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Betye Saar: Creating Masterpieces in a New Chapter

Growing up during the Depression era instilled in us a resourceful mindset, prompting us to make the most of what we had at our disposal. While my siblings received bicycles and toys for Christmas and birthdays, I consistently received art supplies, a choice that initially sparked envy. However, in hindsight, I now recognize that my parents were nurturing my creativity from a young age.

One of the early influencers in my journey towards becoming an artist was Simon Rodia. Residing in Watts, my grandmother’s proximity to the Watts Towers allowed me to witness their construction firsthand. The utilization of seemingly mundane materials like bottle caps, corn cobs, and broken plates to create art struck a chord within me. This transformative process of turning discarded items into something visually captivating left a lasting impression. Subsequently, in the 1960s, the work of Joseph Cornell further resonated with me. His adeptness at incorporating found objects and materials into intricate box compositions mirrored my own artistic inclinations, albeit unrecognized as assemblage art at the time. This revelation solidified my path as an artist.

A youthful Betye Saar in 1965, captured at the entrance of Simon Rodia’s monumental towers in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Navigating the realm of artistry presents a primary challenge—sustaining oneself financially. However, as a creative individual, one must innovate to address this hurdle. My academic pursuit in design at U.C.L.A. laid the foundation for a diverse career trajectory. From crafting greeting cards and jewelry to venturing into printmaking and subsequently selling prints, I explored various avenues to support my passion for art. Teaching art courses across different colleges nationwide further enriched my artistic journey. Adapting my creativity to meet evolving life demands such as marriage, homeownership, raising daughters, and funding their education, art remained a constant source of solace and purpose.

The desire to create art still burns within me. Some mornings, the inertia of getting out of bed and engaging with the physical world feels daunting. Yet, driven by my passion, I persevere. Not everyone is fortunate enough to possess a compelling reason to start their day—a pursuit that infuses life with meaning and joy. Reflecting on age, I rarely dwell on it unless prompted by external cues. Nevertheless, I perceive myself as being in a phase akin to middle age, spanning roughly from 50 to 70 years. The prospect of celebrating a centennial milestone, completing a century of revolutions around the sun, fills me with a sense of anticipation.

Ongoing and forthcoming projects: Recently concluded the “Drifting Toward Twilight” installation at the Huntington Library in the Bronx; currently showcasing the “Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer” exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston; preparing for the “Betye Saar: Serious Moonlight” exhibition at the Kunstmuseum in Lucerne, Switzerland; and finalizing a newly commissioned artwork for the “Paraventi; Folding Screens from the 17th to the 21st Century” showcase at the Fondazione Prada in Milan.