Betty Beeby’s Sturdy Stable Artist’s Fables

Posted on April 10, 2008


Betty Beeby at EROHP January 2008

When I first started coming to Eastport I met Jane and Salo Suwalsky.  “You’ll like my mother,” Jane said when she learned I was a writer.  “She’s an illustrator.  Her name is Betty Beeby.”  That, I thought, is a great name.  I went to meet Betty, and began a whole series of adventures. 

Ten things I’ve learned from Betty Beeby:

  • If you’re an artist you’d better make art.  Yes, you can so too earn a living at it.
  • Nobody said it would be easy.  You have to work hard at something – it might as well be something you care about.
  • Everywhere you look there is something intriguing or beautiful or both.  Stop and examine it.
  • It’s important to remember where you came from.  It’s even more important to remember that others will come after you.
  • Do not mess with the showy lady slippers.
  • A lively curiosity is the secret to eternal youth.
  • There is a time to work, a time to play, and a time to have cocktails.
  • There are many, many shades of red.  It is important to get exactly the right one.  There are many, many typefaces.  Often Garamond is the right one.
  • Enthusiasm is contagious.  Be careful or you’ll find yourself hip-deep in a project.
  • Wonderful stories are lying about everywhere, in the memory banks of our neighbors, in photo albums, newspaper archives – even in the haymows of old barns.  Seek them out.  Share them.


Ten things I know about Betty Beeby:

  • She just celebrated her 85th birthday.  She wears it well.  Mar DeTar gave a luncheon and people made toasts and read poems and brought flowers.  There was lemon cake. The room glowed.
  • Betty loves bright orange, turquoise, green.  She wears those well, too.
  • A few years ago Betty restored the classic log cabin her family has been coming to for at least four generations, keeping some things exactly the way they were when she was a little girl.  Then she added a matching wing with all the modern conveniences, painted a dozen chairs in the styles of a dozen different artists she enjoys, and had the whole thing jacked up and put on a steel beam foundation that will last 100 years.  That’s Betty – love and honor the past, enjoy the present, anticipate the future.
  • You probably already know that Betty has written or illustrated many books, but I’ve put a partial list at the end of this post anyway. What you might not know is that she is a savvy marketer who keeps her work stocked at bookstores all over northern Michigan; that she donates many of them to schools in Antrim and Charlevoix counties; or that she visits classrooms to encourage students to read, to observe, and to use their creativity.
  • Each year she sponsors the $1,000 Pearl in Hand Scholarship for a high school senior in Antrim or Charlevoix County.  The scholarship is awarded upon receipt of the first semester grades at a college of fine art.  That’s Betty.  Identify promise.  Offer an incentive.  Expect accountability.
  • She co-founded the Wilkinson Homestead Historical Society – and she wrote a letter to the future for the time capsule that will be placed in the cornerstone of the new Community Services Building in May. The letter is filled with optimism. I hope I can get her to post a copy on Torch Lake Views.
  • Her art is richly detailed. She’s particularly fascinated by smiles, and hands, and the way snow curls away from porch railings on a sunny winter afternoon.
  • Betty doesn’t limit herself to book illustration.  She paints (she did an amazing series that re-imagined The Wedding Dance), designs notecards, wrapping paper, posters and cereal boxes, and created the large mural, Straits of Mackinac, that graces the Michilimackinac Visitor Center.  She’s collaborated on projects with Tom Wright, photographer of the icons of rock, and with Glenn Ruggles, oral historian.  What tickles me most is that she did cels for the Captain Kangaroo Show.  You kiddies out there won’t appreciate that, but I was impressed. 
  • In 2003 the Youth GrantMakers of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation awarded the Ellsworth Community Schools $100 in support of a program they called Artism of Betty Beeby.
  • Betty has commissioned a wrought iron bench from Torch Tip Ironworks.  It will have a place for an artist to put a jar of water for rinsing brushes.  It will have a place for an artist to put a sketchbook.  It will be placed in a special spot in the cemetery with a view of Torch Lake.  One day Betty hopes her friends will visit.  Look at the lake.  Engage in a little artism.  Remember.


Some of the books written and illustrated by Betty Beeby:

  • Breath escaping envelopes: Letters and photographs from the Grand Traverse bay region 1875-1905
  • Great Granny’s Sturdy Stable Picnic Tables
  • Mrs. Squid, a Story in her Own Ink
  • Just Josie
  • Grace Hooper’s Pioneer Notes, edited by Betty Beeby


Some of the books written by other people and illustrated by Betty Beeby:

  • The Legend of the Bleeding Heart, by Mary Frey
  • The Silver Trumpet – A Fairy Tale, by Owen Barfield
  • Whistle Up the Bay, by Nancy Stone
  • The Wooden River, by Nancy Stone
  • Potawatomi Indian Summer, by E. William Oldenburg
  • Michigan’s Timber Battleground, by Forrest Meek
  • Blood Against the Moon: The Adventures of a Civil War Surgeon, by William S. McCune, M.D.
  • The Child’s Story Bible, by Catherine F. Vos
  • The Mystery of Edison Brown, by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery
  • Stubborn Binnder, by Carol Dornfield Stevenson
  • The Philology of Taste: The Wayward Language of Food, by Harry Randall
  • Daisy: the Story of a Horse, by Louise Jean Walker
  • A doctor is born, by William S. McCune, M.D.
  • First and Vital Candle, by Rudy Wiebe [Ed.: Betty says she has no memory of doing any artwork for this book, although she’s listed as the cover illustrator by rare book dealers who have it in stock. Someday I’ll get my paws on a copy, and we’ll know for sure!]
  • Minor Masterpieces: An Anthology of Juvenilia by Twelve Giants of English Literature, edited by Harry Randall
  • The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, by Alzina Stone Dale

[Ed.: Betty sent me a very nice note with some additions to the list.]

  • She illustrated Pasajes – a series of four Spanish textbooks for Random House – and Born Tying Knots, narrative poems by Howard Norman
  • She created the Peterboro Suite, a series of nine lithographs, based on a true story, that in turn inspired a choral composition  
  • She received three Chicago Book Clinic Awards (for Whistle Up the Bay, Just Josie, and Potawatomi Indian Summer)

[Ed. 10-23-2009: I just received the most delightful email from Donna Esslinger, who would have left a comment except that I’ve turned them off for older posts. What she had to say was so interesting that it’s reprinted below in its entirety.]

To all: Betty illustrated Minor Masterpieces AND Imaginary Conversations, both books created from type cast and sheets printed on Torch Lake in Alden at the private press of my late husband, Harry Bollinger — Talponia Press. Minor Masterpieces was a collection of juvenilia by famous authors from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh; Imaginary Conversations was a selection from the amazing works of Walter Landor — the selections in each book were made by Harry’s and Betty’s good friend, Harry Randall, serving as editor. Both books were limited numbered editions. Harry and Betty had known each other for decades beginning in Kalamazoo. Betty and her late husband, Jim, were two of only six guests who were not family at my wedding to Harry at the Blue Mill in Alden in 1975. We met together for breakfast every week for over twenty years; in later years, my second late husband, Dr. John Esslinger, became part of the group and we founded Talponia Books in Alden in 1987. Betty has been a
glorious part of my life for a very long time and, although I now live in Magnolia Springs, Alabama, and have Talponia Books online now, I deeply cherish that friendship and, belatedly, wish her a very happy birthday! Actually, Betty told us about Gulf Shores, Alabama, and that ended with our buying a second home here in 1988. She is, without doubt, a premiere watercolorist, illustrator, and delightful human being.

Donna Esslinger