring the “Cat & Mouse Parade” trailer to Hot Water Hills this year. In addition to providing the exhibit space, Parker also custom built the wood frames from discarded material Steelman has used for her show that she has aptly named “Road Kill.”
Over the summer break, Steelman and her family took various road trips throughout the state of Arkansas visiting various waterfalls and naturally remarkable points of interest right here in their home state. Traveling down dirt roads and exploring the wooded frontier of Arkansas is perhaps what inspired her current exhibit. “I knew I wanted to decoupage something to these canvases and I thought that maps would be great,” says Steelman. “I went to thrift stores and just started finding old maps. Most people, of course, have thrown away all of their atlases because they have become antiquated and useless in the age of cell phones.”
Always making something out of nothing, Steelman prides herself in using repurposed materials to make her art. Using watercolors and acrylics, Steelman also has experience with using enamel paint for hand-lettered signs like the one that she did for Pale Horse Tattoo, where her husband, Trey Steelman, is a co- owner and tattoo artist.
Often giving back to the community, Steelman has done various collaborations and art related shows and exhibits during low Key Art events. In addition to doing the Valley of the Vapors Art Zine, she also volunteers to do face painting during the Hot Water Hills Music and Arts Festival. Her exhibit, “Roadkill,” will definitely be a highlight during this year’s HWH festival.
Pieces that are not purchased during the festival will be available during the Handmade for the Holidays Pop Up Shop opening this month at the Villa location on Central Avenue. You will also be able to see many of her handmade jewelry pieces like her eyeglass lens earrings which she hand paints. “I often think about the people who used to wear the glasses,” says Steelman whose mother is an optometrist.
The “Roadkill” series most definitely illustrates the relatively simple and yet complex form that Steelman exhibits within her work. The decoupage of maps along with the illustrated faces provides unique layers of meaning and complexity to each piece. Also, the typography of the word roadkill on each canvas sets each one apart further. Not all the maps
are of Arkansas; some are from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Missouri. Each piece reveals the geography of some unique southern destination. In one map, the Mississippi river ends beneath a ladies eyelid where it traveled up from the Gulf of Mexico. On one canvas, the city of Hot Springs rests on a woman’s pouty lower lip. Cities like little Rock appear in the center of a forehead. West Memphis and New Orleans also make their appearances. The intricate topography of a city grid adds something even more complex to one particular canvas.
The geometry of the contours and shading from the maps also expand the details found in each portrait. The old maps express a type of deterioration, major highways marked in red, and blue interstates resemble the hidden capillaries and veins found directly beneath the skin. There’s an Exxon emblem tattooed on one ladies chest. The hidden semblance of every small town and major city can preoccupy you for an endless amount of time as you search each canvas and study each face. The layers of detail are methodically thought out and crafted down to the very hairline, with each tendril of hair being cut from each decoupage map.
Steelman began using decoupage around the same time she discovered wheat paste and other forms of street art. “It’s great to be able to leave your mark without having to use spray paint,” says Steelman who is on a mission to perfect something with a contrast of painting and a graphic image such as the maps used in her current show.
“Each new show brings forth something else that’s natural. I just get an idea and something takes me, its like going on a road trip,” says Steelman. Before being offered the opportunity for the show at Hot Water Hills, Steelman had already completed four of the pieces. “It just goes to show that if you build it, something will happen,” says Steelman.