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Innerviews: Painting, nature nourish curious mind

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Describing Betsy Trammel is like trying to isolate the multifaceted colors in a kaleidoscope. Where to begin? She is, among other things, a painter, calligrapher and Master Naturalist, a writer, voracious reader and avid biker.

Thanks to the insatiable demands of a curious, creative mind, the list of interests keeps growing.

A Louisiana native, she arrived in Charleston in 1978 with her husband, Willis, a general surgeon.

She painted whimsical motifs on the walls at Overbook Elementary and later taught art at Overbrook and Chandler Elementary.

Biking in Kanawha State Forest fostered a passionate interest in plants and insects that eventually led to certification as a Master Naturalist through the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. She fills journals with drawings and details on the many fascinations she finds in the woods.

At 68, she remains an enthusiastic learner and a vibrant lover of life.

Oh, yes. She's also the proud mother of actor Sam Trammel.

 

"I grew up in Alexandria, La., on a little farm. My three older brothers ran the farm. My dad was a lumberman. He had rheumatoid arthritis and died when we were fairly young.

"My mother was very artistic, but it was hard to do something in her household because she was a perfectionist. She would say, 'Here, let me finish that for you.'

"My grandmother was a very good painter, but she was a step-grandmother, so it wasn't in the blood. Art was in the environment, just having it in the house. My son Paul's work is very much like hers.

"The art didn't happen for me until I was married and gone. In grade school, a teacher criticized a tree I had drawn to go along with that poem, 'I think I shall never see/a poem as lovely as a tree.' It hurt me so much. I decided I didn't need to subject myself to that kind of criticism. So I never drew another thing.

"I loved literature. My ambition was really to read and write. But when I met Willis, I just wanted to get married. We both went to [Louisiana State University].

"I got a teaching degree and married Willis right out of college. He went to medical school and I taught school for a year then worked for Shell Oil in accounting for a year. I knew less, but they paid more. Then I got pregnant and got to stay home.

"I had to stay in bed a while when I was pregnant with Sam. A college friend gave me some watercolors and suggested I try them. I started painting and I loved it.

"After we moved to Charleston and the children were more self-sufficient, I went off somewhere every year for one or two weeks to workshops on painting or calligraphy. That was great. Every mother needs that kind of outlet.

"My medium now would be pastels. Willis does watercolors. We paint together, preferably outdoors. Paul does oils. Sam did a sculpture. When people ask Beth if she paints, she says, 'No, not yet.' Because everybody does something.

"Willis and Eric Mantz were residents together at Tulane [University]. Eric wanted to start a practice here. We moved to Charleston in '78. The next year, I painted the walls at Overbrook Elementary. I did Mrs. Bradford's nursery room wall to get little Beth accustomed to school. She went with me. Then I painted the first grade wall for Mrs. Charnock. A few years later, I taught at Overbrook. I taught every grade a 30-minute art class.

"I had this class all worked up, so I took the whole program to Chandler and taught at Overbrook two days and Chandler two days. That was really fun because the two schools were so different.

"Willis and I began biking and got involved in the Master Naturalist program that Jim Waggy was putting together for the DNR. We got into the second class. I'd always loved bugs and leaves and stuff because I was exposed to all that on the farm.

"The trail at Kanawha State Forest is six miles uphill, a slow six miles, so you get to watch everything along the road that is growing. We were out there at least once a week. That's how the nature journaling came about. We would come home and study to see what we had learned.

"One day, Joan Steven and I were biking with Helen Chilton. Helen has studied every plant and wildflower. She spotted a putty root leaf. It's a pinstripe leaf in the forest that starts in September and goes through April. It's warm. When you have a snow, the leaf's warmth will melt the snow, and you can see that it's an orchid. "Through the Master Naturalist program, Willis teaches the tree class and does a tree hike in the woods. I taught one nature journaling class. I take hikes with people in the forest to look at flowers.

"Louis Ferguson from the Clay Center invited me to do a power point presentation and Patti Brown taught me how to put a power point presentation together. Can you believe I've spoken at the Clay Center? Twice.

"There's a system for journaling the Greneli system. You observe it, you draw it and you study it, and it's yours. If you are walking in the forest and see something you've drawn a picture of, you know it. You get it in your head.

"You don't have to be an artist. You just observe and put whatever it is on paper good enough for you to remember it.

"There's always something entertaining in the forest. If you go in the woods and sit on a rock and sit still long enough, the birds and bugs will get used to you, and it just comes alive.

"Through the Master Naturalist class, I got a job out at Guthrie working in the insect museum. I learned how to pin insects. These purple traps in the forest collect insects in that section so the state can know what's there. Like the emerald ash borer, a beetle. We know it was brought into the state by campers who brought wood because it is not in any of the border counties.

"My job was to empty the contents of the traps into a petri dish, look at them under a microscope and put them into families and send them to my supervisor. I loved it. I did that for three years. Now I collect insects.

"Because of the Naturalist class, I was asked to write an article or two for the Wonderful West Virginia magazine. I took an illustration course and did the illustrations for the back of the Kanawha State Forest Flora book, and the Wonderful West Virginia magazine took some of my illustrations.

"My mother left a batch of letters that I have hauled with me since she died in 1974. I never paid any attention to them. I had a free week recently. Willis was doing a woodworking class, and I went with him and took these letters in my computer. I started transcribing them. They are her three years of her college and a couple of years after she got married.

"She went to Germany the year before we got into the war and she saw the brownshirt stormtroopers. When I was a little girl, I was collecting stamps and cut the stamp out, so the letter about Hitler and the brownshirts has holes in it.

"I transcribed them all for my children. There is a murder in Texas, an automobile accident, a suicide, a romance and a love child that I think I'm related to. I'm very tempted to do something with them.

"I love writing. I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't had those letters with me at the workshop. Crafting a good sentence is delicious.

"I had also taken my mother's speeches. She was on the national board for the American Red Cross. I intended to put those together for my children. Then I got into those letters, and oh, it was like eating candy!

"I'm really involved in the Women's Kanawha Literary Club. We have one subject every year, and each person selects a topic and gives a paper on that. My last one was on art inspired by war.

"Being Sam's mother is fun. I'm not surprised at his success. He was pretty ambitious. His big series on TV is 'True Blood.' He's up in Canada now doing a movie. He just did one in New Orleans called 'White Rabbit.' His parts are always nude. Oh well, I guess it pays the bills.

"We always get together at Thanksgiving. He and Missy brought the twins to Louisiana at Easter. Beth is in Texas with three little girls and we're going there for Thanksgiving.

"We are moving to Louisiana. Willis is gradually retiring. We're finding it so hard to leave West Virginia. We go to Louisiana two weeks and come here for two weeks, and I love both places. We will continue that until July 2013.

"I've been blessed to have good health to be able to go out and do what I found interesting. The biking and being out in the forest are hobbies we can transfer to Louisiana and do until we aren't able to walk in the woods anymore.

"I figure we will be in Louisiana about 15 years, and then we will come back here. Our rocking chair days will be down there. But I'm coming back and moving to Edgewood Summit."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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