Today we’d like to introduce you to Beth Gatza.
Beth, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
Like every artist, I was a completely normal child.
I was that normal child who would be caught wearing a child-sized colonial sleep gown with nightcap while knitting oven mitts for family members. I was also that normal child who would strap on a pair of ice skates and put on a full, one-man performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ on the little patch of ice under my swing set. Yes, I had friends too, in case you were wondering, who were as equally normal as I was. The suburbs of Chicago were good to me growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, and my mom, a gifted painter, and my dad, a gifted business owner and lover of the arts were constantly feeding the creativity monster in me.
When I was 22, the childhood bubble finally popped. I was in a 55 mph head-on collision with my dear cousin, Katie in the passenger seat. Hanging there with the car wrapped around me, horn droning on, windshield wipers waving, I watched Katie bravely climb out of the roof to find help. I waited encompassed by the realization of how fragile life is, and how lucky we both were to be alive. I surprisingly sustained only minor injuries: broken leg, some torn ligaments, and minor damage to the cervical column. The biggest injury I sustained was emotional. Two specific feelings creeped into me and became an obsession that I still tangle with today. One was the feeling of guilt of not protecting my cousin, even though I was fully aware the accident was not my fault. The second feeling was fear of not being able to live my life to the fullest. This fear though, I believe, actually turned into my advantage, for my life ahead full of adventure, happiness and lots of pain, was never dull.
I graduated from film school with a fine art minor in 2007; a clearly employable choice of college degrees in the height of the economic downfall. Nobody was hiring anybody. I had an advantage though, I had received a chunk of money from the car accident, and decided to pack my car up and work on a movie for free that I found on Craigslist in Chicago. The movie was a joke, but the people I met on that film are still lifelong friends of mine. They let me crash on their couch while I found my next film job art directing a Hungarian fairy tale with a group of recent film graduates. We worked in a warehouse on Halsted all summer, shaved our hair in mohawks, and watched the film set destroyed twice by flood and eventually and finally destroyed by fire. That film though would bond me to a group artists and filmmakers who are still making great art today. One film turned into the next film, and finally, I started to get paying gigs which I was grateful for because my car crash money was running out. The acts of sleeping on couches, on sets, and showering at the Chicago beaches was getting old, winter was coming, and I made the decision to rent an apartment. This decision being the beginning of some of my worst times.
In 2008 and 2009, the corruption in Chicago and the national economic crisis hit hard. One parking ticket weekly turned into over a thousand dollars, one overdraft fee daily stacked into over a thousand dollars and then there were the city stickers, the fines, the fees and the endless amounts of added unexplained charges. There was no end or limit to the amount the city and the banks could charge, and all of us stuck in the financial crisis were racking up debts that could not be paid fast enough.
I was stuck in a bad relationship, embarrassed to tell anyone that the reason for staying with him was that he had moved in to help split the rent. He would lie often, and make me feel as though I were crazy to believe he was doing the things I suspected. I had too much to worry about financially though, it was winter and film opportunities in Chicago were low, so I focused my attention on finding work anywhere I could. I worked as a hookah bar waitress, event design set builder for fancy parties, candy taster at Wrigley (loved that one), reclaimed furniture warehouse art assistant, metal sculptor’s apprentice, and a LOT of film jobs and fashion shows that promised money but never paid in the end. Every time I felt like I was getting ahead, I would imagine breaking up with my boyfriend. I knew our relationship wasn’t great, but I blindly couldn’t see a concrete reason why I should leave him since he was helping me with the rent, so I pridefully yet embarrassingly rejected my parent’s concerns about him. I felt trapped.
I then found my ‘out’. A Halloween costume contest at one of Chicago’s largest nightclubs that would pay thousands of dollars for the winning costume. I was going to win that contest, pay my fees, break up with my boyfriend and move on with a healthy and happy life. I made the costume, a replica of Bjork’s robot in her ‘All is Full of Love’ music video. I went to the nightclub and just had a feeling that I was going to win. As I walked in, music pounding, lights flashing, I could see out of my tiny mask eye holes that I was turning heads. People were patting me on the shoulder, laughing, taking photos with me and I was ecstatic.
I finally got the tap on the shoulder from the costume contest organizer that I would be participating in the contest. It was finally time. I walked on stage with the rest of the contestants while we were paraded through a series of actions. The last of which was a dance competition between all of the contestants. We all gathered on the stage to dance in front of the audience of hundreds on multiple levels of the building. The music began and so did we. While dancing, I was vaguely aware of someone in the audience pushing their way through the crowd to the front. I didn’t think twice about it until I felt someone behind me wrap their hands around my throat. I heard a few screams break out at the front of the audience, unaware that it was because of me. I felt myself drop to my knees, throat still being squeezed and watched through my eye holes as the Motley Crue rushed over to pry the guy off of me. I got up, was escorted off the stage to not interrupt the show, and was directed to the Police Division they had on the premises. By the time I got there, the strangler was handcuffed and had clearly relieved himself. While I was off stage talking to the police about my attack, the cute cannabis leaf costume won the thousands of dollars. Why did this happen? Your guess is as good as mine. I can tell you one thing for sure, and that’s that not my outfit nor my actions meant that I deserved to be attacked.
My boyfriend was too busy to go to court with me, which was fine by me. Instead, my dear friend accompanied me and tried to make me laugh and feel comfortable during this awkward and emotional event. Before it was my time to make the verbal decision to press charges to the judge, the attacker came up to me crying and exclaiming that he was so sorry, he was a college student who had a crazy night, and would lose his scholarship if I pressed charges. I made the very hard decision to not press charges. I think about this decision often. I am especially reminded of this every time I hear about abuses women everywhere suffer by the hands of men with no consequence because these men’s own personal success is put in danger. I’m angered by the lack of accountability for their actions and how I just allowed this particular man to get away with this humiliating abuse. The worst part is the very real possibility that I allowed this man to potentially hurt others in the future. I will forever feel a strong guilt about my decision that nobody will ever help me justify.
I blame it on the stress, but not long thereafter my body rejected me. I felt the pain, the sharp, intense throbbing pain, but I ignored it because I knew that going to the hospital meant paying hefty bills I could not afford. I tried taking a bath. I tried going on a walk with some friends on Lakeshore Drive because maybe I just needed some exercise. That’s where I collapsed. I don’t remember how I got to the hospital, but I remember the doctor saying I needed to go into surgery immediately. My appendix ruptured, and it was bad. It was so bad that they started the surgery with a small incision, and realized that they needed make several larger incisions around my lower abdomen to remove and clean out all of the fluid that was poisoning me. I woke up on a morphine drip, and I had a bag attached to my lower abdomen that was draining the fluid from within me. One night the infection got really bad, and I started hallucinating heavily as I watched the clouds of twilight outside my window float into my room. My body paralyzed, I slurred my screams for help but they were too weak. My roommate eventually heard me and began to yell and pushed the help alarm. The nurses rushed in as my fever skyrocketed and found a bedpan that had spilled all over me and my bed that someone in the night crew had forgotten. Faces of my loved ones and friends would fade in and out of my vision as they moved my body off the bed to clean up the mess.
I woke up, my fever was down, and my parents were next to me with a look of concern I will never forget. Each passing day I felt stronger, and one day I had a surprising visit to my hospital room from two of my boyfriend’s friends. Surprisingly, or rather not surprisingly, my boyfriend was not with them. They looked guilty as they confessed a story from the night before about my boyfriend getting into a fistfight over a girl at a bar. A memory flooded back from when I had previously taken him to the hospital for a broken hand that he had claimed to have gotten from helping protect someone in dire need. They had also confirmed other stories about his cheating, lies and other suspicions I had had. I knew I probably should have been angry, but I was so grateful. Grateful to be alive, grateful for concrete evidence of my suspicions, and grateful to move on with no more excuses. I also had to come to terms that I was not completely innocent in this relationship either. I had to admit that I was staying in a romantic relationship because of my financial stability, and in turn, was taking advantage of him as well. Either way, I was worthy of love and he deserved a match for him as well, so I needed to get out fast. Weight felt like it was starting to lift and I was ready to break up with him, but I wasn’t strong enough to do it yet. So I waited. I waited until I was released from the hospital. I waited until after I stayed with my parents to get stronger. I waited until I was back in my apartment and he was gone at work. Then, I began to pack boxes upon boxes of his stuff, as well as the ever-growing pile of evidence of his infidelities and lies and cursed myself for the time I had wasted with him. I dropped the boxes out back of the apartment, called him up, and made it clear that it was over.
It was now time to really live. I worked on several satisfying film projects in Michigan and began to take control of my finances. I began to negotiate down my previous debts as well as figure out how to manage the payments of my newest hospital debts. After returning from Michigan, I finally moved out of that cursed apartment and moved in with my parents. I had less than no money to my name and began waitressing to dig myself out of this hole I was in. I felt ashamed by all of my failures, but my parents helped me find my lost confidence again. Eventually, I saw the light. My credit was shot, but the steady income allowed me to pay the bills while setting aside money for my dream of moving to California. Then I got a few high paying commercial gigs that finally gave me the amount I needed to move.
My brother, who was already living in California with his wife, flew back to Illinois to accompany me in my drive out west. They set up a room in their home for me to live in, but after two weeks in California, I was leaving the country to work as an art director on a film in Tbilisi for a month. This film was challenging to say the least. It was a film that wanted to achieve the title of longest film take in history. This meant that we had to build the set into a three-story maze with trap doors, a working elevator for the Steadicam operator, a limited budget and a translator to explain how to build said set. As a woman in that role, the sexism was strong, especially when I needed to get certain supplies, or certain tasks completed. Some sympathetic crew members tried to advise me on how to act but only made me feel more angered. One day, the crew had not completed the work that was supposed to be completed, and we were behind schedule. I told the crew to leave me there that night and I would finish the work myself. The men were shocked and laughed at me for the thought of doing such a thing. I told them to go, and eventually, after much discussion and consideration, they finally left. I worked all night while listening to Daft Punk on repeat. Around daybreak, I was done and wanted to get some rest before the men came back. Familiar with sleeping on set, I found a pile of Styrofoam to sleep on, pulled my stocking cap over my eyes and slept until I felt a swelling in my wrist. I woke up and looked down to see my wrist swelled triple the size that it was supposed to be. I began to panic.
I was trapped alone in a sound stage in the country of Georgia, with no cell phone, “I think I made a big mistake” I thought to myself. Hours later the men arrived, and I stumbled like a zombie to the door as they pulled it open to the daylight. My wrist was swollen, I felt wrecked, but the job was done. I realize that by telling you this story, you are probably rolling in disbelief by my stupidity and pride. Yes, I agree with you. This was definitely one of those ignorant moments of youth that by the grace of God everything turned out fine. The swollen wrist was an allergic reaction to a bug bite that dissipated soon after it was iced, but the men never challenged my daily orders again afterward, which I felt made it all worth it.
My final film set I ever worked on was a commercial. I had a temp job the next day at a private school lined up for some extra cash, but I never would have believed at the time that this would be my last job on set. The commercial had one of my favorite actors on it and I was thrilled to work with him, even though rumors were floating around that he was a tough one to work with. In hindsight, there were many ways I could have avoided the event about to happen, but in some ways, I feel as though it were meant to be. I had placed a prop tube television on top of one of those TV stands with the wheels. Knowing the TV would only be rolling a couple feet, I decided not to attach the TV to the stand, but instead let this actor know that it wasn’t attached and to use precaution. The actor saw this as an opportunity to shake the TV stand to add an extra element of suspense to the scene. Eventually, the TV did do what I feared would happen, and it fell off. I ran into the scene to catch the TV, and that’s when the yelling began. The actor stormed up just inches of my face and yelled line after line of demeaning sentences, and words like “stupid”, “amateur”, “incompetent” as well as streams of profanity. Surprisingly, he was not upset about the TV being attached or not, but rather how I had ruined his scene of acting. I stood there, stared him in the eye, and apologized profusely until he stormed off set and went to his dressing room. Stunned, embarrassed and the black sheep of the group now, I nervously apologized to the director who was so apologetic that this had happened to me, and reassured me that I had done what I was supposed to do.
The next day, I went to that temp job at the private school and worked my butt off trying to forget the day before. I apparently worked hard enough, because I was offered a full-time job at the end of the day. I took the job and barely looked back. I now had a steady income, moved out of my brother’s home and into a low-cost guest house, and had a job that wasn’t in my field but at a place that I really liked. Eventually, they began to give me opportunities to do some art gigs at the school. I painted theater set backdrops, designed posters for school dances, taught art classes during the summer program, and guest spoke about some of my work experiences to the film students. Having a job at a school meant that I could leave work at 4 pm, and use my evenings to create. I never had a job like this before, and I got very comfortable with stability. I then met the hottest I.T. guy on the planet at this school. Not only was he good looking, but he was funny, smart, a little shy and the kindest person I had ever met. He encouraged my creativity, talent and revealed in hearing about my new projects, paintings and ideas. I never knew the meaning of a muse, until I realized how much he had inspired my passion for my passion of painting. We fell in love fast, and we never looked back.
Several years later and I married that hot I.T. guy! Admittedly though, the fear of money had scarred me for the longest time, and we lived in a 400 sq ft guest house for seven years where we paid off debts, saved, invested, exponentially raised my credit score, and increased our opportunities by learning to spend on only experiences rather than materials. We traveled the world, found a healthy balance with money, and grew in our love in that tiny place. Now in a home, our love continues to grow, I am a full-time art teacher and one of the best private schools in the world and spend my evenings and summers painting.
The biggest lessons so far? Work hard and diligently. Be honest with others, and especially be honest with myself. Finally and most importantly, everything can change in an instant, so always be grateful in the moment.
We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
I told you some intimate pieces of my personal story because these details will help you understand why I am the way I am, why I strive for justness in our communities and humanize the images you see of me. I truly believe that barriers can be broken if we let our guard down and share the real and very human moments from each of our lives with others. My oil paintings strive to break more of these barriers by painting people who have a story that should be shared in our contemporary society. If we can understand our neighbors, it won’t be so hard for us to love them. It took me a long time to finally feel comfortable sharing pieces of my own story (and am terrified of this one as well), but when I first began to share I was shocked by the amount of people who came to me to share their own, and realized the power of vulnerability. Vulnerability is brave and terrifying, that’s why I do my best to paint a portrait that portrays the beauty and strength in each of my subjects. I am always looking for models to paint that are willing to share their stories with the world. Especially stories that tackle subjects in social, economic or cultural rights. Really, my paintings are just part of the larger story we all live in.
Have things improved for artists? What should cities do to empower artists?
I think we are a long ways away before female fine artists, artists of color and LGBTQ artists get the same amount of recognition in the art world as white men. I believe Los Angeles is at the forefront for making great strides in providing more opportunities for our work to be seen. I hope that eventually when we go to art museums, we see more of the beautiful, diverse world around us reflected in the artwork displayed.
Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
You can see one of my paintings I was commissioned to create for the TBS television comedy, “Miracle Workers”. The painting is of Steve Buscemi who plays God in the show, which will air on Tuesdays, beginning February 12th, 2019.
You can also view my work on Instagram, my website and my recently launched Patreon account where I will be adding art lessons, behind the scenes photos and videos of my current projects, podcasts, sneak previews, and other sorts of fun tidbits.
Patrons who would like access to all of my content may support me for just $5.00 a month.
- Website: www.bethgatza.com
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/bethgatza.art
- Other: www.patreon.com/Bethgatza
Beth Gatza and Martin O’Malley