Betye Saar named MacDowell medalist

Last modified: 4/14/2014 8:11:02 PM
When Betye Saar takes the podium to receive the Edward MacDowell Medal, she will be 88-years-old. As she accepts the award, Saar — who is famous for her artistic assemblages challenging racial stereotypes and the role of African American women — will become the 55th Medal recipient and coincidently a minority within a minority.

On Aug. 10, Saar will be the oldest and only female African American woman to receive the prestigious award.

“I don’t mind being a minority,” Saar said. “It helps people see that old people, women and people of color are not invisible,” she said speaking by phone from her home in Los Angeles, Calif., on Wednesday.

Saar grew up in Pasadena during the Great Depression, surrounded by creativity. Her mother and grandmother painted ceramics, quilted and embroidered. Although these were considered, “household” or “womens arts,” Saar said the “essence of the creative process” was alive in her home.

After high school, Saar earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California at Los Angeles.

In 1949 after graduation, Saar began to work in costume design for California theater companies, but her creative outlet shifted when she saw the work of Joseph Cornell.

Cornell, who was born in New York City in 1903 and died in 1972, pioneered the idea of assemblage art. His most characteristic works were simple boxes that held collections of photographs, magazine cut-outs, string and other ephemera or knick-knacks.

Saar attributes Cornell’s influence to helping her see that she had the power to use what she found — everyday objects — to make political statements and fine art.

“I was a kid who loved to collect things,” she explained. “As an artist I often call myself a recycle — not just the recycling physical things, window frames and statues, but also ideas and memories. Things that have value to me as an artist.”

In the late 1960s, Saar began to acquire “black collectibles,” objects that feature racist caricatures of African Americans.

Shortly thereafter she created her own series of assemblages: “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Through these pieces Saar worked to turn negative “mammy” images into positive, empowering symbols for African American women.

“The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” Saar said, “helped me focus on being a woman warrior for civil rights and my weapon was art.”

Saar said her art typically has three components: political, ritual and personal. Her series “Workers and Warriors and In Service” reflect the similar themes to “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” themes of resisting racism and servitude by creating woman warriors armed with brooms.

“In a way, it’s all political though,” she said. “My work is meant to show that black people had lives, that they went to parties and were human.”

Saar said she is often inspired by materials. For example, she did a series using washboards that was meant to be a statement on woman’s work. “I was trying to show the irony in black people washing and ironing the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Many of her works are made with primitive materials such as wood, or found objects, and in a style that evokes African American cultures as well as voodooism, said Saar.

For this reason, some of Saar’s art has been misunderstood. She has been called a “devil worshiper” and has received some criticism for her use of derogatory images of African Americans in her art. Saar believes that, as she put it, “You have to know where you’ve been before you can know where you are going,” and she hopes her artwork “makes people think.”

Her ultimate goal, she said, is to show the similarity between people. “The bottom line is we are all people. We are all earthlings. Despite our cultural differences, we are people of the planet,” Saar said.

The timing of the MacDowell Medal ceremony is particularly poignant for Saar as this July marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act being signed into law.

While creating art, Saar and her husband, Richard, who was also an artist, were raising their three daughters. Two of her daughters, Alison and Lezley, are accomplished artists in their own right.

When asked how she juggled the various roles of wife, artist and mother, Saar answered with a hearty laugh: “There are always ways to sneak [your art] in.”

“Women can be really creative in the kitchen — with spices and textures — or in how they dress or in how you arrange your home.”

Saar recommends that busy working women keep sketchbooks to collect their ideas for later realization.

Saar is looking forward to visiting the Northeast for the Medal Day ceremony. She will come with her youngest daughter, Tracye, and her granddaughter. She hopes to bring back home with her inspiration from New Hampshire, with visits to local flea markets and antique shops.

Throughout her career, Saar has received numerous awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, as well as a J. Paul Getty Fund for the Visual Arts Fellowship. Her work is represented in numerous museum collections, including Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.


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