In Los Angeles, looking for love, but finding flood and luster

February 13, 2012 § 3 Comments

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Artist and potter Beatrice Wood’s retrospective (up until February 25 at  Santa Monica Museum of Art) charms. Mod and mystical and earthy and proudly naive, yet clothed in sophisticated glazes which alchemize ceramic into something resembling molten metal or glass… the numerous chalices, vessels and figurines that populate the SMMOA space are all as coy I imagine she must have been in life.

Anais Nin wrote of her luster ware, “Beatrice Wood combines her colors like a painter, makes them vibrate like a musician. They have strength even while iridescent and transparent. They have the rhythm and luster both of jewels and human eyes. Water poured from one of her jars will taste like wine.”

Nin, by the way, was the lover of the son of Wood’s former lover. She also got Wood’s autobiography, I Shock Myself, published. Creek Freak readers might be amused at the intertwining of the private lives of the 20th century avant garde with Los Angeles flood histories, as revealed through this volume.

“[E]verything in life seems to be motivated by one love affair after another,” Wood has said. In her teens, she rebelled against the prim expectations of her society mother by pursuing bohemian adventure. In her 20s, she was adopted by a couple of energetic expatriate intellectuals in the crazy cultural ferment of New York City. It happened that they loved women as much as she loved being in love. Marcel Duchamp and fellow instigator Henri Pierre Roché (the future author of Jules et Jim) drew her into their Dada hijinks, and she is named as publisher of the journal The Blind Man, in which Duchamp’s famed urinal appears.

A succession of love affairs ended in disappointment, and Wood followed modern art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg and spiritual leader Jiddu Krishnamurti to Los Angeles, where “the land was beautiful and the city was wide open.”

Here, amidst sunshine and the company of other east coast and european emigrés,  her dream of ideal love continued in parallel to her financial struggles.

At age 40, she took up ceramics casually, thinking to make a teapot to match some cups she found. Encouraged by the popularity of ceramic figurines she ended up making, Wood dreamed ceramics might provide her a means to earn a living. To make this vision come true, she and companion Steve Hoag scraped together all they had to build her a studio. They bought a small lot on Sarah Street in what is now North Hollywood.  They did notice a shallow six foot wash on one side of the property, but were assured it was of no consequence. The modest house and studio they built on the lot was luxury compared to anything they had experienced together before.

This idyllic life would prove short-lived. Wood writes:

It was February of 1938. Towards the end of the month rain began falling like a grey curtain. It stormed for two weeks and the ground was saturated. I walked out under the eucalyptus trees and stood on the wash watching the water slowly run down. To my horror, I saw the earth falling into the water and phoned the Highway Department for sandbags.

In the late afternoon it started to pour again… By dawn the wash had become a torrent. I began putting furniture on top of tables, in case the water reached the floor of the house.

Steve grumbled at my absurd concern and the neighbors shrugged. The waters grew fiercer, the wash larger. By five o’clock, neighbors conceded that it might be wise to move the furniture and cars to a higher street. In the darkness came a shrieking sound. One of the eucalyptus trees went down like a match, born away by the torrent. Soon another popping noise and a second tree went down and a third and fourth. The raging, snarling waters were now at the doorstep to the workshop. A shattering noise of wind arose and in one gulp the workroom disappeared. I watched without feeling– in a disaster, feelings disappear…

Eleven of us were marooned, cut off from the rest of the Valley; bridges were down and no rescue teams could reach us… At one o’clock in the morning I heard an angry clattering noise and saw a flash of lightning. In that very moment the river took our house in a single gulp….

The next day the rain stopped and the sun came out shining. It was the third of March, my birthday. The trees, workshop, house and even the land had been swept away and destroyed by the deluge. Only a row of flowers was left, defying disaster.

One might expect that the loss of house, workshop, and all material possessions would have decimated her. Years later, she explained, “let me tell you, I was not in despair… I don’t know whether I was stunned or whether it wasn’t something else. I had nothing to worry about except breathing. And the sky was blue and the trees were green and friends smiled and I was down to the very essence of life and I was absolutely relaxed and happy.”

With aid from Red Cross, Wood rebuilt her studio. By her mid 50s, Wood began experimenting with the luster glazes which had drawn her to ceramics in the first place. Her mastery of this process, which combined disciplined experimentation with chance, would eventually define her role in ceramics history. In her 90s, she produced what some consider her most important and complex works. She led a creative but ultimately celibate life until well past the age of 100.

Those who look to her as a pioneering female artist might be disappointed to know that given a choice between art and a relationship, she would have preferred the relationship:

I’ve often said, if I were happily married, all this energy, imaginative energy I have, I would put it towards the man I was in love with… certainly if I had had a happy marriage… I wouldn’t be doing what I do now…

Yet the narratives suggested by her ceramic figurines show Wood’s complicated stance on the ability of romantic relationships to succeed:

I make a lot of figures, and they’re usually laughing at men and women’s relationships. Because men and women’s relationships are usually, unfortunately, a disaster. They always have been, always will be… But you see it shocks me that… all of us get these infatuations. We live together or marry or whatever, and then it doesn’t turn out, and we dislike each other. I think that’s terrible. And I’ve had the blessing in my life that with three men whom I’ve loved very much I’ve been able to go on in loving friendship. And I think that that’s the dream of the world. The dream.

Wood is the model for the character of Rose in the movie  Titanic– but Wood’s own story is more multifaceted than any movie could portray. It would be the story of a woman who rebelled against her upbringing by choosing fun over security, a woman who threw herself into love, who came to California to remake her life, became a career woman in her 40s, lost all in the devastating rains of February 1938, and outlived lovers and disappointments. And along the way, because she was never happily married, she settled into a daily practice of creating luster and beauty.

xoxoxo

With quotes from:

I Shock Myself

Oral history interview with Beatrice Wood, 1976 Aug. 26, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

 Oral history interview with Beatrice Wood, 1992 Mar. 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

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