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SIGHTS ABOUT TOWN : A Rebel in Clay : Ceramic artist Beatrice Wood, 98, considers her often ribald art 'fun comments on life.'

December 13, 1990|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Apart from a hearing problem, renowned ceramic artist Beatrice Wood has none of the frailties you might expect of a 98-year-old woman. She speaks with wisdom and a sly humor, eyes alive with nostalgia and idealism.

During a recent interview, she adjusted her ever-present sari and leaned in conspiratorially on the couch where we talked. "I'm one of the few Americans who just does what they want, and it's a great privilege and joy. I don't care whether things sell or not. Oftentimes, they don't sell until years later, when some crazy person will come in and buy them. It will take care of itself."

Wood's ceramic trade has been taking care of itself for many years. Her bowls, pottery and other works have elicited widespread interest among collectors and art watchers.

A visit to her home-studio-gallery by the Happy Valley School above Ojai reveals a new vs. old duality.

The New: A gallery (open to the public) is full of colorful and oftentimes ribald figurative sculptures recently returned from a large show at the Oakland Museum and the Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. There is the looming woman flanked by smaller, dapperly dressed men in "Chocolate and Young Men" (treats to which Wood often credits her longevity). "Good Morning, America" is a fragmented bordello scene, full of bulging pink torsos.

The Old: Her former living room has been transformed into a cluttered, unofficial museum for her impressive collection of folk art--much of it gathered from trips to India and Mexico. The unpretentious charm of folk art reflects back on Wood's own aesthetic; her pottery, drawings, "paintings" on ceramic and tile and other three-dimensional artworks are both ingenuous and highly cultured.

Wood has long been one of Ojai's most valuable citizens and longstanding champions. She was born in San Francisco, acted in New York and studied in Paris (where she met and became a lover of Marcel Duchamp) beforediscovering pottery during the Depression. Ojai has been Wood's home since 1948. Her reputation has flourished, but sometimes her work is less visible here than in distant locales.

Now, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is hosting "Reasonable and Unreasonable: the Ceramic Art of Beatrice Wood," a modest but telling cross-section of Wood's artwork. The selection is suitably diverse, from pottery featuring her trademarked luster glazes and witty figurative touches, to her simple sweeping imagery (often erotic) drawn on ceramic tiles.

In the last couple of years, Wood has been veering toward the figurative impulse. "I have fun making my figures," she says. "I call them 'sophisticated primitives,' because I have no technique and I refuse to go to school to learn how to make sculpture. There's a technique in throwing on the wheel. If you're not there, the things are not going to be true.

"But in this crazy technical world, it's fun for me to do something that has nothing to do with technique. So I have to find my way, to build up these things in a very primitive way. I don't consider them great art. I consider them fun comments on life. Let it go at that."

Wood is nothing if not forthright, a rebel with an agenda--as an artist and a human--expressly on her own. I ask: Didn't she come to ceramic arts relatively late in life? "Not at all," she corrects me, laughing. "I was only 38. That was 60 years ago."

While her pottery adheres to functional forms, Wood's pieces beg to be considered works of art rather than items of craft or utility. "I never think of them functionally," she says of her work.

"In the bibles of pottery and in all the trade magazines, they stress the function of pottery. I feel that I am not naturally a craftsman. I don't have the greatest technique. I am an artist in clay, which is different. I play with ideas much more than with function."

At root, Wood lives by the code of individualism. "I won't allow anybody to tell me I'm wrong, because we cannot make rules about life, about ourselves, nor about conduct. Nobody knows anything. And I refuse anybody to tell me what is right or wrong about art.

"That's what taste is," she leans back on the couch and laughs. Nobody dares tell Beatrice Wood, two years shy of a century spent on the planet, anything new about taste.

Also currently at the Santa Barbara Museum are two radically different shows worth looking at. In "Inner Natures," curated by Nancy Doll, five young painters use various means to deal with--and personalize--imagery gleaned from nature. The late, great photographer Ansel Adams dealt with nature directly, by aiming and shooting. "Ansel Adams: Classic Images" covers the breadth of Adams' photographic art, from his landscape work to portraits and still lifes.

WHERE AND WHEN

"Reasonable and Unreasonable: the Ceramic Art of Beatrice Wood," will be on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through Jan 20. Beatrice Wood will be lecturing tonight at 7:30 p.m. Admission to the museum is $3. The lecture is $3 for members and $5 for non-members. 963-4364 ext. 401.

NEW FEATURE

Sights of the County, a column on the local art and architecture scene, will run every other Thursday, alternating with Sounds of the County, a look at the classical and new music scene.

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