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Life Is a Collage for Artist Betye Saar

Betye Saar is an assemblage artist who calls herself a conjurer, a recycler.

In a way, her own heritage is a collage: African, Irish, American Indian.

Born in Los Angeles back in 1926, Saar still lives in the hills above the city in a huge grey-shingled house.

Leading up to her front door are terraced gardens, filled with colored tiles, pots and carefully arranged objects.

"As an artist everything I do has this thing, assembling things. assembling plants and sculptures and lanterns rocks and so forth," Saar explains. She is is small, though her grey hair swoops up inches higher. A wristful 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-shaped slab of wood.

"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.' " The red roses, she says, "are for Christmas -- I just decorate my art for Christmas."

Saar 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 riots.

In the 1930's, it was a racially mixed place where this young black girl watched an Italian immigrant by the name of Simon Rodia as he pieced together what would become the glittering spirals of the Watts Towers.

"He had a big car and he would see these piles of rubble and he would go through it," Saar remembers. "And he wanted to make something monumental. And he put these steel structures up and covered them in cement and pressed shards of ceramics, of plates, I've seen corn cobs in there, I've seen tools. It's like, the cement is wet, what can we put in here? I think that was the beginning of me becoming an assemblagist or recycler."

It would take years before Betye Saar's "beginning" came to fruition in the art world. She was a mother, raising three daughters, a "late bloomer," she laughs.

At the age of 46 she created the piece that would make her reputation and launch 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 full-figured, smiling black mammy, a kerchief wrapped around her head. She's holding a broom in one hand -- and a rifle in the other.

It was about the way African-American women were treated as sex object, as domestic soldier. And it was about this particular woman's revolt to be free of that image.

"I'm the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelings," Saar says. "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 if 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."

Saar wants the viewer "to be seduced by my work. That's the part that's essential -- to have beauty. I want my piece to crook a finger, say to viewer, check this out."

Betye Saar's studio is overflowing with the stuff of her art. Tables in the room are layered with mysterious objects and materials. A shelf is filled with pickanninny dolls, tiny minstrels, slices of watermelon made from painted wood.

Lately she's been working with metal: rusty chains, long discarded toys, birdcages.

Along the wall are dozens of stacked drawers, neatly labeled: plant life, clocks, locks, shoes. One drawer says "snakes." It contains a toy snake, maybe made of clay, that's lost its head. "I love this one," Saar says.

Betye Saar turned 80 last July. "Eighty revolutions around the sun!" she wrote.

It's a big birthday, she admits. "But then I saw this commercial with a spry lady of 104."

Artist Betye Saar has two retrospectives traveling the country right now.

She's titled one of her newest pieces, "Still Ticking."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.