Obituary: Beatrice Wood

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The Independent Online
BEATRICE WOOD, one of the world's oldest working potters, has died at the age of 105. In all aspects of her life Wood was equally capable of shocking by either her outrageous remarks, her life style, or her choice of lovers and friends.

A recent photograph of her at work on the potter's wheel captures her in typical pose, adorned in a turquoise blue, loosely fitting sari, a huge silver necklace, large earrings and neatly applied lipstick. Few potters wear such exotic costume for such an earthy task. The title of her 1985 autobiography, I Shock Myself, suggests nonconformity in her life and art, an approach borne out by her remark that she owed her longevity to "chocolates and young men".

Born in San Francisco and brought up in New York, she alarmed her wealthy parents by her early concern with art and an offbeat life. Aged 18 she escaped to Paris to study at the Academie Julien and later to perform at the Comedie Francaise, making friends with many avant-garde artists. Back in New York she maintained contact with European artists including Francis Picabia and Man Ray, with American new wave artists such as Charles Sheeler, and the film star Myrna Loy.

Her closest companion was Marcel Duchamp, and, along with him and the diplomat and writer Henri-Pierre Roche, she founded and wrote for Blind Man, a journal which supported the Dada movement in New York. Encouraged by Duchamp, who was reputed to be her lover - a fact she neither verified or disputed - Wood took up drawing. Often known as the "mama of dada", she was also thought to be part of a menage a trois with Duchamp and Roche, later inspiring Francois Truffaut's 1961 film Jules et Jim.

In response to family pressure Wood married her first husband, a theatre manager from Montreal, in 1919, but the marriage was declared void when it was discovered that he already had a wife living in Belgium. Her second marriage, in 1938, to Steve Hogg, an engineer, was one of convenience in that it allowed them to apply for Red Cross funding when the house they had bought together in North Hollywood was washed away in a flood. Although they lived together until his death in 1960, Wood claimed the marriage was unconsummated, saying that she had loved seven men she didn't marry, and married two men she didn't love.

It was not until the late 1920s that Wood took up ceramics, spurred on by failing to find a teapot to match some neo-rococo lustre-glazed plates. Following a course at Hollywood High School she began to research into lustre glaze techniques, a highly skilled process which was to remain a major characteristic of her ceramics.

In fact, she did not make teapots at this time, but freely modelled figurines which sold well and helped her survive the Depression. Her deepest involvement with ceramics came in the early 1940s when she studied with Glen Lukens and the Austrian ceramists Gertrude and Otto Natzler.

Working from a small studio in Ojai, California, she had an idiosyncratic approach to form and materials, often shocking the generally conservative world of ceramics by her sense of experiment and innovation.

She was never impressed by notions of perfectionism, arguing that "knowing what one's about to take out of a kiln is as exciting as being married to a boring and predictable man", and she freely admitted to being a "terrible craftswoman". Her chalices, bowls and vases, some with stylised figurative drawings, were not intended to be used, but to be beautiful in their own right. But it is this sense of individual vision of her vessel-based forms and sculptural ceramics which is her greatest strength and fascination.

Some, such as the ceramic sculptor Peter Voulkos, responded positively, seeing her ceramics as valid, unique and radical. Anais Nin described Wood as "a modern ceramist creating objects today which would enhance your life".

There was also a quieter, less flamboyant aspect to Wood's character. A vegetarian who neither smoked nor drank, in 1913 she became a member of the Theosophist movement, and in 1948 she moved to Ojai to be near the charismatic Indian sage Krishnamurti.

Public recognition, though late in her life, was fulsome, culminating in a show at the American Craft Museum in New York in the 1990s. In 1994 Pete Wilson, Governor of California, declared Beatrice Wood a "California Living Treasure".

Beatrice Wood, potter: born San Francisco 3 March 1893; married secondly 1938 Steve Hogg (died 1960); died Ojai, California 12 March 1998.