At 97, artist and entrepreneur Betty Cooke is finally getting her moment in the limelight.
After a yearlong delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Walters Art Museum is opening on Sunday “Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line,” the first major retrospective of the work of the Baltimore-based jewelry designer and entrepreneur.
“It would have been nice last year, but none of us could control that,” Cooke said. “But I’m very excited, and I’m excited that so many people apparently are excited. We have customers who are looking forward to it. People are telling me and leaving notes.”
Julia Marciara-Alexander, the Andrea B. and John H. Laporte director of the Walters, said she’s happy it’s finally happening. “I’ve wanted to have a show on Betty Cooke ever since I became director.”
The retrospective showcases Cooke’s 70-year career in Baltimore, from her early days in a combined home, studio and shop at 903 Tyson Street to her move to The Village of Cross Keys and the founding, with her husband, the late William O. Steinmetz, of a retail operation called The Store Ltd.
Just as mid-century modern furniture and mid-century modern architecture continue to receive attention in the 21st century, mid-century jewelry has a strong following as well.
Visitors will be able to see what influenced Cooke early on – including works from the Walters’ own collection that Cooke saw as a child — and how she experimented with various materials to make her jewelry, including wood, plastic, even Plexiglas when it first came out. They’ll be able to see the various ways she incorporates gemstones, from quartz to diamonds, how she worked with leather to create handbags and other accessories, and how she plays with form and scale.
The collection on display, presented roughly in chronological order, includes pieces that Cooke created starting in the late 1940s and up through the Eisenhower and Kennedy years and into the present.
They were made during times of prosperity and recession, during Democratic and Republican administrations. Some are influenced by nature, while others seem to be influenced by the promise of the space age and the moon landing, or advances in technology. Some of her necklaces, especially, evoke planets in orbit. Though the pieces are displayed in groupings, Cooke says she always explored many different themes simultaneously, trying to avoid repetition.
Viewers will also be able to see how Cooke stayed true to certain core principles that have guided her work for more than seven decades, starting with clean lines and simple forms.
“When I taught, we used to study what can be done with one straight line,” she states on one panel. “I can spend years with a circle. If you have the ideas and the materials, the results are limitless.”
One display case shows the tools that jewelry makers work with, including Cooke’s own implements. Another is devoted to one of her best-known clients, the developer James Rouse, and the jewelry that Cooke designed over 20 years for his second wife, Patty.
Rouse’s company developed the retail center where Cooke and Steinmetz moved in 1965, and his offices were right above her store so they remained friends over the years. The presents range from a modest number ‘1’ in silver with gold serifs, for the Rouses’ first anniversary, to a necklace whose curves and two moonstones can be read as the number ’68,’ for Patty’s birthday.
In many ways, walking through the exhibit is like walking through Baltimore history, and American history. For Cooke’s customers, it’s likely to bring up personal memories.
The exhibit was curated by independent scholar Jeannine Falino, assisted by coordinating curator Jo Briggs, the Jennie Walters Delano Curator of 18th- and 19th- Century Art at the Walters. Part of the feat they pulled off is that the installation was largely designed off-site, by computer and via virtual meetings, because of the pandemic. The curators gathered more than 160 works 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.
The Walters is having a preview of Cooke’s show for museum supporters on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the show opens on Sunday. A 2 p.m. panel discussion on Sunday about Cooke and her work, with former Maryland Institute College of Art president Fred Lazarus IV, MICA graphic designer Ellen Lupton and Falino, is sold out.
The Walters is open on Wednesdays and Fridays to Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. On Thursdays, it’s open from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free. “Betty Cooke: The Circle and the Line,” runs until January 2.