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The sculpture of Bette Fast

Forward by Howard Fast

I first met my wife, Bette Fast, in September of 1935. It was the low point of the depression years, but we were young, hopeful, and filled with the passion that comes of choosing art as a way of life. She was a student at Parson's School of Design; I was working as a shipping clerk for twelve dollars a week. She lived in a tiny basement room with a tiny allowance, and on that, together with my income, we managed to survive. On our first date she drew a sensitive sketch of me, which I still cherish. She was eighteen years old; I was twenty. Two years later we were married, and we remained married and dedicated to our art and our companionship and love for the next fifty-seven years. Bette died of cancer at the age of seventy-seven on November 9, 1994.

She was a mother of two children, ran a house and cooked three meals a day, worked as a designer of women's clothes during our lean years, and never stopped drawing even for a day. When she drew, usually in brown ink, her line was clean and limpid. A Zen priest who looked at her drawings with awe said that she drew in a state of satori.

In 1959 she turned to sculpture. She had finished painting a series of nudes, large, buxom women rendered in Paynes gray and in white. I thought they were splendid, but they left her dissatisfied. Her need for three-dimensional form led her finally to sculpture. For the next thirty-five years she lived, worked, and dreamed sculpture. No day passed without one or two or five maquettes emerging from her amazing hands and mind. I use the word "amazing" because I watched a process that never ceased to amaze me, the ancient wonder of the earth's clay turning into art and beauty.

I regret that I could not persuade her to keep more of the maquettes, but she in turn would ask whether I could go on living in a house with a thousand of them. She felt the maquette, the small model with which most serious sculptors begin a project, is simply sketching, trying out ideas, a way to spur opinions out of others, to question responses. Her need to find form that satisfied her was passionate. Her search was for form within the reality and beyond the reality, hidden in clay, as truth hides somewhere in what we call human existence. This was her quest for thirty-five years. She was forty-two years old when she began to sculpt, searching for the ineffable, which she understood but was for years beyond my understanding.

Only a handful of maquettes remain to me, and only one of them is presented in this book. Bette Fast was a gentle feminist but a fiercely earnest one. Her art was her religion and the human form was her altar. Most of her sculptures are of women; only four, the athlete, the man holding a child in The Human Family, the man in The Couple, and the statue of our son bent over his banjo, are of men. To her, the body of a woman is the sacred source of life. Whenever we traveled, whether in Europe or Mexico, she would prowl through museums and churches and stare endlessly at the figures of Christ. She burst out at me once, "But none of them understand that he was Jewish!" This observation led to a series of drawings of the crucifixion with old, agonized Jews nailed to the cross. She then put the theme aside and began to make maquettes of a woman crucified. She never went into any weighty discussion of this; she simply said, "The figure on the cross must be a woman." She made at least a dozen maquettes and none of them satisfied her. It was a work in progress when she died. It was never completed, and I have the temerity to include it in this collection because it was a part of her.

Two of the sculptures included were done as specific memories of the Holocaust: Grief: Child of the Holocaust and Holocaust. Both of these became monuments, and they can be seen in the courtyard of Temple Sholom in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Her attitude toward every piece she finished and which satisfied her at least in part – for no artist is ever fully satisfied by her accomplishment – was that she had presented a form for a monument. Her work is indeed monumental. It is no frail, shrinking, delicate woman that came to life under her hands; her women are strong and proud, life-givers who glory in their earthiness and fecundity.

I claim no pretensions to being an art critic, either of painting or of sculpture, but in my wife, Bette, I had a teacher who for almost sixty years opened doors to me and tried to explain what I did not understand and make me aware of the deep wonders of her art. When a critic from England spent an afternoon studying her work and said to her, "You have a gift as great as Henry Moore's," I saw a look on her face that expressed all the reward and fame she had ever sought. He promised on his return to London to take up the possibility of a show of her work with the recently retired curator of the Tate Gallery.

Bette never sought fame or attention from critics or from the galleries or from the people who patronized them. Her three major shows took place in Los Angeles and in New Canaan and Greenwich, Connecticut, and collectors have been buying her sculpture for years.

To me her sculpture is beautiful, and I consider my life with her as a gift from whatever gods of art and beauty may be. She touched something that few people touch, and I am delighted to be asked to present this book as a tribute to her work and memory.

—Howard Fast


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