It’s Never Too Late and Other Lessons Learned

The art world lost sculptor Betty Woodman earlier this month.   Read about her life and her work in this New York Times Obituary.   She is an example for artists looking to make a shift in their work and I thought of the following universal lessons after learning more about her.

Define yourself.  Ms. Woodman defined herself as a sculptor.  

Because of this history, she can be touchy on the topic of labels. “I think I’m sort of happy to call myself a potter,” Ms. Woodman said, “but it’s a different thing if you call me a potter.”

“In my most recent work, I’m much more interested in the history of painting than in the history of ceramics,” she added. “I think what I am is a sculptor. It’s awkward for me, but that’s how I would refer to myself. I have to learn to say, ‘I make sculpture.’


Don’t be afraid of pursuing your big idea.  Ms. Woodman on recalling the first time she approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Working with the Public Art Fund, Ms. Woodman came up with a proposal to transform the museum’s lobby. The Met’s answer was firm.

“They said, ‘Don’t be silly,’ ” she recalled the other day, seated in her light-filled studio, part of the large Chelsea loft she shares with her husband, George. Ms. Woodman, who is five feet tall, was wearing hip Camper shoes and a bright yellow corduroy dress that telegraphed her passion for color. As for the rejection, she’s over it. First of all, the vases ended up in the Museum of Modern Art’s lobby a year later, primarily because of the art world powerhouse Agnes Gund, a collector of Ms. Woodman’s work.

More important, the Metropolitan has come around in spades.  It has given Ms. Woodman its highest compliment:  a full retrospective, something it doesn’t often do for living artists.  


You can’t always wait for the ask.  Sometimes you have to do the asking.  Curator Jane Adlin on Ms. Woodman’s ask for a retrospective. 

“Betty seduces people with food,” Ms. Adlin said. A few years ago, she was having breakfast at Ms. Woodman’s studio with a museum colleague. “In her wonderful, inimitable style, she asked us when we were going to give her a retrospective,” Ms. Adlin recalled, adding, “She was doing these incredible blueberry pancakes.” They talked briefly, but nothing was definite. “The next thing I know, she’s calling to follow up,” Ms. Adlin said. “It’s within Betty’s nature to push for what she wants.” Ms. Adlin expected resistance from the museum’s higher-ups. But her boss — Gary Tinterow, who directs the department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art — knew Ms. Woodman’s work and loved it. Even the Met’s director, Philippe de Montebello, signed on right away. “I was pleasantly shocked that the director wanted to do this show,” Ms. Adlin said.

It’s never too late.  Ted Loos on Ms. Woodman and her husband moving to New York City in their fifties.  

Perhaps their most definitive action as a couple came in 1980, when they decided to buy their Chelsea loft and enter the shifting currents of the New York art world.  “We said, ‘We’re 50 years old and we’re middle-aged,'” Ms. Woodman recalled.  ” ‘ We can live a comfortable life in Colorado or we can figure out a way to do something that would certainly be more interesting’, so we opted for that”.


Learn more about Betty Woodman and her art at the links below.

Salon 94

“Betty Woodman, Who Spun Pottery into Multimedia Art, Dies at 87”

“Remembering Betty Woodman”

“Yes, They’re Clay, but Don’t Dare Call Them Ceramics”

“Decoration Myths:  Betty Woodman’s Ceramics” 

Take Action! 

Do you have a big idea that you need to take action on?  Take one step today to move it forward.