The Betye Saar Art Box is a collaboration among the Autry Museum of the American West, the California African American Museum, the Hammer Museum, The Huntington, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo by Deborah Miller Marr.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of time that people, particularly youngsters, spent focused on screens was an issue of concern. When California issued its stay-at-home order in March 2020, this only exacerbated the issue. That summer, Sarah Wilson, the director of education at the Autry Museum of the American West, had an idea: bring together key museum education staff from cultural institutions throughout Los Angeles to find an innovative way to serve the needs of children and families beyond online learning. The Betye Saar Art Box is a collaboration among the Autry Museum, the California African American Museum, the Hammer Museum, The Huntington, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“We spent quite a long time considering what we could do that would be fun, educational, intergenerational, and community-based,” said Elee Wood, The Huntington’s Nadine and Robert A. Skotheim Director of Education and Public Programs. “After several meetings, during which we considered concepts and artists that we all share to some extent, we arrived at an activity inspired by renowned LA-based artist Betye Saar. Keep in mind that this process was taking place amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd, so the goal of addressing social justice issues and self-expression was integral to our objectives. Collaboration across the organizations took a lot of time and discussion as we worked through what to do, how to do it, which pieces of art to work with, and how best to disseminate the resulting project.”
Betye Saar, The Fragility of Illusion, 1981, scarf collage, 30 x 32 in. (76.2 x 81.3 cm). Gift of Hannah and Russel Kully. © Betye Saar. Courtesy of the artist and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
Saar was an integral part of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s and remains an inspiration not only through the artwork she created, but also because of her roots in Los Angeles, where she was born and grew up. Saar attended Pasadena City College, UCLA, and California State University, Long Beach. Inspired by found object sculptor Joseph Cornell and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Saar employs a technique known as “assemblage” to create vibrant tableaus—frozen moments of meaning constructed from meticulously selected and arranged objects. She often chooses items that are charged with cultural and personal meaning to create visual narratives that comment on social inequities, identity, and human relationships. For example, her collage The Fragility of Illusion, part of The Huntington’s American art collection, incorporates mementos from Saar’s great-aunt Hattie—notably a handkerchief, the foundation of the piece, that’s significant through its association with weeping and mourning.
The Huntington distributed a total of 1,190 Betye Saar Art Boxes to Los Angeles Unified School District’s Early Education Centers, where students were able to explore the medium of assemblage and share insights about their creations. Many, like this piece by Matteo Coreas, include symbols of family. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The Betye Saar Art Box that emerged from the multi-museum collaboration is an assemblage starter kit that includes craft paper, safety scissors, a glue stick, crayons, small embellishment items such as buttons and shells, and five art cards that feature information about selected Saar pieces and questions to prompt discussion and insights. Each box contains activities from all five museums. The Huntington art activity, geared toward preschool-age children, focuses on The Fragility of Illusion and assemblage; some of the other activities focus on confronting racism, sexism, and social inequities through art and activism.
The art boxes supplied students with basic tools and materials to create an assemblage, but the youngsters were encouraged to add items with personal meaning. Aryanna Castro’s piece is about life. “Life is pretty,” she commented. “Creatures and plants grow. The pictures are flowers from my garden. There are rocks in my garden too. There’s a picture of my mom because she gave me life.” Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The organic, physically engaging nature of searching for objects to create an assemblage was an ideal departure from the online activities that were prevalent during the pandemic and one that reflects Saar’s own process of hunting and gathering. She frequents flea markets and swap meets, including the popular swap meet hosted by Pasadena City College, seeking recycled books and other objects. By arranging them to create a composition, she frames their significance to her and invites us to share in that meaning.
Elena Herrera’s piece includes items that represent connections with her sisters and grandparents, who are from Mexico and El Salvador. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“The goal is to celebrate the artistic legacy of Betye Saar by learning about her work across five museum collections and to inspire families to make art together,” said Kate Zankowicz, The Huntington’s manager of Youth and Family Programs and Community Engagement. “It became a way to engage families with a non-screen activity at a time when everything was screen-based. But it is so adaptable and engaging for individuals, social groups, or families and for people of all ages that it’s a pandemic development we would like to keep. At-home, hands-on art kits is an exciting expansion of our work to reach out to families and promote meaningful, multigenerational art experiences.”
Benjamin Gutierrez’s assemblage reflects the connection he feels with his grandparents. “I love music because I listen to music with my grandpa,” he explained. “My grandpa and grandma are from Mexico. They have horses and we take care of them by feeding them and giving them water and brushing their hair.” Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
In early October 2021, each participating museum received 200 Betye Saar Art Boxes, bringing multisensory art activities in both English and Spanish to each institution’s community partners. The Huntington’s partners for the project were Los Angeles Unified School District’s Early Education Centers, which opted to reserve their 200 art boxes until December, when The Huntington was able to produce an additional 990 kits. That month, The Huntington hosted an event for principals of schools receiving the art boxes to introduce them to the project and give them a hands-on opportunity to explore the medium.
In December 2021, The Huntington hosted a professional development day for principals of Huntington partner schools. One component of the meeting was the opportunity to explore the medium of assemblage. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.
“Many times, teachers think of art as creating representative images of the world around us through drawing or painting,” Zankowicz observed. “But there are so many different ways of constructing narratives, and kids naturally do this—assemble objects that are meaningful to them. This type of collage art is very accessible and inclusive, open to incorporating family history and family identity. It’s a wonderful way to demonstrate that art is everywhere and that everyone can do it. By inviting people to explore this medium of expression, these boxes bring the people of Los Angeles closer to Betye Saar and her art.”
Sophia Rodarte loves “all things girly” and describes herself as “a strong girl who loves moving, dancing, and creating.” Her piece reflects her love of drawing, coloring, gymnastics, and having fun at the beach. “Most of all I love making everyone feel happy,” she commented. “I feel like I get that from the women in my family. I love hearts. I feel like that represents me, and how I am with everyone.” Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Sandy Masuo is the senior writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.