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Bethany Halbreich: I’m an Igniting Passionista

If you’re ever walking down a city street and come across a random art canvas and paint supplies, just waiting for you to add your stroke of genius to it, you have Bethany Halbreich to thank for it. Bethany is an innovation consultant, the president of Incipe Insight and the founder of Paint the World.

This global collaborative art project is dedicated to inspire a creative expression in individuals, organizations and communities by providing collaborative artistic experiences that enable participants to spontaneously engaged a creative minds. Paint the World does this by securing large blank canvases and art supplies in low-income communities around the world that otherwise have little or no access to art education. It's a simple idea with a lot of potential.

Here's an excerpt from our interview with Bethany.

Passionistas: What is the one thing you're most passionate about?

Bethany: That is a very easy question for me because I feel like the crazy canvas lady, sometimes. Everywhere I go, I carry around blank canvases. It's wild that I don't have one sitting here with me right now. But I am the most passionate about providing the tools for others to create. And my vehicle of doing that is Paint the World. So, I am most passionate about what I get to work on every day.

Passionistas: Tell us about Paint the World. How did you come up with the idea and what is it?

Bethany: The idea emerged by accident five or six years ago, because I was with a a few good friends in the middle of the woods in a cabin and on our way to the cabin we needed to come up with some fun activities to do during our time together. So, we just went to an art store and got a canvas and some supplies and then thought it would be a fun thing to collaborate on the canvas together. And these are really fun friends that I have. They're always encouraging creativity and they're just wonderful.

That's what we did. And then I was just really shocked by how beautiful the canvas turned out. So later that summer I did the same thing in a couple of different places.

Usually when I'm by a canvas I'm very much an observer. I don't encourage other people to paint on the canvas. I leave it there and I see what happens. Because in my mind, just in doing this for years, it's very obvious that there's several stages to the canvas.

There's the blank canvas. And this is usually when it's the most intimidating to people and people usually are a little bit confused. Is this an installation? Is this meant to be painted on? What is going on here? Is an artist going to be using this later and they just left it here. Do we touch it? I always find that stage of the canvas really interesting.

And then someone always comes along and just finds the boldness in themselves. Usually, they're with a group of people. Sometimes it's an individual, but they find the boldness in themselves and they pick up the one of the paint brushes and they paint.

And then after that, slowly, the canvas begins to be filled up, but it actually looks pretty bad in the beginning. There could be a sun in the corner. There could be a stick figure in the middle of somewhere and because it looks so bad, and I don't mean to put the judgment on it, but it's good that it looks bad in my mind because it encourages people who wouldn't define themselves as artists to actually paint on it. And if it looks amazing, they wouldn't.

That's the most magical part of the whole thing to me, because there've been so many people who have picked up a paintbrush and done some sort of contribution on these blank canvases that have never picked up a paint brush before. Hundreds of people have done this and it is their first time picking up a paintbrush. That's wild to me.

And it's usually those people who it impacts the most and it's always just blown me away and they always turn out so beautifully in the end. Because after they begin to be filled up over time — I usually leave them in a particular location for around 24 hours sometimes just during the day, so around eight hours — but they always tell a story of that community vision. If you look at it, they visually feel like that community. It's amazing.

So that's where I started to bring in some union analysts and there's a whole other part of the project. They're really understanding the community through the art that the community gathers to create.

But that's Paint the World and over the last five or six years, even though it started out as an experiment it quickly became clear that this needed to be a bigger project than just something I, did every now and then for fun. So, now it's a nonprofit and it's growing.

Passionistas: That first person who comes and paints, I don't know how often you see that moment, but did they tend to paint in the middle of the canvas or did they pick a good corner?

Bethany: It actually varies and it depends on how confident that person is feeling, and you could tell when a person is unsure they, they, usually start in the corner, but the person who does contribute to the canvas first, they tend to be bold. They tend to be confident. And then it's only after them that the people who haven't picked up a paint brush before contribute to it.

But so usually actually it is in the middle because they're more competent people are feeling more creatively, confident in that moment. And that's interesting, because it really does take the piece on a path. That first move is it's so important.

Passionistas: So how do you get to know the people. Did someone interview them afterwards? What's that process?

Bethany: It's certainly been a bit of a challenge over the past five or six years to position the nonprofit as it is because it's neither an art program nor a public installation. It's a mix of the two.

And if it were more of an art program there would certainly be an element to it where I would interview people and, there, we might do a workshop around it and stuff like that, but, and also there could be an element to that if it were public installation, but I just am so committed to it, taking on a life of its own.

The only thing that I've gotten close to in that realm is just pretending to be an onlooker. And so sometimes I walk by and I'm like looking at it and I act confused and I noticed someone else's standing there and I say, “Hey, do you what's this?” I just pretend to be in their shoes, but I've done that a lot.

In the beginning, I think I asked more direct questions and there were actually a couple of people who figured out who I was, or who figured out what role I play in the installation, but who have said, you have to do this everywhere. This should be in more places. And there were people who really inspired it to grow at that stage.

Passionistas: What happens with the paintings after they're completed?

Bethany: There are so many things that we can do with these paintings afterwards. In the past, I've held a little art auctions alongside restaurants in the area where the paintings were done. Usually the money that we raised just went back into doing more blank canvases. So, it's a very cyclical thing.

The timing of the blank canvases has been delayed a little bit just because of the [COVID] restrictions, but I hope that in the next couple of months we'll be able to get them popping up everywhere.

But the other thing about this project, it's a completely different aspect. So, there's the benefit of the activity itself, which is certainly increasing communities, creative confidence, increasing the agency that particular collective or community feels in moving their own ideas forward. And the canvas is just a tool, but I really do believe there's a big connection there.

And then the other aspect of this is really, really understanding a community, working to understand the community through the art that that the community gathers to create. And there's so much literature on looking at mostly street art in communities and using that as a tool to understand that community's trajectory and there, there are so many communities in the world where the voice that seems to be the most prominent from that community is usually not the most accurate. Someone who might rise to power in a particular community might just be the one with the most money but might not represent that what's really going on in the community. So, using this art is a way to do that. So, one of the larger goals and purposes behind Paint the World is really to navigate the relationship between art and community decision-making. So, to really make it obvious that investing in the arts is urgent and not just an extra activity as we often see it as, but I truly believe it's critical in progressing forward in a collective and a positive way.

It makes me so sad that the arts community feels so constrained. And usually, it's because the funding that's offered to the arts community puts you in buckets. It's either a program or an installation. It always focuses on artists, people who define themselves and artists. It's just wild to navigate government funding and all anyway. So my wish is for the art community to feel much less constrained than it does now. There's so much potential there.

To learn more Bethany’s global, collaborative art project visit

Hear the full interview here.


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