The pioneering artist and her three daughters on family, creativity, and why being able to see beauty, even in difficult times, is the true mother of invention.
Betye Saar's career as an artist now spans seven decades. but in many ways, her work has never felt more of the moment than it does right now. Since the early 1960s, Saar’s prints, assemblages, collages, and installations, which often incorporate found and discarded objects, have radically explored notions of history, identity, racism, sexism, mysticism, and even the very nature of art. One of her best-known pieces, 1972’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which the activist Angela Davis once credited with sparking the Black women’s movement, recast the racist caricature emblazoned on bottles of supermarket syrup as a revolutionary warrior figure prepared to wrest herself free from that kind of oppression. (“She’s liberated! Finally at long last!” Saar posted on Instagram after Quaker Oats announced that it was retiring the Aunt Jemima brand name and logo—just last year.) At 94, Saar is in the midst of a period in which appreciation for her groundbreaking oeuvre is at a fever pitch, punctuated by pre-pandemic solo shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But Saar’s proudest legacy is her family. Born in L.A. and raised in Pasadena, Saar was already a mother of two when she embarked on her journey into artmaking, and all three of her daughters—painter and mixed-media artist Lezley Saar, sculptor and printmaker Alison Saar, and writer Tracye Saar-Cavanaugh—went on to pursue creative careers of their own. In late March, Lezley, Alison, and Tracye gathered with Betye at Tracye’s home, not far from the Laurel Canyon neighborhood where the sisters grew up, to discuss coming of age in a house full of creative women and the role that art has played in their lives.
BETYE SAAR: We first moved to Laurel Canyon in the early 1960s. As I recall, Lezley was in school, Alison was just starting kindergarten or first grade, and Tracye was a young girl still at home with me. This period was really important to us because that’s when we all developed our artistic skills. Dick Saar, their father, was a ceramist and had his own business, so we always had financial aid through the art process. I decided to go back to get a teaching credential and went to [California] State University, Northridge. I had an interest in printmaking and began to develop a career in it, which led me from the craft into the fine arts.
ALISON SAAR: You were doing printmaking even before we moved to Laurel Canyon. Because I remember you were at Cal State Long Beach when I was a toddler. Lezley was already in school, and then you would take me to school with you sometimes. So I was really exposed to the printmaking process. I think you did a silk screen when you were pregnant with Tracye.
Photographs by Texas Isaiah