by Nicole Wolverton
How many of us grow up, wanting to do as we wish, wanting to do the exact opposite of what our parents tell us, but become stuck in the vortex of what we’re supposed to do? Beatrice Wood, who became well-known as a ceramicist later in life, was the model daughter. She did as her parents expected, and in the early 1900s, that meant preparing for a grand coming out to society and snagging a husband. But at the age of 19, Beatrice tried to make a break from that life.
Her parents were in fact just fine with her desire to become an artist. So how does one rebel if there’s nothing to rebel against? Wood’s parents sent her to France with a chaperone to study painting . . . until Wood dumped the chaperone and moved into a garret. It didn’t last long—her mother came to find her and installed her back in art school. If painting didn’t provide an opportunity to rebel, perhaps theatre would. Wood decided to act, “Not because I was stage-struck, but to earn money so that I could get away from home. Because I was a good little girl. Nothing is more revolting.”
Wood would never be that revolting good girl ever again, particularly not after she was called back to the States at the outbreak of World War I. Against her parents’ wishes, she moved to New York City. She was introduced to artist Marcel Duchamp and writer Henri-Pierre Roché (featured here at Bloom), both of whom she had relationships with. Together, they developed a magazine, The Blind Man, devoted to modernist art, particularly Dadaism.
Shortly thereafter she ran away to Montreal for more acting roles and even married a theater manager to upset her meddling parents. Wood is known for having said, “I loved seven men I didn’t marry and married two men I never loved.” It was only when she moved back to New York and eventually Los Angeles that Beatrice Wood found her true calling. In 1933—at the age of 40—Wood enrolled in a ceramics course at Hollywood High School.
Her reason, for once, was not about rebellion. Rather, she purchased a set of dessert plates featuring a luster glaze and wanted a matching teapot. Since she couldn’t find it, she decided to make it herself. It took several years to build her skills, all while studying glaze chemistry, before she thought herself good enough to sell her work. “It happened very accidentally,” Wood once said of becoming a ceramist. “I could sell pottery because when I ran away from home I was without any money. And so I became a potter.”
It always came back to her need for rebellion. She never did make that teapot, though.
Wood’s reputation as a ceramicist grew, and her work was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, all while she received orders for her luster-glazed dinnerware. According to an article in the Crafts Report, “Her work was noted for its social commentary, often poking fun at political hypocrisy and the battle of the sexes.”
While Beatrice Wood was known for her contributions to Dadaism in her younger years, and she became famous for her late blooming career as a potter, Wood’s reputation just for being herself is what sets her apart. The New York Times obituary that ran when Wood passed away in 1998, just shy of age 105, includes an apt epitaph for a girl who only wanted to go against the grain:
Her life was already the stuff of movies. Roché’s novel about a ménage a trois, Jules et Jim, would inspire Francois Truffaut’s 1961 movie of the same name, with the character played by Jeanne Moreau based in part on Ms. Wood. In 1993, she was the subject of a documentary, “Beatrice Wood, the Mama of Dada,” directed by Diandra Douglas. And more recently, she inspired the 101-year-old character of Rose in the movie “Titanic,” directed by James Cameron.
Painter, actress, potter . . . memorialized in pop culture. How fitting for the ultimate rebel.
Homepage photo courtesy Bill Wood