What’s the word?

WORD artists Betsy BretHarte and Mary Kay Zeeb outside the @Central Gallery at Burton Barr Public Library in Phoenix, where their exhibit runs through March 26

The word is L-O-V-E, according to Phoenix artists Betsy BretHarte and Mary Kay Zeeb, whose “WORD” exhibit at the Burton Barr Central Library runs through Mon, March 26. It’s a collection of black and white photos featuring all sorts of folks spelling the word “love.” There’s one photo per letter for each person pictured, and the library’s @Central Gallery is home to around three dozen sets of these babies for just another couple of days.

I stumbled on the exhibit several weeks ago while exploring other library fare, and did a double take when reading the artists’ statement accompanying the works — because I’ve known Zeeb for years, as one of Lizabeth’s teachers at Arizona School for the Arts. Turns out Zeeb is leaving ASA for pursuits in the healing arts after this semester. BretHarte teaches at New School for the Arts and Academics in Tempe.

Betsy BretHarte and Mary Kay Zeeb give me an "L"

BretHarte and Zeeb, who call the Coronado neighborhood of Phoenix home, met me at the gallery Thursday afternoon to share a bit about their journey into the world of “WORD.” The first four photos in their collection, which includes many more than the library gallery can hold, were taken by BretHarte in 2006 and feature her mother. As we chatted on Thursday, they eagerly showed me other sets depicting special people in their lives.

Betsy BretHarte and Mary Kay Zeeb give me an "O"

Still, most of their subjects are folks they’ve encountered along the way. Seems BretHarte often sports a camera, and Zeeb has the pair’s best people skills — so together they’ve developed the habit of asking those they meet while walking, bike riding and such to pose for their lovely work in progress. Most of the photos were taken outdoors, like the picture up top snapped just outside the gallery. You’ll see snippets of their work, and the reflection of a tree they both admired as we spoke, in the background.

I turned BretHarte and Zeeb loose with my primitive little point and shoot number, inviting them to snap one another’s picture in whatever way they saw fit. They headed straight outdoors, to a little seating area just off the gallery — where they ultimately decided they’d prefer a picture together. I was happy to do the honors, though it felt a bit like fiddling in front of Itzhak Perlman despite their gracious demeanor.

Betsy BretHarte and Mary Kay Zeeb give me a "V"

Once “WORD” leaves the library, it’ll need a new home. An art gallery would be lovely, they tell me — though BretHarte and Zeeb are keen on community spaces like the library that allow people to stumble on the work and feel the joy of finding something unexpected. They’re fondest of the photos taken closest to home, but lit up when I mentioned a note I’d read in a journal filled with comments from gallery visitors.

Betsy BretHarte and Mary Kay Zeeb give me an "E"

Apparently someone has already pictured them going global, which hardly seems a stretch. The photography is exceptional. The subject matter is endless. And the artists are true adventurers. I suspect there’s just a single word standing between these women and the wider world. It’s “funding” — and I fervently hope they meet a great deal of it one day. With every person they photograph, BretHarte and Zeeb get one face closer to capturing the beautiful diversity of humanity.

— Lynn

Note: To learn more about the @Central Gallery at the Burton Barr Public Library, e-mail iris.huey@phoenix.gov or call 602-262-6157. You can contact the artists at bbretharte@yahoo.com or marykhaos@hotmail.com.

Coming up: Nine young poets

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