Betty Woodman – Contemporary American Artist

Betty Woodman. Photo: WideWalls
Betty Woodman. Photo: WideWalls

Betty Woodman, the 86-year-old ceramicist who overcame art world prejudice just to brighten the world. The doyenne of the domestic aesthetic leading the way for over 60 years.  

Woodman died in January 2018. Her obituary in the Guardian newspaper reflects on the fact that Woodman was given a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006, and that it was the first time a living woman and a working ceramicist gained this honour. A high accolade indeed.

Doyenne in her field

Up until the death of her daughter in 1981, Woodman was a painter and ceramicist, not concentrating on one particular genre, working in the pattern and decoration movement created in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a reaction to the male-dominated art world of abstraction and critical theory.

Widely influenced by Matisse, Bonnard and Picasso, Woodman drew on her love of art, design and ceramic history, along with architectural design, to create a colourful and joyful palette – leaving the audience in no doubt Woodman did not do drab.

Tables and Vases, 2006. Photo: locksgallery.com

Born in Connecticut in 1930, at the time of the great recession, Woodman showed her interest in working with clay while she was still a teenager. She studied at the School for American Craftsmen in Alfred, New York. At the age of 20, she began to work as a potter and artist. 

Encouraged by her parents, Woodman was able to take advantage of their socialist and feminist views and to embrace the arts: something that could not have been easy so soon after the war.

In 1951 Woodman set up home in Antella, Tuscany and, not surprisingly, became overwhelmed by Italy: its Renaissance art, Baroque architecture and the vitality of the people, and ancient history, which all fed into her aesthetic. 

The 1970s saw her work become more individual, the original classical scrolls and detailing of Greek and Roman art became more pronounced. Experimentation followed using other techniques and materials like paintings, graphite’s, ink, lacquer and wax. Woodman expressed to the world the fact that there are no limits to someone’s creativity, except their preoccupations. 

Fast forward to 1981 – the suicide of Woodman’s daughter led her to re-assess and condense what she has been working on into more sculptural pieces. And it was from this point that her work became widely seen on the circuit. Her 1970s ceramic jugs called ‘pillow pitchers’ regularly exhibited, and she moved on to more eclectic collections referencing 16th century Japanese Oribe pottery and Tang Dynasty ceramics.

Her inspiration

The colours came from Persian and Islamic ceramics and art, and this combination would evolve into producing notable public artwork at Denver airport in 1994 and a monumental fountain commissioned by Liverpool Biennial in 2016, which resembles a sizeable Egyptian wall painting from the Valley of the Kings. In the same year, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London gave her a retrospective entitled ‘Theatre of the Domestic’. A well-deserved accolade for helping to raise ceramics into a significant art form.

If you love brightly coloured art, then you will love Woodman. Playful and friendly, she creates light and fun: her funky teapots were a great example. She created them in 1955; or the divided Aegean Pillow Pitcher made in 1985, carrying this theme through to the end in an enthusiastic pottery teacher style.

Posing with Vases at the Beach, 2008. Photo: Frieze

Woodman is very collectable with items selling well at auction, with permanent exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Denver Art Museum, Met Museum of Art, New York and MOMA. Also at Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, National Gallery of Art, Washington, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Awards and honours include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in 1980 and 1986, the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at the Bellagio Study Center, Italy in 1995, Fulbright-Hays Scholarship to Florence Italy in 1996

Woodman gained a Doctor of Fine Arts Honors Causa from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2006 and 2007 a Doctor of Humane Letters Honoris Causa from the University of Colorado Boulder. She followed in 2009 with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. Finally, a gold medal for Consummate Craftsmanship, American Craft Council, awarded in 2014.

As American contemporary artists go, Woodman doesn’t create controversy or drama. You won’t visit an exhibition and leave feeling sad or angry, but you might leave feeling inspired to create. You can see her work reflected in the work of Grayson Perry and Australian contemporary artist Bridget Bodenham.

Cody Hoyt is also a great example; walking in Woodman’s shadow, both bring joy to the breakfast table. Woodman was quietly groundbreaking without breaking ground or causing a fuss. The sign of real talent.

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