John Steinbeck, Gianni Versace, Placido Domingo and the Queen of England all have at least one thing in common -- they have owned artwork by Betty Guy.
How each of these celebrities acquired this San Francisco native's paintings gives insight into the remarkable life of the artist, who has an exhibit at the UCSF Faculty/Alumni House through November 29. Her exhibit is titled "Travels with Betty Guy," and it includes watercolors of China, Chile, Venice, Alaska, Jerusalem, Salzburg, Katmandu, Istanbul and other locations.
Guy has traveled throughout the world, sketching and painting everywhere she goes. The trip to England in 1957 when she met Steinbeck is chronicled in Guy's short book entitled "Surprise for Steinbeck": Guy was commissioned by her friend and Steinbeck's editor, Pat Covici, to paint Steinbeck's house in England as a surprise Christmas gift. In the process, she not only impressed Steinbeck and his wife with the painting but became friends with them as well. Steinbeck returned the favor by giving Guy a copy of his book Winter of Our Discontent in which he inscribed: "For Betty, don't just sit there…paint."
And paint she has. She's never without her bottle of ink and pens from Paris. No matter where she is -- San Francisco, New York, Paris, Venice -- she's always standing on some street corner or comfortably positioned in a hotel room making quick sketches to which she applies watercolor soon thereafter. Guy travels to Europe often and chooses rooms in hotels and inns by the view outside the window. "I love finding a room with a view, so rain or snow I can still work," she says.
Although she is also drawn to street scenes, she has a long-running gig with the San Francisco Opera as its company artist, as the British would call it, painting program covers and scenes from rehearsals.
In fact, Guy met many of her well-known patrons through her association with the Opera. She met Versace when he designed costumes for a production of Capriccio and Domingo during his many appearances with the SF Opera.
The Queen received Guy's artwork as a gift from the Port of San Francisco when she and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the city on their ship, the Britannia, in the 1980s. Guy used to paint on commission for the Port, creating a series of watercolors of the Embarcadero and painting other San Francisco scenes, one of which the Port gave the Queen. A letter from Buckingham Palace sent to the director of the Port reads: "Thank you for the splendid painting by Betty Guy….The picture will always awaken some very happy memories of their stay in your lovely city."
Guy also had a long-standing relationship with San Francisco retailer Gumps before the store moved to its Post Street location, which does not have a gallery. "I wanted to show my paintings there badly," she recalls. "In 1956, I went in with my watercolors and they wanted to take some on consignment and I said I wanted to show them. So they put them in the framing room and they sold." Guy "survived" seven directors at Gumps, becoming the store's longest continuous artist.
Guy's primary medium is watercolor, although she also illustrates and does mono prints. She draws in minutes but the watercolor takes time. "Watercolor has to happen almost magically," she says. "Watercolor is its own master -- you go along with it."
The UCSF community might find Guy's work familiar -- in 1998 she painted the UCSF Founders Day invitations, which featured a view of the Medical Center from the vantage point of Hugo Street.
Guy loves to paint wherever she goes but she has some favorite
locations that she paints many times over. "If Monet can
do his lilies paintings over and over, I can do Paris and Venice
over and over," says Guy.