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How I Became an Artist: Betye Saar

As told to Janelle Zara

With a solo show now on at the ICA Miami, the 95-year-old artist reflects on discovering her calling, finding acceptance, and history repeating itself.

‘An early work that stands out in my mind is Record for Hattie [1975], which is about my great-aunt Hattie Parson Keys. When she passed, I inherited her ephemera – notes, letters, dance cards, gloves, handkerchiefs – essentially her life’s mementos. I made the piece so long ago, but I think my process is the same to this day. I started with a vintage box and lay items of the same color inside. Choosing a color is often the way I conceive my shows, right down to the painting of the walls or the image I choose for the invitation. I layered things and moved them around, adding and subtracting until it felt like the work was complete. I felt that these objects had an energy, a spirit. That’s what comes from a used item – it still has a sense of how it was used or who had used it.

‘I’m a recycler, or a hoarder, or a magpie – however you want to call me. I shop for my materials at estate sales and flea markets and thrift stores, and I find stuff being thrown away on the street. If I’m somewhere like a swap meet I’ll get an idea – “It’s a weathered red wooden shelf. Maybe I’ll fill it with red clocks.” Certain things just catch my eye for whatever reason and I think, “I can make that into art.”

‘I learned early on that you can make art out of anything. Growing up during the Depression, my family was always making things, so being creative came naturally. As a child, I was interested in looking through trash containers, looking at the ground as I walked, searching for something unusual – a scrap of colored paper, a broken necklace. When I would sometimes walk past the Watts Towers [in Los Angeles] when I was visiting my grandmother, I was motivated by the fact that Simon Rodia recycled discarded, throwaway items such as glass shards, bottle caps, and corn cobs to make this amazing art piece. Then I saw the assemblages of Joseph Cornell for the first time at the Pasadena Art Museum and I thought, “Wow, I want to make art like that!” He took all this junk and made it into beautiful things.

‘When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I was a young mother with young children living in a remote part of LA. I was not able to march or attend rallies. Instead, I used my art as my protest. I created The Liberation of Aunt Jemima for a 1972 exhibition of community responses to the assassination at The Rainbow Sign cultural center in Berkeley. I transformed the derogatory image of Aunt Jemima into a female warrior figure, fighting for Black liberation and women’s rights.

‘This work allowed me to channel my anger – not only at the great loss of MLK Jr., but at the lack of representation of Black artists, especially Black women artists. I was an artist, but I still needed a job so I could pay my mortgage and put my girls through college. I worked as a social worker, designed enamelware and jewelry with Curtis Tann, and did some costume designs for the Inner City Cultural Center. I taught and lectured and traveled, but I always still made my art. I’ve never been an artist for the sake of making art to sell. I just like to do what I want and if it sells, fine.

‘In 1974 I received an NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] grant. It was then that I realized that I was an artist and not just a person who made stuff. Making these strange things that got attention and then acceptance as real art, it wasn’t that I was trying to be different. I was doing what fascinated me, using things that were thrown away to make art. And from there I forged my own path.

‘A work is done not only when I see it, but when I feel it. Works are in various stages of completion in my studio for a while – for years sometimes. It’s all a matter of waiting for the right thing to go into the right place. Fifty years after The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Aunt Jemima herself was finally liberated. And yet more work needs to be done. Not much has changed since the 1960s. We’ve had a Black president and still the racial issues of today stem from the same ignorance and fear. I am sad to see history repeating itself yet again, but I am hopeful that truth and love and equality will prevail. Art is still my voice, still my way to protest.’

Janelle Zara is a freelance writer specializing in art and architecture. She is the author of Masters at Work: Becoming an Architect. She currently lives in LA.