Remembering: Betty Woodman

Remembering: Betty Woodman

The ACC Gold Medalist was a renowned ceramist who redefined the traditional clay form.

Published on Sunday, January 7, 2018.
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Betty Woodman

ACC Gold Medalist Betty Woodman

Barbara Bordnick

We remember renowned ceramist and ACC Gold Medalist Betty Woodman, who died on January 2, 2018, at the age of 87.

Betty Woodman built an artistic career at a time when ceramics were relegated to a category separate from art, and when clay work was largely a masculine venture. The '50s saw the emergence of ceramists such as Peter Voulkos, who created large-scale objects that celebrated the imperfections of the medium in the final product.

“It was a man’s world," Woodman stated in a 2016 Huffington Post article. "Being a woman was not easy to achieve some kind of recognition.”

She ultimately did receive recognition from critics in the '70s. Her work was reviewed in art magazines and shown in art galleries, unlike many of her ceramics contemporaries that were firmly entrenched in the craft world. While her work centered on the vessel, Woodman pushed the utilitarian form into the realm of sculpture. Throughout her canon of work, she employed motifs frequently found in Mediterranean, Asian, and Aztec decorative objects, and her broad brush strokes and use of vivid colors were reminiscent of Matisse. Woodman was inspired by her time studying and living in Italy, and references to majolica common to the region can also be found in her work.

Woodman was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1930. She knew she wanted to be a potter after taking a ceramics class at Newton High School. She enrolled in the School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University in New York and received her Journeyman’s Certificate in 1950. She married her husband, painter and photographer George Woodman, in 1953. At the time that George was hired to teach at the University of Colorado, Boulder, women were not typically hired as faculty, even though “faculty wives were probably as well-educated as their husbands,” Woodman noted in a 2014 interview for the American Craft Council.

She began teaching classes for the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department in 1958 instead and worked there for the next 16 years. Her earliest work was as a production potter, but in the '70s she began to experiment with form, creating whimsical and non-functional vessels. In 1978, she was at last hired as a faculty member at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is credited with building the ceramics program into one of the finest in the country.

Her career is one of remarkable achievements. Woodman was the first living female artist to have a retrospective of her work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006. Her work can be found in public and private installations and is included in more than 60 permanent museum collections worldwide. She received numerous awards, including the Colorado Governor’s Award in the Arts, the Visionary Award of the American Craft Museum, and several honorary doctoral degrees, among others.

Woodman was elected into the ACC College of Fellows in 1993 and awarded ACC's Gold Medal for Consummate Craftsmanship in 2014. She died in Italy, where she lived a portion of each year.