BALTIMORE – It took 97 years for the art world to catch up with Baltimore’s Betty Cooke.
Now in her eighth decade as a jewelry designer, Cooke is honored with a retrospective exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, the first solo show of her career. “Betty Cooke: The Circle & the Line” includes over 160 pieces of jewelry – miniature sculptures designed to be worn – which bear witness to the surprisingly modern take on the lifelong Baltimorean who created them.
Cooke’s work has been included in group exhibitions in museums since 1948, most notably in a 2019 exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
But in Baltimore, Cooke is known less as an artist than as the founder of The Store Ltd. at Cross Keys, where she can be found six days a week creating unique pieces of handmade jewelry that affluent customers are clamoring to buy. Walters director Julia Marciari-Alexander describes Cooke, 97, as “a singular genius” and “one of the great artist-entrepreneurs of the 20th and 21st centuries.” She is thrilled that her museum is the first to give Cooke the respect she deserves.
Cooke admirers believe the attention is long overdue.
“If Betty had lived in another city, I think she would have gotten a lot more recognition,” said Fred Lazarus IV, former president of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Cooke’s alma mater. “In Baltimore, we better denigrate what we have rather than being proud of it. If we hammer our chest, it’s usually because we are fighting ourselves.
“Betty sometimes says, ‘I bet if I did my work in a sculptural form, people would notice it.'”
If Cooke has gone unnoticed, it’s not because she lacks self-confidence. She always knew she had a vision.
“I see things,” she said, “that aren’t even there yet. “
Cooke’s style is clean and deceptively simple. Like other artists associated with the mid-century modern design movement, she breaks down complicated objects into their building blocks. The title of the exhibition derives from two preoccupations of the artist throughout his life.
“When I was teaching, we were studying what could be done with a straight line,” Cooke explains in the exhibition catalog. “I can spend years with a circle.”
A gold necklace in the exhibit resembling a group of branches sends out twig-like shoots. From three twigs swell pearls as luminescent as dewdrops. A silver boomerang-shaped pin evokes a bird in flight. In another gallery, a gold and silver necklace with silver bars and cascading stars is reminiscent of the American flag.
“His work is very clean. You rarely see any weld lines, ”said Jo Briggs, Walters’ assistant curator for 18th and 19th century art, who co-hosted the show, which includes pieces made by Cooke 75 years ago and which, according to Briggs, seem quite contemporary today.
“In the 1940s, this jewelry must have looked like it came from space,” she said. Born in 1924, Cooke grew up in an era when the art and business spheres of the United States were dominated by men.
Her mother was a singer before her marriage and later a teacher. His father worked as a clerk for the B&O Railroad, but painting was his passion.
On weekends, he drove to Gwynns Falls / Leakin Park with his painting supplies, accompanied by his only daughter, the youngest of his three children. Ten-year-old Betty was setting up her easel next to her father’s. During these sessions, she encountered the physical world of birds, planets and stars that permeates her work today.
Cooke’s parents encouraged their daughter to be independent.
In the 1940s, Cooke and a friend camped in Maine and Nova Scotia, hitchhiking and carrying their gear on their backs.
“I’ve always had a sheath knife,” she told a Smithsonian Archives of American Art interviewer. “And my mom let me do that with my friends. Never a question.
Over the decades, Cooke has had to deal with his fair share of personal tragedies, starting with the death of his father at the age of 12. Cooke’s mother had to scramble to make ends meet.
“It was a terrible time,” she said.
Other deaths followed over the decades: Cooke’s only child, Daniel Cooke Steinmetz, died suddenly in 1982. Much later, the artist’s 61-year-old husband, William O. Steinmetz, died in 2016.
Despite his grief, Cooke never stopped working. As she said, “I just kept going.”
Cooke began designing with sterling silver and brass in the 1940s after receiving a scholarship from MICA (then the Maryland Institute).
“I liked the feel of the metal,” Cooke said, “the different colors.”
A photo from the exhibition taken in 1947 shows Cooke in his studio, hammering a piece of jewelry with a hammer. The artist was 5 feet 2 inches tall and slender, with short hair that ruffled her ears like duck down. Cooke said it never occurred to him that observers might wonder if it was “famous” to handle a torch or a hacksaw.
“Betty’s work is incredibly fine and delicate,” said Marciari-Alexander. “She makes tiny, beautiful little pieces that contradict the hard work that goes into making them. It takes tremendous force to manipulate its materials.
After graduating from MICA and Johns Hopkins University in 1946, Cooke raised $ 3,000. She bought a dilapidated 1830s brick townhouse at 903 Tyson Street, cleaned up debris, installed a kerosene heater, and opened a business she called The Shop. A black-and-white photograph from this era shows Cooke standing outside her store, wearing a leather blouse and leather sandals she had made herself.
The Mid-Town Belvedere district was beginning to be reclaimed by the artists and young intellectuals who became Cooke’s first clients. These customers were not put off by jewelry so assertive that it dictated the clothes they wore or the way they moved.
“Betty’s jewelry defines the wearer,” Marciari-Alexander said. “It’s not neutral. It is not an adornment. He’s imposing in his own way.
Although Cooke was almost immediately successful in her hometown, she believed her work deserved a wider audience. In 1948, she and a friend packed samples of her jewelry in a box and began a month-long trek across the country to museums and shops across the country.
“Betty had a list of places she wanted to visit,” said exhibition co-curator Jeannine Fallino. “It takes common sense to travel the country and show your stuff to strangers. “
The trip paid off: a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis included several pieces by the 24-year-old artist in a group show in 1948.
This was the first major recognition for Cooke, whose work later entered the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others.
In 1955, Cooke married Steinmetz, his former student at MICA. She continued to design jewelry, but the new couple also formed Cooke & Steinmetz, a partnership that designed the interiors of restaurants, a Pennsylvania church, and dozens of former Fair Lanes bowling alleys.
In 1965, at the invitation of developer James Rouse, the company moved to the new Village of Cross Keys. From the start, the store renamed The Store Ltd. offered items in addition to jewelry that matched its owners’ definition of good design: Marimekko fabrics, Noguchi paper lamps, cardboard furniture designed by Frank Gehry.
“The store itself was a dialogue between the two of them,” Lazarus said, “but Betty was often the lead dog. Bill was totally backing her.
But The Store’s success has not always translated into respect for the powerful brokers of the art world, who experts say operate according to age-old hierarchies that value painting and sculpture.
“Jewelry is not an area of interest generally considered ‘worthy of a museum’,” Marciari-Alexander said. “In some ways, we still live by the precepts – and misogyny – of the European taste makers of the 17th and 18th centuries. These are categories of precedence and value that have not changed much today.
Cooke said she was deeply satisfied with her solo show, although she wishes Steinmetz was alive to see it. And she would like more curators and critics to recognize jewelry as a major art form.
But she has more important things to worry about: patterns invade her head, waiting to take shape in gold, silver and stone. One after the other, the days go by.
“I always want to do better,” Cooke said. “I always have more designs in mind. I’m 97 years old and I don’t have many years ahead of me. I just hope I can do it all in the time I have left.