Reflections: Betty Woodman

Reflections: Betty Woodman

Published on Wednesday, November 12, 2014.
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Betty Woodman is a ceramic sculptor who splits her time between New York and Tuscany. She came of age at a time when women weren't necessarily taken seriously as artists. But today she is acclaimed internationally and the winner of the 2014 ACC Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship. ACC staff visited Woodman in her New York City studio this summer. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Alfred [New York, where Woodman went to school for ceramics] was a village of 600 people, and I would say most of them were talking about clay. It was pretty amazing. I mean, if you went to the post office and stood in line and someone was talking about their slip, they weren’t talking about their underwear; they were talking about a slip for ceramics. I was very young, and it was just amazing to be totally immersed. 

I started off wanting to be a production potter, wanting to make functional pieces, and wanting in some way to serve society by making beautiful things for people to use; I felt that this was very, very important. I still feel it’s important, but somehow my work sort of moved along, and I moved away from that.

I remember having visits from women in Italy to my studio and who had been told, no, they couldn’t study at the school in France, which was one of the big ceramic programs. They could not study or take the wheel class, because women weren’t supposed to work on the wheel. Women could decorate. So they came to see me and see what I was doing, working on the wheel and stuff. These are all things that today have been broken down, but they were very real. In fact, it grew very irritating for me living in Italy, which I’ve done for 50 years, but just being considered in Italy not an artist, not a potter, just a nice American who likes Italy. I thought, now wait a minute, I want to be part of something and make it my business to be an artist among other artists.

Marrying George and my life with another artist has been very, very, very important and continues to be important. We have a very vital exchange of ideas, probably every other day or something. We’re sort of in each other’s studios and talking about work.

Painting is now very interesting to me and has been probably for the last you know 20 years, I would say. My focus has been more in looking at painting, looking at sculpture, not necessarily looking at clay at all. But I have a deep rooted love of ceramics and a passion about it and a knowledge of it. It’s just part of who I am.

I’m always interested in the next piece I’m going to make perhaps more than the last one I made. Well, [you can be] seduced by the last one you made because you think, oh! Look at that. I’m the kind of person who may be totally seduced by it and think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. How could I be so good? Isn’t this wonderful? And then I look at it for a few days, and then I sort of realize, well, you know, this has got a lot of problems. Maybe it’s not that wonderful. Maybe I need to go back and think about something else, do something else.

I really like doing my work myself. I’m not interested in having somebody else do the work. That’s very important for me. It’s about my touch and my hand.

Why do I go to my studio every day? It’s what I know how to do. It’s what I’m happiest doing. I mean, if I didn’t do that, what would I do? It keeps you off the street. You’re not spending money. That’s not true. It’s what I’m passionately interested in and I’m probably, as many artists are, obsessive about doing it.

Reflections is a special series highlighting thoughts from the 2014 American Craft Council Award winners culled from our interviews.

For more on this year’s American Craft Council Awards, check out the American Craft profiles, which include videos of each of the awardees, read their Reflections, view archival Throwback Thursday photos, and browse the artist biographies.