BALTIMORE — It has taken the art world 97 years to catch up with Baltimore’s Betty Cooke.
Now in her eighth decade as a jewelry designer, Cooke is being honored with a retrospective exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, the first solo show of her career. “Betty Cooke: The Circle & the Line” includes more than 160 pieces of jewelry — miniature sculptures designed to be worn — that attest to the strikingly modern vision of the lifelong Baltimorean who created them.
Cooke’s work has been included in group shows in museums since 1948, including in a 2019 exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
But in Baltimore, Cooke is known less as an artist than as the founder of The Store Ltd. in Cross Keys, where she can be found six days a week creating unique pieces of handmade jewelry that well-heeled patrons clamor to buy.
Walters Director Julia Marciari-Alexander describes Cooke, 97, as “a singular genius” and “one of the great artist-entrepreneurs of the 20th and 21st centuries.” She’s thrilled that her museum is the first to give Cooke the respect she deserves.
Cooke’s admirers believe that attention is long overdue.
“If Betty had lived in another city, I believe she would have gotten a great deal more recognition,” said Fred Lazarus IV, former president of Maryland Institute College of Art, Cooke’s alma mater. “In Baltimore, we’re better at denigrating what we have rather than feeling proud of it. If we pound our own chest, it’s usually because we’re beating ourselves up.
“Betty sometimes says: ‘I bet if I did my work in sculptural form, people would take notice.’”
If Cooke flew under the radar, it’s not because she lacks confidence. She’s always known she has vision.
“I see things,” she said, “that aren’t even there yet.”