‘Warrior’ artist

Controversial and prolific artist Betye Saar comes home

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 1/19/2012

After proving herself as one of the most influential assemblage artists of the past 50 years, Betye Saar is still going strong at age 85. Over the years, the artist’s sometimes controversial works have been shown at prominent museums and art galleries, and today she’s come back to her hometown for a Pacific Standard Time exhibit at the Pasadena Museum of California Art.
Opening Sunday, “LA RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy” includes works by Saar and 40 others in a variety of media examining the roles these artists played in the historical context of post-World War II America. 
“My most famous piece is ‘The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,’ which is a figure that was fabricated, actually manufactured, to be a kitchen item to hold a notepad and a pencil and things like that,” Saar explains in a recent interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “So instead of the pencil, I put a rifle in there, and instead of the notepad, I put a photograph in there, so that sort of became an icon. Instead of a servant, I made her a warrior.”
Saar’s family moved to Pasadena in 1932, and although she now lives in Los Angeles, she attended Cleveland and Washington elementary schools as well as Washington Junior High and spent the last two years of high school at Pasadena City College, when it was called Pasadena Junior College. She studied art at UCLA and received her master’s degree from Cal State Long Beach.
After dabbling in fine arts and printmaking, Saar dedicated her talent and energy to assemblage art, or three-dimensional collages. She started gaining respect and admiration in the art world following her controversial works, which recycled derogatory images and figures, such as Aunt Jemima and Little Black Sambo.
Dorothy Garcia, co-founder of the Altadena-based nonprofit Art Aids Art, has known Saar’s mother and family since she was 14, but it wasn’t until seeing one of Saar’s art shows in San Francisco that she realized Saar’s connection with Pasadena and her life.
“For me, Betye is a West Coast artist, a Pasadena artist, and she’s just starting to realize how much she is loved here,” says Garcia. “I would really like to see Pasadena own her. She is a goddess.”
Saar recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the California African American Museum for her contribution to the early black arts and women’s movements. But even at age 85, Saar is nowhere near retiring.
“I think my success just comes from continually doing it,” she says. “I can’t give up, because I just have too many ideas, and I’ve got all this stuff to do, so that’s why I think I continue to be an artist. The more you do, the more you can do.”
Saar recalls how she started out, after discovering a trunk that her mother had brought back from Kansas City. The trunk was full of handkerchiefs, gloves, personal letters and other items, such as old photographs of African Americans, which she began using in assemblage art aimed at telling the story of her mixed African, Irish and Native American heritage.
“I like transforming junk into something else,” said Saar. “I go to the PCC flea market, thrift stores, antique stores and yard sales. Those are good places to find materials. I like turning trash into art, which is kind of a California movement.”
The length of time it takes her to finish a piece varies. She’s always writing down ideas and collecting items to use, and sometimes it takes several years until she has gathered enough materials to create a display. Once she is ready, however, putting a piece together usually doesn’t take too long. Her home and art studio is filled with rare and antique items waiting to be turned into three-dimensional works of art.
Although she has only had one solo art installation, Saar enjoys showing her work with other artists. One group show she is particularly proud of consisted of her work along with visual art created by two of her three daughters, Alison and Lezley.
“Betye is the only artist who has had a show with two other women, both her daughters, at the Pasadena Museum of California Art,” said Garcia. “It’s a big deal. If Michelangelo and his son had a show together, we would think it was so hot. The fact that her progeny is having art shows with her, it’s just not usually done.”
Saar, who has been represented by the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery in New York for more than two decades, is ready to bring her work back to the city she grew up in.
“It’s always hard to make it in your own hometown,” said Saar. “It seems like you have to go elsewhere and develop a reputation and then you can be accepted back home. But I’ve always been very fond of Pasadena, and I still go there a lot.” 

“LA RAW: Abject Expressionism in Los Angeles 1945-1980, From Rico Lebrun to Paul McCarthy” opens from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday to May 20 at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, 490 E. Union St., Pasadena. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Call (626) 568-3665 or visit www.pmcaonline.org for more information.