"...You have to copy while you're studying. And culture... is like one pearl added to another to make a chain. We each contribute to the other."
--Beatrice Wood, on the nature of art.
"Chocolate and young men."
--Beatrice Wood, when asked to account for her longevity.
She started life in San Francisco, March 3, 1893, the daughter of wealthy parents. She last drew breath in Ojai, California, a few months after refusing an invitation to the premiere of the film that would win that year's Oscar for best picture. The filmmakers had based a character's personality on hers-- not the first time this had happened. She felt that, at her age, she was too old to watch something as sad as the Titanic sinking. She had also recently experienced setbacks to her health-- of the sort usually first encountered by people a quarter-century younger. Between birth and death, Beatrice Wood acted, created art, taught students, inspired writers, and wove in and out of the twentieth century's creative life.
When she was still a girl, her family moved to New York City. Her mother wanted her prepared for life among fine society, and Beatrice spent time abroad in Europe. The experience instead inspired her to become an artist. She first announced her intention in 1912.
She began studying at the Academy Julian in Paris, with her parents' cautious support. She felt restricted by her chaperon, and ran away to Giverny, where she lived in an attic that she converted into a studio. Later she returned to Paris, where she took up acting. As part of the Comédie-Française, she worked with leading stage actors and met Sarah Bernhardt.
With the Great War looming she returned to New York, where she acted with the French National Repertory Theatre there. The stage-name "Mademoiselle Patricia" helped minimize the manor-born actress's connection to her embarrassed family. At this time she met two men who would become her first lovers and change her life.
Composer Edgard Varèse introduced Wood to Marcel Duchamp and Henri-Pierre Roché. Both were considerably older-- Roché twice her age-- and both found the vivacious young woman compelling. She became part of the New York Dada group, and with Duchamp and Roché she created The Blind Man, America's principal Dadaist magazine. Her relationship with Duchamp and Roché partially inspired the latter's novel, Jules et Jim.1
By 1917, Wood belonged to the Society of Independent Artists, and her work, influenced by "primitive" and folk forms, was exhibited with theirs. At this point, her social circle included Man Ray and Walter and Louise Arensberg.
She left New York for a time in 1918, and acted in Montreal. There, she moved in with and eventually married the theater manager. She would later have the marriage dissolved, on the grounds that it remained unconsummated. She quickly lost track of him, though he left a considerable amount of debt.
Some time later, she became involved with a British actor, Reginald Pole. She also met Anaïs Nin, with whom she developed a friendship that would last until Nin's death in 1977. More significantly, Wood encountered Dr. Annie Besant of the Theosophical Society and the East Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti. Her interest in their teachings led her to Los Angeles, where both lived, and where avant-garde thinking had more of a following.
In 1933 she enrolled in a ceramics class, because she wanted to make a teapot. Here she discovered her love for pottery and earthenware figure-making. Shortly thereafter she opened her own shop and studio, and continued her studies with several artisans of note. Her work, which often incorporates unexpected developments that occur during the crafting process, soon became the subject of exhibitions. Beatrice would have many artistic careers, but people recall her principally for her work with the medium of clay.
In the late 1940s she established a home in Ojai, California. She ran a studio, sold her works, and studied eastern philosophy. She also taught ceramics at the Happy Valley School-- later renamed the Besant Hill School. She remained in that location for a half-century, though in 1974 she built a new house on the campus-- financed, in part, by the sale of a Duchamp drawing. Wood also toured, visiting Japan once in the 1960s, and India three times between 1961 and 1972. She never achieved the renown of many other twentieth-century artists, but her work sold steadily over many decades.
She also illustrated several books, and, in her late eighties, she began a career as a creative writer. Her written work includes:
- The Angel Who Wore Black Tights (1982).
- I Shock Myself (autobiography) (1988).
- Pinching Spaniards (1988).
- 33rd Wife of a Maharajah: A Love Affair in India (1992).
Under the pseudonym Countess Lola Screwvinsky, she wrote:
- Madam Lola's Pleasure Palace (1993)
- Kissed Again (1995)
In the months leading up to her one-hundredth birthday, she participated in the documentary Beatrice Wood: The Mama of Dada, which made her known to a newer, wider audience. The film shows a spry, wry artist whose age seems an impossibility. She is far too young to be that old. By then she had established herself as a personality in California, and the film's premiere, on her landmark birthday, attracted celebrities, including Jack Nicolson, Leonard Nimoy, Tippi Hendren, and David Crosby.2
In 1994, Beatrice Wood was named an "Esteemed American Artist" by the Smithsonian, one of several museums to house collections of her work. She completed her last major piece in 1997, "Men with their Wives," a compelling tableau of commentary in earthenware clearly modelled on the Last Supper.
Although she herself declined to watch Titanic, she dined with James Cameron and actress Gloria Stuart ("Old Rose") shortly before the film's premiere. Ever the Dadaist, she awarded Cameron the "Fifth Annual Beatrice Wood Film Award." By then, her health was finally failing. She died some days later, at the age of 105.
Beatrice Wood willed her home to the Besant Hill School, along with several of her works, her vast personal library, and her sizable collection of folk art. The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts, a gallery on the campus, can be visited by appointment.
My time on this planet overlaps with memorable writers, artists, thinkers, scientists, and great leaders. I share it with men who have walked on the moon. Many people have never heard of Beatrice Wood-- yet when I think of those I wish I'd met, the beguiling Beatrice Wood always manages a place near the top of the list.
1. The novel, of course, inspired the more famous film. While Wood acknowledged her role in inspiring the work, she claims she bore very little resemblance to the character Catherine.
2. I saw Mama of Dada when it came out. It presents her so vividly-- or, perhaps, she presents so vividly-- that I immediately recognized the inspiration for Old Rose when I saw Titanic-- a fact that I did not confirm until I started researching this profile.
"Beatrice Wood." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Wood.
Beatrice Wood: Mama of Dada. Wild Wolf Productions, 1993.
"Biography of Beatrice Wood." Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts Website. http://www.beatricewood.com/biography.html.
Finnerty, Bernadette. "Beatrice Wood Dies at 105." The Crafts Report, May 1998. http://www.craftsreport.com/may98/beatricewood.html.
Nola, Meg. "American Artist Beatrice Wood." March 9, 2008. http://20thcenturyart.suite101.com/article.cfm/artist_beatrice_wood.
Wood, Beatrice. I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood (1988). Chronicle Books, 2006.