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Obituary: Betty Woodman

Playful ‘Queen of Ceramics’ inspired by Italian art and baroque architecture

    American ceramics artist Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Woodman, who has died aged 87, had a long and distinguished career over more than six decades, during time which she helped to raise ceramics into an original and blazingly colourful art form.

    Elizabeth Abrahams, known as Betty, was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, to ‘free-thinking’ second-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants Minnie (née Koffman), a secretary and Henry Abrahams, a supermarket and wood worker. Minnie believed that women had an equal right to work, helping to instil a feminist philosophy in her daughter.

    At 16, Betty went to pottery classes and took to clay instantly. In 1948 she studied art at the recently formed School for American Craftsmen at Alfred University, New York. After leaving in 1950 she taught a pottery class in Boston where she met artist George Woodman, whom she married in 1953. They had two children: electronic artist, Charles Woodman and photographer Francesca Woodman.

    Having travelled to Italy in 1951 she set up a second home in Tuscany, dividing her time between there, New York City and Colorado. She became intoxicated by Italy — “the tradition of clay in Mediterranean countries”— Italian Renaissance art and Baroque architecture and the vitality of Majolica Italian tin-glazed pottery.

    She first produced her trademark pots, tableware and one-off items in a workshop at Boulder, Colorado, where George became head of the university art department. Here she founded the Pottery Lab, a pioneering project that enabled people to play and experiment with clay, leading to some 100 kilns being built in the Boulder area, still a popular region among potters.

    The suicide of her 22-year-old daughter Francesca in 1981, made Betty reassess what she was doing.  She joined a gallery and pushed the boundaries of ceramics by experimenting with form. Her pieces became more individual and progressive, invested with greater sensory richness. 

    Her wealth of influences stemmed from design, architecture, ceramic history and art, including the works of Matisse and Picasso, Etruscan pottery, Japanese Oribe ware, Sèvres porcelain — she found inspiration everywhere. Showing her playful, eclectic side,  she also created “functional objects” including a letter holder and an asparagus server, deliberately impractical and wild in appearance, as well as bright, vigorous vessels with joyous handles fluttering like ribbons.

    More ambitious still, she began to make large-scale multimedia pieces, often in expansive installation form. A centre-piece of her exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the impressive Aeolian Pyramid (2001-2006), comprised of 44 vibrantly painted vase silhouettes. Her major retrospective at the Metropolitan in 2006, was the first such honour for a living woman and a working ceramicist.

    Her notable public art included a striking vase-balustrade at Denver airport in 1994 and a monumental fountain commissioned by Liverpool Biennial in 2016, which resembles a vast Egyptian wall painting from the Valley of the Kings. In the same year, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London gave her a large retrospective, entitled Theatre of the Domestic. On that occasion she said that the more she created, the “more I am inspired and the more one thing leads to another.”

    Her work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Thanks to her pioneering spirit, today’s artists have embraced ceramics as a mainstream technique.

     She is survived by her son Charles and a grandson.Her husband predeceased her last year.



    Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Woodman: born May 14, 1930. Died January 2, 2018