Beatrice Wood was a Heavy-Weight Artist & Thinker that Creatives Like Us Can Learn From.
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD.
What’s not to love about Beatrice Wood?
She created transcendent ceramic vessels until she was nearly 105 years old and she could rock a silk sari.
And if being a great artist and thinker wasn’t enough, she was funny.
When asked about the secret to her longevity she would often say:
“I owe it all to art books, chocolates, and young men.”
— Beatrice Wood (1893-1998)
But many art critics and art journalists don’t get beyond the sassy to see the sublime in Beatrice Wood.
That’s too bad because Wood’s life and work is a treasure chest of inspiration and confirmation for creatives, especially women.
Beatrice Wood has been a hero of mine since I stumbled upon her home/museum in Ojai fifteen years ago. So I was thankful for the opportunity to interview Kevin Wallace, director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts there.
Wallace’s insightful and often surprising answers about Wood break down into four life lessons for artists and writers.
Beatrice Wood Life Lesson 1
Live on Your Own Terms
Charmed Studio: Why do you think Beatrice Wood appeals to and inspires so many visual artists and writers?
Kevin Wallace: “I believe that the one thing all artists, writers, and other creative individuals have in common is a desire for freedom – both creatively and in their personal lives.”
“That’s why so many of them lead unconventional lives or push at the limits in their work.
Beatrice Wood’s life and work embody that desire, from her rebellious teenage years to the very end, she made it clear that she was going to live and create work on her terms.
She was willing to walk away from comfort and orthodoxy and to endure heartbreak and financial struggles, for that freedom. She was obviously an original, a self-made woman with her own sense of style. But she also made clear the importance of discipline and balancing dreams with pragmatism.”
Beatrice Wood Life Lesson 2
Open Doors to Your Dreams with Discipline
Charmed Studio: What one thing do you think artists, writers or other creatives could learn from Beatrice Wood’s daily work practice?
What would it serve us to emulate?
Kevin Wallace: “More than anything her belief that discipline imposed from without led to rebellion, while discipline from within was a wonderful gift that made anything possible.
This, combined with the pragmatism in terms of needing to understand every aspect of an artist’s career – from the technical to business – was central to her success as an artist.
Beatrice Wood Life Lesson 3
Keep Coming Home to Your Spirituality or Personal Philosophy
Charmed Studio: Did Wood have a spiritual practice of any kind that you know of? Or was life her spiritual practice?
Kevin Wallace: “As a Theosophist, she studied yoga long before it became fashionable, though it was the mental and spiritual practices, rather than the physical exercises that people equate with yoga today.
She was familiar with teachings of Patanjali, that form the basis of modern yoga, and her philosophy was largely based upon the wisdom of the East.
She studied the writings of H.P. Blavatsky, as well as the teachings of Krishnamurti, [who was an Ojai resident and eventual friend of Wood] and embraced non-attachment.”
Beatrice Wood Life Lesson 4
Embrace Absurdity — Immediately
Charmed Studio: How much of a role did humor play in Wood’s art life?
Or how does humor help creatives?
Kevin Wallace: “Humor was very important. Beatrice Wood was quite philosophical, but she didn’t like to proselytize.
While philosophy makes some people very “heavy,” it made her lighter.
Like the Dalai Lama and numerous Indian gurus, she giggled easily and laughed often.
As a Dadaist, she embraced absurdity and enjoyed creating works that were humorous while carrying commentary about society.
This brings us back to the first question – I believe that one of the reasons artists and writers were drawn to her was this lightness of being, that she didn’t take everything so seriously and let it bring her down – her ability to laugh and enjoy life.”
“When the ball that was my heart was broken… laughter fell out.” ―
Why You Haven’t Heard of Beatrice Wood
Wallace’s take on Wood provoked my last question.
In light of who Beatrice Wood was and what she accomplished, why isn’t she a household name?
Kevin Wallace: “That’s a very good question and there are several possible answers. The first answer is art world sexism.”
Reason 1 You Haven’t Heard of Beatrice Wood: Art World Sexism
Kevin Wallace: “Wood was a central figure in New York Dada in 1917, alongside Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roche, yet Wood was written out of that history for decades.
In art history, men were considered the important artists and women were seen as their girlfriends.
I have to admit that it didn’t help that Beato [Beatrice] was a romantic and often spoke of her relationships with Duchamp and Roche in terms of love, rather than playing up the role she played as their equal in the art realm.”
Reason 2 You Haven’t Heard of Beatrice Wood: Prejudice Against “Crafts”
Kevin Wallace: “When she emerged as an artist she met with another challenge in terms of art world acceptance. Ceramics was considered “craft media” (as were wood, glass, fiber, and metal.) For decades ceramics were derided by art critics as being “craft” and not “art.”
The influences that ran through her work were the same as the great Modernists, but as a woman working in ceramic, she faced two types of prejudice.”
Reason 3 You Haven’t Heard of Beatrice Wood: She Refused To Speak in Art-Speak
Kevin Wallace: “Lastly, there is the fact that Beato was very “light”, as opposed to being “heavy” with dogma, art-speak, etc.
Wood didn’t like to proselytize, so even when speaking out about humanity and being against war, she did not do so in the forceful manner of some. She was quick to laugh and behaved more like a young girl than a “serious” individual, so her manner hid her depth and importance.”
She was a great humanitarian, and helped financially support others, including women artists in India, quietly.
Had you ever heard of Beatrice Wood before reading this post?
What’s your opinion of “art-speak?”
(I feel it reinforces the misguided notion that art should be interpreted rather than related to.)
Have you been up to Wood’s magical home/museum in Happy Valley which looks out at the rose-gold Topa Topa mountains?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in COMMENTS below.
If you liked this post you might like to read my post on O’Keeffe, Dali, Rachel Carson, Van Gogh, Hopper & Matisse, Diane Arbus, Frida Kahlo, Remedios Varo, or Alison Saar.
Need help making your art writing shine? Sign up for one of my writing coaching for artists mini-packages and I will help you bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be in your art writing.
______Wonderful 8 Minute Video of Wood Talking and Working in Her Ojai Studio_______