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Artist Spotlight: Bethany Aiken

animals artist spotlight bethany aiken zookeeper May 31, 2021

 Say hello to Bold Color Artist, Bethany Aiken

Bethany caught the attention of Bold School when she first posted in our group about her art collaboration with a hippo!! Seriously!?! She actually got a hippo to kiss a painting.

That wasn't her only collaboration. Check out these three pieces that Bethany created before joining Bold School : 'Ena' the Snow Leopard, 'Hari' the Sumatran Tiger and Hippo "Kiss" painted by 'Petal' the River Hippo

After seeing this work we were sold on her amazing work and wanted to know more about what makes this artist create. So we asked Bethany if we could ask her a few questions about her artist journey. 

Here is an incredible Rhino she painted after taking some Bold School classes. The small piece was before Bold School. 


Bethany Aiken has been a Bold School artist since June of 2020. When we asked Bethany if she would be willing to tell us a bit about herself and her artistic journey, she was very gracious in saying yes. We are excited to have this chance to get to know Bethany a bit better!



Q: What kind of art medium and subject matter are you focused in right now? Have you studied other kinds of art? 

A: Over the years I have explored many different forms of art, including: Wood carving, wood burning, pencil sketching, photography -- and I generally enjoy turning anything I can into a creative project. Most recently, however, I have been focusing on acrylic paintings of wildlife and nature. 

Q: Why did you become an artist?

A: It has only been over the past few years that I have even really started to identify as an artist. Before that, I often considered myself “creative” but never even really thought to label myself as an artist since my focus throughout my schooling had been in the sciences. As to WHY I became an artist, I think it's because I feel I was “created to create.” This is a phrase I have heard from many others, and it always resonated with me and how my inclination is to bring my creativity into everything I do. I think the past couple years have really helped me feel ownership over the “artist” title, not because I started making (some) money from it, but because I really started to feel pride in myself for what I was creating. 

Q: Tell us about the moment you decided to make art a part of your life. (Whether just for fun or professionally)

A: I feel creativity has always been a part of my life, but a couple specific moments come to mind which I feel really shaped my more recent journey into painting as a focus.

The first was in 2010 while I was in South Africa volunteering alongside a wildlife veterinarian. I had just finished my first year of university and was focused on pursuing a career path working with animals. Art in its various forms was a hobby, but nothing I was putting too much thought into. Photography was my focus at that time, but one evening I was working on a sketch of a leopard I had photographed earlier in the trip. My host, Alfie, sat with me and we chatted about our mutual passions of art (he was a painter) and animals. He was so encouraging of my drawing, and he challenged me to keep going down that path, not let it fall away as I learned photography. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but looking back, that conversation would come back to mind numerous times in the future as I struggled to choose how to focus my time and efforts creatively. 

Years later, after graduating university, I started working seasonally at the Toronto Zoo as a Zoo keeper. The idea of exploring the world of acrylic paint became so obvious to me in a single evening. My roommate at the time, a fellow zookeeper, suggested we have a painting night. I was pretty stuck in the mindset that “I wasn’t a painter,” because so far I had focused on sketching and photography. But, I went along with the idea, and we ended up spending the better part of a day each painting various animals, inspired by our workplace and Google searches of animal themed artwork. I realized how freeing it could be to just play with color, and not focus so much on the tiny details that had stressed me out when sketching. By removing any pressure from myself to produce something realistic -- to just have a fun day -- I ended up re-discovering the joy I could find in the artistic process. 

Not long after I was hired as a full time Zookeeper, able to work every day with endless inspiration for my art. Unfortunately, we went on strike a few months later -- but this ended up being a catalyst for my artistic career! While we were walking the picket line, my colleagues came up with all sorts of animal-themed puns for the picket signs, and since I had the time, I ended up drawing and painting the animals on many of them. Honestly, a huge part of why I kept going with painting was having my friends and colleagues constantly affirming my artwork and asking for more. I gained confidence in myself through this process, and decided somewhere along the way that I needed to keep exploring painting as a creative outlet. More than that, though, I started to really take ownership over my identity as an artist.  

Q: Tell us about your art education. Did you study art at school? A self learner? A life-long learner? Do you learn online? 

A: My formal education in art is minimal. I only took one art class in high school before focusing on the sciences. In university I studied Animal Biology. I briefly looked into taking some artistic classes, but since I had been considering applying to vet school (which is very competitive), it felt like too big of a risk and was logistically challenging. It wasn’t until I graduated and moved back home to work for my Dad’s construction business (between summer jobs at the zoo) that I decided to follow my long suppressed interest in art. I took a fundamentals of drawing course at the local college, and I loved it. It was my first time in a studio course, so it was challenging, but I learned so much and it definitely helped convince me to keep art in my life.

As for painting, Charla’s Bold Color Bootcamp was my first course. I had intended to take an in-person painting course of some sort in Toronto, but Covid put an end to that. So, I looked for an online alternative and found Bold School -- I can’t imagine having done anything else now! 

Q: Tell us about the space you create in? Is it a dedicated studio? A place in home? Feel free to include a story about a past space or a future dream. 

A: My “Studio” is the corner of an open basement which also acts as my husband's office, our bedroom and a work out space. I have a drop cloth up on the wall and on the floor, signifying where my art space ends and my husband’s office begins... but that line ends up being very blurry. My art ends up everywhere. Many of my finished pieces end up on the wall opposite my studio, which is in the office. I am grateful my husband is supportive of my work -- he often gives his colleagues virtual “tours” of my studio, and he gets sad when I sell a piece that has been up on his wall for a while since he gets used to them being there and misses them when they are gone. I look forward to a time when I can have a separate art space, but honestly I think there will be moments when I will miss the space I have now. Often my husband will be taking a break and playing piano in his office, I will be 5 feet away painting in my studio, and we just have a really fun time together. 

Q: As an artist, describe yourself in one word.

A: Passionate

Q: What has been your biggest accomplishment as an artist?

A: I feel as an artist I have had a bunch of small little moments that have made me feel proud and excited. One such moment was last spring at the Toronto Zoo. They hosted an outdoor Marketplace for the first time, and I was able to attend as a vendor. I had never done anything like that before so I was nervous and didn’t really know what to expect. But, I figured, what better place to start showcasing my animal-themed art than at the zoo! The day ended up being a huge success with a pretty steady stream of people coming by my booth. I really enjoyed the opportunity to share my passion about art and the animals I work with.  It just felt so validating to me as a new artist to have people I didn’t know express interest in my work. 

Q: What has been your biggest fail as an artist?/ 15. What has been your biggest struggle as an artist in your art and/or your life?

A: I don’t feel I have had any major moments of failure where something went horribly wrong (other than when my display at the marketplace blew over...but we got through that without too much trouble!). But thinking of failure leads me to think about the biggest thing I feel has been holding me back as an artist, and probably in my life in general. That thing is being self-critical, judging and holding myself to impossible standards. This is something I wrestle with through almost every painting. At some point in the middle of the process, I will feel like I can’t do it, that I’m doomed to fail, and that I probably never should have bothered to try in the first place. I am slowly learning to trust myself more, and to trust the process. Usually (though not always) I come out the other side of those moments incredibly satisfied and proud of my work. 

Q: Is there a person or moment that inspires/inspired meaning in your life?

A: The natural world inspires me. My happy place is walking through a forest, quieting my mind and just noticing things around me: the color of the sky, the sound of the wind, the shape of the leaves. I notice, and I wonder if others walking down the path would notice those things. I think about how I could possibly capture the feeling of seeing those little details. To me, these little details of life point to this world being carefully designed and created. It’s not just nature that inspires me, but the Creator who I believe made all those little details I notice every day. I see such love in the complexity of creation, and I marvel that the God who created it all, not only created me as well, but loves me. When I am painting, I aim to capture even the slightest hint of that feeling. 

Q: Do you have a creative tool that you can’t live without? Tell us what it is and why you love it. 

A: The Sta-Wet palette was a game changer for me. I started painting so much more once I learned how to use it, because one of the biggest barriers to me painting was having to set everything up, and with this palette, most of that was taken care of. I no longer needed to stress about mixing all my colors at the beginning of every painting session, or about wasting paint because I mixed too much. It was all there, ready to go. It allows me to pick up a brush and be working on a painting within seconds, and easily set it aside without having to worry if something else comes along that needs my attention. 

Q: Do you find meaning in your art process? 

A: I don’t think I really had an art process until I took Charla’s course.  I kind of just re-figured it out each time, which got really frustrating. The process I have developed now has absolutely helped me, though I’m not sure that I find any deeper meaning in it yet. I have learned to trust it, though, and it helps me get through that tough period in the middle of a painting where I start doubting myself. I do find the process of setting up my pallet very meditative, and it can often help me get into the headspace to paint. 

Q: Do habits help or hinder creativity? Or do you work only when inspiration hits? 

A: I don’t have any strict habits with my art, but I do try to push myself to paint even when I’m not really “Feeling it.” Doing something simple, like grounding a blank canvas with color, can absolutely help me quiet my mind and get into the mood for more creativity. 

Q: What advice would you give an artist who is picking up a paint brush for the first time? 

A: Try not to get overwhelmed by all the things you don’t yet know. There is a LOT of information out there, and when you are trying to figure things out it can be way too much to process. Personally, I have absolutely let this get to me in the past to the point where I feel paralyzed. Not having much formal education, I rely heavily on trial and error and on the advice of others (usually found online). While access to so much information is fantastic, every single artist out there is going to have a slightly different perspective. So, if you are looking for the “right” answer, I honestly don’t think you will ever find it.

Trust yourself. Don’t expect your first try to be perfect. Be willing to make mistakes. Be excited when something doesn’t go as you planned -- this is an opportunity to learn! Don’t try to turn every experiment into something you can sell; that's too much pressure. Play, have fun, try new things, make mistakes. Then learn from those mistakes and apply what you learned to your next project. These are all things that I need to keep reminding myself every time I pick up a paint brush!

Q: What is the biggest art myth you used to believe? Why do you not believe it anymore? 

A: I think on some level I believe that the art I see on social media etc. came easy to those who created it. I still find myself getting discouraged when I see really incredible art, because some part of me is telling me that I will never measure up. I will never get “that good.” I am constantly reminding myself that the finished products put out there by other artists only show the tip of the iceberg. There is so much time, effort, study, and failed attempts that went before whatever end product I am looking at.

Telling myself the story that incredible art just comes so easily to others leads me to judge myself and my art. I can often feel like I “should” be able to do a certain thing already, even if I have yet to put in the time and work to develop the skill. This can make committing to learning a new process very new and challenging for me. Learning to be critical of myself and my work -- without being judgmental -- is a hard but very important journey that I believe is necessary to keep learning and improving as an artist and as a person. 

Q: What is one thing you wish you knew about art or the art business 5 years ago? 

A: I don’t think there is really any single thing that I wish I had known. The past 5 years have been an incredible journey for me as an artist, and there have been so many little things that I have learned along the way. There have absolutely been moments where I realized something and wished I knew it earlier, but I just keep reminding myself that I can only apply what I know in the moment, and once I know better, I will do better. There is always more to learn, so why not just embrace and enjoy the process.

Q: How do you know when an artwork is complete? 

A: I think usually it's a gut feeling, but sometimes that is just a feeling that there isn’t anything “wrong” with it, rather than knowing for sure it is done. I will often stop at a point where I feel good about it, intentionally leave it for a few days where I will see it often, and then come back in to fix things that started bothering me about it. My husband often laughs at me, because from his point of view a painting can be “done” three times before I finally decide it actually is done.

Q: Can you tell us the story or process behind one piece of art? Can be big or small art, short or long story. 

A: Much of the inspiration for my animal paintings comes from the animals I work with at the zoo. Many of my commissioned paintings have been for my colleagues who want a painting of an animal they work with. Sometimes I even get to partner with the animal itself to create a painting! As a quick background, a big part of the role of a zookeeper is to ensure the best welfare possible for the animals we care for. This involves providing for their physical needs as well as their mental needs. Training animals to do various behaviors voluntarily is a big part of that process, and sometimes animals are trained to paint! (You can check out my website for a bit more information about this if you are interested.) 

I have absolutely loved being able to combine my love of animals and art by working directly with animals to create collaborative paintings. My fellow zookeepers will work with the animal to produce a painting, often by having the animal walk through paint and then walking on the canvas, but sometimes, depending on the species, the animal is trained to paint with a paintbrush or their fingers. I then receive the canvas with the animal’s painting, and I paint that animal onto the canvas as well. However, once in a while I have been able to incorporate the animals painting more directly into the artwork. The first time I did this was with a hippopotamus! I had a 4’x2’ canvas, and painted a big colorful hippo. Then with the help of the hippo keeper, the hippo (named Petal) added the final touch. She had been trained to create what we call a “hippo kiss” -- where her keeper applies paint to her lips and then she pushes her mouth onto a canvas. We did our best to have her “kiss” match up with the hippo face I had painted. It was a really fun process and the finished product was sold as part of a fundraiser for the American Association of Zoo Keepers, Toronto Chapter. 

I will be doing a similar process with a White Rhino next week and can’t wait to share the end result! 

Q: Do you own original art from another artist? (If no then we won’t include this in the post)

A: I do have some original art from other artists, but not from artists that many others would know. When I travel I usually try to bring home artwork from the local artists in the area, especially when I am able to buy directly from the artist themselves. I also have a few pieces from a good friend of mine and from my sister.

Q: Tell us 3 artists that inspire you right now? (Can be any medium or format, ex. A musician or writer)

A: Charla has absolutely inspired me most recently. I have loved learning from her courses and have really appreciated how she shares not just about her art, but about who she is as a person and the inspiration behind her art, as well. I have also been inspired by many other Bold School students as we all learn and grow together in the Bold School community. 

Q: Can you recommend a book that’s a must read for an artist? 

A: Honestly, I  have not read many books about art -- but I’d love some suggestions myself! I will say though, that leaning into exploring myself lately has been such an incredible process and one I would recommend to anyone. Reading the book “Mindsight,” by Daniel Seigel, was a big part of the journey I have been on. The more I learn about myself, how my mind works, how I relate to the various parts of myself, the more I feel I will be able to explore my art in a more holistic way. Who I am as an artist cannot be separated from who I am as a person.

I would also recommend exploring Internal Family Systems Therapy (there is a great book on it written by Bonnie J Weiss). In the simplest sense, it's the idea of identifying and getting to know the different parts of yourself and how they interact together to make you who you are. For example, there is a part of me that is very self-critical, but that is not all of who I am. I have only been exploring all this for a few months, but I am really excited to keep going and see how a deeper understanding of myself will play out in my art. 

Q: How do people connect with you, personally, through social media? 

A: Bethany Aiken Creations is the name of my Facebook and Instagram accounts. 




If you want to connect, feel free to reach out through any of these platforms! 


Creativity awaits!


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