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At Last, a Beatrice Wood Exhibit Close to Home

December 08, 1995|ANDREW D. BLECHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — Famed ceramist and Ojai resident Beatrice Wood frequently exhibits her work in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But starting Sunday, the puckish, 102-year-old iconoclast is playing a local venue: the Ventura County Museum of History & Art.

"Sometimes places close to your home are the last to acknowledge you," said David VanGilder, who manages Wood's studio in the Upper Ojai. "She is very honored to have her work shown in Ventura."

The small downtown museum--with an operating budget of just $400,000 and only one exhibition room--is just as eager to display Wood's work. Although it has displayed local artwork for more than 10 years, the museum remains unknown to many county residents.

Museum officials said they hope the Wood exhibit will help put their gallery on the cultural map.

"She's a tremendous draw," curator Tim Schiffer said.

The exhibit--"Beatrice Wood a la Carte"--which runs through Feb. 10, features about 40 ceramic plates that Wood made over a 60-year period. Many of the pieces have never been viewed by the public.

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"I found most of them in the studio attic while doing an inventory," VanGilder said. "Some of the plates are so old, she hardly remembers making them."

Although Wood spent many years as an actress and playwright, she didn't discover pottery--the talent she is most famous for--until she was 40.

She decided to take pottery lessons in 1933, when she couldn't find a matching teapot for a set of teacups she purchased in the Netherlands. The rest is history.

One of her first ceramic creations--a blue-and-white plate--is included in the show, as are several more-current efforts.

Figures are painted on many of the ceramic plates. The simply drawn likenesses of Queen Elizabeth I, cats, coquettish young women and the Madonna are favorite subjects for Wood.

"They are characters she relates to," Schiffer said. "She's famous for being a coquette."

But Queen Elizabeth?

In a brochure that accompanies the exhibit, Wood wrote that, like the 16th-Century monarch, she harbors a particularly strong affinity for men.

"Do you know what Queen Elizabeth the First did with ambassadors? Each had to spend a night with her, and the one with the best qualifications got the job," she wrote.

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Naughty musings are nothing new to Wood, who is as well known for having lived a rebellious and indulgent life as she is for her artwork.

"Beatrice is very, very flirtatious," VanGilder said. "She attributes her longevity to chocolates and young men."

As a young woman, Wood traveled the world and befriended Marcel Duchamp and other artists associated with the avant-garde dada movement--earning the appellation Mama of Dada.

Although a centenarian, Wood insists she is still 32 and continues to work long hours in her studio with her adored cats Coco and Sheba.

"She also loves wearing lots of jewelry and bantering with young men," VanGilder said.

Given her nature, Wood strives to keep her artwork playful.

A large, smiling blowfish and a mischievous, young girl are just two works that are made to entertain.

"Her art is fun," Schiffer said. "She has a great sense of humor."

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