Wood, Beatrice (1893–1998)

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Wood, Beatrice (1893–1998)

American painter, sculptor, and ceramist who was known as the "Mama of Dada" because of her association with several early 20th-century artists and writers . Born on March 3, 1893, in San Francisco, California; died on March 13, 1998, in Ojai, California; attended several private schools in the United States and spent a year at a French convent school; studied drawing at the Académie Julien; studied with Viennese master ceramists Otto and Gertrude Natzler; married twice; no children.

Beatrice Wood, best known for her ceramic pieces known as lustreware, characterized by their opalescent glazes, was born in 1893 in San Francisco, but grew up in New York, where her family moved shortly after her birth. Her privileged upbringing included private schools and sojourns to Europe with her mother each summer. In her early teens, Wood rebelled against the confines of her Edwardian upbringing and ran off to Paris (accompanied by a chaperon). On a visit to Giverny, during which she caught a glimpse through a hedge of Monet at work in his garden, she was inspired to take a garret room at a nearby inn and immerse herself in painting. She eventually returned to Paris, where she took drawing courses at the Académie Julien and later studied acting and dance at the Comédie Française.

Wood was in Paris in 1914 when the onset of World War I forced her to return to New York, also the destination of a number of rene-gade young French artists who would become part of the Dada movement. (Dada had no fixed theory and was more a "state of mind" than a movement, a revolt against bourgeois values in art and society.) It was at this juncture that she made the acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp (1876–1968), whose painting Nude Descending a Staircase had scandalized the art world in 1913. For several years, she became the companion of Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roché, a French diplomat turned novelist, sharing with them important avant-garde events, including an art exhibition in which she displayed a provocative drawing of a nude alongside Duchamp's sculpture called Fountain (a urinal turned upside down). They attended salons for the literati at the apartment of art patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg , and published a short-lived journal called The Blind Man. Roché became Wood's mentor and her lover, and when he betrayed her with another woman, she replaced him with Duchamp. (Roché later immortalized the trio in his novel Jules and Jim, which also became a celebrated François Truffaut film, starring Jeanne Moreau .)

In 1917, Wood returned to the theater, moving to Montreal and marrying a theater manager whom she later divorced. She also married and divorced a second time, although little is known about the details. "I never made love to the men I married, and I did not marry the men I loved," she later proclaimed. "I do not know if that makes me a good girl gone bad, or a bad girl gone good."

Wood came into ceramics as the result of an adult education class she enrolled in at Hollywood High School, with the intention of creating a teapot to match six lustreware plates she had bought on a trip to the Netherlands in 1930. Instead of the teapot, she produced some much-admired small clay figures, the sale of which provided income while she went on to learn more about the new medium. She studied with Glen Lukens and Otto and Gertrude Natzler , then in 1941 established her own studio in Hollywood. In 1948, Wood moved her home and studio to Ojai, California, where her spiritual guru, the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, had founded the Happy Valley School a year earlier. (Wood originally studied with Krishnamurti in the Netherlands, and first visited Ojai when he held a camp meeting there.) "Ojai was the pot of gold at the end of a long obstacle-strewn rainbow," wrote Wood in her 1985 autobiography I Shock Myself. "From the moment I arrived on March 3, 1948, time ceased." Fifty-five at the time, Wood continued to live and work in Ojai until her death in 1998.

Wood produced her clay vessels and modeled figures mainly to serve as a vehicle for her opalescent glazes. The pieces, many of which look as though they might have been dug up from long-ago civilizations, often emerged from the potter's wheel or the kiln with imperfections. The glazes were Wood's true passion and a source of constant experimentation. "The element of luster in her pieces, not used as an over-glaze but as part of the formula for the body of the glaze, coalesced in surfaces shot through with many-colored light," writes Barbara Cortland in describing the characteristics which set Wood's lustreware apart. "They varied, say, from peach to apple green like the inside of an abalone shell, or the rainbow changes on a soap bubble, or a silver sheen over copper, or turquoise to pink to robin's egg blue."

Many of Wood's clay forms are small comical replicas of humans she liked to call her "naughty figures." Single images or groups, sometimes incised in tile, they are indicative of the artist's sense of humor and gift for biting commentary. One representative piece called Career Women, described by Helen Dudar in Smithsonian, consists of three naked ladies "stonily perched on the prone form of a clothed, bewildered-looking man." In another piece, a female figure is dressed in ankle-high boots, long gloves, and a large flowered hat, while the rest of her body is naked. The work is titled Is My Hat on Straight?

Wood was a prolific artist, at her wheel early each morning before breakfast, even before her sacrosanct period of silent meditation. Her passion for her work may have contributed to her longevity, although she was also a strict vegetarian and neither drank nor smoked. From 1961, when she toured India, she dressed exclusively in colorful saris, accessorized with quantities of oversized silver bangles and rings. Over the years, Wood received hundreds of visitors a month to her studio, which was listed in the visitors' guide for Ojai as a "Point of Interest." Since the artist once confessed to a lifelong addiction to "chocolate and young men," many of her male visitors came bearing boxes of candy.

On the occasion of her 104th birthday in 1998, Wood was honored by an exhibition at the American Crafts Museum in New York City. The bulk of the show was devoted to her lustreware although it also included some of her prints, painting, and drawings, as well as some of her early diary notes. Beatrice Wood died on March 13, 1998, shortly after her 105th birthday.


"An Artist Seeking Her Own Way," in U.S. News & World Report. August 28–September 4, 1995.

Dudar, Helen. "Beatrice Wood in her second century: still going strong," in Smithsonian. March 1994.

Hill, Ann, ed. A Visual Dictionary of Art. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1974.

Hillstrom, Laurie Collier, and Kevin Hillstrom, eds. Contemporary Women Artists. Detroit, MI: St. James Press, 1999.

Morgan, Susan. "The Brimming Bowl of Beatrice Wood," in Los Angeles Times Calendar. February 28, 1993.

related media:

Beatrice Wood: Mama of Dada (60 min. documentary), a portrait of the centenarian ceramicist, 1991.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts