Island artist’s work makes scraps into fine art

VERO BEACH – For Betsy McKean, her first photography class was “a consolation prize,” when a planned trip to Europe fell through.

A professor of painting, drawing and art history, she was supposed to take a group of college students abroad.

Instead, she became a student again herself, signing up for a course in photography.

Since then, her first love, painting, has taken a back seat to the images she orchestrates, captures and manipulates.

She has exchanged her brushes and palette for a camera, the computer program Photoshop, and a collection of fine-art quality scanners and printers.

“I work until my ‘mouse’ hand gives out,” she says.

Recently, she has begun self-publishing her works in books. Two years ago, she published “Pieces of Time,” a book of fine-art photographs.

Then McKean began creating collages with mementos her mother collected: old photographs, scraps of lace, an embroidered bonnet, a lock of hair.

“I had this collection that I didn’t know what to do with. I have two children and five stepchildren, not to mention grandchildren. I thought, if I made these into a book, they can all have them, in a way.”

The book, a sort of fine-art scrapbook, includes her manipulated photographs and scans, as well as stories from her family’s history, gleaned of her own memories, the family’s tales and even research from ancestry websites.

McKean and husband, Mac, a retired professor of statistics at the University of Kentucky who now teaches bridge at the Vero Beach Bridge Center, discovered Vero some 12 years ago and for a while divided their time between Vero and Lexington, not eager to give up the cultural events in the winter season there.

Over time, the effort proved too great, having to pack her artists’ things twice each year.

In the interim, McKean’s daughter Lisa Wilcox, herself a talented painter, had relocated from New Smyrna, and the McKeans decided to move here full time.

“There’s a lot of light here, and in the summer, there can be too much. But it’s so lovely to live in a place where we see the sun so often.”

Her particular medium requires continual re-training. Like many contemporary fine-art photographers, she relies heavily on Photoshop, the computer program for manipulating images that is constantly evolving, much to McKean’s aggravation.

“Photoshop is something you can never thoroughly learn. You learn it and they upgrade it and there’s another version to learn,” she says. “I’m not really a technical-minded person.”

She says she resisted switching to digital for a long time, devoted to her two Nikon 35 mm cameras and to the darkroom processing that so entranced her at the start, after the time-intensive technique of putting paint to canvas.

“You’d put a piece of paper into a solution and you’d have this image. I thought that was so magical.”

Today she says she “kind of mimics that” in her digital photography and computer manipulation. “I’m changing reality,” she says.

She continues to stage and photograph works of a very different ilk from her memento series, the style that fills “Pieces of Time,” that, like her latest, was self-published on

For those works, McKean collects what she calls “junk,” random bits including drinking straws, bottle caps, and baby toys, that she shoots in multiple exposures, overlays and edits, cutting and pasting and dropping out shapes.

She calls the genre “arranged reality,” and vibrant framed examples fill her house.

“It’s a form of play,” she says. “You can be totally free and you don’t have any preconceived notions. It’s just fun to combine things and throw them together.”

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