Betty Woodman was a pioneering feminist sculptor, who transformed traditional pottery into innovative multimedia art. Woodman began as a potter and evolved into a ceramic sculptor of inventive forms. Painting with lacquer and slip glazes, she transformed humble objects such as vases into exuberant works that resonated with the history of ceramics.
Woodman graduated from the School for American Craftsmen in upstate New York. She moved to New York City and started her career as a ceramist. “The world of American ceramics was totally dominated by men, but as their consciousness was raised, they realized there were no women. And the first to be invited was me.”
Using clay as her primary medium, Woodman’s ceramics were influenced by Greek and Etruscan sculpture, Italian Baroque architecture, Tang dynasty glaze techniques, Egyptian art, and Islamic tiles. Woodman worked in her studios in the Chelsea section of New York; Boulder, Colorado; and Antella, Italy. Her daughter, Francesca Woodman, was a photographer whose erotic and melancholy pictures won her acclaim before she committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22. In the months after her daughter’s death, Woodman shifted from making functional pottery to creating idiosyncratic vessels that altered her career.
Woodman’s evolution from artisan to fine artist culminated in a retrospective in 2006 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, its first for a living female ceramic artist. One of her works “The Ming Sisters” is a nearly three-foot-high triptych of cylindrical vases arranged side by side – each with irregular, winged cutouts – that depict Asian women wearing gowns on one side and brightly colored paintings of vases on the other. Another work in the retrospective was “Aeolian Pyramid” which comprised 44 pedestal-mounted vase shapes, lifting upward in tiers to form a dramatic, pyramid design.
Her last exhibit “Theater of the Domestic” was held in 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. One piece “The Summer House” was a four-panel, 28-foot-long still life. Woodman depicted a cheerful room with ceramics and a wooden shelf attached to the canvas. Three small vases sat on the shelf, and a diptych of vases rested on the floor in front of the painting. For Woodman, “the vase is the archetypal ceramic object . . . the vase is also a symbol for a woman. Metaphorically it’s a container; it has that connection for everyone.”
Woodman received many awards and honors including a Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship and an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from R.I.S.D. Her work has been exhibited in London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and the American Academy in Rome. Her work is part of the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Denver Art Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Whitney Museum, and Victoria and Albert Museum in London.