Betye Saar
National Visionary

Born July 30, 1926 in Los Angeles, Californina

Prominent, pioneering artist whose works,
infused with a sense of mysticism and
family, poignantly critique racism, sexism
and oppression

Artist and educator, Betye Irene Saar has spent more than five decades creating incisive and poignant works of art that critique all forms of racism, sexism and oppression while simultaneously pointing toward a curiosity and a beauty that transcend the artificial categories that divide people.   Saar has gained international notoriety for her work in printmaking, collage, assemblage and installation art and takes her place among other prominent African American artists such as Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold.  

Saar as a child
Born July 30, 1926 to Jefferson Maze Brown and Beatrice Lillian (Parson) Brown, Saar spent the first years of her life in Los Angeles, California.   Her father, who had attended the University of California at Los Angeles, died from kidney failure when Saars was only five years old.   After the death of her father, Saar, her mother and two siblings moved to Pasadena, where they lived with Saar's great-aunt, Hattie Keys.   During this time Saar's mother also took work as a seamstress to support the family.   Her mother often made ends meet by recycling scraps of discarded materials to create things her children needed.   In a subtle way, this economical use of everyday, often overlooked materials served as an inspiration in Saar's later works.  

Growing up during the depression, Saar and her family learned the value of finding beauty and usefulness in things others might have dismissed.    This ability to find beauty in ordinary items continued to grow and develop.   For example, as a child, Saar often spent summers visiting her grandmother in Watts.   During these trips, Saar, her brother and her sister would "treasure-hunt" in her grandmother's backyard, collecting items such as bottle caps, feathers, old buttons and broken glass.   Using these seemingly useless items, Saar would make dolls, puppets and gifts for her family.   It was during this time that she began to acquire her lifelong faith "in the power of art to recover meaning from old fragments" (Saar, Biography Resource Center ).   It was also at her grandmother's house that she encountered the work of the Italian-immigrant and folk artist Simon Rodia. On trips to the market, Saar witnessed Rodia creating the famous Watts Towers out of concrete, broken glass, found-scraps of metal and other discarded items.   Saar saw the Towers as magical and mystical and later described them as a fundamental influence on her own work which is rooted in the collage tradition (Biography Resource Center).  

Saar began her formal art training in 1945 as a design major at UCLA where her art focused on design and greeting cards.   She graduated in 1949 with a BA in design, and then worked as a social worker while continuing to purse a career in design on the side.   On September 16, 1952 she married Richard Saar, a white American of German decent who worked in art design and manufacturing.    The couple had three children, Lezley, Alison and Tracye, before they divorced in 1968.   In 1958, Saar returned to school to purse a teaching career and graduated from California State University at Long Beach in 1962.   While at Long Beach Saar was introduced to print making.   Throughout the 1960s Saar focused her artistic talents on printmaking, featuring aspects of mysticism and the occult as seen in her works, Mystic Window for Leo (1966) and The House of Tarot (1968) [see appendix B, image 3].    In the mid 1960s, after attending an exhibit by Joseph Cornell, an assemblage artist, Saar was inspired to venture into the medium of assemblage art, and she found that it allowed her to reconnect with her earlier interest in creating art from found objects.  

At the end of the 1960s, Saar's art work moved into another direction.   Influenced by the Civil Rights movement, Saar began to utilize the medium of assemblage to express her commentary on America's troubled race relations. Saar explains, "As a mother of three I couldn't participate directly in the Civil Rights movement, so I used my art to contribute to the movement" ("Betye Saar Interview," Artsconversations Archive). Influenced by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement and African American folk culture, in 1972 Saar created her break though work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Aunt Jemima quickly became Saar's signature piece and in an interview she commented that " Aunt Jemima is now known more than me ("Betye Saar Interview," Artsconversations Archive).   In this piece, Saar used the image of Aunt Jemima, the figure of an African American woman which had long-been exploited in the selling of various products, to address derogatory images of black women. She reversed this stereotype by juxtaposing the traditional image with objects of empowerment.   In Saar's image Aunt Jemima holds a rifle in one hand, a grenade in the other and is overlaid with the image of the black power fist.   Throughout the 1970s, Saar focused her art on countering racial stereotypes and making political statements with works such as I've Got Rhythm and Mama's Little Coal Black Rose .  

In 1974, Saar received a National Endowment for the Arts grant which allowed her to travel to Haiti, Mexico and Nigeria to further develop her longtime interests in mysticism, the occult and sacred ritual.   This experience led Saar to experiment with installment art as a way to create the altars used in the rituals she had observed in her travels.   Saar's works throughout the 1970s were inspired by her interest in ancient traditions and cultures.   This phase of her work focused on collecting cultural objects and ancestral materials to create a series of boxes and altars that she refers to as her ancestral works (Carpenter 28).   Saar's transformation of rituals and cultural symbols is showcased in her 1973 work, Mti that infused Gypsy, Indian, Voodoo and Mexican cultural symbols [see appendix B, image 4].   Saar continued to create installment and mixed media assemblages over the next three decades.   In 1975, Hattie Keys, the great aunt whom Saar had lived with as a child, died leaving Saar decades of belongings and objects that she would use over the next five years to recreate a piece of her family history.   Her work, Record for Hattie pays tribute to her late aunt as well as her family and ancestral history [see appendix B, image 5].  

Over the last three decades Saar's work has focused on remembering the past, breaking down social stereotypes, countering the myriad forms of oppression, delving deeper into mysticism and ritual and synthesizing cross cultural symbols.   As part of her project of moving beyond boundaries and facile categorization, Saar has participated in numerous solo and group exhibits in countries all over the world.   Saar's works are in permanent collections at the High Museum in Atlanta, the Hirshorn Collection in Naples, Florida, the Oakland Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, among others. In the 1990s Saar, with her daughter Alison, was the feature of two notable videos, "Similar Differences: Betye and Alison Saar" and "Betye and Alison Saar: Conjure Women of the Arts."   Saar continues to create art from her studio in California and occasionally collaborates with daughters Alison and Trayce.


Betye Saar's Wikipedia Page

Faith Ringgold's Visionary Page
* Elizabeth Catlett's Visionary Page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/saarbetye