Seated in the cool shade of a willow tree, we interviewed Del Bettelyoun on a perfect Satwiwa Saturday afternoon. “This is not a simple question”, he pondered deeply when asked how his heritage has influenced his artistic endeavors. The voice of Del Bettelyoun’s ancestral connections are clearly evident in his work, and in the quiet unassuming manner of a true artist and observer, he admitted that his interest in art goes back as far as he can remember, to when he was a very young child.
Del’s ancestry is Lakota, where his father was born on Eagle Nest Butte on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. His mother’s ancestry is Danish, but it was his father who was most encouraging when it came to developing his talents. Born in Washington State, Del lived on the Colville Indian Reservation as a toddler. By the age 4 his family relocated to Los Angeles with the U.S. Federal Indian Relocation program. He spent his elementary school through high school years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “The Federal Relocation program was failure,” Del said. When the Bettelyouns moved to Los Angeles the program landed them in the Boil Heights area with the lure of a better economic situation; but was not forthcoming as promised by the government.
“My father was an artist”, he revealed. Art was directly integrated into his family’s everyday life where Del’s father was his mentor, teaching him how to work with his hands and tap into his artistic expressions. Despite the family’s economic struggles, his father eventually obtained an Art degree that allowed him to teach in his later years. Coming from a family of artists, Del also has three brothers and a sister: His brother Brian has shown his beautiful gourd work here at Satwiwa, while another brother is a musician, and the other brother does old-style feather-work. Del’s sister makes jewelry and his mother has done crocheting, leatherwork, and some painting.
Bettelyoun is accomplished in many forms of fine art and craftwork, where he has mastered several vastly different forms of artistic expression. His First Nations native ancestry is seen throughout all of his work, with examples in woodcut and woodcarving, linoleum cuts and printmaking, metal sculpture, leather and rawhide braiding, feather work, fans and headdresses, cedar chests and boxes, just to name a few. Native themes can be seen as the interconnecting and defining link in his work, yet the effective reasons for this link elude an explanation when he is asked directly. “That is one reason why I do the painting and the wood boxes and all the different things that I’ve done, it’s because it is not clear to me how it’s affected my work”, he explains. “You know, that’s part of the process. It’s an ongoing process”.
Currently, Bettelyoun is focusing on watercolor painting, where he has moved into this medium with ease as his followers look onto many more inspirational results. When asked why he has chosen watercolor, his philosophy goes deeper than mere pigment on paper: “Water is life. It is the essence, it is us, it is everything,” he says without hesitation. Those of us who are knowledgeable on the topic of watercolor application to the standard textured paper, we know it is an extremely difficult technique to master. Del seems to possess that envious gift of skill and intuitiveness, yet he casually passes the credit to the medium: “Water takes care of the painting. I add the pigment and the water takes care of it”.
He is also known to deliberately avoid titling his artwork. “People always want to know the meanings”, he says of his paintings when viewers ask the exact purpose, the symbolism, or what the piece is all about. To encourage dialogue, he has found that titling his paintings only serves to block the flow of conversation that might ensue. He believes that titles sell short the discovery of deeper meanings. This is again where his philosophy of art is so fundamental to his finished work: Art is to bring people together, encourage meaningful communication, and generate curiosity and thought. “This is where it is exciting, because when I ask them, ‘Well, what does this mean to you?’ with this interaction, I learn more about people, and then learn more about myself. We all need to think,” Del responds, having strong convictions in the preservation of Native American cultures, as well as a true recognition of respect for human dignity and the value of diversity. “We all need to have our own interpretations. We are all individuals and we know what is best for ourselves”.