Betty Blayton was a native of Williamsburg, Virginia born in 1937. She was the second of four children born to Alleyne Houser Blayton, an educator, and Dr. James Blaine “Jimmy” Blayton, a physician who opened the first hospital for Black people in the Williamsburg area. After spending her childhood drawing, she went on to earn a degree in Painting and Illustration from Syracuse University in New York in 1959. As a Black woman, Blayton was unable to pursue an artistic education in Virginia, as the state’s higher institutions remained segregated following the historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Instead, Virginia opted to pay for Black students to attend schools in other states that offered their chosen majors.
Following her graduation, Blayton spent time in Washington DC and St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, before moving to New York City in 1960, the city she would call home for the rest of her life. Living on Bond Street shortly after moving to New York, Blayton entered the orbit of fellow artists and activists such as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and LeRoi Jones (soon to be Amiri Baraka), who was a neighbor. At this time, she studied at the Art Students League with sculptor Arnold Prince and painter Charles Alston, and at the Brooklyn Museum School with the Japanese abstract sculptor Minoru Niizuma. However, by the 1970s, Blayton was focused solely on painting her now-iconic ethereal abstractions.
Her first decade in New York City laid the foundation for the rest of her career and provided a lasting impact on the New York art scene and the realm of arts education. Working with at-risk youth through the organization Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Blayton encouraged her students to visit the Museum of Modern Art. The difficulties these students faced trying to gain access to the museum sparked discussions between her and MoMA Junior Council member Frank Donnelly about the possibility of creating a museum for her students in their own community. The result of these conversations was The Studio Museum in Harlem, for which Blayton served as Board Secretary from 1965-1977.
Around this time, Blayton became acquainted with Victor D’Amico, founder of the Museum of Modern Art’s Education Department. Continuing her desire to give the children of Harlem and greater New York City access to art and arts education, Blayton worked with D’Amico to expand the scope of the museum’s Children’s Art Carnival, bringing its mission of fostering creative thinking through the arts and stimulating a love of learning in children uptown, including a young Jean-Michel Basquiat. Blayton would serve as Executive Director of the Children’s Art Carnival for thirty years, founding the sister program Harlem Textile Works during her tenure. In addition to these notable achievements, Blayton acted as a consultant for the Board of Education of the City of New York (1968-1994), served on the board of The Arts & Business Council of New York City (1975-1996), and was a member of the New York City Commission for Cultural Affairs (1979-1988).
A pioneering figure of abstraction, Blayton’s phantasmal, ethereal canvases defy easy categorization. In the late 1960s, she experimented with her style and technique by flirting with pure abstraction while remaining loosely tethered to figuration. She likewise experimented with the hard-edge abstraction pioneered by artists such as Sam Gilliam and Al Loving, using bright, bold colors and crisp lines to create her paintings. The color and composition of works from this period nod to the influence of Impressionists like van Gogh and spiritualists such as Paul Klee.
By the 1970s, Blayton had found her unique vocabulary and method. Her aesthetic intentions become two-fold: first, through self-reflection, the artist hoped to reach a transcendental state where her moods and mindset were laid bare on the canvas; second, she intended this act of internal meditation to produce a similar experience of spiritual self-reflection in the viewer. This shift in conceptual focus led to what would be her mature style — a kaleidoscopic merging of bright colors and organic forms. Her use of the circular canvas, or tondo format, was similarly used as a symbol of the cyclical nature of life’s many stages and the continuity between man and nature. The metaphysical, mythological, and mystical themes that have come to define Blayton’s art stemmed from conversations she had begun with her father as early as age ten. Her discovery of the 17th-century spiritual movement, Rosicrucianism, gave way to broader interests in Eastern religions and the Bhagavad Gita. She also drew inspiration from New Age practices popularized by figures such as Edgar Cayce, Shakti Gawain, Wayne Dyer, and Michael Newton.
In the service of this practice, Blayton developed a highly stylized and specific technique. She began each painting with a sketch, and working from this outline, began blocking out the primary forms with chalk. This was followed by thin washes of color that ground the composition, on top of which she placed thin layers of rice paper. Going over these with further layers of wash, she completed each painting by adding heavier accents of color that lend vibrancy to the finished painting. She was thus able to create veil-like compositions of indeterminate depth that yield to an almost trance-like experience in the viewer.
Blayton has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Elizabeth Dee, New York (2017); William Burgess Fine Arts, New York (2010); as well as important group exhibitions such as Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today at the Kemper Museum of Art, Kansas City (2017); Surface Work at Victoria Miro Gallery, London (2018); and She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, Gracie Mansion, New York (2019). Her work can be found in the permanent collections of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Spelman College, Atlanta, among other institutions. She was the recipient of such awards as the Eugene Grigsby Award for Excellent Contributions in Art Education from the National Arts Education Association (1990), the CBS Martin Luther King Jr., Fulfilling the Dream Award (1995), and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Woman’s Caucus for the Arts (2005).
Betty Blayton passed away at the age of 79 in Bronx, New York, on October 2, 2016.
“I have been fascinated with who we are, why we are, what we’ve been, what we’re supposed to become, metaphysics and philosophies and anthropology.”
– BETTY BLAYTON