Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

ON THE TOWN

A WOMAN'S WORK : Remembering an Artist and Friend Through Her Legacy of Pots and Paints

October 01, 1995|Wanda Coleman

Polia, reddish-white hair framing her lovely, ancient Polish face, senses a presence and rises in bed, drenched in the sunlight streaming into the hospital room. She is skittishly ethereal as if on the verge of celestial flight. Like one of the frail-legged little birds in her paintings. She takes several minutes to focus, uncertain whether I'm real or dreamt. I know she isn't frightened when she says, "Wanda!" her tremolo mixed with wonder and surprise. "I saw Tracey yesterday," I say. "She told me you were here." Tracey is married to Boris, Polia's composer-son. I proceed to amuse Polia with local gossip. When she laughs, it seems to hurt. "My, my," she says. "it's good you're so busy." Then she holds up her hands, flaps them uselessly and drops them into her lap. "I haven't been able to work, you know."

*

One or two evenings a month, Huz and I join the poets, artists and musicians who gather at the spacious Melrose Avenue home of the Pillins, potters Polia and her husband, William. They left Chicago for Los Angeles in 1948. Bill has authored several books of poetry, but Polia's pottery is the mainstay of the family income. Visitors are welcomed, then guided around back to see Polia's workspace and the kiln. Next comes an offering of refreshments. Polia rustles back and forth from the kitchen; Bill, at the head of the table, conducts the salon. Over drinks, the works of others are applauded or blasted, political issues gingerly argued, creative theories sounded or ridiculed, music appreciated and stories told.

Often, evenings close with Bill's recitation of a favorite poem or a new one of his own. But for me, the singular pleasure of our visits is Polia's extraordinary creations. Polia has a secret glaze that makes her pots unique. She and Bill enjoy tantalizing us with this mystery, which has acquired cult status. We're treated to tales of cunning artists in pursuit of her formula, which, like Stradivari, she will never divulge. Even her most commercially pretty pieces always betray her deft and dark brilliance.

At times we arrive late to browse through Bill's workroom and the gallery. If in pocket, we buy items for gifts. When in the neighborhood, I drop in to see Polia. As our friendship grows, she gives me pots for my birthdays. Yet I'm determined to own one of her rarer paintings. When all I can afford is the "Pink Cat," Bill insists it's a good deal. I think it's beneath Polia's Chagall-like standards.

One afternoon, Huz and I happen by to catch the Pillin household in disarray. A drunken driver has crashed through the front side of the house, site of the gallery. The accident reveals the most secret of Polia's secrets--a hidden storage room. In it, Polia has squirreled away decades of masterpieces. Many are destroyed. Then later, an earthquake does more damage. While cleaning up, Polia is extremely distraught. She shows us all that's left. "It's just no good!" she cries. I reach into the rubble and pluck out a white-glazed, apple-sized pot ringed by 11 tiny bluebirds. Its neck and a third of the bottom are chipped off. "Polia, how lovely! This must be what it feels like to find treasure in ancient ruins." She frowns, astonished, then smiles, throwing up her hands. "Well, then, you may have it!"

The salons end with Bill's death in June, 1985. We still manage to see Polia, at home or during a nursing-home stay, but time between visits lengthens as her health declines, then the visits stop altogether. In September, 1992, we learn that she'd died that July.

Years later, we wander into a San Diego antique shop. Mounted in a drab frame is one of Polia's iconographic plates at five times the cost she'd have asked. Caught short, we vow to buy it on our next trip. A month later, we return to the shop. It's been sold.

*

Six weeks after our recent hectic move, I hang a few paintings to keep from going stir-crazy. One morning, while taking a satisfied look over the living room, I feel eyes at my back. I turn to look. No one's there but the "Pink Cat." I gasp, certain that behind its cross-eyed expression, Polia smiles back at me.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|