Betty Lewis was born in Hobart, Tasmania, on Septermber 2nd, 1894. When Betty was just two years old her father died. After this her mother returned to New Zealand with her four children to live with her parents in Wellington. When Betty was 2 years old her mother remarried and had more children. Betty’s stepfather’s business endeavours took the family to London and New York and eventually back to New Zealand. When Betty was a teenager her mother passed away and she cared for her younger siblings. An accident in her teenage years left Betty with a spinal injury. Doctors in New Zealand couldn’t help her so in 1913, at the age of 19, Betty travelled by herself to New York, where her brother was living, to seek medical advice. An operation to remove her coccyx was successful and she recovered.
While living in New York Betty trained and worked as a librarian. While working at the New York City Public Library, she met Julius Isaacs, a law student. They married in 1921. As Julius’s financial position improved he encouraged Betty to stop working and pursue her dream of becoming an artist.
Her artistic education began at Elverhøj Art Colony in upstate New York where she spent a summer studying under James Scott, an American painter and jeweller. Betty demonstrated a natural talent for design and the use of colour. Back in New York Betty undertook formal training at a design school and was then admitted to the Cooper Union School of Art in Manhattan where she continued to study design. When Julius’s work took him to West Africa, Betty took an opportunity to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna. Here she was prolific, creating hundreds of designs for textiles and rugs.
Upon returning to New York Betty worked as a teacher at the Cooper Union School of Art and also sold her designs to manufacturers. Her designs range in style from geometric to naturalistic scenes and floral patterns, and depictions of nursery rhyme characters and fairy tale scenes for children’s rooms. Her designs are characterised by her use of bright colour and her meticulous eye for detail.
After working for years as a successful textile and wallpaper designer Betty grew tired of the commercial aspect of trying to sell her designs and began exploring ceramics. One day in her ceramics studio Betty had an epiphany and realised she was a sculptor. She began by working with clay and later stone and wood became her preferred mediums and carving her preferred method. A self-taught sculptor, Betty worked spontaneously, drawing on feelings to create works that are expressive and rhythmic. Many of her sculptures depict animals and human figures. She exhibited her work in several group shows and had her first solo exhibition in 1953 at the Hacker Gallery in New York.
The Isaacs travelled extensively throughout the world and were patrons of the arts. They became friends with many within the artistic community and over the years they developed a significant collection of works by various artists.
Betty passed away in 1971. When Julius died in 1979 their extensive collection was bequeathed to the National Art Gallery of New Zealand and is now held by Te Papa. The collection is made up of over 200 hundred items of which Betty’s sculptures and designs form the main part, along with several paintings by Julius. The collection also includes works by New Zealanders Frances Hodgkins and Billy Apple, American Larry Rivers, and several works by Marcel Duchamp who was a personal friend of the Isaacs.
Julius Isaacs and Betty Lewis Isaacs interviewed in New York by Hazel de Berg for the Hazel de Berg collection, 26 April 1970, TRC 1/497. National Library of Australia. http://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/2164057
Julius Isaacs, 1949. Oath of Devotion. E.P Dutton & Co., Inc. New York.
Marcus Moore, 2007. Attracting Dust in New Zealand: Lost And Found: Betty's Waistcoat and Other Duchampian Traces. toutfait.com: The Marcel Duchamp Studies Online Journal. Available from http://www.toutfait.com/online_journal_details.php?postid=46601