Remembering Betty Woodman
Remembering Betty Woodman 1930-2018
Photo Credit: Galleria Bagnai – Firenze. Photograph by Bruno Bruchi
I first met Betty Woodman in 1971 in Antella, Italy. Betty and her husband George had just recently bought a small, stone house perched on a hillside overlooking olive groves with dreamlike Florence in the distance. Betty's studio was under the house. It was very simple and small with a treadle wheel and basic shelving. A homemade kiln was in the field next to the studio where she raku fired. She was working with a French stoneware clay and playing around with a local low fire earthenware.
Although well into her career as a potter at this time, Betty was in the very beginning stages of becoming Betty Woodman, the artist. She was pushing her work way beyond the functional pottery she was known for and was about to stun the world with her exuberant art.
Betty Woodman, Utensil Strainer, earthenware raku, 1978
Betty Woodman, Two Early Vessels, Photo Credit: Artnet
In 1971, the colors of her work were turning from the subtle browns, cobalt blue on white, and soft celadon greens of traditional pottery to bright saffron yellows and ocean colored turquoise blues. There was plenty of lead in dusty brown bags in that basement studio. She used them to create those luscious yellows, greens, and orange colors. As a potter, she worked hard every day and every day the work changed. The forms were beginning to get pushed and manipulated by her very capable hands. She was an amazing thrower. Betty could easily throw 50 pots without even blinking. The body of work she created in Antella was a far cry from her earlier salt fired pots. In retrospect, I think Italy was the reason why. You could see those colors everywhere you looked; in the museums in Florence, on the streets of every town, in the tiles on the roofs, in the local pottery in the restaurants. The warm weather, the vibrant culture, and rich architectural history all contributed to this new work. She was absorbing everything around her.
Tangerine Basket, Photo Credit: Harvey Meadows Gallery
I was just 18 and intrigued by the idea of what an artist's life looked like. What is this? I had never seen anything like it before. Betty's husband George was a fine painter and had a small painting studio off the patio area. Their daughter Francesca, who was much closer in age to me, was most creative, too. She could draw and wrote poetry. Charles, their son, was into photography and later became a filmmaker. I knew right away I was with people who had set their compass and it was for Art. Every conversation, every trip, every question seemed to be about art and the quest for understanding it. They were a family of true artists.
Francesca and George Woodman, Photo Credit: The Guardian
People cannot know why they influence you and so it was with Betty. Betty was striving for something very deep and she got there through incredibly hard work and a kind of longing that knew no bounds. She made me see that art can be pursued with passion and that you can break all the rules. It doesn't mean though that just because you do the work it will be good. She also helped me understand how art can become your life. It was this creative drive that got her up every day and inspired people to look at clay in a totally new way.
Betty Woodman started as a potter but moved her work in directions that were ultimately more about sculpture and painting. However, she somehow managed to honor the age-old traditions of the material and dazzled people because of it or despite it. She never could completely let that go and she didn't need to. She broke through the bias of clay not being a first-rate material to make art with. She had made people come to her door to see the great work she was making on her terms.
Betty Woodman, Persian Pillow Pitcher No. 6, 1981,
Photo Credit: Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art
Here are a few words I wrote after her last show in New York in 2015.
Sometime in the '70s Betty broke away from tradition and started an amazing voyage of experimentation with clay. Bulbous vases and pillow shaped pitchers were the beginning. Over time the dialogue became more deeply layered, with references in her work to art and architecture from traveling the world. Explosive decorated surfaces showed her love of both folk and formal painting traditions. Nothing was held back.
The vases we saw, made during the past few years, exude a kind of passion for clay and a confidence in making and meaning that carry them into the realm of fine art. Away from any traditional pottery concerns, the work is filled with emotional content and visual interest. One can see the love for the human body in them and the longing for containment and a lover's embrace. The vases are artistic metaphors for what we all want; to be loved and to be enjoyed.
Betty Woodman: On the Way to Mexico, 2012, Photo Credit: ModernMag
Betty Woodman: Roman Fresco/Pleasures and Places, 2010, American Academy in Rome, Rome, Italy, Installation view, Photo Credit: David Kordansky Gallery
This was my last correspondence with Betty after the passing of her husband George in the Spring of 2017:
This must have been the hardest summer for you. Please know if there is anything I can do to help I will. Somehow our paths became entwined. Don't know why but because of it we are forever linked. Long ago and far away I still think fondly about all of you.
Her response on October 29, 2017:
It was such a nice surprise to hear from you. Thank you for sharing the memory of that summer in 1971. Someday this winter when you come to New York I would love to make you a cup of tea and talk about dinnerware, Francesca and us.
Tanti saluti baci Betty
January 6, 2018:
To Betty: You will be a part of me forever. I will never let others forget about you, your enormous contributions to the art world and your amazing family of artists.
The Woodmans: George, Betty, and Charles