By Carly Pippin
A Buddhist chant in an Indonesian temple. A bustling Moroccan marketplace. A Haitian Vodou ceremony.
In the 1970s, cultural encounters like these launched artist Betye Saar into a nearly six-decade love affair with travel. Now 96 years old, Saar has visited more than 31 countries, documenting her experiences along the way in vividly colored travel sketchbooks combining hand-drawn observations with knickknacks, ephemera, and found items collected from her destinations.
It took until 2019 for a small selection of these sketchbooks—which Saar has long considered more personal documentation than art—to be displayed. They were featured in Betye Saar: Call and Response at LACMA and revealed for the first time to the public the depth of Saar’s creative process and the breadth of her inspiration. Now the full range of her sketchbooks is receiving attention in Betye Saar: Heart of a Wanderer, on view through May 21 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
“I love stepping off a plane and not understanding the language being spoken or why people are dressed a certain way,” says Saar. “Right away you’re on an adventure.”
In Heart of a Wanderer, these adventures are captured in 26 sketchbooks representing Saar’s sojourns to Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Covered with bold, saturated watercolors alongside gleaned materials such as dried flowers, currency, and stamps, the books capture the emotion and excitement of venturing abroad. The exhibition is supported in part by the Getty Foundation’s Paper Project initiative—designed to elevate and celebrate works on paper—and will entice visitors to reflect on their own travel experiences and dive deeper into Saar’s creativity.
“Betye always tries to transport you, to make you feel like you’re seeing something different and outside of everyday life,” says Diana Greenwald, Interim William and Lia Poorvu Curator of the Collection at the Gardner and show organizer. “Because the sketchbooks have been closed for decades, except for Betye rifling through them, they’re incredibly vibrant. They make you yearn for far-off places.”
Although she would become a cosmopolitan, Saar’s early decades focused on Los Angeles. Born in the city in 1926, Saar went on to study design at UCLA and education and printmaking at Cal State Long Beach. She called herself an artist by age 35, first focusing her talents on prints and then transitioning to assemblage (the mixing and matching of objects) to create sculptures with mystical, religious, and familial themes. In the 1970s she chose to engage with topics of sexism and racism in American culture, a key example being The Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972)—a box-shaped assemblage of a gun-toting Aunt Jemima that reclaimed the syrup-brand character as a symbol of Black empowerment. A breakthrough for Saar, the artwork established her as a leader of the Black Arts Movement, a group of politically motivated Black artists, poets, writers, dramatists, and musicians in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the ensuing years, as her daughters got older and her reputation flourished, Saar began leaving familiar places behind to pursue artistic inspiration, often looking for quirky or off-the-beaten-trail experiences. “Whenever I’d give a lecture, I’d ask, ‘Is there anybody here in the audience who knows of an alternative place of worship, with shrines or relics, or a hand-built or folk art environment?’” Saar found different spiritual practices to be of particular interest. “There’s always someone who’d say: ‘Well, there’s this guy that lives down the street from me. He has his funny little yard.’ And that’s where they would take me.”