On June 24, the local art world lost an original. Beth Batchelor, who lived to almost 106, was an artist, teacher, and raconteur. Nearly 50 years ago (1977), she founded the Alamo Danville Artists’ society (ADAS). The group continues to this day and manages the Blackhawk Gallery —in its current location in Blackhawk Plaza since 2009.
As a painter, Beth created numerous works of art. (Her estate includes more than 250 pieces, to be divided among family members, says her niece Debi Estrada.) As an educator, she understood the value of art as part of a school’s curriculum and made it a key component of ADAS’s mission to donate a percentage of membership dues and sales commissions to local schools. Since the organization’s founding, its Community Arts Education Program has donated more than $100,000 to schools in the San Ramon Valley Unified school district.
Born Elizabeth Bluementhal in Brooklyn on July 30, 1917, to Russian immigrant parents, Beth won a Brooklyn Museum textile design competition when she was 13. She went on to study commercial art at Cooper Union Art School and Girls’ Commercial Art High School in Brooklyn. Subsequently she worked for Ford, TWA, Minute Maid, and Pepsi-Cola, among other companies in New York City, doing commercial art and design. In 1960 she married merchant seaman Steve Batchelor, whom she had met in 1954. They moved to Alamo in 1970.
I met Beth as a result of my brief membership in ADAS, 2007–2009. At the time, I was making visual puns from found objects. She generously offered to give me some lessons at her house in Alamo, which served as residence, studio, classroom, and salon. Before I put charcoal to paper, she asked me if I could draw a cat. “No,” I replied.
“Lots of people think they don’t have talent,” she chided me. “Can you draw a few straight lines? If you can just follow the direction of a line and feel like doing it, you can.” She proceeded to scratch a couple of Vs, one inverted, on top of the other, into my notebook. Those became the feline’s nose and mouth, and in about 20 seconds, a kitty was staring at me.
Over the years, I spent time at Beth’s place, where she taught me some drawing basics, focusing on angles of the human face: nose, eyes, etc. She had begun drafting the manuscript for a book entitled What’s Your Angle?, a compendium of her teaching techniques. I offered to edit the manuscript, but the project never came to fruition. She was too busy. “Nobody will let me retire,” she said, “because they keep giving me commissions.”
A testament to her teaching skills was Beth’s ability to have me rendering a creditable likeness of a model’s face after a few lessons—with, I must admit, a little assistance from her deft hand.
In searching for my drawing, I found numerous sketches she had made in her attempts to teach me to draw, including one she dashed off in a few minutes for my benefit while multitasking.
Among the materials were portions of the draft for Angle.
I also sat for a portrait in pastel and spent many enjoyable hours at her place, listening to stories about her life and work. She also knew how to host a party—several, in fact.
To call Beth energetic would be an understatement. When she was 92, my much-younger back was killing me after a career of protracted sitting, She was perched birdlike on her stool, drawing, kibitzing, and dispensing wisdom, going full tilt the whole time.
Beth attributed her longevity and good health to laughter. It prolongs life, she noted. “Continued good humor is essential, along with positive thinking daily and eliminating stressful environments.”
A stickler for good nutrition, she said, “I stay away from manufactured foods and additives.”
These beliefs paid off for a woman who was 10 when Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and 7 when suffragettes were marching to demand the vote. Their victory came three years later, in 1920, when Beth was 3, still too young to cast a ballot.
Ninety-seven years later, with many ballots behind her, she celebrated her centenary, an event organized by her longtime friend Dale Bridges. More than a hundred friends, associates, and admirers threw her a birthday party. Among those helping plan the celebration: Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, State Senator Steve Glazer, and Assembly member Catharine Baker. The party was held at the Alamo Women’s Club and featured the guest of honor as well as many of her works created over the years. She signed the bills of souvenir caps dispensed to all attendees.
Although she was physically frail by then, she was a sharp as a proverbial tack and clearly enjoyed the tribute.
On July 29, the Blackhawk Gallery featured a tribute to Beth in the cultural venue that would not exist but for her vision and persistence.
A celebration of life is planned for October, details TBD.
Thanks to Dori and Caroline Sanchez and Debi Estrada for contributing to this tribute.