At the Wheel With Beatrice Wood

THERE is something so exotic and legendary about potter Beatrice Wood that you are not in the least surprised when you have to wind up and up a verdant mountain range to get to the small mailbox marked "B. Wood." Nor are you surprised to find Wood living in a rural paradise where her house, cluttered with cactuses and wild flowers, overlooks California's Ojai Valley.

Wood is one of those wonderful enigmas. She is lovely at 100, and she has a wit facile enough to keep the best of us leaning forward in our chairs to keep up. She is a study in wry, sassy irreverence, rolling icy one-liners off her tongue without missing a beat. On the other hand, she is elegant and metered - one senses that she has given a lot of thought to her views.

Wood sits barefooted in her living room that doubles as a gallery. She is draped shoulders to toes in a bright Indian sari and wears bracelets by the dozens and beautiful ethnic pendants round her neck. She also wears a penetrating gaze that announces that she is a creative and intellectual presence to be reckoned with.

All around us on makeshift shelves are examples of Wood's remarkable pottery. There are exquisite functional vessels, and there are decorative figurines like "Woman Without Merit," the latter sly and sassy, rough and fine as Wood herself.

All the work on view in Wood's home/studio has the exuberance, sensuality, and innocence of true primitive art. It also demonstrates a sophisticated, incisive view on life and human relationships (Wood has everyone's number, including her own) and a steady command over the unruly processes of firing and glazing. To see these pieces in this intimate, homey setting and realize that similar pieces are protected behind glass in the permanent collections of major international museums is an odd feeling.

Wood was the classic upper-crust renegade - a well-heeled beauty who wanted nothing more than to live in some garret and create. She had an overprotective mother who wanted a Park Avenue debutante but got a rebel. At 17, Wood cajoled her mother into letting her study acting in Paris.

When World War I broke out, she returned to New York where she had access to circles in arts and letters that included perhaps the premier modern artist, Marcel Duchamp, the premier modern art collectors of the early 20th century, Walter and Louise Arensberg, George Bellows, Francis Picabia, and Joseph Stella, among others.

Sketching during the day with Duchamp, moving with the literati at night, Wood slowly came to understand and love modern art. In 1917, when even the most liberal modernists rejected Duchamp's infamous "Fountain" (a urinal offered up as sculpture), Wood and Duchamp published and distributed the first American journal of avant-garde rhetoric, "The Blindman."

"It was great fun, an intellectually exciting time," Wood recalls. "We wanted to stimulate thought about what art was, what it could be, about artistic freedom. It's interesting; young artists probably see this as all very dated, but they are still grappling with issues of artistic freedom today.

"I remember I wrote a letter that we printed in `The Blindman' pretending I was an outraged mother writing in to defend good citizens against the onslaught of this trash called modern art."

After years of bit parts, odd jobs, frail finances, and a failed marriage, Wood moved to Los Angeles in 1928. As lore has it, she wanted to make a teapot to match some dishes so she enrolled in a ceramics class at Hollywood High School. "It was like coming home. There was something about the freedom and immediacy of that cool clay in one's hands. Suddenly I wasn't borrowing anyone else's ideas; I'd landed in my own special arena."

After 60 years she is still disciplined and rigorous about work: "I must work at least five hours a day. I cannot miss a day of creating."

For Wood, creating is a way of life that speaks through everything around her. Sitting on a patio positioned to take in the crimson sunsets are a table and chairs which Wood has just painted with puerile, charming designs and portraits of all the people in her life.

Wood's studio is quiet and flooded with searing natural light. The stillness of the space sits in contrast to the kaleidoscopic walls, dotted with glass bottles filled with the brightly colored glazing powders she uses to create her famous lusterware. Her throwing wheel sits elegantly in the most illuminated spot in the studio and, just beyond, the imposing kilns sit like heat-generating totems waiting for the day's offering.

When you enter her studio you know that however she has arrived at this stage - by trial and error, instinct, or as she puts it, "the seat of her sari" - Wood has acquired a compelling technical mastery over ceramics, an exacting and fickle medium.

"It's always a surprise. After all this time, I think I know the character and tenor of each of those powders - how this will react with that, how this shape will handle this gloss. But every time I use them, I learn something new. Every time I open the kiln door, a wonderful surprise waits for me. Aren't I lucky?"

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