Born 3/3/1893 — Died 3/12/1998
With International Women’s Day coinciding with the birth and passing dates of renowned ceramicist Beatrice Wood, I thought it appropriate to wish her a Happy Birthday! Had she lived beyond her 105 years, she’d be 124 years old as of March 3.
In 2000, two years, after Beatrice Wood (or “Beato”, as she was commonly referred to) passed away, I was privileged to be asked by her estate in Ojai, California, to catalogue her works and personal belongings. I was subsequently engaged by the Happy Valley Foundation, where Beato lived, worked, and taught for over three decades. As Director of the Beatrice Wood Studio from 2000-2005, I was charged with re-opening her home after being closed for several years—and creating both a gallery and space for a permanent collection of 26 of some of her best works. At the time, my knowledge of the fine art world was general; I possessed no art degrees or training. However, with my extensive research skills, experience in event planning, and knack for taking on challenging projects, I eagerly dove into a professional engagement which would eventually become my proudest achievement.
Dozens of articles in prominent art and news publications have been written about her; she gave energetic interviews to TV news shows in her late 90’s, and her work adorns the permanent collections of prestigious museums throughout this country and abroad.
I also soon discovered that Beato was a humanist as much as she was an artist. A strict vegetarian and lover of animals (she took care of many dogs and cats), she was an advocate of peace, strong opponent of violence and war and an advocate for social justice. She definitely deserves a shout out on this day of celebrating international women.
I encourage readers who want to learn more about her to explore some links to resources I’ve provided at the end of this piece, since I wish to keep this as a brief homage to a woman whose life and spirit is deserving of an eternal legacy.
Age to Beatrice was to live her life one day at a time and to remember each night before her head hit the pillow of what she wanted to accomplish the next day.
While I presided over the gallery, I hosted special events and posted articles in our local newspaper between March 3 and March 12 to remind the community of the life and art of this extraordinary woman who, in her later years, sported saris with Indian jewelry adorning her neck and wrists. She was inspired by her frequent trips to India in the sixties where her art was presented in many exhibitions. Beato was also a devoted meditator and follower of the teacher Krishnamurti whom she had first encountered in New York in her early years and became close with in California.
A spiritual soul, Beato would vow that “young men and chocolates”, constituted the perfect formula for her longevity (though there are conflicting stories of her relationships with men, there are few of her love for chocolates). You see, Beato was the “Mama of Dada”, having spent her earlier years in the company of Dadaists Marcel Duchamp and Picabia, among others. She introduced Brancusi to the wealthy art patrons Walter and Louise Anneneberg. She lived through two World Wars and witnessed everything from the invention of the automobile to computers. When you put together the many pieces of the puzzles from her life, the concept of “dada”, which one dictionary defines as “the style and techniques of a group of artists, writers, etc., of the early 20th century who exploited accidental and incongruous effects in their work and who programmatically challenged established canons of art, thought, and morality….”, you might realize how she embraced – and transformed for herself – many of life’s challenges. I would highly recommend a good read of her autobiography, I Shock Myself.
I may one day write a longer essay or book about my experience of my five years of working posthumously for Beato. There’s certainly much material—from the public archives at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington (when I visited for a week, one of the librarians wheeled out 3 huge ceiling-high racks of materials and remarked that her documentation surpassed that of Norman Rockwell) to Yale’s Beinecke Library. I’ve lectured on Beatrice both in Ojai and in New York City—mostly of my experience in re-opening her home and gallery. I was so fortunate to meet many collectors and friends who she knew, and to hear the colorful and contradictory stories about a life so fully lived.
Beato sold her own works out of her studio—even though later in life she engaged art dealers who helped elevate the prices of her artworks as she churned out new works daily as she gracefully aged and achieved legendary status. One example of her contradictory nature was recounted by a visitor to her studio who received a quote from Beato’s then-manager for a piece for $5,000. The manager left the room for a short time to let Beato converse with the visitor. In hushed tones, she waved off her manager and told the visitor she had a secret closet of ceramics and she’d find something for her for a much less expensive price. So even though she was in the art business, Beato maintained a fine line with understanding the materialistic end of the art world while never departing from her generous spirit. When she had extra cash in the house, she’d often give assistants money for dental bills. That’s just the way she was.
I am 61. Beatrice Wood’s star began to rise in her mid-seventies and did not wane until shortly before her death; her last figurative work was completed in the winter of 1997 at the age of 104. Her fine art dealers actually proclaimed she was most successful in her career from ages 100-104.
So, Happy Birthday, Beato. You were truly an “international woman.” And thank you for the example you set for all those who have decades to create and be of service to others, before our own heads hit the pillow for the last time.
Where to learn more about Beatrice Wood:
Photograph courtesy of Carole Topalian