Industrial Aesthetic: The Tire Sculptures of Betsabée Romero and Chakaia Booker

The rubber tire, a globally omnipresent object that is mass-produced more than a billion times each year, is used as a medium by two artists whose work is on view at NMWA. Signals of a Long Road Together by Betsabée Romero (b. 1963) is the newest installation in the museum’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project. Inside the building, the monumental wall sculpture Acid Rain (2001) by Chakaia Booker (b. 1953) comprises more than 2,000 pounds of tires and rubber tubing. These two works both address culture, heritage, and environmental concerns in extraordinary ways.

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Movilidad en suspenso (Mobility in suspense) (foreground) and Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (background); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars) (detail); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, En cautiverio (In captivity) (detail); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Huellas y cicatricez (Traces and scars); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

New York Avenue Sculpture: Betsabeé Romero Installation

Betsabeé Romero, Movilidad y tensión (Mobility and tension); Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Romero and Booker live and work in the two largest metropolises in North America—Mexico City and New York City—where pollution and waste are abundant. The sprawling roads of her bustling hometown have provided Romero with no shortage of used tires, which she describes as “one of the worst waste products of the automobile industry” given their bulk and durability. By carving the tires with patterns and imagery—snakes from Aztec artwork, a fleeing family to signify migration—Romero is able to transform this generic waste into meaningful artwork. Similarly, Booker, who moved to Manhattan in the 1980s when the city was notoriously dangerous and dirty, has made a practice of gathering shredded tires from the roadside and alleys, turning the material into art. Her work serves as an aesthetic response to the urban landscape she has known her whole life. “My palette is the textures of the treads, the fibers from discarded materials, and tires that I use to create varied effects,” Booker once explained.

Works by Romero and Booker also share a deep compassion for culture and heritage. Romero manipulates tires as a material that has been central to Mexican culture—from Mesoamerican ball games to the modern trade economy—while also “evoking traditional Mexican motifs” through her carved patterns and design. Tires are also a metaphor for human migration, always a pertinent topic within Mexico and across humanity at large. Booker’s artistic practice is a way for her to navigate the African American diaspora. Black is the primary color in all of her work, acting as an affirmation of strength. By fashioning art out of discarded tires, she evokes the beauty of African American people, despite the hardships they have faced. Her patterns and geographic shapes, sometimes based on traditional African textiles, carry this metaphor further.

Chakaia Booker's Acid Rain is a large sculpture made out of old tires that have been shressed, cut, and frayed. They are layered and coiled on top of each other to create a hulking sculpture that twists, turns, and juts outward.

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund; © Chakaia Booker

These disparate works demonstrate how two artists living thousands of miles apart are both able to make versatile artistic use of the same—unexpected—material. Rubber tires are a tough material, often associated with masculine or industrial purposes rather than aesthetic, and yet these sculptors have made the medium their own, making powerful art as well as exploring the contemporary issues that reflect their values.

—Joshua Weiner was the fall 2018 digital communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Chakaia Booker

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Chakaia Booker, El Gato, 2001; Rubber tire and wood, 48 x 42 x 42 in.; Collection of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection, Museum purchase, Enid and Crosby Kemper and William T. Kemper Acquisition Fund, 2004.12; © Chakaia Booker; Photo by E. G. Schempf

El Gato (2001)

By: Chakaia Booker (b. 1953, Newark, New Jersey)

“There is no separation between who I am and what I do,” says sculptor Chakaia Booker about her artistic process. Booker bends, coils, and cuts rubber tires into innovative sculptures and means of social commentary.

Booker’s work is rooted in her interest in fashion and style. As a child she was taught to sew by the women in her family. Building on this skill, she developed her artistic style by making her own clothing as a teenager. After receiving a BA in sociology from Rutgers University in 1976, Booker moved to Manhattan, where she participated in internships related to ceramics and basket-weaving. She continued to create her own wearable sculptures incorporating found materials. Continuing her artistic pursuits, Booker earned her MFA from the City College of New York in 1993.

In the early 1990s, Booker became interested in old, discarded tires and burnt rubber from car fires in the urban landscape of Manhattan’s East Village. Initially drawn to the tires for their accessibility, she soon realized their artistic possibilities and expressive power. For Booker, the worn nature of discarded tires evokes the lifecycle of humanity and the aging process. The tonal variations of rubber calls to mind the diversity of human identity, while the tire treads reference textile designs and markings from the African Diaspora. Booker also welcomes the perspectives individuals bring to her work. Booker explains, “As an artist, I put the ideas expressed in the sculpture out to the public with my own experience and the audience responds to the work on the basis of their own experience.”

El Gato, “the cat,” possesses a feline quality in its slinking stature. The sculpture’s extensions appear paused, perched, and also relaxed. Booker combined wood with a myriad of bicycle and automobile tires to create an intricate arrangement. The sculpture’s human-like form and scale call to mind the artist’s interest in African motifs and ceremonial headdresses. Such physical characteristics lend a self-referential quality to the work, as they remind viewers of Booker’s process of transforming herself with her wearable art.

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Katie Benz is the 2017 fall digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Pre-K Invasion: Developing New Tours for Young Audiences

This April, some of NMWA’s oldest paintings entertained the museum’s youngest audience. In a series of pilot tours for preschoolers, NMWA’s Education staff led 140 energetic Pre-K and kindergarten students through the galleries to examine portraits, colors, and shapes. Seated on rainbow-colored carpet squares, tiny visitors listened to stories, explored paintings, and experimented with diverse materials in their own art projects.


Pre-K visitors explore poses and posture in front of Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

As the intern charged with crafting this new tour experience, I quickly realized that flexibility was key. Months of planning and research culminated in three thought-out lesson plans. However, unexpected obstacles still arose. School buses ran late, large events occupied the museum’s Great Hall, and an educator was accidentally scheduled to give two tours at once. I designed the tours to last 45 minutes, allow for ten students per educator, and conclude with an art-making activity in the Great Hall. In the end, the tours lasted an hour and art-making occasionally shifted locations.

Pre-K visitors experiment with art-making in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Pre-K visitors experiment with art-making in the galleries; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

Activities morphed based on the students’ interest, participation, and cooperation. Some of the preschoolers enjoyed using viewfinders to act like “color detectives” while other groups found the tool distracting. By the last program, we had figured out the most efficient ways to use materials in the galleries.

The art-making, movement activities, and stories captivated our young audience. The preschoolers found the dog in Lavinia Fontana’s Portrait of a Noblewoman and the unicorn in Amy Sherald’s It Made Sense…Mostly in Her Mind easy to talk about—as well as the eye-catching outfits of each painting’s subject. They enjoyed mimicking shapes and lines with their bodies in front of Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain and using “magic paintbrushes” to imagine the expressive brush strokes in Joan Mitchell’s Orange. Students were eager to mix oil pastels and rip colored tape in their hands-on art activities. While creating self-portraits, they used hand mirrors to admire their faces. They were proud to take their artwork home as a reminder of their experience.

Overall, the program was a huge success! Logistical hurdles aside, we received positive feedback from teachers and chaperones who thought the tours were engaging and age-appropriate. Hearing kids say, “Wow! This place is cool!” or mention how much fun they had made the entire experience worth every ounce of effort it took to make it happen. I am excited for the future of these tours and cannot wait to hear how they play out during the next school year.

—Valerie Bundy was the winter/spring 2016 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. She is a former Pre-K teacher who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in museum education at the George Washington University.

Powerful Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014

Beer describes her “Anchored Candy” series of benches as “inspired by fashion and hotrods.” The curving, inviting seats feature sleek, jewel-tone automotive finishes, and each bench is grounded by a contrasting raw steel block. She says, “It is furniture simultaneously about desire and structure.”

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Vivian Beer in her studio, 2014; Courtesy of Vivian Beer; Photo by Mariana Rosas-Garcia

Who made it?

Vivian Beer (b. 1977), a New England-based furniture designer, takes inspiration from culture, industry, and the decorative arts “to create handmade, one-off objects that manifest the nostalgia of history, the speed of progress, and the memory of the human hand.” Her forms evoke speed and motion, beauty and power.

For Beer, who grew up in a rural area of Maine, making objects and developing hands-on skills was integral to everyday life. She received a BFA from Maine College of Art in sculpture in 2000 and an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in metalsmithing in 2004. In 2014 she undertook a fellowship at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. There, she researched the design history of American aeronautics and the aesthetic and cultural influences that have shaped airplanes over time.

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

Vivian Beer, Anchored Candy No. 7, 2014; Steel and automotive paint, 80 x 20 x 37 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Wexler Gallery; Photo by Alison Swiatocha

How was it made?

Beer, a former metalworker and blacksmith, incorporates the tools and techniques of industrial design into her furniture. In her studio, she welds, grinds, and builds steel armatures for furniture. Other pieces incorporate concrete, appearing to drape the rigid material into graceful curves. She finishes her furniture meticulously, touching each inch of the surface at least a dozen times. She says, “This attention to detail is very important, because . . . one of the wonderful things about furniture, especially seating, is its intimacy.”

Collection connection

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber and wood, 120 x 240 x 36 in.; NMWA, Museum purchase: Members’ Acquisition Fund

In NMWA’s collection, Chakaia Booker’s Acid Rain, 2001, also evokes power and beauty through automotive materials. Booker, whose work was featured in NMWA’s New York Avenue Sculpture Project, uses recycled rubber tires as her medium. With varied techniques—chopping, slicing, shredding, and curling—Booker transforms the dense material. To fabricate her largest sculptures, Booker uses computer-aided design software, creates detailed models, and constructs armatures from pressure-treated wood and steel rods. The intricacy of Acid Rain, a wall relief sculpture, belies its imposing 10-foot-tall size. Her use of tires refers to social mobility and progress as well as environmental, political, and cultural issues.

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: November 27, 2015

New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd interviewed over 100 men and women in the film industry, examined movie history, and relayed the experiences of female directors, showrunners, and actresses.

Women in the film industry recount stories of discrimination, stigmatization, and outright sexism. The article also shares several key statistics:

  • The six major movie studios only released three movies last year with a female director.
  • In 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9% of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films.
  • Only two women have ever directed a $100 million big-action blockbuster
  • From 2007 through 2014, women made up only one-third of speaking roles in the 100 top fictional films.

Front-Page Femmes

The Creators Project discusses the work of French artist Prune Nourry, who created 108 Terracotta Daughters modeled after Chinese orphans.

artnet shares seven quotes by Kara Walker, in honor of the artist’s 46th birthday.

Janet Echelman uses unorthodox fiber art materials to make building-sized sculptures.

Campaigners in Scotland want a series of memorial sculptures commemorating the country’s forgotten and unsung heroines.

Food artist Prudence Staite rendered a Nativity scene entirely of cheese.

Elle lists 14 powerful women in today’s art scene, including 100-year-old painter Carmen Herrera.

NMWA artist Chakaia Booker creates a massive sculptural tire work for the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

The New York Times reports that Art Basel Miami Beach includes a significant number of women artists.

Angela Palmer engraves glass sculptures with details taken from MRI and CT scans.

London-based artist Celina Teague explores the statement that “people don’t have faith in female artists.”

Buzzfeed shares photos of German-born American painter and sculptor Eva Hesse.

Beijing banned an art exhibition about feminism and domestic violence.

Juliana Huxtable’s commissioned performance work at the Museum of Modern Art “weaves together a string of reference paths as varied as historical cosplay, club aesthetics, and Internet archeology.”

Performance artist Karen Finley impersonates the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in The Jackie Look.

The Huffington Post outlines arguments for and against using the term “women artists.”

Boston’s mayor declared November 20, 2015 “Corita Kent Day” in honor of what would have been the late nun and artist’s 97th birthday.

The pop music of Los Angeles-based composer Julia Holter and Colombian musician Lucrecia Dalt confront expectations of female artists.

Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, “sustains a double vision of both the child and the hard-living folk-blues mama Joplin became.”

The Guardian writes “a wider range of female voices is finally being heard” and praises a new generation of women playwrights.

The New Yorker investigates the motivations behind Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt.

Shows We Want to See

Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970s–Now features photos, prints, audio, video, and installations by 23 women artists who “explore the inherent politics and social conditions of creating art in public space.” The artists represented include Tania Bruguera, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the Guerrilla Girls, and Jenny Holzer.

Tracey Emin’s pensive exhibition, I Cried Because I Love You, will include sketches, embroidered works, and art created from neon lights and bronze.

Wild Girl: Gertrude Hermes is the first major exhibition in 30 years to showcase the sculptor’s works. Apollo Magazine says, “Hermes defied critical snobbery with sculptures made from found materials, including skittles from the local pub.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Chakaia Booker—Hail to the ‘Queen of Rubber Soul’

Chakaia Booker in her studio. Photo by Nelson Tejada.

In 2002, independent curator and art critic Lily Wei wrote that everything Chakaia Booker does is “filtered through being black, a woman, and an artist.”

Although relatively quiet and private in nature, Booker is an artist from head to toe, creating vibrant, elaborate headdresses that are different everyday, “In the mornings when I get up, I sculpt myself first. I myself am sculpture and that continues on a daily basis. At the studio, the process continues.” Starting out her career by making wearable art, Booker now works almost exclusively with recycled tires in her sculptures and has been since the early 1990s.

Her monumental wall-relief, Acid Rain, 2001, is larger-than life (9 x 16 feet) yet incredibly intricate. Incorporating recycled bicycle, automobile, and truck tires, Booker slices, strips, weaves, rivets, and twists the tires to create rich, undulating textures that overflow off the wall. The installation—now on view in NMWA’s collection galleries on the third floor—consists of twelve-section and weighs more than 2,000 pounds.

Chakaia Booker, Acid Rain, 2001; Rubber tires and wood; 120 x 240 x 36 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts; Members’ Acquisition Fund

Acid Rain encompasses several key themes in Booker’s artwork. The subtle variations of black hues and tonalities relate to African American identity issues and the role of the color black in modern art, as seen in the artwork of Kasimir Malevich and Frank Stella. While the tire treads, textures, and patterns are reminiscent of African textiles, Booker’s manipulation of the tires evoke African scarification practices as well as remnants of whippings from slavery. Booker also intertwines the masculine domination in society and industry with feminine weaving and handiwork. As the title denotes, the piece reflects a larger environmental dilemma. On one hand, Booker references the environmental decay but also counters this degradation with her own process of transforming recycled urban “trash” into highly polished artwork now presented in a museum.

Detail of Acid Rain

In 2006, NMWA presented Booker’s work in the FOREFRONT exhibition series which features an emerging to mid-career artist who has begun to develop an international reputation. Booker’s installation consisted of five large-scale works ranging in size from 6 to 20 feet. Describing her art, Booker said, “It’s about getting the energy and feeling for something. I consider the things that I make as art that have information in it. We need a foundation of rules, discipline, and structure, but the rules are made to be elaborated and expanded upon by exerting energy to create something new.”

Born in 1953 and raised in New Jersey, Booker received her BA in Sociology at Rutgers University, Brunswick, New Jersey (1976), and her MFA from The City College of New York, New York (1993). She has recently held solo exhibitions at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Her artwork appears in such collections as the Bronx Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Newark Museum and is shown both nationally and internationally. She currently resides and works in New York.

–Laura Hoffman is the Education Intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and a graduate student at The George Washington University.

Works Cited

Castro, Jan Garden. “The Language of Life: A Conversation with Chakaia Booker.” Sculpture Magazine Jan.–Feb. 2003: 1-6. International Sculpture Center. Web. 8 Feb. 2011.

Chakaia Booker. New York: Marlborough Gallery, Inc., 2008. Print.

“Chakaia Booker: Thirty Monumental and Small-Scale Works.” World Wide Arts Resources Corporation, 12 May 2004. Web. 12 May 2004.
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