BALTIMORE — During her 70-year career, Betty Cooke has established herself as one of the country’s most significant and prolific jewelers. Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line, opening on September 19 and continuing through January 2, 2022 at the Walters Art Museum, is the first major museum retrospective of the acclaimed 97-year-old artist’s career. The exhibition explores Cooke’s jewelry and design practice, from her earliest work in the 1940s and 1950s to ornaments made in the 21st century, presenting a comprehensive overview of her rich and immensely varied body of work.
Curated by independent scholar Jeannine Falino, with coordinating curator, Jo Briggs, Jennie Walters Delano Curator of 18th- and 19th- century Art, the exhibition also delves into the many thematic layers contained within Cooke’s work.
“Betty Cooke’s storied career is a testament to both her incredible artistry and her fearless attitude toward seizing opportunities,” said Julia Marciari-Alexander, Andrea B. and John H. Laporte Director of the Walters Art Museum. “This exhibition is the perfect opportunity both to demonstrate how living artists provide new perspectives on our collection and to celebrate one of Baltimore’s most inspiring and venerable women in the arts.”
Cooke attended the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where she also taught for 22 years. Her first working location was a studio, showroom, and residence on Tyson Street, located a few blocks from the Walters, in what was then a thriving bohemian arts district. By 1965, she and her husband and business partner William O. Steinmetz had moved her business to an expansive shop named The Store Ltd., at the Village at Cross Keys, where Cooke continues to sell her jewelry along with folk art, clothing, and high-end housewares.
Inspired by kinetic forms, modern science, and the natural world, especially animals and birds, Cooke uses materials as varied as metal tubing, enamel, wood, and plastic to create works that are both functional and artistic. Cooke’s jewelry has been featured in Vogue magazine and has received two Diamond Today awards from DeBeers. In 1996, she was made a Fellow of the American Craft Council.
“Betty Cooke is one of the country’s most innovative jewelers,” Falino said. “During the course of her career, she has created works that are faithful to the tenets of good design, the basis of which is the axiom ‘less is more.’ Her works are memorable for their utter simplicity and cool sophistication.”
Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line features more than 160 works loaned from the Cranbrook Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; and private collectors, as well as Cooke’s own collection. Photography, drawings, and some of Cooke’s design sketches are also included, along with leather handbags and accessories that Cooke developed in addition to her jewelry business. Her leather designs won national awards during the 1950s and were featured in Woman’s Day magazine.
Cooke remembers visiting the Walters at an early age; the medieval armor collection was a particular favorite. Works from the Walters’ historic collections, such as a bronze hand mirror from the 3rd century BCE, an Egyptian hippopotamus figurine, and a 19th-century landscape painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, are also displayed to show the creative connections Cooke made during her early trips to the museum.
“Betty Cooke’s works demonstrate a consistent approach to materials and composition that makes her designs instantly recognizable and at the same time endlessly variable,” Briggs said. “As an independent female designer and maker, Cooke represents a generation of successful women entrepreneurs who emerged in the postwar era. Her incredible career is the result of her passion for design, independent frame of mind, and deep-rooted work ethic.”
Organized both thematically and chronologically, Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Lineexplores the iterative and experimental nature of Cooke’s designs, showing the evolution of her practice through the years as she occasionally revisited design concepts, or incorporated new elements to create wholly new works. A section of the exhibition displaying Cooke’s pins, brooches, and neckpieces, for example, tracks her use of movement to craft pieces that invite the wearer to take an active role in their display.
Adding a new dimension to her design legacy, in 2019, among other gifts, Cooke endowed the William O. Steinmetz ’50 and Betty Cooke ’46 Chair in Design at MICA, the first endowed chair in MICA’s design department. Cooke still reigns as a symbol of contemporary style and craftsmanship, retaining the same sense of optimism and excitement that she had as a young woman.
“I can spend years with a circle,” Cooke said about her work and process. “If you have the ideas and the materials, the results are limitless.”