Betty Ward Pearson grew up in Roswell and spent a lot of time on campus at the New Mexico Military Institute.
“I used to ride the horses that were at the school when I was a child,” Pearson said. “ My father, Col. Charles F. Ward, started there in 1926 as a history teacher. Later, he became superintendent.”
She met her husband shortly after the move, though she only remembers what her mother told her about the meeting.
“Mrs. Pearson used to take one of the six kids to teach them manners when she called upon one of the new faculty members,” Pearson said. “She brought Tom with her to call on us, and when he looked over the edge of the crib and saw me he said ‘Gosh it’s tiny!’
“I’ve literally known Tom all my life. I trailed Tom around the institute since I could walk. I’m the only person he would let help him feed his pet alligators. They were tiny little guys. We fed them raw hamburger on the end of an old clothes hanger. He named them Jake and Jerry. They got too big for him to keep after a while.”
Being her future husband’s best friend wasn’t all Pearson’s life consisted of, however. She started her art career quite young.
“I started carving as a five year old,” she said. “My grandpa set me up on his knee and taught me to whittle. Being a five year old learning to work with a really sharp knife was exciting for me. Mainly he taught me to keep the blade pointed away from myself.”
One of her earliest pieces got her into girl scouting.
“In my book there’s a picture of a tacky little fish that I carved when I wanted to be a Girl Scout,” Pearson said. “They used to ask you to bring something that you’d done. Most of the girls brought cupcakes or cookies.”
She has a small book she’s published with pictures of her varied artistic creations and some anecdotes. In the book, she has a picture of her grandfather. It’s captioned “I always met with grand-daddy at dawn to whittle and talk.”
Pearson has carved wood, stone and glass. She has sculpted with clay and she has painted a variety of beautiful works. She also taught Boy Scouts to carve.
“We did a lot of Pinewood Derby cars,” she said. “We started our Boy Scouts carving on Ivory soap. I would mix plaster of Paris and vermiculite poured together in quart milk bottles. Once it sets, they learn to carve on it, too.”
The Pinewood Derby may have inspired her. To this day, when she carves one of her dolphins, she starts with a block of wood and pencils in the basic shape before she starts carving. Her love of animals prompted a project to help a sanctuary.
“I made decoys of the interior least tern,” Pearson said. “This is one of the last flyways going north. I carved them to go on a flat sandy beach at Bitter Lakes. The decoys were placed to attract the terns flying over, to lure them to safe sandbars at the refuge. Nesting on these sandbars would protect the eggs and the young from hungry raccoons, coyotes and rising water levels.”
She’s rebuilt carousel horses in years past, but when she was asked to paint pictures of real horses, she had one condition. She was likely influenced by her childhood experiences on NMMI’s campus.
“I was asked to paint pictures of some horses from photographs,” Pearson said. “I said I’d much rather come out and meet the horses so I can capture their personalities.”
In her almost 90 years of carving, she only has regrets about one piece.
“I had one piece that broke my heart,” Pearson said. “I had purchased a piece of alabaster from a quarry. It was 30 by 4 by 7 inches. It’s the only piece I’ve ever bought. Everything else I’ve worked on, I just picked up or it was given to me. I was carving an owl diving, the wing was too thin and it sheered. I knew it was a weak spot, too.” She keeps that piece on her work bench as a reminder.
For the most part, Pearson has enjoyed her life. She remembered improvising at an art show one time.
“I was doing a show at the Galleria in Houston,” she said. “They said it would be nice to see me sculpting during the show. I asked if they had a picture of someone I could use, nobody likes to sit for that long. They didn’t, so I pulled a $5 bill out and made a bust of Abraham Lincoln.” The pictures in her book show that it was a remarkable likeness of the president.
Pearson talked about her experiences with different media.
“Palm wood is one of the hardest woods I’ve ever carved,” she said. “It will bust up your saw into pieces. Beach glass grinds like stone, but you don’t have to finish it. Clay is a nice medium because it’s so much faster.
“I started working in stone after we moved back to Roswell in 1985. When I was on the islands on a scuba diving trip, I discovered tagua wood. They’re trying to get the world to use tagua instead of ivory. It carves just like ivory.”
As she is working on various pieces, she keeps them on display throughout her house. She never knows which piece she’ll pick up and continue working on from day to day. She keeps her pleasures simple.
“I go hunting for tree knots,” she said. “I clean them up. I have a collection of them. I had the time of my life one time in Michigan watching Otters playing on a lake at four in the morning.”
It’s clear her secret to a happy life is choice of perspective.
“Roswell is a wonderful place to grow up and I still have friends here,”Pearson said. “It’s been a fun life. It always has been.”
Pearson has one word of advice.
“If you’ve got a hobby and enjoy it,” she said. “Go for it.”
Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.