Artwork That is Truly Salt of the Earth

Artist Bettina Werner in (and in front of) her element — salt.
Artist Bettina Werner in (and in front of) her element — salt.

By Annette Hinkle

For artist Bettina Werner, her inspiration is the salt of the earth — literally.

“Salt is the fifth element after air, water, fire and earth,” she says. “It’s important to life. You can’t be alive unless you have salt in your body.”

Werner, a native of Milan, Italy, finds something beautifully elemental in salt, this seemingly most basic of substances. But unlike the heavier metals from the Periodic Table like iron or even silver that many artists embrace, there remains something elusively light in salt that makes it reflective and capable of capturing deep spiritual beauty.

“The salt crystal is something magical,” notes Werner. “It’s an alive sponge. If you think of attracting the eyes, salt is stimulating to both your sight and your brain on such a deep level. It’s such a tiny microcosm in our body and in working with it, I love the reaction of color and texture and movement — the shadows.”

“This is what people experience, light coming from the color,” she adds. “It’s not the color itself, it’s the crystal emanating the tiny vibrations.”

Werner’s medium is white salt from Sicily, which she colors in a variety of vibrant hues and affixes to canvases to create her imagery. Highly textural and fully saturated with color, it’s a unique method of working which Werner developed more than 25 years ago.

“I always liked to experiment with different materials. I was into doing something original,” explains Werner. “It came into my mind like intuition — then I started to focus on this and it really became my element to investigate the different possibilities.”

“I never got bored with this element, the investigation of this material,” she adds. “It  takes me always in different directions and I experiment with different expressions.”

The salt-based art of Werner is currently on view in an exhibition at the Hill Street Gallery in Southampton and the works assembled are representative of a variety of different series she has created using salt over the years. Among them are her Dalmatian paintings which were inspired by Tibino, her beloved dog, who passed away a number of years ago.

“He was really my companion, my bodyguard,” says Werner. “In the 1990s, I was living alone in Soho and it was not trendy. I was taking him out at night, going to see all the galleries. He was the famous Dalmatian, he knew everyone and he saw more art than anybody else.”

Tibino was also Werner’s muse and she immediately began creating paintings inspired by him. Among those on view in this show is “Tibino Completely in Love Pursuing his Goal,” a vibrant red-hued paneled work punctuated by the telltale black spots of a Dalmatian.

“When a family has a dog, the dog is the family’s dog. But when a single person has a dog, it’s a very different relationship and part of yourself,” says Werner. “He’s still here and still alive — and still in my artwork and giving his energy from his soul.”

"Third Beat of a Frozen Heart," 2011 18" x 24" © Bettina Werner 2011
“Third Beat of a Frozen Heart,” 2011
18″ x 24″ © Bettina Werner 2011

Another of Werner’s series has to do with the notion of love, work she began creating late in 2010 to acknowledge what she felt was a new approaching era. Works featuring ted hearts and phrases of love reminiscent of Valentine candy hearts traced into the salt are examples of how Werner expresses the idea.

“It’s a change over — an awareness of about the living, the taking care of our mother earth with passion and love and positive thoughts,” she says.

The egg has been another important image in Werner’s work and has been since the early 1990s. She notes that it symbolizes the warmth and love needed by humans to realize their creative destiny. Among the pieces on view in this show is “Rara Avis in Terris, Nigroque Simillima Cygno. Where Are you?” (meaning black swan searching for its soul mate so rare on earth, where are you?) a black salt crystal painting from her series “Ab Ovo (from the Egg)”  dating to 1996. The piece features a large white oyster egg emerging from a volcanic like from a mound of black salt at its center.

Standing in sharp contrast to the black salt used in that piece are some of Werner’s most recent pieces known as her essence paintings. These are a series of salt canvases rendered in wholly pure and blindingly bright hues of Day-Glo pink, orange, blue, lime green, yellow and other vibrant colors.

In recent years, the Hamptons have become the subject of Werner’s art. She began coming to the East End in 2000, and creates her art in a renovated potato barn in Water Mill. Inspired by the natural environment, her multi-paneled piece “Summer in the Hamptons,” which is on view in this show, reflects the colors of pools, ocean, sky and sun.

“I was always in love with the Hamptons,” she says. “These beaches are really unique in the world. I’m also enjoying it very much in the wintertime, it’s so quietly beautiful.”

No matter the theme, all of Werner’s pieces have a sculptural texture to them — with the salt extruding from or swirling around the flat plain of the canvas. Werner explains that she manipulates the salt crystals — not with a brush — but using her hands, like the first human artists whose work was rendered on the walls of cave.

Though she freely shares how she creates the salt shapes in her art, Werner remains guarded, however, when it comes to sharing the secret of how she affixes the salt crystals to the canvas.

“It’s a technique I invented almost immediately to get it on the surface,” she explains. “It’s a kind of technique that I developed mixing different elements — but like to keep it enigmatic.”

“I like to keep it mysterious.”

Sort of like the beauty of salt itself.

The Hill Street Gallery is located at 40 Hill Street, Southampton. Bettina Werner’s work will be on view at the gallery through the winter.