was born in Pasadena, California in 1926. As a child she was fascinated by the Los Angeles Watts Towers, spiral towers she watched being built out of concrete and thousands of pieces of broken glass, pottery, bottle caps, mirrors, shells, and rocks by a local folk artist named Simon Rhodia. She found the towers as magical and curious as a place in a fairy tale. They inspired her to think about making art from found objects like the bits of colored glass, stones, and seashells she loved collecting during treasure hunts in her grandmother’s back yard. Because her parents worked outside the home, Betye often turned to art projects to amuse herself and her brothers and sisters. She loved making gifts for her family.
Betye’s parents helped her creativity grow. Her father liked to sketch and wrote plays, songs, and poetry. Her mother, a jewelry-maker and designer, taught her how to sew and paint. She sent Betye to art classes in the summer.
Betye attended Pasadena City College, where she excelled in art. But at that time, it wasn’t recommended that black students study art. Betye felt she was as good as anyone, but she never got any praise. Each year, her class designed floats for the Rose Bowl Parade. One year her design won, but she was not given a prize and her design wasn’t used once people found out she was black. This discrimination made her angry, but later she said it made her work harder than ever.
After she graduated from college, Betye worked as a social worker and a professional costume designer, got married, raised a family of three, and attended graduate school at California State University. She started out making prints, but an exhibit she saw by the artist Joseph Cornell inspired her. He made boxes that looked like small theatres, filled with particular objects arranged in a specific way. These works are called assemblages. Betye’s desire to make art from her collections and found objects was reawakened.
Betye uses all sorts of objects in her work, including fabric, beads, mirrors, paintings, xerox prints, handkerchiefs, sequins, masks, family photographs, postcards, labels, and things from nature such as wood, fur, straw, feathers, bones, and even butterflies. She believes art can be made from anything.
To explore how cultures are viewed by others, she includes objects from various cultures—African, Mexican, and Native American. She wants people to look at stereotypes and question how and what they think about different cultures. She is challenging our values. Her work points out stereotypes to express her pain and anger about prejudice. At first she made only small boxes, then she expanded her ideas into shrine-like assemblages and room-size works called installations.
In her work Betye often includes “objects from her ancestral past.” For example, she might use objects, symbols, or materials from Egyptian and African culture, because that is where some of her ancestors came from. She is connecting herself with her ancestry and culture. What do you think she is trying to tell us by using such objects? She also likes to include mirrors, sometimes broken, or shiny reflective surfaces in her work. Like Alice in “Through the Looking Glass,” she believes a mirror can change the way a person thinks about something. It helps you see something in a new way. Why is this important?
Betye’s work is influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, African-American folk culture and myths, family history, magic and fortune-telling, African sculpture, and her feelings about discrimination she experienced. She also uses dreams and memories as her inspiration. Have you ever had a dream that you thought meant something important? Though the works speak of her own heritage (African, Irish, and Native American), they relate to people of all backgrounds who have experienced discrimination or sadness.
One of her assemblages, “Black Girl’s Window,” is a tall wooden frame divided in half. The top half is divided into smaller spaces like window panes, and in each window there is a picture. Below them a black silhouette of a person looks through the window. The person is like a shadow, flat and undefined, and only her eyes are visible—one opened and one closed. It’s as if she is looking both outside and inside herself. The figure, with her hands pressed against the window, looks as if she is trying to get out. In the panes are pictures from fortune-telling cards such as suns, moons and stars, and in the center is a symbol of death, a skeleton. There is also a picture of an elderly white woman. Betye has both black and white ancestors, and says she understands what it feels like to be both black and white.
What feeling does “Black Girl’s Window” give you? Why is the person undefined, like a shadow? How do you think the person feels? Why? What is Betye trying to say in this work?
Betye Saar’s works often have feelings of mystery or memories of another time. Sometimes they feel haunted or strange. Her assemblages are powerful because they are about family, heritage, ancestors, or ancient cultures; but also because they can help change a person’s view or opinion. By placing certain objects together, she gives them new meaning.
Betye’s art has been in many, many exhibitions. Sometimes she works on projects with her daughter Alison Saar, who is also an artist. In addition to her art-making, she teaches at the Otis Arts Institute in Los Angeles. As a teacher she says she often gets inspiration from her students.