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Major Exhibition at Hollins a First for Betty Branch

Sculptor Betty Branch in her downtown studio.
Sculptor Betty Branch in her downtown studio.

Despite the fact that she’s lived and created art in the Roanoke Valley all her life, internationally-known sculptor Betty Branch has never had a major, comprehensive showing of her work locally. That all changes September 17- November 21, with “Through the Crow’s Eye: a Retrospective,” which kicks off with a lecture (6 p.m.) and opening reception (7 p.m.) on the 17th at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum, on the campus of  Hollins University.

Crows and ravens are a major theme for Branch, who sculpts in a Warehouse Row studio in downtown Roanoke, employing all sorts of materials. Much of her work is privately commissioned; she also has several pieces of public art on display around the valley.  Branch’s “Dancer,” the headless torso of a female dancer, was purchased last year by a local group for about $60,000 and installed at the Taubman Museum of Art.

Branch, who has a handful of children that are also accomplished artists, opens her working studio for several invitation-only viewing sessions every December, but “Crow’s Eye” will be her first major exhibition locally. “I’ve kept a pretty low profile,” said Branch, “it seems to have made the work easier.”

Being persuaded to exhibit took her “way out” of any comfort zone, but the Hollins alumna eventually said yes, also praising the competence and skill of those at the museum. Those studio open houses every year do tend to recharge her creative batteries a bit, admits Branch. “It does indeed.”

It is also the first time Wilson Museum director Amy Moorefield has been able to fill all three galleries with one artist’s works since she came aboard more than a year ago.  When Moorefield met Branch, she was “left speechless by the accomplishments of this artist [and] also by the breadth and scope of her work.”

During an initial three-hour conversation Moorefield discovered that Branch had never had a major exhibition in the valley. She quickly offered one on the spot. “It was well past due.”  Installing all those sculptures hasn’t been easy; Moorefield said they weighed an average of 400 lbs.

“The value of public art is just simply the value of art, period. It’s an influence on our spirit that is so different than that of standard commerce and the daily interactions [we all] take part in. Art softens the soul – [it’s] so important to the community,” said Branch, adding that the venue where a piece is installed can color how people see it. She has praise for Roanoke City’s commitment to a public art program.

There is a “very deep and very long story,” that Branch won’t reveal about why she sculpts ravens and crows; she only hints that they “have a very deep significance for me.” Branch has spent time studying sculpture and the human form in Europe, a subject she finds exciting and “ever changing. I’ll never tire [of it]. It’s an image that for me contains a great deal of feeling and emotion. You can see it in the body itself.” Abstract interpretations of the body, like the headless, languid, arched “Dancer” now at the Taubman are a specialty. Branch has painted in the past but mostly sculpts these days.

There is also an outdoor component at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum showing, with sculptures installed temporarily on the Hollins campus. “The idea is to have it break through the [physical boundaries] of the museum,” said Moorefield. The duo will also lead a bus tour on October 17, taking passengers around town to see some of Branch’s public art that has been installed. “My hope is that our audience will have a very clear understanding as to the breadth and depth of Betty Branch’s work.” (see for more about “Through the Crow’s Eye: a Retrospective.”)

By Gene Marrano
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