How a visit to the Field inspired Betye Saar's art
Today, the Field Museum celebrates iconic artist Betye Saar and wishes her an incredible 95th birthday! Over six decades, Saar’s masterful print, collage, and mixed media assemblage creations have established her as a globally recognized powerhouse in the world of contemporary art. And she recalls spending time at the Field Museum as a pivotal moment in her artistic path.
Starting her career in printmaking, the visual storyteller was a part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s. Her evolving array of work has focused on family, mysticism, and spirituality as well as truths, myths, and stereotypes about race and gender.
Among Saar’s most recognized pieces are her 1977 sculpture Spirit Catcher and her 1972 work Liberation of Aunt Jemima. In 1975, Saar was catapulted to the national stage with a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Her career has flourished with exhibitions and work in collections across the country and internationally.
More than 45 years later, it’s still on fire! In 2019, she opened concurrent solo shows at two major museums: the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Photo: Betye Saar in 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California; photographer David Sprague.
A museum visit that offered a different perspective
Imagine coming to a museum and being so inspired by the exhibits that it infuses you with wonder and appreciation that fueled your creativity. In articles and other media throughout her life, Saar has spoken of such an occurrence in the 1970s that transformed her art.
In 1990 interviews by Karen Anne Mason for the Center for Oral History Research, University of California, Los Angeles, Saar remembers what she experienced while on a trip to Chicago for a National Conference of Artists. “We went to the Field Museum together,” speaking of her initial visit with fellow artist David Hammons. “My work changed then.”
Saar continued to describe what she encountered: “The Field Museum was an important step in my development as an artist, because I saw lots and lots of African art, Oceanic art, and Egyptian art. They had rooms and rooms of it. I had never seen that much.”
“So with this sort of new Black awareness and this thing about African art being really prevalent—I mean, I looked at all of that work and looked at the materials that they had used in making that art and the feelings that it had.”
A Bamoi robe from Cameroon
Saar says of her formative Field Museum experience: “The strongest piece that affected my work was a robe of an African chief. This piece of fabric was quite amazing because it had a pattern, and when you looked closely, you could see the pattern was composed of a little bit of hair that was made into a hairball and sewn to this cloak.”
“It was like the chief was a guardian of this village, and everyone in the village had contributed a little bit of hair that decorated his cloak. It was so powerful, because not only was it a rough fabric and beautiful to look at, but it had a little bit of everybody on it. For me, even in a glass display case, it was almost like an electrical shock that came through that display.”
“It wasn't so much that it was a cloak that he wore, but the fact that there was something from the human body stitched on it that gave it this particular essence. So I thought, 'Well, I want to make art that's like that. I want to make contemporary, powerful, ritualistic art.' "
Saar said that ethnic art has been a creative resource for her: “When I need inspiration, I go to a natural history art museum, that's where you see it.” And: “Whenever I get a chance and I'm in Chicago, I go to the Field Museum.”
Betye Saar, thank you! We appreciate your memories and remembering us over the years. We are delighted that we could be a source of inspiration for such a living legend and wish you all the best. You are welcome to visit us anytime. May you continue to be inspired to produce beautiful, powerful art.
And, like Betye, we hope you’ll also visit the Field Museum and find what inspires you!