Interview: Bettina Werner's Pioneering Use of Salt in Art

February 13, 2018 5:00 PM

Being an artist isn’t just a matter of creating paintings or sculptures in a particular medium, it’s about making your mark on history. In the annals of contemporary art, there is an indelible handprint—in salt— made by internationally acclaimed painter and sculptor Bettina Werner. A graduate of the prestigious Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan, Werner earned the moniker “Salt Queen” for her pioneering work with the medium, which she mastered in Italy thirty years ago. Her invention of the salt technique encompasses her creative use of texture, color, form and flow of the crystals.  Her unique salt artworks, have been exhibited in museums all over the world, including the Whitney in New York, the Pushkin in Moscow, and in galleries and public spaces such as the World Trade Center, where she held her 25 year retrospective exhibition.

Werner’s enthusiasm for her signature medium is infectious. She seasons our chat with references to the storied history of salt as a purifying force. By the windows in her art loft, which overlook the New York Stock Exchange, sit several large bowls of salt with her art candles. Halfway through our visit, I become aware of the subtle taste of salt on my tongue, recalling the breeze and the saltiness of the ocean, and the mineral-rich atmosphere, which one might commonly encounter in a hydrotherapy spa. 

Over the past few months, Bettina Werner has been engaged in creating a special Valentine’s season exhibit inspired by unconditional love and dedicated to her father Adolfo Werner Confalonieri, known affectionately as “Toffolo," who passed away in December. The show– titled  “Enlivening Red Velvet Heart” after one of her newly created works– will be on view from February 13th through March 3rd at the ABXY gallery on the Lower East Side. The artist gave TWELV a tour of her art loft and took a moment to reflect on her life and work.

Everybody knows you as “The Salt Queen,” and your body of work embraces salt as a primary medium. How did this come about? Did you go through a process of experimenting with other substances before you discovered salt when you were a student at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan?

Salt came into my mind as an intuitive thought, like something from another dimension. Of course, when I was in art school I did my assignments and worked with different materials, but I started creating with salt early on. I knew right away that it was the element I was looking for. I am very connected to the spiritual world because my twin sister was stillborn, and I feel she has always given me inspiration, guidance and protection. She is my angelic sister, and I treasure our birth-bond.  

Do you come from an artistic family?  

Not at all! I come from generations of attorneys: my father, grandfather, and my great grandfather. My father initially wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but he realized early on that I had my own artistic calling. 

Was your family supportive of your interest in art when you first began? 

My father was a traditional person, and didn’t really understand my passion. I am a free spirit, and this was hard for my family to acknowledge. I decided to go for it on my own as a young artist. Later in my maturity, I came to realize that his way of loving me was by allowing me my independence. It gave me the chance to become who I was meant to be. I am so grateful to him, and I am glad I got to tell him before he passed. 

Tell me about your journey to New York.

I came to New York by myself when I was 24. As the saying goes, “the salt on my skin was the only thing I carried with me from the old continent to the new.” I lived in SoHo, which was kind of rough around the edges in 1989, but I loved it because it was an artistic community. In my first year in New York, I was fortunate to get picked up by an established gallery that represented major artists—the Marisa del Re Gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street. It was such an exciting time in New York. 

I would assume that your formula for creating your salt artwork is unique and proprietary, but is there anything you can reveal to us about your techniques? 

My artworks are my children, and when you meet someone’s child, you usually don’t ask the parents how the child was made! I like to keep a sense of mystery surrounding my technique. But I will tell you that I work with my hands on the salt instead of using a brush. I like to have direct contact with the materials. If you look closely at some paintings, you can actually see my hands’ path of movement in the formation of the salt.

Some of your paintings are framed, while others are exposed to the elements. How does your salt and pigment formula hold up to the elements, especially your early pieces that are now more than half a century old? 

Salt is the fifth element, and it’s a rock. My work has held up very well over time because the technique is solid. Of course, water and humidity are the enemy of all paintings, so it is important to protect your art collection with proper climate control.

 I am really drawn to this large yellow painting near your table sculpture. What was your inspiration for it? 

It is called “Tibino in the Sun” and it was part of a series I created called “102 Salt Crystal Dalmatian Collection.” New York City was a lot rougher in the 1990s, so I decided to get a dog for protection. My Dalmation Tibino and I spent 14 years together and developed a very special bond. Tibino was my muse, and for many years I created these art works to celebrate our life together. He was my most loyal companion. 

Was this “We the People” painting one of the pieces you showed at your retrospective at 7 World Trade Center in 2010? 

Yes. When I was preparing to take the exam to become a U.S. citizen in 2010, I had to learn a lot of things about American history. I would test and tease my American friends to see how much they knew, and half the time they knew less than me. One of my favorite questions was “What are the first three word’s of our Constitution?” And the answer, of course, is “We the people.”

In 2002, you founded your nonprofit, The Salt Queen Foundation. What inspired you to go in that direction? 

I wanted to make sure that my art and my technique were protected, so one mission of the foundation is to maintain my archival records. I also wanted to support other artists who are using unusual techniques and innovative materials, and to inspire creativity in general. Years ago, we teamed up with Life Gate radio station in Italy to launch a music contest. We asked people to compose a song—of up to four minutes—that was inspired by salt. It was incredible to listen to what people sent us. They played the songs on the radio, and the winner got a $5,000 award. That was really great. I think we will do it again soon in the US. 

Your work has been exhibited at the most prestigious museums and galleries in The United States and Europe. What inspired you to partner with ABXY on the Lower East Side to show your latest work? 

When I was starting out in New York exhibiting at the Marisa del Re Gallery, I was always the youngest person in the room. Now, it’s time to embrace the younger generation. I know Allison [Barker, owner of ABXY] through Marlborough Gallery where she used to work. She is a brilliant writer and curator, with boundless energy and progressive taste, and now that she’s opened her own gallery, I’m excited to collaborate with her. The “Enlivening Red Velvet Heart” exhibit opens just before Valentine’s Day; it is both an homage to my father and a celebration of life and love reflected in the vibrant culture of lower Manhattan. 

 

Click to View: Bettina Werner-The Salt Queen: Selected Works. ©Bettina Werner.

Click to View: Bettina Werner-The Salt Queen: Art Home-Studio

 

WRITTEN BY KAREN-FRAGALA SMITH

EDITED BY HOLLIS DE LANEY

 

PHOTOGRAPHY: CHIAKI KATO

 

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