Betty Branch: Through the Crows Eye, A retrospective Introductory Essay

Perfect bound book. Full color printing. 2009. Addy Gold Award, SEMC award (2010), American Association of Museums Award (2010)

Betty Branch claimed her artistic nature at the age of forty—by way of the mythical phoenix—a creature that casts off its old life to begin anew. She did not close the door completely but instead sloughed off the fetters of the ordinary and traded it for the extraordinary. In translation, her devotional approach to artistic pursuits is done with a zealot-like tenacity. Branch’s force of will in carving out a unique place in the larger art world has served her well.

This exhibition showcases over thirty years of the celebrated artist’s work from sculptures and drawings to performance documentation and works influenced by the land. It is not a conventional retrospective. It highlights decades’ worth of experimentation and perseverance by the artist and is the physical manifestation of the primordial ideal of life’s constant recreation of itself. Displayed in a non-chronological format, the exhibition calls attention to Branch’s fluidity throughout her artistic career between naturalistic and abstract modes of expression. She is constantly reinventing herself.

Throughout her career, Betty has culled visual references from ancient matriarchal civilizations to current cultural events, from Greece to the foothills of the Blue Ridge. One looking in her studio would be inundated with layers of ephemera, references to abundant cultural groups, and sketches of her own work in progress interspersed with the tools of her trade. Cumulatively it bears evidence to over thirty years of intensive production.

Branch has stayed resolute to lifelong tenets that define her work: the body, rites of passage both traditional and unorthodox, the intersection between land and form, and the Crow. Her media is diverse; she sculpts with marble, clay, bronze, stone, porcelain, terra cotta, earthenware, and straw. Each medium is a talismanic touchstone for her art; Branch ferrets out the essence of every one of these for exploitation. Her first foray into the medium of clay transpired in an introductory pottery course. In a cathartic moment, Branch felt its attraction and henceforth began her lifelong love of the tactile medium. She states, “Once I touched the clay, a powerful force came over me …. I knew what I had to do, what I was compelled to do.” 1

Branch looks to impressive Cycladic Greek fertility goddesses and other sources of feminine genesis to form complex and substantial sculptural works that exude power and energy. Paying homage to the multiple generations of sculptors before her focusing on that subject, Branch pulls on that rich history to form work that is joyous and earthy as displayed by her series “Maternitas.” In the marble work “Maternita Rustica” (1987), the pregnant torso swells and dips to a vulvate epicenter. She takes advantage of the marble form by carving into the block to emphasize the veining over the swollen belly. Her female forms’ proportions vacillate between the lush and the lissome, channeling artists of the Belle Époque Art Noveau era such as Camille Claudel and Gaston Lachaise, evident in the swelling thighs of Branch’s variegated alabaster “Mountain Woman” (1987) or the twisting torso of the black-hued “Fire Dancer Nero” (1988).

Her relationship to the Crow is paradoxical. Is it a spirit guide or metaphor? Branch describes her initial relationship with the Crow in her poem “King of the Crows”:
“This morning gloriously alone quiet,
silver sun on patio
I lay down to peace and
the raucous sound of crows
not in the meadow, not in the front yard
but in the sanctity of my fenced
locked sunlit terrace
Enraged, I went for the gun.”2

Originally perceived as an antagonist, the Crow became through its death a metaphor for Branch: a nagual. In its physical sacrifice, the Crow became one with the artist. Haunting Branch, the Crow has revisited her through the years as the subject in majestic work such as “Raven’s Gate” (2005), “Survivor” (1995), and the monumental “Honor Guard” (2004). When questioned about the symbiotic relationship, Branch also refers to the Crow as an archetypal image for aging. In looking to find subject matter in her work to mirror her own aging process, Branch sought solace in the ideal of the Crow.

Rites of passage have always interested Branch, particularly ceremonies addressing subjugation and death. Liminality—when one is on the threshold between two existing planes—is a strong catalyst played out in her work “Mothers” (1984) and the performance “Ritual Fire.” In “Mothers,” nine earthy burlap straw-filled forms hover together forming a cluster that looms protectively over the viewer. When the temporal forms began to decay, Branch set the “Mothers” aflame in a quarry inspired by the Hindu Sati tradition in which widows would immolate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. In turning the patriarchal Sati tradition on its end, Branch found a fitting conclusion to her dying “Mothers.” In “All Fall Down,” porcelain cylinders are formed into prepubescent faceless figures made helpless sans hands and feet. Referencing an act of brutality committed against a woman in 1983, Branch translates the contemporary horror into a poignant tableau of universal victimization in which the figures are mutilated, helpless, and yet aware of the act.

In sculpting the land, Branch uses the native topography as a medium and its decaying residue for impetus. She creates work that interacts with a selected environment; however, the residual appearance of the effected landscape is left unscathed. This subtle nuance is at odds with other relative land works by artists such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970) or James Turrell’s progressive work “Roden Crater” (1979-present day) that leave a permanent eroding residue on the land. Branch’s environmental sensitivity in leaving a site unblemished is crucial to understanding her artistic aesthetic. Translated to the exhibition, several of Branch’s works will be placed in sitú on Hollins University’s historic campus. In particular, “Double Spiral” (2009) a site-specific monumental land work created from straw emphasizes Branch’s inextricable relationship to the surrounding landscape. In Branch’s capricious found works, she culls through the detritus and discovers inspiration. In “Spring” (2006) and her other readymade works, she delights in the found (think Marcel Duchamp) and in the act of creating whimsically humorous objects that showboat her brevity. In the works “Weighty Matter, No Yoke, Bo Bo, Double Axe, Mary Queen of Scots, Omphales, Burp, and Little One-Eye” (2008-09), Branch finds merriment in experimenting through the process of discovering the discarded and abandoned treasures then creating pedestals (imagine Brancusi) that complement them. One finds discarded banister spindles topped by tarnished spheres and Lucite cubes with odd rusty weights to name a few.

Through this exhibition, Branch illustrates her tenacity and strength via her spiritual animal—the Crow. Honoring a lifetime of creativity and reinvention, one admires Branch’s sense of determined purpose. In essence, it may be said that Branch perceives the best of life “through the crow’s eye.”

1 Quote by artist during meeting, March 2009.
2 Excerpt from poem “King of the Crows” by Betty Branch

Amy G. Moorefield
Director and Chief Curator
Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University

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