Betty Bastai

What Would You Do To Set Them Free?


Elisabetta Bastai

Klipchuk Campground

Okanogan National Forest

Washington, U.S.A.

October 3rd, 2015

9:05 pm: Cascadia Farm organic ice cream, car crash (it must have happened while I was eating it). Fallen burnt tree blocked Hwy 20 for several hours in both directions of travel. Screeching owl, flowing stream, beautiful starry sky.

Dear Ms. Ozeki,

I am an artist who lives in Skagit County (WA). Several weeks ago I began to read “A Tale for the Time Being”. I had never heard of your name and novel before. By chance I saw a call for artists in the September issue of the magazine “Entertainment News” and decided to respond to this call by creating an artwork and submitting it to a group show titled “Whatcom Reads! Art Challenge”. It is organized by Whatcom Reads! and Allied Arts. Local artists and other readers are supposed to read your book and create artworks based on it. The works will be exhibited at the Allied Arts gallery in March 2016.

I am planning to send you a series of letters via snail mail. These letters are the foundation of my work.  It would be great if you could reply by typing or handwriting whatever you feel like to write on the back of the letters and send them back to me at the following address:


It’s extremely important that you send these letters back otherwise I will not have the raw material to create my artwork. Please note that the deadline for sending the last letter to me is February 20, 2016.

Thank you very much for your help. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards

Betty Bastai

Ozeki Letter #1, Okanongan National Forest, WA, USA

Ozeki Letter #1, Okanongan National Forest, WA, USA

Trees and Suicide

Canto XIII 14th CentOne of the main characters of Ozeki’s novel “A TaIe for the Time Being” is a troubled 16-year-old Japanese girl named Nao. At page six of the novel Nao writes in her diary: “Very soon I’m going to graduate from time.…Maybe instead of graduate, I should say I am going to drop out of time. Drop out. Time out. Exit my existence.”

In canto XIII of Dante’s Inferno Pier delle Vigne explains why his soul is encased inside a tree:

“L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,

credendo col morir fuggir disdegno,

ingiusto fece me contra me giusto.”

“My spirit, in disdainful exultation,

Thinking by dying to escape disdain,

Made me unjust against myself, the just.”

Suicide is one of the major themes that run throughout Ozeki’s novel and Dante dedicated an entire canto of the Inferno to people who killed themselves. Suicide also is a subject that resonates with some of my personal experiences. I used to live not far from Deception Pass Bridge on Whidbey Island where suicides are committed yearly and flowers are left on its railings. When I was a student at Edinburgh College of Art I witnessed a standoff between the police and an individual who was threatening to jump onto a railway track at Waverly Station. As I was growing up in a very dysfunctional family I kept hearing about my brother’s failed suicide attempts.

Dante’s forest of self-murderers makes me think of the Japanese Aokigahara Forest that Ozeki mentions on page 88 of her novel. This forest is notoriously famous for its high suicide rate. Dante’s and the Aokigahara Forest trees are small and twisted. A species of tree that grows on the Pacific Northwest coast can develop in the same way if it germinates in exposed areas. Known as the Pacific madrone, its species name, Arbutus menziesii, derives from the name of the Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies who noted it when he explored this part of North America with Captain George Vancouver in 1790.

The grove of Pacific madrone that stands at Sharpie Park on Fidalgo Island has such remarkable features that every time I visit it Dante’s description of the suicide forest and images of the Aokigahara Forest come to mind. Unlike Dante’s trees, the pacific madrone doesn’t have thorns but a sensuous smooth bark that peals off like human skin.

I was born in Italy and extensively studied Dante’s extraordinary poetry at school.  I lived in several countries before settling down in the US. Nao was born in Japan but relocated to the US with her family and later repatriated to Japan. I share with Nao an unhinged sense of belonging. Quoting Dante’s canto XIII in my letters to the author who created Nao was a great opportunity to express my Italian cultural identity and empathize with Nao’s struggle of being considered one of the kikokushijo (repatriated children) by her peers.


The Red Field are very pleased to bring the work of US based artist Betty Bastai to our pages and to feature her current project ‘What would you do to set them Free?”

“What would you do to set them free?” is an epistolary art book that visual artist Betty Bastai has created with handwritten and typed letters, and a birdcage. The work is based on Ruth Ozeki’s novel “A Tale for the Time Being”.

In October 2015 Ms. Bastai began a correspondence with novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth Ozeki. The artist wrote letters in specific outdoor and indoor locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties, located in western Washington, USA, from October 2015 until January 2016. After mailing the letters to the author by mid-January, Bastai received Ozeki’s replies a month later. Bastai wrote the letters in a mixed style combining prose, free verse poetry and verses quoted from Dante’s Inferno. Ruth Ozeki replied quoting Dōgen Zenji a Japanese Buddhist priest founder of the Japanese Sōtō school of Zen.

The work references Ozeki’s novel on a visual and literary level. The written exchange between Bastai and Ozeki is not fully disclosed leaving the viewer’s imagination in a state of wonder. An art catalogue produced by the artist is attached to the work. It explains how the work was created and reproduces the letters that Bastai wrote to Ozeki. Reading the novel before viewing the artwork may be helpful to experience the work at a deeper level but it is not necessary.

Ms. Bastai wanted to keep the process of writing flowing after her correspondence with the writer was over. To achieve this goal, she invites members of the public to join the conversation by answering the “What would you do to set them free?” question in writing. Bastai will exhibit the answers together with the epistolary art book in future venues. 

Actions and reactions of the project will be unfolding on this page as well as in ‘current projects’ and we’ll be adding tweets to our twitter feed on a regular basis.

Betty Bastai earned a Master Degree in Fine Arts from Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland. She received several awards including the GAP grant from Artist Trust, Seattle, and Patron Award from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Her photographic work has been published by national magazines such as Orion and The Sun.