Beatrice Wood's Life in Art (1989)

Photograph of Beatrice Wood by Abby Wasserman, 1989.

Beatrice Wood's Life in Art 
by Abby Wasserman

Beatrice Wood lives in the Ojai Valley on a hill above orange and grapefruit groves, within sight of some of southern California's most rugged mountains. It's a peaceful place, fragrant with chaparral.

It is January 1989, the tail end of winter, and the artist is working daily in her studio to prepare for an exhibition at the Oakland Museum, opening November 18. During the last year, visitors from the museum have become commonplace, and she and her entourage warmly welcome two more.

Her friend of 20 years, Ram Pravash (R.P.) Singh, jokes that Wood is married to the mountains. She was indignant when a friend from the east called them "moth-eaten and bald." Early in the morning, emerging light and deep shadows mold their forms like a potter's hands.

Singh, whom she met in India in the sixties when she was traveling as a guest of the U.S Information Agency, and Stephanie Dragovich, a teacher in Ojai and Wood's assistant, are preparing lunch. Delicious scents waft in from the kitchen. Everyone settles for a visit in the show-room, where examples of Wood's lustrous pottery repose on pedestals and shelves.

Observing that some of her pieces look better to her now than when they were newly fired, Wood admits that she's often disappointed and always surprised at what comes out of the kiln. "Glazing is fascinating," she says. "It's like cooking, you never get to the end of it. You can try a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Colleagues have given me formulas. I read formulas in magazines, and then I take them and play ball with them. I'll add 10 percent mustard, five percent cinnamon, half a percent sugar, that's how I do pottery, against all the rules!" She laughs heartily. "But I have an idea that the things turn better with age. It seems to me the formulas bloom, some of them, with age."

Beatrice Wood might be talking about herself. Her first lover, Henri-Pierre Roché, told her, "When you are an old lady, you will talk just like you do now . . . . You have something untouchable. Events of all kinds will happen around you, but they will roll off like water on a duck's back." It's easy to perceive in Wood, at age 96, with her rich laughter and sparkling eyes, the young woman to whom Roché said those insightful, careless words.

Her melodic voice holds piquant traces of her childhood in New York. She is dressed in a bright Indian sari, her grey hair swept into a knot at the nape of her neck. Silver jewelry adorns her throat, wrists and fingers. Events indeed have happened around her, but they have touched her, too: love affairs that ended unhappily, two ill-conceived, loveless marriages, a flood in 1938 that swept away her studio, the deaths of friends, a debilitating neck injury. But throughout her life, art and love have remained at the center.

Born in San Francisco, raised in New York, Beatrice Wood was strongly influenced by her years in France, first as a child attending a convent school in Paris and later as a fledgling artist of 19. Her mother, reluctant to let her loose in Paris, sent her with a chaperone to Giverny, where she once "spied on" Monet painting in his garden. She attended the premier performance in Paris of Stravinsky's "Le Sacre du Printemps," choreographed by Nijinsky and performed by the Ballet Russe. Half the audience booed and half cheered. "I recall shouting 'Bravo!'" she says. She was heartbroken when the start of World War I forced her to return to New York.

But in 1914 New York was alive with artists, writers, musicians and theater people, many of them expatriates. Wood met Anna Pavlova and Isadora Duncan and even performed Russian folk dances in front of Nijinsky. She took acting lessons and joined the French Repertory Company. Helen Freeman, a founder of the New York Theatre Guild, became her great friend. She met Roché, a French diplomat and art writer who vigorously encouraged her to paint; Edgar Varèse, the avant-garde composer; and Marcel Duchamp, who had a profound effect on her life and art. He let her use his studio, critiqued her work, and encouraged her freedom of expression. Through Duchamp, she met Walter and Louis Arensberg, the first American collectors to respond to modern art, whose home was a gathering place for artists. Wood was horrified the first time she saw their collection. She thought the paintings by Matisse, Picabia, Braque, Rousseau and Picasso "the most hideous. . . I had ever seen."

Ken's Pleasure by Beatrice Wood, 1989.

"There are always only a few people who are avant-garde, whether it's science, astronomy or art," Wood says. "I was very dumb and would have remained dumb if I hadn't met the Arensbergs and loved them. I thought they were crazy with those terrible paintings. I said to myself one day, these people, I love them, they're darling to me, I must enter their world and understand what this is about. So I sat in front of a Matisse, I looked and looked and looked at it, and finally, something happened. I understood the Matisse and I began understanding the movement. But I still do not really appreciate Duchamp's paintings; his 'ready-mades' I begin to understand, and his 'Nude Descending a Staircase,' which was easy to see was extraordinary. But I'm a bit of an old fogy in the art world."

The windows of Wood's Ojai dining room face the mountains and midday, light streams in. The lunch table is set with her gold luster plates and goblets, cool and satiny to the touch. Bright masks, figures and embroideries from India festoon the walls of the room.

She fell in love with village art when she visited India, and on each subsequent visit her collection grew. Much earlier, she had come to appreciate Mexican folk art. The universal qualities of folk
art--earthiness, directness, connection to ritual, an orientation to people--are strongly present in her pottery, especially the figurative works, which she calls "sophisticated primitives." They are highly personal and often biographical. The view they project of male-female relationships is pessimistic and humorous, the push-pull dynamic she has experienced in her life.

"After I fell down the fence like Humpty-Dumpty, never got put together again," she says, half-joking, "I would say my feelings about men and women are basically the same, except that (it may be old age) I think now that maybe art could be more exciting than being in love. I don't know. And isn't there duality everywhere in the universe? The mind is always in movement. And to touch on philosophy, maybe its goal is to free oneself from duality and have the mind--it's almost impossible--still and quiet. It's in those moments that one gets ideas, I think.

"Unfortunately, I'm attracted to men, but the great loves of my life have really been women. Women have stood by me and formed my character. I've been in love with men and they taught me by breaking my heart, but my women friends are much more a part of my life, and if there's anything in reincarnation, I think I'd rather meet them than the men I've loved. I think love is something you can't control and hold in your hand, but sexual love is different from real love. It's wonderful, but it's really a hallucination."

The conversation at lunch is high-spirited, much of it revolving around romance and food. Singh's zucchini casserole--the three are vegetarians--is delicately flavored and dusted with curry. The salad is made with garden-fresh greens, and there's an apple pie for dessert. Beatrice Wood looks closely at Singh's portion of pie and he teases her: "She wants to see if it is bigger than hers." She says, laughing, "I have been waiting for this. I purposely took little lunch." The pie is served on small gold luster earthenware.

Her interest in luster glazes began when she was a little girl "dragged through museums." The Persian luster plates she saw remained in her memory. Many years later, she brought luster plates in Holland, and back in California enrolled in a night course at Hollywood High School, one of the few places in 1933 where one could study ceramics in Los Angeles. She wanted to make a teapot to go with the plates. Pottery turned out to be harder than she expected.

"I made two plates that were an abomination. They were so terrible I decided to amuse myself, and I made two little figures. And Helen Freeman bought them for $2.50. This was the bottom of the Depression and I was living on $73 a month, so I made another figure, which sold for $3.50, and this fired my financial genius. I said, My God, maybe I can make $10 a month making figures! I had great trouble for a year finding out what glaze was: cream, water, solids--I didn't know!"

In 1938 she studied with Glen Lukens at the University of Southern California, then with Otto and Gertrud Natzler, Austrian potters who had emigrated to California in 1940. Their instruction in throwing on the wheel and glazes was so important to her that she sold her books to pay for lessons.

Untitled by Beatrice Wood, c. 1980 (four-handled vessel)

From 1954 to 1979 she studied intermittently with the highly respected classical potters Otto and Vivika Heino. Gradually she learned how to make luster glazes. The Spanish chemist Artigas gave her several old Arabian formulas, but she couldn't make them come out right. Her kiln, the water in Ojai, the materials, "even myself" were all different.

"I think where the arts are concerned that to become a good potter is the most difficult thing in the world," she says. "When you are a great photographer, you know how the camera is going to react; a painter sees the painting. But when you're a potter, we don't know what the kiln is going to do. And that's why I often don't like my work, because you see, what I visualize doesn't come out. And then, the only time I really like my work is when unexpectedly I'll come upon it in a gallery or museum. When I was last in Philadelphia a year ago, I saw a beautiful golden bowl. It was mine. I couldn't believe it!"

Oakland Museum Curator of Craft and Decorative Arts Kenneth R. Trapp, who organized the exhibition Beatrice Wood: Intimate Appeal, has known her a year and a half. They joke that he is Harold to her Maude. "Her pottery is so unlike her," he says. "Knowing the artist sometimes reinforces the art. Of course, you think, that type of artist would create that type of art. But there is an alluring femininity about Beatrice Wood--the way she dresses, attends to herself--that doesn't really suggest her gutsy ceramics. I think of her as a porcelain tea cup and saucer, but here we are with this woman getting into the earth. She's covered with clay, she's creating. There's something very appealing about her ceramics, and that is that her process is visible. The clay shows everything that happens to it. Yet that's not always true. I saw a bowl there recently, an exquisite, simple design, perfection in form, proportion, color and finish, complete and realized. That is more in tune with my picture of her as a person.

"People have criticized her work because it is inconsistent, which she admits freely. Much of the work is low-fired and breaks easily, and some of the glazes are magnificent and others are rather poor. A short time ago, I learned two reasons for it. Until recently, she has suffered from constant neck and shoulder pains. Some days, her muscles have been so tight that the blood stopped flowing through her shoulders, so she was working while in great pain. And the kiln is another reason for inconsistency. To achieve her luster glazes, she works in a reductive process, creating the special lustrous effects by throwing materials such as mothballs into the kiln as it cools. You can't predict how this will turn out."

Wood's neck troubles have abated this past year through deep tissue massage. She says, "I was like a flower without water before. I would talk to people for 20 minutes and I'd be gone, no energy left. I was often absolutely prostrated with pain. But if I hadn't had this, I would have been all over the place because I had such curiosities about life. I can see in a way the purpose for me. And handicapped people have always done things if they had the will. I'm enjoying old age now because I feel so much better, so much stronger."

She works every day in the studio, "mostly at night because there's more time free and I never go to bed before one or one-thirty. That's the gift of old age. One doesn't need as much sleep. It's wonderful. And if I have a good night, I'm awake at 7:30."

That's when her mountains are at their most beautiful.

Images from top:
  1. Cover photograph of Beatrice Wood by Abby Wasserman, 1989.
  2. Ken's Pleasure by Beatrice Wood, 1989. Gold luster- and lava-glazed earthenware, 12 ¾ x 8 ½ x 8 ½ in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of the artist. Photographed by M. Lee Fatherree.
  3. Untitled by Beatrice Wood, c. 1980 (four-handled vessel). Luster-glazed earthenware, 12 x 16.5 x 16.5 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, gift of the artist. Photographed by M. Lee Fatherree.

Originally published in The Museum of California magazine.
No reproduction without express written permission of the Oakland Museum of California.