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Artist in Residence

A Visit With 104-Year-Old Potter Beatrice Wood

September 14, 1997|EMILY YOUNG

Ask Beatrice Wood what home means to her, and she'll reply mischievously: "Whatever bed that's not empty." At the venerable age of 104, the ceramist still loves to raise eyebrows, insisting that her two greatest weaknesses are chocolate and young men. In reality, home is Ojai, where she has produced her acclaimed lusterware pottery for the past 50 years. "I've never thought about living anyplace else," she says. "This is the end of the rainbow for me."

A retrospective of Wood's work, organized by the American Craft Museum in New York City, opened this weekend at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and though Wood plans to attend a gala reception later this month, ordinarily she can be found in the modest hilltop ranch house she shares with two dogs, a cat and longtime manager Ram Pravesh Singh. She surrounds herself with family heirlooms, souvenirs from her globetrotting days and memories of encounters with some of the cultural giants of the last century. Named a California "Living Treasure" herself in the 1980s, she once spied on Monet in his garden, danced for Nijinsky, dined with Brancusi and romanced Marcel Duchamp.

Perhaps the most revealing of Wood's rooms is the sitting room of Indian paintings and carvings. "The moment I set my feet in the airport, I felt perfectly at home," she says, recalling how she first went to India in 1961 to exhibit and lecture under the auspices of the State Department. She returned twice, each visit fueling her interest in Eastern philosophy and passion for primitive art. Also displayed are mementos from Spain and Portugal, plus a childhood collection of miniature dolls. The walls are white, she says, "because I didn't want to interfere with the folk art."

Color, so important to Wood's iridescent glazes, is more prominent in the exhibition room, where Wood sells her work. "Pink and blue are my favorites," she explains, glancing at walls painted the same deep magenta as her lips. She spends most of her time here, drawing and writing now that she can no longer stand at the potter's wheel. Occasionally, though, with the help of studio assistant Nanci Martinez, she still manages to build ceramic figures and fire a few vessels thrown last year.

Just outside the window, saguaros and opuntias blend with the Topa Topa Mountains. "I don't know much about gardening, but I love cactus. They're such wonderful forms," says Wood, who brought a potted old man cactus with her when she moved to Ventura County from North Hollywood. (It was at Hollywood High School that Wood, at age 40, took her first pottery class in hopes of making a teapot to match plates bought in Holland.) Along the driveway stands a weeping mulberry--"my beloved tree," as Wood calls it--its cascade of bare branches in winter as sculptural as any cactus.

Quite unlike the grand New York City home of her parents, Wood's simple house on the hill reflects the artist's unique aesthetic and refreshing lack of pretension. "I was raised in great luxury and with beautiful antiques. I didn't like them," she says. "But, of course, I was much more interested in unconventional places." And, it turns out, an unconventional life.

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