The Amazing Career of Beatrice Wood

Famously, while in the Netherlands to attend a meeting hosted by Jiddu Krishnamurti, Beatrice Wood stopped in an antique shop and fell in love with some French rococo lusterware plates. Three years later, at the age of forty, she enrolled in a pottery class at Hollywood High School so she could maker herself a teapot and a few cups to match the plates. In this way, she began a remarkable career in ceramics that would last the next six, yes six, decades until her death at the age of 105.

Of course, you don’t just take a class and go home and make a teapot, let alone one with a lustre glaze, but like so many of us in clay, she was hooked. She studied with Glen Lukens and then with Otto and Gertrude Natzler before setting out to make her own pots. In the era when studio pottery was influenced by Chinese and Japanese ceramics, she went her own way, and mastered the challenging and notoriously difficult lustre glazes she originally admired.

Beatrice Wood: Career Woman – Drawings, Paintings, Vessels, and Objects from the Santa Monica Museum of Art brings together three essays on Wood: Beatrice Wood: Ready Made by Jenni Sorkin; Shimmer: Beatrice Wood and Ceramics in Southern California, 1993-1998 by Garth Clark; and Wood In Paradise: Theosophy and Art at Ojai by Katherine Pyne. Small black and white photos from Wood’s life, grace the tops of the pages.

The soul of the book is the section of color images of her shimmering chalices, bottles, bowls, and plates in iridescent golds and silvers and colors that change with the light. There are also photos of the small clay figures she made throughout her clay life, and her paintings. Though the pots of many epochs and cultures are readily identifiable, and many individual potters have their own unique style also easily recognized, few pots are as singularly a potter’s own as Beatrice Wood’s. Leafing through the photographs I was reminded of just how much her own her pieces were.

All this is followed by entries from her diaries, which she annotated herself during the sixties and nineties and which have additionally been carefully annotated by Marie T. Keller and Francis N. Naumann. These are more notations than prose, with tantalizing tidbits and lots of name-dropping: “April 19, 1953: Discouraged. Wonder sometimes if I should give up pottery? July 9, 1953. Find new luster effects from kiln…November 18, 1953: Dr. Moses chooses pottery for Exhibition, over a hundred pieces…” There we have a potter’s life in three short one-sentence entries.

Wood was as much a writer as a potter, penning several highly readable books, most notably her memoir I Shock Myself. The persona she created for herself in her books and in the press (oh so long before the Internet) was as much a work of art as her goblets. Her pottery is not the sort that I look at and say, “Oh how I wish I could do that,” but I sure would like to have spent an evening in her company. Reading about her and her art is as close as one can get to that.