For the third edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Don Edler (‘12) spoke with 1985 Resident Faculty Artist Betye Saar during her return to campus as visiting artist in 2014.
Don Edler: Do you want to start off?
Betye Saar: Yes—my name is Betye Saar I’m visiting Skowhegan from Los Angeles, I was a faculty member here in 1985.
It has been 29 years since I was last here, so I thought I would talk about memory. Like the ease of forgetting and the effort to recall, and how that’s working for me in this experience here at Skowhegan.
In the summer of 1985, probably late June, I might have been teaching at that time, when I finished up my obligations in Los Angeles, I took a plane from Los Angeles and flew to Boston and then from Boston, after a bit of a wait, I flew to Portland and then from Portland I took a very small plane to Bangor, the flight was very bumpy. It was a storm. It was a rather horrendous experience.
As I recall I got to Skowhegan late in the evening and at that time, I don’t know if they still do it now, but if you’re going to be a faculty or a student, you had to bring all your bedding as well as your clothing and so forth. So I had this big duffle bag of sheets and towels as well as my suitcase. The house that I was assigned was one of the things that made me think about how I wanted to talk about my experience. In 29 years, things change.
My effort to recall this experience was because my daughter Allison and I were walking along one of the roads down by the lake the other day and I recognized the back door. The back door was one of the few that opened to the yard. Most of them now have steps leading up to them, to enter or to exit. It was a small backyard and now there are trees, because in 29 years trees grow. What I remember about that yard was that it had strange wildflowers. There was a flower that was like a little Johnny Pop-Ups, dark color, really pretty. The other reason I recognized the backdoor is that it overlooked a house in the back that belonged to another faculty member. I think it was the person that taught fresco. There was a couple that lived there.
One of the things that I do when I can’t sleep at night, when I have insomnia, is try to think about the houses I’ve lived in, what the room placement was, where the windows were, and I go into more detail the less I can sleep. So I was trying to do that exercise. You enter the back door into a small kitchen and maybe there was a table. I remember the sink area and the cupboards. I remember one time we left something out and it attracted a mouse so I had to put a little trap out to catch the mouse and throw it away. Then there was a hall that you would go down and that was the bathroom. It had a tub with a shower attachment, then you would go to another very narrow bedroom which I kind of used for a studio. It had one window at the outside wall and a narrow cot so it could also serve as a bedroom. The hall ended in the front bedroom that was right on the shore of the lake. That’s the other thing I remember about it. It didn’t really hang out, because it was on land, but you couldn’t really walk around the house from that part. There were rocks around it, and water, and you could hear the lake lapping so that made a nice sound. Going back the other way, there was a small front yard of rugged grass and a small little step, not really a porch, not really a sitting porch but a platform to enter. You came into the living room and there were windows on the front and windows on the side. I thought it was a fireplace, it might have been a wood burning stove, but I like wood burning stoves or fireplaces so I remember that part. There were pillows and a couch and it was very comfortable. Behind that was another bedroom. And I slept in all of them. I would just move around. “Oh I need more air. I want to hear the lake” and then I had visitors, Alison and my other daughter Tracy came up and stayed a while. Alison had just gotten married, so she went back to New York to Tom, and Tracy stayed with me and we took a little trip to Bar Harbor just driving across Maine to see what it looked like. We were always hunting and gathering for materials.
There were some wonderful old dilapidated buildings that had been bookshops for a hundred years and there was always something in the basement, like handmade books, and things like that. I remember finding some wonderful books and old photographs and things, and there were good places to eat and so forth.
My job was to visit students. I didn’t like the schedule because it meant I had to see people early and I’m not an early morning person, but it was okay. I saw all the students, because you have to see every single one when you’re here as full-time faculty. I had a very nice faculty studio. I kind of remember that. You entered from the front and it had a nice wall that went around and there were windows on either side. I did an installation called, Wood and Object, I think. But it was all the wooden objects that I had found like picture frames and all the wooden things that people had made, because I’m attracted to naive art, handmade art, not uneducated but self-taught artists.
So that’s what I was looking for, and Maine, at least at that time, had a lot of that. In the other century at least, in the 1900s and so forth, women took sewing and cooking and men took mechanics and woodworking, so there were lots of things that guys in high school had made in wood shop and things like that, so that’s what I was looking for. Later on I did an installation at the Pennsylvania Academy called Strangers and Souvenirs about all the different things I had found in different places. But mostly handmade souvenirs.
DE: What do you think attracts you to those kinds of objects?
BS: I think because I’m a child of the depression, and back then many things were made rather than purchased. Like clothing: my mother was a seamstress so many of our clothes were handmade. And also as a kid I was attracted to strange kinds of architectural venues, like in the ‘30s, if a place sold ice cream they’d have an ice cream cone as a building or if it was a camera shop it would have been built in little camera. There’s a book about that.
DE: Yeah, Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi talks about that.
BS: Yeah. They were like secret fairy tale places. My grandmother lived in Watts so I saw the Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers and that was a really strong influence—not that I ever got up close enough to see it. But my grandmother’s house was on one street and we had to walk down the railroad tracks to go in the city and run her errands, and to see him building these strange structures, I don’t know it just touched something in me. Not that I dislike other kinds of paintings, but that’s just where that imprint came, witnessing that.
DE: I can relate to that - I feel that I make sculptures, if I were being really honest with myself, primarily because I enjoy making things. I like working with my hands. It’s something I learned from my dad growing up: he taught me how to build things in our garage, and that’s always stuck with me. I wonder about you, is it the building of the things and the tactile experience of making objects or is it the finding the things?
BS: It’s the collecting and the recycling. I didn’t know about assemblages until I saw Joseph Cornell’s work and that was the 70s. You know, I didn’t even know that existed as an art form.
DE: But you were already collecting before that?
BS: I was a printmaker and starting to do a kind of assemblage by putting prints in the windows.
DE: Were you collecting objects?
BS: Only the stuff in my house because we didn’t have a lot of money. I remember going to a really fantastic estate yard sale out in the valley, a man and his wife had had a photographic business in downtown Los Angeles and they never threw away anything. There were boxes of shirts they’d never worn and all sorts of things they collected and it was just stuff. So I bought a lot of that stuff. And Pasadena, California is my hometown so we were interested in going to the flea market there, and a flea market anywhere. There was one in West Hollywood where I lived. It was always about the hunt—sometimes it was about something personal that you find, like a scarf or jewelry or something but every once in a while you find something that somebody made. And I know that Maine had a lot of that. Places where it is kind of unpleasant in the wintertime, that’s one of the things you do. Women knit or guys make picture frames, you have to do something with your hands. Always looking and seeking, hunting and gathering, it’s one of our favorite occupations. Alison’s really good at it because she checks the paper every week and then we go out and find stuff. A lot of times we see nothing—not that it’s nothing, it’s just not something we collect—we don’t collect dishes or furniture. We collect collectables, whatnots, useless stuff, stuff that has a memory to it; that’s why I like the handmade things. I can feel the energy of the hands making the thing, even if I don’t know them.
DE: I think that’s a really important aspect of the art object, when it is handmade. It’s a quality that I look for and I enjoy. I’m not such a big fan of ultra-finished work that tries to remove the hand.
BS: Or some very popular artists today, they have like fifteen assistants. They make a sketch, they send it to their studio in China and they paint it. And it’s nothing. It’s sterile when you look at it. I like to see the brushstroke, even if it’s a smooth finish. Because you know the artists worked really hard to get that finish, and even if it’s a sloppy finish. It’s something that shows that there’s a human contact to the thing.
DE: Human contact. I like that.
BS: And then taking it from that, and building that energy, I recycle it to claim it. I combine it with something else or I paint it or I take the finish off and then that becomes the conversion or the manipulation.
BS: Yeah, the imagination, the imagination is first in the selection and the recycling of it, or the manipulation of the surface. Or combining, and the other part of the ritual, because I think about it as kind of a ritual, the hunting and gathering, the manipulation, or releasing it. Sometimes it’s for an exhibition or some gift or something else. And then you just kind of let go.
DE: Can you talk a little bit about the role of the imagination?
BS: I’ve always had a really strong imagination. I loved fairytales and when I learned how to read those were always the kinds of books that I liked. I don’t particularly like science fiction, but I do like things that twerk the imagination. Unfortunately now I don’t read many books but I like short stories, because that’s the only time I have, to read a short story. Because a book will seduce you and you can’t do anything until you finish it.
DE: It’s a funny problem.
BS: Yeah. But I love books. I have books displayed in my house, especially art books, where I just have them open to a page, and I’ll walk by and turn three or four pages or I’ll sit down.
I’ll talk a little bit about the books I have open. One is by an artist named Radcliffe Bailey. When I saw his work at the High Museum in Atlanta, I said “Oh my God, we speak the same language!” because he uses photographs, he uses memory, he uses ritual. So I got his catalog and I have it open so I can say “let me see what’s here.” That’s one of the artists who kind of influences me, just to see in a way that we’re kindred spirits. And then underneath him I have a really large sized book: old charts on astrology and the sky and old legends and nice big pictures of the sun and the sky and all the gods and goddesses that pertain to the sky.
DE: Yeah, you’ve used astrology a lot in your work.
BS: I started out when I was a printmaker. As a child I was always interested in the palmistry hand because during that time in the ’30s, gypsies roamed and they would always come to parks in South Pasadena and have their family conventions there. Of course in the last ten or fifteen years, the palmistry sign is everywhere and everyone is a psychic now, but during that time it, because they weren’t very well liked, or not trusted I guess, they had to keep moving, otherwise they would get run out of town or threatened or something. So I’ve always had that attraction for the palmistry chart. Where I live in Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, and during that time, a lot of hippies were living there, and that was where we lived, and we went to love-ins at the park and dressed in long skirts and cannabis was growing in the back hill, and that was the life. And also in that life was an interest in metaphors, and an interest in palmistry and telling your fortune. “What’s your sign, man?” That still has a realm but it was really, really prevalent then.
So I started looking for books about that, and there were very few printed. There were some old, old books that had been reprinted but then I liked the idea of using them in my work, and using them graphically. With my piece "Black Girl’s Window" the top frame is about that, about the moon and the sun and the stars and how important they are with astrology and telling you what your destiny is like.
I never really got into it where I wanted to tell fortunes, other than just my own intuition about people and signs, because that’s always changing. But as you learn more about astronomy you learn that the stars are important, the moon is important, that the oceans’ tide really makes a difference to the planet and things like that. It’s not just some crazy cult like thing.
DE: It makes sense—we evolved to live on this planet and adapted to live in this environment and the moon is part of our environment. It affects us. I believe that, totally.
BS: Yeah. It does. Because when we haven’t had any rain, I get excited when it’s starting to rain. Of all the celestial bodies, I think the Moon is my favorite. When I haven’t seen the Moon, I’m like “What’s wrong? I haven’t seen the Moon in a week.” The Imagination is something that’s clicking all the time, just clicking all the time. Like for this talk, I was just walking around looking for the house I was in and I got the idea of talking about memory and how difficult it is. And how easy it is to forget. You have to do research. You have to look at papers. You have to look at old calendars, and just how much effort it is to recall something that you forgot just like that. (snaps)
DE: I think about that too but at the same time I think about how it can be really difficult to forget things if you want to forget them, something that you don’t want to remember.
BS: But then it gets into emotion. It’s an emotional kind of thing. You want to forget something bad, or something that you thought was stupid or something that somebody said to you that hurt your feelings. More than forgetting, it’s easy to forget, but then to forgive, you’re not really ready to forgive, so you keep remembering it. So you get the emotional complications of it.
DE: That’s a good point
BS: But back to my experience. So I had my little studio, and I was collecting these wooden things, hunting and gathering, and maybe I made some drawings and some paintings. Oh and I loved birch bark. I’d never been to a place where the woods were so plentiful so I kept collecting all this bark, and painting all this bark. At home in my studio I still have some bark from 1985.
DE: Wow, that’s old bark. (laughs)
BS: I know! It was just too good to throw away, to leave behind. The students that I remember, I remember more students than I can recall their names. Names are the easiest thing to forget.
DE: That happens. Yesterday you were talking about the work, your own work, that you keep around the house. You talked about I’ll Bend but I will not break.
BS: Oh yes, that came from the political series, which came before my visit to Skowhegan, because it really was hinged on the murder, or assassination, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The series started in the ‘60s, with my hunting and my gathering, I would come across these derogatory images, like postcards or salt and pepper shakers or cookie jars, so I just started collecting those. But then after Martin Luther King Jr., I just had this anger that was just overwhelming, and things were really bad in South Africa and it just seemed so horrible the way blacks were treated. And when I found this Aunt Jemima notepad, I was visiting a friend in Berkeley and we went to a flea market in Alameda, really big flea market, bigger than the one in the Rose Bowl I think, and I found this little metal figure of a mammy, an aunt Jemima, and there’s an indentation for a notepad and a place to hold the pencil, and people would hang these up in their kitchen. And I think I was talking about how Slavery had been abolished but still these derogatory images, slave-like images, were put in your kitchen, in your front yard to hold your horse, or to amuse you while doing something like cracking nuts or maybe functioning as a coin bank or something. And I said, I can change that. I can use Aunt Jemima. She’s going to be against the war of Racism. So I gave her a rifle, and in the pad in the center I put a postcard I found of a Mammy with a white baby. So I said, the baby’s skin is white but the features are negroid. So I said, this postcard is something else, this is about something else, it’s about the sexual victimization of the black woman. She belonged to the masters, so that’s the way that went, that piece is called The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.
That piece started off a series that recycled derogatory images. At the time I liked to make these little tabloids, something on the wall. For the piece you asked about, I found this wonderful wooden ironing board, and on it I superimposed a diagram of a slave ship, and an iron, it was like an old fashioned iron, not an electric iron, an old fashioned iron that you have to heat on the stove. I also used an image of a woman ironing. That piece is called I’ll bend but I will not break. So that was like my philosophy about coping with racism. You’re not going to surrender to it, you’re going to keep fighting against it.
DE: You gave that wonderful lecture the other day and you focused it around Black Girl’s Window and I was wondering if you could talk about how you decided to focus on that piece.
BS: I chose that piece because each panel has a story to tell, like my interest in metaphysic and palmistry and magic and there is a panel about my family. In this way I was able to talk about my family a little bit and show some art from them. I talked about death being in the center, and it wasn’t until I started thinking about that talk, and saying “Why is death in the middle?” that I thought, well, it reminded me of when my dad died. Death is always with us even when we’re alive, not that we have to think about it all the time, certainly when we’re children we don’t do that.
Even last night when I think about my costume for the costume ball, people asked, “What’s your title? what’s your name?” and I said “Madame Mort”. People probably think, “Man that chick talks about Death all the time.” I think about it maybe because I’m older, in the last few decades of my life, and it’s not that I anticipate it or dwell on it, I know i’m blessed because I’m in really good health, have good energy. So I guess that’s why death is in the center. Everything starts out from that. Or everything ends up at that. Maybe that’s more positive. Everything that surrounds it, ends up right there. Everything we love is gonna die. *Laughs*
DE: (laughs) That’s a little dark, that’s pretty dark I would say.
BS: But it’s true. And I don’t see it as darkness because that’s why it’s important to make something really beautiful, to do something really beautiful in your life. So you leave and you leave a beautiful memory. And that’s a positive thing.
BS: I think about my great aunt who was 94 when she died and I think of her vagueness. She was an adult, she wasn’t demented or anything, but I kept thinking there was a song that an old time singer sang, Peggy Lee, saying “Is that all there is?” and I think a lot of people end up like that when they’re in a hospital bed and they have a lucid moment and they say “Is this the way I’m gonna go out?” I always think of my life as a spiral, and some parts will overlap where the spiral overlaps, but it continues going around and around. It probably gets smaller and smaller instead of larger and larger. It causes me to think about, “Is this what I want to leave behind?” What is it that I want to do with my life?” and most people aren’t blessed with a gift, artists have the creative gift, they are really super blesses, whether music or words or art or whatever. The fact that you leave something behind, even if the viewer doesn’t know the artist, they still are inspired or impressed or enjoy what was left behind.
DE: I feel really grateful that I get to make art and one thing that is important to me about it is that it’s sort of a constant searching or learning process about myself. I’m learning about myself which is probably the biggest mystery in my life, understanding myself.
BS: Sometimes I do something, and I think this is another reason I chose Black Girl’s Window, because sometimes I reinterpret things. I look at my work, or someone else’s work and I think “Then why this? Why this picture here?” In that piece, I have the phrenology chart, which is I guess my interest in “other” in ”outside” in the unknown. and the more I thought about it, I thought “I’m gonna use that image for inspiration” for ideas, for thoughts- thought that you don’t know until they happen to you but it’s all in your head somewhere. So they start fitting but when I made this I didn’t think about that. The only thing I thought about, underneath the death pane is a tintype of a white woman. And for me that symbolizes part of my unknown personal history. My grandmother was Irish, but that history is cloudy.
DE: That’s what was so great about your lecture, that piece sort of encapsulates all different modes of working and interests and moments in your life also, because there’s an overlap. And I think it’s concise in that way and it’s also just a great piece.
BS: Thank you. So you had one more question?
DE: The last question, and you started touching on it a little bit, but what do you think about your legacy?
BS: We kind of touched on that. The legacy of maybe creating something, I mean, the phrase “unforgettably beautiful” is a pretty high goal. (laughs)
DE: Ok, We can use that. (laughs)
BS: But The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, because it also was timing too, because it was a piece that started out with anger and trying to gain power from pain that it kind of fit in with the civil rights movement, certainly with women’s rights and the feminist movement. That became one of the icons, every time there’s a feminist show that’s gonna be in it. Especially for black women. Maybe about 4, 5 years ago Angela Davis spoke at the museum of contemporary art in Los Angeles. And she stood up and she said, “The black women’s movement began with Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” Whoa was I high after that. But that’s what that image is about. But it’s also about all black people, or people of color, or anyone who’s been repressed. Because first there’s the civil rights movement for black people, and then it’s moved on to gay rights, and now it’s moved on to transgender rights, so, you know.
DE: Yeah it set a really important precedent.
BS: Because people really want freedom. I think that’s my legacy. I think my legacy is that piece, Black Girl’s window.
DE: Yeah I think it’s a good combination. Like I was saying yesterday. I think you were touching on this a little earlier but now I’m really curious: would you be able to, or willing to, talk a little bit about how you made The Liberation of Aunt Jemima? Or how it came together?
BS: I found the little plaque thing, the kitchen plaque, at a flea market in Alameda, and then I had also found the postcard of the mammy holding the mulatto baby not at the same time, but during that time, also, at the Olympics that year two of the black athletes I think they were runners, they held up the black fists, so that had to be at the center of it, because that symbolized black power. And further, she has a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other, and I’m not a violent person, I don’t love guns or anything like that, but that was a symbol of a weapon, to suggest a weapon for civil rights. And people understand guns. They don’t understand people talking and talking and talking. There’s no such thing as a peaceful transaction about getting your civil rights.
DE: So you had already been collecting at that point, right?
BS: Yeah, I probably had the postcard already. And then behind it, I made a collage of Aunt Jemima pancake flour, which is no longer an ugly black woman, but it is a brown woman, and it’s a commercial, the commercialization of the black woman, and the bottom references cotton fields, like rising up out of the cotton fields, because slaves were mostly used in outside work: cotton fields, working for labor, whatever. If you werea field person, you were the lowest one, or you worked in the house, which was a kind of step up from outside work. It’s interesting because that’s where black people found out how white people lived: about another way of cooking, another way of dressing, another kind of etiquette and of course other languages. That was really an educational process. A painful educational process, but still. Because those are the people who later on were able to go to college, were able to go to school, were able to learn how to write because it was illegal to write your name. Or to write anything. Or to read anything. It was illegal. So it’s all very interesting.
DE: You collect these things, and you make these narratives.
BS: And I make an object. Or a collage. But mixed media is my thing. Not just painting, not just sculpture. I like to mix it up. The holistic approach. I try to live my life that way. I try to accept the physical and the mental and the spiritual.