RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We turn now to The Long View, this morning from Betye Saar. She's an assemblage artist who calls herself a conjurer, a recycler. In a way, her own heritage is a collage: African, Irish, Native American. Born in Los Angeles in 1926, Betty Saar still lives in the hills above the city in a huge gray-shingled house. Leading up to her front door are terrace gardens filled with colored tiles, pots and carefully arranged objects.
Ms. BETYE SAAR (Artist): As an artist, everything I do has this thing of assembling things, assembling plants, and sculptures, and lanterns, and rocks.
MONTAGNE: Betye Saar is small, though her gray hair swoops up inches higher, and a wrist full of gold bangles adds weight. Right inside her front door is one of Saar's own works, an assemblage that resembles an altar: a large ghostly photograph of an African-American soldier from World War I sits below a tattered American flag, mounted on a tombstone-shape slab of wood.
Ms. SAAR: I wasn't intending it to be a morbid piece but it turned out to be that way. Across the bottom is a diagram of a slave ship, and the piece is called “Crossings.”
MONTAGNE: And the red roses?
Ms. SAAR: The red roses are for Christmas.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: You just put them on.
Ms. SAAR: I just decorate my art for Christmas.
MONTAGNE: Art entwines with the every day for Betye Saar, and as she looks back, it always has. She first glimpsed real art as a child visiting her grandmother in Watts. Today, Watts is best known as an urban black community infamous for the 1965 Watts riots. In the 1930s, it was racially mixed and almost rural. There, this young black girl watched an Italian immigrant by the name of Simon Rodia as he pieced together what would become the famous glittering spirals of the Watts Towers.
Ms. SAAR: He had a big car, and he would see these piles of rubble and he would go through it. And he wanted to make something monumental. And he put these steel structures up and covered them with cement, impressed shards of ceramics, of plates. I've seen corncobs in there. I've seen tools in there. It's like the cement is wet, what can we put in here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SAAR: And I think that was the beginning of my becoming an assemblagist, or recycler.
MONTAGNE: Seeing the Watts Towers?
Ms. SAAR: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: It would take years before Betye Saar's beginning came to fruition in the art world. She was a mother. She raised three daughters. A late bloomer, she laughs. At the age of 46, she created the piece that would make her reputation and launched a series of art aimed at reclaiming the derogatory images of blacks.
The “Liberation of Aunt Jemima” was exhibited in 1972. It was a wooden box displaying a black mammy, full figured, smiling wide, a kerchief wrapped around her head. She's holding a broom in one hand.
Ms. SAAR: She's holding a rifle in the other. And it was about the way African-American women were treated as a sex object, as a domestic soldier, and it was about this particular one's revolt to be free of that image.
I'm the kind of person who recycles materials, but I also recycle emotions and feelings. And I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and the racism in this country, and so this series sort of evolved. And I feel like if I had to say what was my contribution to the art world and to the world in general as an African-American woman, it would be this series.
MONTAGNE: In one of the catalogs to your - a recent catalog, you wrote that it is your goal as an artist to create works that expose injustice and reveal beauty.
Ms. SAAR: I want the viewer to be seduced by my work. So, for me, that's the part that's essential to have beauty, because it's either the color and the mystery. If the piece is on the wall, I want the piece to crook their finger and say come over here and check this out. And then when they're there, then they can see what other information I have to say.
So the studio is new.
MONTAGNE: Betye Saar's studio is overflowing with the stuff of her art.
Ms. SAAR: This is my space. These are pieces in progress.
MONTAGNE: Tables in the room are layered with mysterious objects and materials. A shelf filled with pickaninny dolls, tiny minstrels, slices of watermelon made from painted wood. Lately, she's been working with metal, rusty chains, long discarded toys, birdcages.
Ms. SAAR: We have a neighbor and he knows that I like to collect stuff. So sometimes I come out and on my steps there's a little pile of rusty metal.
MONTAGNE: And along the wall are dozens of stacked drawers neatly labeled.
Ms. SAAR: Plant life and leaves, and clocks and locks, down to shoes on that side, wooden shapes and metal shapes. And then over here are softer things, like embroidery and flowers.
MONTAGNE: I need a moment here to ask that could we open the door that says snakes?
Ms. SAAR: Yeah. They're snakes. These are just - this is like a toy. This is a (unintelligible) shaped, looks like it's lost its head. No, actually it's clay maybe.
MONTAGNE: I love this one.
Ms. SAAR: Goes like that.
MONTAGNE: Betye Saar turned 80 this past July, and she's written about it.
You described turning 80 and, you know, happy birthday!
Ms. SAAR: Eighty revolutions around the sun, my dear.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Does that 80 - could be a really big birthday.
Ms. SAAR: I felt that it was until I saw a commercial of this spry, little lady and she says, I'm 104 years old. I didn't know I was going to live that long. I just got up every morning and there I was. And I say, now that's a cool lady.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SAAR: And she was just doing. And I said, oh, yeah. That's it. You know, you don't really think about it. But there is a sense of freedom that comes with that. You know, a sense of freedom to say no, I don't want to do that. I don't want to get up this morning. I'm going to do it. And fortunately, I'm still lucky that my art is still marketable and I can still keep doing that.
MONTAGNE: Do you see things differently than you did when you're 30? What is different and what is actually really the same?
Ms. SAAR: Well, I like memory and I like to recall things. But I live pretty much in the present because every day comes and every day has something new to present. It just doesn't seem like the days last long enough. I can't get it all done.
MONTAGNE: Artist Betye Saar. She has two retrospectives traveling the country right now. And she's titled one of her newest pieces “Still Ticking.” To see the art of Betye Saar, new and old, go to our Web site, npr.org.
Tomorrow, choreographer and dancer Merce Cunningham on being ahead of his time.
Mr. MERCE CUNNINGHAM (Choreographer; Dancer): We would play for very small audiences. And halfway through that smallness would have been divided by a further departures of people. But, more and more, people began to perceive a way to look at it and to receive it.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.