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California and the West

Friends Gather to Remember Ojai Ceramicist Beatrice Wood

June 01, 1998|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — They spoke of her pioneering work in ceramics, her crush on Clark Gable, her uncanny wit and her lust for anything chocolate. But in the end, renowned artist Beatrice Wood offered the best line.

"The last years of my life were the happiest," Wood said in a videotaped interview as she discussed the 50 years she spent creating and teaching in Ojai. "I'm also--don't tell anybody--so old that my libido has calmed down."

Wood, famous for her lustrous glazed pottery, clay figures that played on the battle of the sexes and sensual abstracts, was equally known for her naturally flirtatious manner.

She was 105 when she died March 12 at her mountainside ranch in the shadow of the Topatopa Mountains outside Ojai. The expanse is also home to Happy Valley School, where she taught for more than 25 years.

"I always admired her work and her life. And she had some sense of humor," said Cheri Uno, a Los Angeles painter and potter among a crowd of 500 artists, former students, museum curators and friends who gathered Sunday in a tent outside the school to celebrate the life of a woman they affectionately called "Beato."

Jorge Uribe, president of the Happy Valley Foundation, said he first met Wood in 1956 when he was a ceramics student at Happy Valley School.

"She was an unforgettable character," Uribe said. "What a lot of people don't know is that she loved young people, she loved teaching. Her students thought of her as this zany old woman who was always full of life."

Radha Sloss, whose mother, Rosalind, was among Wood's closest friends, told how Wood, a great admirer of Gable, sat next to the Hollywood legend on a sofa at a party one night and promptly fell asleep on his shoulder.

"To her amazement, he endured this discomfort for the whole evening," Sloss said.

Sloss also spoke of Wood's interest in the culture of India and her ability to teach the aesthetics and practicalities of art. She told the audience about weekly tango classes held at the school--taught by a Russian beekeeper--and America's newfound appreciation of Wood after she was loosely portrayed as the adventurous 101-year-old Rose in the hit movie "Titanic."

"Beato had a remarkable gift for moving between different worlds without losing track of who she was," Sloss said.

Ken Tennen, a 1966 graduate of the school, said he first met Wood in late 1964 and studied the way she used natural light to photograph her pottery.

"She was quite remarkable. I mean, I had never met anyone like her," he said. "To me, and I was 17 then, she looked pretty strange and I had never known anyone that jingle-jangled so much."

After a 1962 visit to India, Wood wore only saris, long and often-colorful wraps that were frequently accessorized with numerous pieces of silver jewelry.

The gathering Sunday afternoon opened with a prayer and a presentation ofa classical dance from southern India. After the speakers and the video--made sometime between 1985 and 1996, the precise date uncertain--those in the crowd took turns sitting on a chair in a nearby field and answering questions for another video--a commentary on the artist's life.

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