Beatrice Wood

Beatrice Wood Beatrice Wood ceramic

NEW YORK TIMES

STILL FLIRTING WITH CONVENTION

At home with Beatrice Wood. By Lucie Young.

‘Chocolate and young men are the two things that get her attention’ said Francis M Naumann, an art historian, warning that a reporter’s visit to Beatrice Wood’s home might be a very brief encounter.

‘Bette Midler went running out of her place after Beatrice told her the only thing a self-respecting woman should do is recline at the feet of her man,’ he added.

More than a decade after publication of her autobiography, “I shock Myself,” Beatrice Wood, who turned 104 on Monday, is still startling the locals – and occasionally herself.

Visitors to the California potter’s home, with its exotic gardens of roses, magnolias and Chinese elms, are told by locals to look for a shocking-pink postbox. It is also the color of her front door, showroom, slippers, lipstick and most often, her dresses – the perfect color for a self-confessed flirt.

‘I would give up art any day for a spicey young gentleman’ she volunteered, arranging her tiny frame on a turquoise sofa, with several pounds of Indian jewelry around her neck and wrists and embroidered cushions at her back. One reads, “the Mama of Dada.”

In 1916, perhaps trying to out-Dada the Papa, Marcel Duchamp, she told him anyone could make the kind of scrawls he and his friends were turning out. He dared her to try. She did – with amazing success.

An early work was an oil painting called “Un peu d’eau dans du savon” (“a little water in some soap”). Her error was unintentional, but Duchamp delighted in the Dadaist mix-up and urged her to keep it. The painting, which showed a nude woman in a bath with shell-shaped soap glued over her bikini zone, was the succes de scandale at the 1917 Independence exhibition in New York. It catapulted a career that is now being celebrated at the American Craft Museum with an 80-year retrospective of her drawings, luster-glazed pots and saucy figurative sculptures.

She remains a law unto herself. She marched into the Ojai police station at 90 and surrendered her driving license when, in her estimation, her ‘reactions had dulled, except around young men’. That same year she bought a Macintosh computer and taught herself to answer her torrential daily correspondence. Much of it comes from fans who until two years ago arrived at her house, ’40 to 50 a day,’ said Ram Pravesh Singh, 76, who has lived in her guest bedroom and worked as her manager for 22 years.

‘I have known Mr Singh 30 years and I still shock him,’ she says triumphantly.

‘Thirty-five years,’ he said, correcting her. As in Albee-esque tragicomedy, this pair thrives on sparring.

‘The best part of our relationship is that we never agree,’ Miss Wood said. ‘He clings to tradition. I throw tradition in the ashcan.’

He: ‘I could have taken advantage of you 35 years ago in India.’

She: ‘Why didn’t you?’ (At various points in the day, she reminded him that he was free to leave anytime).

Talking nonstop during lunch – a spicy squash soup, salad and a slab of chocolate cake that only Miss Wood could finish – she revealed a will as unwavering as her waggishness. Just as she has been potting continuously since she was 40, for 86 years she has not eaten meat, nor has she touched alcohol. (‘I wanted to be sober when I was seduced,’ she said).

It was considered fairly eccentric to be vegetarian in 1911, and the headmistress at her Parisian finishing school was not amused. ‘She said, “What can I give you to eat that you will like?” I said, “An omelet and spinach and an apple.” So that is what I got every day. But it was Paris, and the omelet was delicious and the spinach was wonderfully creamy.’

Until two years ago, Beatrice Wood did a full day’s work. Rising at 7, still in her nightgown, she went to the studio behind her bedroom and for hours, like a chemist, mixed her secret recipes for the rainbow-hued luster glazes that made her famous.

‘The work resembles most closely the exquisite glass antiquities of Egypt, with their lustrous patina,’ Garth Clark, the gallery owner who represents her in New York, has said of her technique. In luster glazing, metallic salts on the surface of the pot refract and reflect light into complex gold, pink, blue and green combinations, recalling the shells of a nautilus or an Egyptian scarab.

The alchemy is a hit-or-miss effort: Miss Wood has been known to throw mothballs into the kiln to achieve striking effects. Creating pots up to 19 inches in diameter is a herculean task said Mr Naumann. ‘You have to have hands of steel. She once gave me an Indian head massage and I couldn’t get away fast enough. I thought she would have my brain out on the table.’ Pottery may have improved her muscle, but it has destroyed her lungs. ‘At Cedars Sinai the doctor said her lungs are coated as if she had been smoking all her life,’ said Mr Naumann. ‘She has been breathing in the toxic powder dust from her pots for so long’.

In 1993, an exploratory operation left Miss Wood unable to stand for long periods, reducing her output to only 5 percent of what she achieved two years ago. Yet, the works she produces now are bigger than ever: in her workshop recently were the parts for a huge ceramic coffee table. Each hefty clay leg features two dancing girls.

‘Love and sex – isn’t it a joke?’ Miss Wood said. ‘We treat it like nothing or glorify it, and look at what it does to us. The only thing to do is laugh.’ In her showroom, one sculpture depicts Adam and Eve separated by a forlorn-looking snake. The caption reads: ‘The snake was innocent.’

Miss Wood doesn’t like most of what she has done, but one favorite is ‘Men With Wives,’ a sculpture depicting couples sitting around a table, the men clearly bored. ‘I don’t know why people marry,’ she said emphatically. ‘It is such a mistake.’

It clearly was for her. Her two marriages were unconsummated. ‘I should be in the Guinness Book of Records,’ she said laughing. ‘But I’m perfectly willing to do a third.’

She was born in San Francisco into a well-to-do family, and she divides her life into three parts. In a very protected early life, she explained. ‘I was brought up beautifully without love.’ She recalls that her mother never held her; every time she found something creative she wanted to do, her mother threatened suicide.

Raised by governesses and sent away to boarding school until she left Paris at 9, Miss Wood briefly studied acting in Europe with teachers from the Comedie-Francaise. With the outbreak of war, she returned to New York, playing more than 60 parts at the French Repertory Company. During this period she met and fell in love with both Henri-Pierre Roche, a French diplomat, novelist and art collector, and Duchamp.

Their relationship prompted speculation that she was the basis for the Jeanne Moreau character in Mr Roche’s famous menage a trois novel, “Jules et Jim.”

‘I was in love with both of them at the same time, but I was only sleeping with one at a time,’ Miss Wood acknowledged Of the novel, she told The Los Angeles Times in 1986: ‘Mr Roche probably put some of me in it, but I think it’s about another woman. I think he put two different love affairs together.’

Soon after Mr Roche dumped her for one of her best friends, Miss Wood left in despair for Montreal to resume her acting career. She described her middle years as ‘tragic,’ married to a man who was a bigamist and squandered her money, forcing her to sell her art books to survive.

She moved to Los Angeles in the 1930’s and began her first experiments in pottery. During her second marriage to Steve Hoag, Miss Wood lost her home in a flood. ‘That I am living today is due to the kindness of the Red Cross,’ she said. The organization gave her $1,625 to start over. Her marriage was annulled but the pair continued to cohabit platonically for 27 years until his death in 1960.

Still the dadaist, she continues to thumb her nose at the world, an automatic response after nearly a century. When Mr Singh pointed out that prices for some of her works increased by as much as 20 percent to 30 percent each year (current prices are $1,800 to $100,000, according to the Garth Clark Gallery) she said, ‘I think of all my drawings as scrawls’ and added mischievously, ‘Now that they are nicely presented, they pass as art.’

She believes art is sublimation. ‘For women, our creativity is for children and to have just one man in one’s life. I think if I had been happily married, my genius for work would’ve gone into the marriage’.

At this point, Mr Singh piped up in exasperation. ‘You chose not to,’ he said, managing to surprise her at last.

Mr Naumann, who is the curator of Miss Wood’s show at the American Craft Museum, said: ‘The irony is she never let a man dictate what she should do. In fact, she supported most of the men she loved.’

The happiest time of her life has been the last few years. ‘I have less worries, and now I enjoy being an old heel,’ she said. She also eagerly awaits the day when says will be reincarned. Ideally ‘as a woman to flirt with men’. In preparation perhaps, she has pinned postcards of toy boys in thongs above her bed. Teased about this decorative choice, she giggles, and pointing to one says. ‘Harry, may be dull, but since no-one else is around, I put up with him’.

About herself, the sari-clad artist demurely refused to reveal all. She still puts enormous energy into evading the subject of her actual age. For years she wrote ‘1707,’ hoping that people would mistake it for 1907, cutting 14 years from her date of birth. Now that her real age is out, she has resorted to bluster. Asked how it felt to be 104, she trumpeted: ‘Madame, I am officially 32. If you print anything else I will sue.’

© 1997

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