In the 1940s, Cooke and a female friend camped through Maine and Nova Scotia, hitchhiking and carrying their gear on their backs.
“I always had a sheath knife,” she told an interviewer for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “And my mother let me do that with my friends. Never a question.”
Over the decades, Cooke grappled with her share of personal tragedies, beginning with the death of her father when she was 12. Cooke’s mother had to scramble to make ends meet.
“It was a terrible time,” she said.
Other deaths followed over the decades: Cooke’s only child, Daniel Cooke Steinmetz, died suddenly in 1982. Much later, the artist’s husband of 61 years, William O. Steinmetz, passed away in 2016.
Despite her grief, Cooke never stopped working. As she put it: “I just kept going.”
Cooke began designing with sterling silver and brass in the 1940s after receiving a scholarship to MICA (then the Maryland Institute).
“I liked the feel of metal,” Cooke said, “the different colors.”
A photo in the exhibit taken in 1947 shows Cooke in her studio, pounding a piece of jewelry with a hammer. The artist was 5-foot-2 and slender-boned, with short hair that fluffed around her ears like duck down. Cooke said it never occurred to her that observers might wonder if it was “ladylike” to handle a blowtorch or hacksaw.
“Betty’s work has incredible finesse and delicacy,” Marciari-Alexander said. “She makes tiny, beautiful little pieces that belies the hard, hard work that goes into making them. It takes enormous strength to manipulate her materials.”