This past February, potter Bill Geisinger drove me to the rustic and eclectic town of Guerneville along the Russian river in Sonoma County in Northern California. During our car ride there, Bill related to me the logging history of Guerneville, the Bohemian Club, and its controversial grove retreat nearby, and soon, I found myself surrounded by the tall magnificent trees inside the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.
As a transplant generation Xer, I had not heard of Pond Farm and Marguerite Wildenhain until Bill sent me a Wikipedia link about the farm prior to my visit. Upon reading it, I was excited to find out about this post-Second World War Californian colony for artists and to discover more about Marguerite, who was its resident artist and a Bauhaus-trained master potter.
Marguerite Wildenhain (1896-1985) was an American ceramic artist and educator. She was born in Lyon, France to a father of German descent and an English mother. Marguerite trained at the legendary Bauhaus school in Weimar, Germany from 1919 for 6 years under master potter Max Krehan and sculptor Gerhard Marcks. She emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Nazis with the help of American architect Gordon Herr and his wife Jane who wanted to establish an artist community in California.
(Click here to watch footage of Marguerite Wildenhain by Rollie Younger on YouTube)
Bill and I arrived early to stroll in the splendid redwood forest. As we walked, Bill said that he had wanted to bring me here because he thought Pond Farm would be a source of inspiration. He shared the story about his visit with Marguerite in the 1970s at the urging of his teacher James Lovera to learn how to make handles from her. Bill always surprises me with never-heard-of-before episodes like this in his life. After hearing Bill’s story, I complained that he rarely makes pots with handles these days, to which he laughed and agreed with my observation.
Following our stroll, we visited Pond Farm with Michele Luna, the Executive Director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, who kindly took the time to show us the compound. The Stewards are the managing member of a partnership for the preservation and revitalization of Pond Farm.
“The barn workshop was where Marguerite taught her two-month summer classes every year, and the rest of the year she worked and lived alone in that small cabin,” Michele explained, as she pointed to a house that was closed for viewing due to its dilapidated state. There was also a guesthouse on the compound that Marguerite had built for her teacher from her Bauhaus days, Gerhard Marcks, for his visit to the farm in the 1950s. The guesthouse was recently renovated and is used to host resident artists in the summer.
As I stepped into Marguerite’s barn pottery workshop, I immediately felt I was in a familiar place: a studio built upon the artist’s complete devotion to the craft. Inside the barn, I observed the design of the studio and contemplated the system that Marguerite had developed for teaching to countless students each summer from 1949 to 1980.
In the now empty workshop, models of the pottery forms that students learned from Marguerite were still in place. I wondered how closely the classroom was designed to the legendary Bauhaus school where Marguerite had trained under master potters for up to 9 hours each day, 6 days a week, year after year.
After returning from Northern California, I borrowed “The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Life and Thoughts,” written by Marguerite from my local library. She states in the book that many of the students that came to her summer school were college and high school teachers. She writes perceptively that at Pond Farm, “we take great pains in teaching the basic and fundamental elements that go into making a good piece of pottery […] More than that: We have a stimulating exchange of ideas and often really excellent and exciting discussions about art, integrity, human values, life, pots, what it all means, and how they are related, how all these have to fuse in you to one total concept and to form.”
At Pond Farm, I only saw a small kiln inside the barn. So I asked Michele where all of the pots were fired because Marguerite accepted up to 25 students at a time for her summer workshops. Michele explained that none of the work by the students were fired. I was very surprised to hear this because I could not believe that the students were content just to learn how to make pots and not finish making them.
But after reading Marguerite’s book, I realized that what she taught, and what the students came from all over the country to learn, was not just about how to make pots but also what Marguerite called “the essential requirements that all valuable work need.” These essential requirements consisted of “work, time, patience, effort, and intense devotion and faith in the validity of this purpose.” She called it the “discipline not to betray the requirements of art.”
I told Bill that I found Marguerite’s words compelling and insightful. He agreed and said that “her book was my bible in the 70s.” Over the years, I’ve met and studied many highly regarded artists, and while they all excelled at their craft, most could only teach a very small number of apprentices in their lifetime, if at all. And even with the best of these artists, master-to-apprentice training can be disorganized and mystifying.
Marguerite’s achievements stand out because she was committed to teaching generations of aspiring artists the essential way of life as an artist, and honing of the necessary skills through relentless training like that of apprenticeships. Her teaching took place in a systematic and enlightening environment. If this method originated from the Bauhaus school, it only existed for a handful of years, but Marguerite kept Pond Farm going single-handedly for over 30 years, so her impact cannot be overstated. Her former students, called Pond Farmers, include the likes of Dean Schwarz of South Bear School, and Professor Dorothy Bearnson of University of Utah.
I hope that this blog post will inspire you to learn more about the work of this extraordinary but largely forgotten American master potter and teacher. Marguerite sums up her life’s work in a short statement in her book:
“My life as a potter has taught me to know the short-lived values of mode and fashion trends, of prizes and “success.” As fleeting as clouds are publicity, fame and limelight, but the good pot will endure through the centuries because of its integrity, its sound and pure purpose, its original beauty, and especially because it is the indivisible, incorruptible, and complete expression of a human being.”
I am not a potter, but wished that I could have met Marguerite to ask about her thoughts on fostering an enduring culture of crafts. In this uncertain time of social distancing with the coronavirus crisis, I found her words comforting and reassuring about my work at Entoten.
Finally, if you can, please help preserve Pond Farm, an important historic site of California’s Armstrong Redwood State Natural Reserve, by visiting the redwood forest, becoming a member, and/or donating to the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.
Browse more images of pots made by Marguerite Wildenhain in the Forrest L. Merrill collection
Forrest L. Merrill Collection Website: A History of Pond Farm in Pictures