The Hand of the Artist

29 Apr 2014

Woman with Bird in Her Hair by Betye Saar, 2010, mixed media collage on paperboard,13 1/2 x 12. All works courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY.
Woman with Bird in Her Hair
by Betye Saar, 2010, mixed media collage
on paperboard,13 1/2 x 12. All works courtesy
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY.

When I see an artwork behind glass or on a pedestal in the hushed atmosphere of a museum or gallery, I try always to remember that the object--a sculpture, collage, drawing, or painting--started from two hands, humble tools toiling in the hopes that something vital and powerful would come out of all their labor. Artist Betye Saar's "toil" has resulted in truly significant and multifaceted works over the course of her career. Her mixed-media assemblages and collages show the capabilities of an artist who has no compunction with making works that are as incisively crafted as they are artistically fine.

The daughter of a seamstress and granddaughter of a quilter, Saar uses flea-market finds, recycled objects, old photos, paper, fabric, needle, and thread to delve into metaphorically deep waters. Issues of race, politics, and gender; spirituality and metaphysics; marginalization and repression; and, of late, psychological and literal imprisonment have all found their way into her work.

Birds of a Feather by Betye Saar, 2010, mixed media collage on paperboard, 12 3/4 x 12.
Birds of a Feather by Betye Saar,
2010, mixed media collage on paperboard,
12 3/4 x 12.

Saar's recent collages feature women in domestic roles. They are for the most part historical images of young black women, seemingly with their whole lives ahead of them. But Birds of a Feather tells a different story. All of the birds surrounding the women in the collage are grounded, perching, none of them shown in flight. It's the same with Woman With Bird in Her Hair. The bird--an indication of possibility, hope, and change--is moored to a woman we can't identify, its talons tangled in her hair. The lower half of the woman's face has been cut away. Her mouth is gone, her voice is muted, and the expression of her thoughts and ideas are snuffed out as well. Her bird can't fly. The implication in both artworks being that the roles that have been assigned or taken up by these women--or any of us for that matter--can box us in and limit us more than set us free.

But despite the weightiness of her concepts, Saar makes beautiful artworks. They say complex things eloquently, but above all they are carefully constructed so that your eye wants to engage with them. Like Childe Hassam's paintings of New York during winter or the bold, artistic geometry of a Gee's Bend quilt, I could spend hours looking at Saar's work and still find new and intriguing aspects to explore the next time it crosses my path.

Art behind glass or on a podium is perfectly fine, but actively engaging in the creative process is much more exciting and rewarding, most of all because there are few boundaries or hierarchies to making art. Paintings, sculptures, art quilts, or collages--all are made by transforming raw materials and bringing disparate parts together. Watercolor Artist magazine is strongly aligned with this same understanding and can give you a creative outlet to pursue your work with different water-based media or inspire you to set off in a new artistic direction. So whether you work with fabric and thread, paper and pen, paint and brush, or a combination of them all, be inspired by the fact that it's your two hands creating art, however you choose to do it.


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Comments

on 9 Nov 2010 1:02 PM

Good description and analysis of these Betye Saar works. Makes me want to see more of them. There were quilters in my family, too, and I have some of them---a couple my mother made.

GaileneS wrote
on 14 Nov 2010 3:43 PM

Betty Sarr work is very interesting from the standpoint of how she chooses to assemble her found objects.  As a mixed media artist myself placement is so important in the composition of a piece.  Knowing when to stop is as important as taking the first step.