Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Betye Saar

"There has been an apparent thread in my art that weaves from early prints of the 1960’s through later collages and assemblages and ties into the current installations. That thread is a curiosity about the mystical.

I am intrigued with combining the remnant of memories, fragments of relics and ordinary objects, with the components of technology. It’s a way of delving into the past and reaching into the future simultaneously. The art itself becomes the bridge.”
Betye Saar

Betye Saar is an assemblage artist who calls herself a "conjurer and a recycler". I was first exposed to Betye’s work in December of 2006 when I went to see the exhibit, “Family Legasies” that featured her work along with that of her daughters, Lezlie and Allison. I shot a little video that day which you can either watch below or by clicking THIS link.

Betye considers her life to be a collage of heritage: African, Irish and American Indian. Being of American Indian and Irish descent myself, I am strongly drawn to her work. However, the most poignant is probably that created to represent the plight of the African Americans throughout history.

Born in Los Angeles in 1926, Betye still lives in the hills above the city in a huge grey-shingled house. Leading up to her front door are terraced gardens, filled with colored tiles, pots and carefully arranged objects.

"As an artist everything I do has this thing, assembling things. assembling plants and sculptures and lanterns rocks and so forth,"
Saar explains. She is is small, though her grey hair swoops up inches higher.

Right inside her front door, she keeps one of her own works, an assemblage that resembles an altar. A large, ghostly photograph of an African-American soldier from World War sits below a tattered American flag, mounted on a tombstone-shaped slab of wood.


"I wasn't intending it to be a morbid piece but it turned out to be that way. Across the bottom is a diagram of a slave ship. And the piece is called 'Crossings.' " The red roses,
she says, "are for Christmas -- I just decorate my art for Christmas."

Saar first glimpsed real art as a child, visiting her grandmother in Watts.

Today Watts is best known as an urban black community infamous for the 1965 riots.

In the 1930's, it was a racially mixed place where this young black girl watched an Italian immigrant by the name of Simon Rodia as he pieced together what would become the glittering spirals of the Watts Towers.

Watts Towers

"He had a big car and he would see these piles of rubble and he would go through it,"
Saar remembers. "And he wanted to make something monumental. And he put these steel structures up and covered them in cement and pressed shards of ceramics, of plates, I've seen corn cobs in there, I've seen tools. It's like, the cement is wet, what can we put in here? I think that was the beginning of me becoming an assemblagist or recycler."

It would take years before Betye Saar's "beginning" came to fruition in the art world. She was a mother, raising three daughters, a "late bloomer,"as she put it.

At the age of 46 she created the piece that would make her reputation and launch a series of art aimed at reclaiming the derogatory images of people of color.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemimah

"The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" was exhibited in 1972. It was a wooden box displaying a full-figured, smiling black mammy, a kerchief wrapped around her head. She's holding a broom in one hand -- and a rifle in the other.

It was about the way African-American women were treated as sex objects, as domestic soldiers. And it was about this particular woman's revolt to be free of that image.

"I'm the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelings," Saar wrote. "And I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and the racism in this country. And so this series sort of evolved. And if feel like if I had to say what was my contribution to the art world and to the world in general as an African American woman, [it] would be this series."

National Racism - We Was Mostly 'bout Survival

Supreme Quality

Saar wants the viewer "to be seduced by my work. That's the part that's essential -- to have beauty. I want my piece to crook a finger, say to viewer, check this out."

Palmist Wind

Betye Saar's studio is overflowing with the stuff of her art. Tables in the room are layered with mysterious objects and materials. A shelf is filled with pickanninny dolls, tiny minstrels, slices of watermelon made from painted wood. Her media includes metal: rusty chains, long discarded toys, birdcages, anything she can find.

Ritual Journey

Betye Saar will turn 83 this coming July.

You can watch a series of interview videos with Betye HERE. I highly recommend that you do.

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Stacy Alexander