Oct 15, 2023

5 Famous Works by Beatrice Wood You Should Know

Beatrice Wood was an American artist born in 1893 to a wealthy family in San Francisco, California. She decided to pursue art against her parents’ desires, studying painting in Paris at Académie Julian and acting at the Comédie-Française. Wood spent several years acting at the French Repertory Company in NYC, where she played over sixty roles in two years. After meeting the French Dadaist Marcel Duchamp and French avant-garde writer Henri-Pierre Roché, she became involved with the Avant Garde and Dada movements. Together, they created Dadaist magazines. She transitioned from performance art to experimenting with sculpture and ceramics and is most well-known for her avant-garde studio pottery. Here are 5 works by Beatrice Wood.

In 1962, the State Department sponsored Beatrice's trip to India, where she visited as an appointed cultural ambassador. She had already taken an interest in Indian culture, as proven by her move to Ojai to live closer to the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. She returned home inspired by the new surface texture, color, ornamentation, and erotic imagery that she saw in India. She was greatly influenced by the decorative relief sculptures on ceramics and she translated them into her own pots.

In the Blue Lustre Double Necked Bottle with Braided Decoration, Wood created relief sculptures of fish onto the bottle, which was a common motif in her work. The two spouts appear to be human figures joined together by holding hands. A lion's head is on the jar and glazed in blue and purple luster. The vibrant luster glazes were probably inspired by Theosophical color theory. The glass-like surface on her ceramics is due to metallic salts appearing to be iridescent. Reduction firing is the process that achieves this, which involves the absorption of oxygen from the clay and glaze. She mastered this technique and is still considered one of the pioneers of it.

At 92 years old, Wood was producing an impressive amount of work such as the Gold Chalice. As apparent by the metallic sheen of the ceramic piece, she used her reduction firing technique. This was made more effective by throwing chemicals, like mothballs, into her kiln. In the 1980s, she started focusing on more elaborate clay forms and stuck to monochromatic glazes. As a ceremonial goblet, Wood ornamented the chalice with circular knobs and several looped handles. Its iridescent sheen enhances the curve and texture of the surface and pays homage to the sanctity of the object.

Although not religious, Wood's spirituality defined her life alongside her creativity. Her study of Theosophy and esoteric teachings were a significant part of her life. In Theosophical color theory, spiritual cleansing is believed to be possible through the purification of color. A similar ritual is undergone through her unique kiln process, which parallels this act of purification. Combined with the sculpting of a traditionally holy cup, Wood creates her own spiritual meaning through this piece.

Wood didn't expect to experiment with ceramics as a painter and performance artist. However, she bought a set of antique luster plates in 1933 without a teapot, and she decided to make one herself. Throughout her prolific artistic career, she continued to make teapots with her signature luster glaze, which was developed during the beginning of abstract expressionism in the 1950s. The Gold Lustre Teapot was formed with a large round body, a disproportional large handle, and an undersized foot.

Wood produced an entire collection of teapots over the years, which all ranged in appearance and style. Instead of viewing pots as precious objects, she inserted a playfulness into her process that reflected a Dadaist perspective of freedom. There are glazes of gold, pink, green, and blue. Beyond a typical teapot shape, she experimented with sophisticated primitives. These child-like figures included clowns, dancers, and mythical creatures. Her love of folk art is apparent through these unconventional sculptures. Wood always viewed herself as an artist over a craftsman.

Wood often wove narratives into her pieces. Tides in a Man's Life reveals a story of a man's journey climbing to the top of her sculpture. The piece reveals three stages: a failed attempt, a woman's helping hand, and the accomplishment of reaching the golden ring. In the 1940s, Wood started to create stick figures and instead of basing them on real people, she solely emphasized their gender to explore issues revolving around this part of human identity.

Wood maintained an almost daily practice of drawing during her career as an artist. The themes she explored in these drawings were evident in her figurative sculptures, which featured relationships, dreams, and politics, mostly with a comedic tone. The meaning behind her work often overpowered the technicality of her creations, which led her work to be labeled as naive or folk art at the time. But later in her life and after she had passed away, Wood's mastery was acknowledged along with her storytelling abilities. This sculpture is just one example revealing her views on power dynamics between men and women.

Wood began experimenting with figurative sculptures after her move to Ojai. She drew influence from Dadaism, her vast collection of folk art, and her identity. With the criticism she faced for imperfections in her work, she responded with an apathetic attitude. She stated that she couldn't care less about labels of good or bad, and instead emphasizes that she purposely kept these figures unschooled.

Men with their Wives show four conventional couples around a table and one threesome in the center that's thought to be Wood herself sandwiched between two men. The title itself provides insight into her opinions about the unjust roles imposed on women. Her placement in this sculpture is seemingly a statement of the independent life that she chose to lead and she portrays this in a humorous way. Many of her sculptures like this one are considered feminist works today. However, she never proclaimed to be a feminist, most likely due to the reality that she still held on to some 19th-century ideals.

When Wood was still alive, the Smithsonian Institution named her an Esteemed American Artist in 1994. After her death, The Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts was founded in 2005. She gained recognition during her artistic career, but her legacy extends far past her lifetime.