HOW LEGENDARY CERAMICIST BEATRICE WOOD MASTERED THE ART OF LIFE

Beatrice Wood’s charm, magic, and rare spirit led her to live an extraordinary life — a life story that inspired director James Cameron to use her as his inspiration for the character of Rose in the 1997 film Titanic. Just like James Cameron (and us!), people around the world feel an immediate sentimental attachment to her; her character, her wit, her vitality and of course, her infamous work, keeping her legacy alive beyond the 105 years she lived.

What can we learn from the legendary Breatrice Wood, “Beato”, and the fulfilling life she lived?

Cultivating our intuition helps us discover our passion

Born into a wealthy family governed by the social conventions in 1893, Beatrice Wood experienced a protected childhood under the watchful eye of her domineering Victorian mother, who realized Beatrice “wasn’t like the rest of them”. Despite expectations, Beatrice was determined to become an artist and felt heartily compelled to know what the world was like beyond the lifestyle deemed proper by her family. She knew from an early age that she had to break out of her shell without knowing how to make it happen, but acknowledging her life would be an unconventional one and nevertheless, difficult.

Beatrice rebelled against her affluent society lifestyle to study art with the initial intention of becoming a painter, beginning her artistic pursuits in theater and acting at the French National Repertory theater. While working as an actress, she met Dada artist Marcel Duchamp who brought Beatrice into the New York City Dada circle — introducing her to French diplomat/writer Henri-Pierre Roche and art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg.

The Dada movement was a philosophy that rejected authoritarianism and completely challenged traditional views of war, class, religion, technology and morals — aiming to destroy traditional values in art, to create new art that replaced the old, cementing the core root of what we now refer to as modern and contemporary art — closely aligning with Beatrice’s natural defiance to conform to cultural norms. A movement that defied artistic and social convention, contending that art was whatever they wanted it to be. Dadaism, also widespread in Europe, helped usher in the era of modern art.

By exploring her artistic interests, she eventually became known as the “Mama of Dada”

It was during this time when she started to develop her intuitive style and established her career as an artist. She co-founded The Blind Man short-lived Dada magazine with Roche and Duchamp, spontaneously sketched and painted, created drawings and collages. It was through this exploration of her artistic interests that she eventually became known as the “Mama of Dada” when she began exhibiting her work at the Society of Independent Artist shows in 1917.

Without the premeditated intention to become a potter, Beatrice challenged herself to learn how to make ceramics when she was unable to find a matching teapot for a unique set of luster glazed plates she had purchased in Holland. She wasn’t a natural born craftsman but her intuition gave her the insights and discipline to study glaze chemistry and learn ceramics techniques. Within a few years, she was able to demonstrate her new craft and sell her work. By the age of 40, she had mastered her craft, but according to Beatrice herself, “It happened very accidentally… I could sell pottery because when I ran away from home I was without any money. And so I became a potter.”

Beatrice lived her life and followed her interests by listening to the inner voice that helped her discover the passion that changed her life: ceramics. Without such strong intuition and conviction, her life could have easily evolved in a different direction, perhaps leading her to the same passion, maybe a different one, or possibly to a life that wouldn’t have been as fulfilling as the one she chose.

Intuition is something we all possess but somewhere along the way, our internal compass can become subdued, as we live in a fear-based culture with societal influences that encourage us to follow a certain cultural norm. Instead of allowing fear to dictate our life decisions, we can cultivate stronger intuition to help us make personal and career decisions that will guide us to our most fulfilling path.

Curiosity and an open-mind leads to innovation

Curiosity is something Beatrice Wood celebrated and emphasized to her students during her time teaching ceramics for the Happy Valley School (now called Besant Hill School) in Ojai. She tried to release the imagination of her students and encouraged them to feel free to make a statement of their own. “Deeply educate your eye, go to wonderful museums, absorb the culture that has been built up through the ages. Spend time in libraries, look at art books, culture is the meeting of minds when a spark is born, one man adds a pearl to the chain of another. Do not imitate but listen to the small voice which is your own and true.”

Beatrice enlightened others from her own experience. Her curiosity to create was first sparked while traveling in Europe during her childhood, being exposed to art galleries, museums, and the theater — she continued on to live her adult life exploring and learning from different ideologies, people, and cultures — ultimately shaping her unique personal philosophy that guided her innovation. She embraced a life that combined the wisdom of the East, positive thinking, a strong work ethic, a Dadaist sense of humor and a certain romanticism. Beatrice drew from traditions while maintaining her creative freedom — that was the magic that led to her artistic achievements.

“Deeply educate your eye, go to wonderful museums, absorb the culture… one man adds a pearl to the chain of another. Do not imitate but listen to the small voice which is your own and true.” – Beato

Marcel Duchamp was a mentor to Beatrice and while his work as a leading Dada artist served as an inspiration to her career, Beatrice had a natural unconscious way to sketch and sculpt, keeping drawings and figurines unschooled. The same freely exploring art form she initially cultivated alongside Duchamp, was extended throughout her life — most notably influencing the creation of her iridescent luster glazes that have made her famous and impossible to duplicate. “Before Wood, luster had generally been a surface decoration on a previously glazed form, but she used in-glaze luster produced during a single glaze firing. Although Wood did not invent this technique, she imparted to it and the ceramic medium a new expressiveness and theatricality.” Her travels to India also had a heavy influence on her attire, personal lifestyle philosophy and the use of surfaces texture, color, ornamentation and erotic imagery in her artwork.

We each contribute to each other. Curiosity helps us explore and learn the fundamentals of others who have established traditions and foundations. But creating something that will leave a lasting impact comes from our own unique point of interpretation, doing what comes from within, yet inspired by what we’ve learned.

She became a change-maker ahead of her time by embracing who she was

One of the most admirable qualities about Beatrice is the way she unapologetically embraced who she was. She was independent and self-assured. It took time and a few turning points in her life to get there, but over time she became Beato — a nickname she often signed her artwork as.

She longed for a Bohemian lifestyle and held on to her rebellious spirit to obtain the self-expression and freedom she yearned for. It went beyond her art; it also involved her attire, which to her friends resembled a distinctive “costume” that contrasted the conventional tailored suits that were relevant at the time. At first, she listened, and tried a tailored suit for four months but quickly realized the suit made her uncomfortable and had subdued her spirit. From that point forth, she decided she’d wear an attire that made her happy. Saris made her happy and became her signature style while living in Ojai. Perhaps it was her way to express and feel connected to a country that she felt such an affinity for, a way for India to never leave her. Beato developed her own sense of style before individuality was celebrated.

“I saw there was a choice in my life. Either I could cling forever to my despair, living in twilight, or I could leap into the very center of the flame, completely face my grief, and transcend it. I chose the fire.”

Beatrice was a romantic, but she never allowed a man to control her life. She fell in love with three men whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life with but found herself through heart-breaking romances that she transcended from. Henri Pierre Roche freed her from puritanical ideas about sex. Henri was the first man she ever loved and also the first man to break her heart upon discovering she was a “monogamous woman in a polygamous world.” She then fell deeply in love with Reginald Pole, who left her and married an 18-year-old woman, making this a turning point for Beato. The deep sorrow she felt also helped her find her inner resilience, choosing to no longer be in a man’s shadow. She explains the driving force that helped her heal by saying: “I saw there was a choice in my life. Either I could cling forever to my despair, living in twilight, or I could leap into the very center of the flame, completely face my grief, and transcend it. I chose the fire.” The third man that impacted her life was an East Indian scientist with whom she fell in love with at age 68 on the first of three trips to India. Beato’s connection to the romantic period influenced her ideal of a relationship — a husband, a white picket fence, family and all — but in contrast, her flirtatious and feminist nature made her attribute her longevity to “chocolates and young men”. There were young male assistants on the clock and stacks of Hershey’s bars in the refrigerator.

Philosophy was important to Beato but she didn’t like to proselytize. It is often seen as a very serious discipline but she found unique humor in the workings of the world – being philosophical made her lighter, playful, she giggled easily and laughed often. She (take out- embraced and) enjoyed creating work that was humorous while masking her intelligence and creative commentary about society in a charming, whimsy and innocent way — an approach that in retrospect has moved along the accepted language of craft.

Beato was ahead of her time — from choosing a vegetarian diet in 1910 at the age of 17, fiercely pursuing independence and a feminist lifestyle, to carving her own sense of individuality in attire and sense of humor. A change-maker and tastemaker whose exemplary life of freedom, intuition, curiosity and self-expression will continue to serve as inspiration for generations to come.

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