Baltimore jewelry designer Betty Cooke’s clean lines come full circle with first solo museum show at age 97

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BALTIMORE — It has taken the art world 97 years to catch up with Baltimore’s Betty Cooke.

Now in her eighth decade as a jewelry designer, Cooke is being honored with a retrospective exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, the first solo show of her career. “Betty Cooke: The Circle & the Line” includes more than 160 pieces of jewelry — miniature sculptures designed to be worn — that attest to the strikingly modern vision of the lifelong Baltimorean who created them.

Cooke’s work has been included in group shows in museums since 1948, including in a 2019 exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

But in Baltimore, Cooke is known less as an artist than as the founder of The Store Ltd. in Cross Keys, where she can be found six days a week creating unique pieces of handmade jewelry that well-heeled patrons clamor 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’s thrilled that her museum is the first to give Cooke the respect she deserves.

Cooke’s admirers believe that attention is long overdue.

“If Betty had lived in another city, I believe she would have gotten a great deal more recognition,” said Fred Lazarus IV, former president of Maryland Institute College of Art, Cooke’s alma mater. “In Baltimore, we’re better at denigrating what we have rather than feeling proud of it. If we pound our own chest, it’s usually because we’re beating ourselves up.

“Betty sometimes says: ‘I bet if I did my work in sculptural form, people would take notice.’”

If Cooke flew under the radar, it’s not because she lacks confidence. She’s always known she has vision.

“I see things,” she said, “that aren’t even there yet.”

Cooke’s style is streamlined and deceptively simple. Like other artists associated with the midcentury modern design movement, she breaks complicated objects down to their building blocks. The exhibit’s title stems from two of the artist’s lifelong preoccupations.

“When I taught, we used to study what could be done with one straight line,” Cooke says in the exhibit catalog. “I can spend years with a circle.”

A gold necklace in the exhibit resembling a cluster of branches sends off twig-like shoots. From three twigs swell pearls as luminescent as dewdrops. A silver pin shaped like a boomerang suggests a flying bird.

In another gallery, a gold and silver necklace with silver bars and cascades of stars recalls the American flag.

“Her work is very clean. You rarely see solder lines,” said Jo Briggs, the Walters’ assistant curator of 18th- and 19th-century art, who co-curated the show, which includes pieces Cooke crafted 75 years ago that Briggs said appear utterly contemporary today.

“In the 1940s, this jewelry must have looked like it came from outer space,” she said.

Born in 1924, Cooke grew up at a time when the art and business spheres in the U.S. were dominated by men.

Her mother was a singer before her marriage and, later, a teacher. Her father worked as a clerk for the B&O Railroad, but painting was his passion.

On weekends he would head to Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park with his painting supplies, accompanied by his only daughter, the youngest of his three children. Ten-year-old Betty would set up her easel alongside her father’s. During those 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 female friend camped through Maine and Nova Scotia, hitchhiking and carrying their gear on their backs.

“I always had a sheath knife,” she told an interviewer for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “And my mother let me do that with my friends. Never a question.”

Over the decades, Cooke grappled with her share of personal tragedies, beginning with the death of her father when she was 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 husband of 61 years, William O. Steinmetz, passed away in 2016.

Despite her grief, Cooke never stopped working. As she put it: “I just kept going.”

Cooke began designing with sterling silver and brass in the 1940s after receiving a scholarship to MICA (then the Maryland Institute).

“I liked the feel of metal,” Cooke said, “the different colors.”

A photo in the exhibit taken in 1947 shows Cooke in her studio, pounding a piece of jewelry with a hammer. The artist was 5-foot-2 and slender-boned, with short hair that fluffed around her ears like duck down. Cooke said it never occurred to her that observers might wonder if it was “ladylike” to handle a blowtorch or hacksaw.

“Betty’s work has incredible finesse and delicacy,” Marciari-Alexander said. “She makes tiny, beautiful little pieces that belies the hard, hard work that goes into making them. It takes enormous strength to manipulate her materials.”

After graduating from MICA and Johns Hopkins University in 1946, Cooke scraped together $3,000. She bought a ramshackle 1830s brick rowhouse house at 903 Tyson Street, cleared out the debris, installed a kerosene heater and opened a business she called The Shop. A black-and-white photograph from that era shows Cooke standing outside her shop, wearing a leather smock and leather sandals that she’d crafted herself.

The Mid-Town Belvedere neighborhood was beginning to be reclaimed by artists and the young intellectuals who became Cooke’s first clients. These customers weren’t put off by jewelry so assertive it dictated the clothing they wore or how they moved.

“Betty’s jewelry defines the wearer,” Marciari-Alexander said. “It is not neutral. It is not an adornment. It is imposing in its own way.”

Though Cooke was almost immediately successful in her hometown, she thought her artwork deserved a wider audience. In 1948, she and a friend packed samples of her jewelry in a box and began a monthlong, cross-country trek to museums and stores nationwide.

“Betty had a list of places she wanted to visit,” the exhibit’s co-curator, Jeannine Fallino said. “It takes real gumption to travel around 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. It was the first major recognition for Cooke, whose work subsequently entered the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others.

In 1955, Cooke married Steinmetz, her 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 the developer James Rouse, the business relocated to the new Village of Cross Keys. From the beginning, the renamed The Store Ltd. carried items in addition to jewelry that fit 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 often was the lead dog. Bill supported her totally.”

But The Store’s success hasn’t always translated into respect from art world power brokers, which experts said operates according to centuries-old hierarchies that prize painting and sculpture.

“Jewelry is not an area of focus ordinarily thought of as ‘museum-worthy’” Marciari-Alexander said. “In some ways, we are still living according to the dictates — and misogyny of — 17th- and 18th-century European tastemakers. These are categories of precedence and worth that haven’t changed all that much today.”

Cooke said she’s deeply gratified by her solo show, though she wishes Steinmetz were alive to see it. And she would like more curators and critics to acknowledge jewelry as a major art form.

But she has more important things to worry about: Designs crowd her head, waiting to take form in gold, silver, and stone. One after the other, the days slip past.

“I always want to do better,” Cooke said. “I always have more designs in mind. I am 97 and I don’t have many years ahead of me. I just hope I can get it all done in however much time I have left.”

If you go

“Betty Cooke: The Circle & the Line” on view through Jan. 2 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. 410-547-9000 or thewalters.org.

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