At Pond Farm: Master potter Marguerite Wildenhain.
Marguerite Wildenhain and the importance of paying attention
By Gretchen Giles
Like a meteorite, a soul sometimes comes into the world so bright and glowing that its presence cannot be ignored. Like a meteorite, a soul sometimes comes into the world so compelling that students of all ages and abilities fall before it. Like a meteorite, a soul sometimes comes into the world so magnetic, so forceful, so self-assured that the ordinary tragedies of war, divorce and failure are reduced in its presence.
Potter, teacher and artist Marguerite Wildenhain was like such a meteorite. A French woman raised in Germany, she was profoundly affected by the tenets of the Bauhaus school. Wildenhain's own teachings were so influential that even though her last school session was held on the Russian River in 1980, the effects of her instruction from 1949 forward are still being hugely--and daily--given grace today.
In fact, Santa Rosa potters Wayne Reynolds and Caryn Fried have modeled both their careers and their personal lives on the wisdom that they received from Wildenhain. The artist, who died in 1985 at the age of 89, is the feature of two concurrent exhibitions at the Sonoma County Museum and the Sebastopol Center for the Arts opening this month.
"My time with Marguerite was my total art training," Reynolds says emphatically, seated at the comfortable dining table of the airy art-filled home he shares with Fried. "She transformed my life as she did with so many students. She was teaching a way to live, but pottery was the vehicle."
Born in 1896 in Lyon, France, Wildenhain and her parents emigrated to Germany when she was a child. As a teenager, she chanced to meet Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and entered his innovative design school. There, not only was she one of just seven ceramicists, she was also the only woman. Gropius founded Bauhaus in part as a reaction against the deification of fine artists. In his manifesto for the school, he declared that "there is no such thing as 'professional art.' There is no essential difference between the artist and the craftsman. The artist is an exalted craftsman." Bauhaus training grounded the artist in drawing and in the use of basic materials. In the 1981 film, Marguerite Wildenhain: Master Potter, she explains quietly to the camera that "Bauhaus was a cathedral of crafts."
Fleeing the Nazis on her French passport, Wildenhain brought the essentials of this cathedral with her to the United States. (Her husband was detained and joined her years later, the two eventually divorcing.) Invited in 1942 by San Francisco architect Gordon Herr and his wife Jane to share their land and establish an artists colony, Wildenhain made her way to the North Bay, settling at Pond Farm, the Herrs' small swathe of open-sky pasture in what is now the Armstrong Redwoods State Park in Guerneville.
The colony only lasted a few years but, with a home and studio self-built, Wildenhain stayed on until her death, teaching elite summer sessions for eager potters of all ages and abilities who came from around the world to absorb her unique Socratic mentorship. Shortly before her death, she was named one of the 12 best studio potters in the United States.
Among those students was Wayne Reynolds, who in 1962 was a 22-year-old English major from San Francisco City College intrigued by pottery and smart enough to bring his mother along when he first met Wildenhain. "If I hadn't taken my mother," he remembers with a smile, [Wildenhain] would never have taken me."
Summer sessions at Pond Farm ran five days a week for nine weeks, with students beginning their days exactly at 8am and typically falling down for a nap when the day ended at 3pm. Up to 20 students a session were individually coached by Wildenhain and her assistant David Stewart, set upon a determined course that began with creating such as a saucer and ended with what Wildenhain scholar Billie Sessions describes as the penultimate object, the teapot.
Like a pianist running the scales, students would each day retrace all of the previous steps that they had mastered, redoing them again until perfection had been achieved and then moving on up the scale. No work was saved, fired or glazed. There were safety and logistical reasons for this, but the main consideration was ideological. "She didn't want us to be sentimental or precious," Reynolds explains. "We were there for the process, not the product. You didn't want to be afraid to ruin it."
Each day, Wildenhain, who was fluent in three languages, would gather the students around at break and read aloud to them from the works of T. S. Eliot and Plato, and would recite from Alice in Wonderland. Most of all, she would impart her philosophy, urging the students to consider the structure of a leaf, to seek out the geometry of a stone, to stay alive to the symmetry of a petal; all of those, she urged, were fodder for the potter.
"We were walking and conscious and alert and seeing the beauty of the world and how we could translate that," Reynolds says. "It was really profound. It changed how I saw the world. She gave me to life."
Wildenhain counseled her students to integrate their craft and their lives seamlessly. Reynolds and Fried took her advice to heart, not only marrying at Pond Farm but purchasing roadfront property where they maintain their own gallery as well as teach in their own studios. "She told us that we needed a place to live and work, and not be at the mercy of others all of your life," Fried explains.
Reynolds spent seven or eight summers at Pond Farm--he's not sure. On one of those trips, he brought Fried, who was a graduate of the California College of Arts and Crafts and had been teaching pottery for five years. Wildenhain ignored her. Undeterred, Fried worked each day in the Guerneville cabin she and Reynolds rented for the summer, sculpting free-form pieces. Each afternoon, Wildenhain's assistant, David Stewart, would stop by and comment on her process. He eventually convinced the master potter to take Fried on.
"She had the ability to see," Fried says. "She knew what you were trying to do. I've worked in the field for 30 years, and I'm beginning to understand that now."
Reynolds adds, "She really brought you into a state of consciousness about what you were doing. She was a great artist and had that something that made her a great teacher, too. To not only have studied with her but to have been her friend--we feel so fortunate."
'Marguerite Wildenhain: Bauhaus to Pond Farm' exhibits at the Sonoma County Museum Jan. 20-April 15, with a reception on Saturday, Jan. 20, 4-6pm. Panel discussion on Wildenhain is Thursday, Feb. 1. 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. 707.579.1500. 'Beyond Pond Farm--Legacy of Marguerite Wildenhain' exhibits at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts Jan. 11-Feb. 11, with an opening reception on Thursday, Jan. 11, 6-7:30pm. A panel discussion with former Pond Farm students is slated for Thursday, Jan. 18, at 7pm. 6780 Depot St., Sebastopol. 707.829.4797.
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