Marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus: An Eyewitness Anthology, 767 pages. Edited by Dean and Geraldine Schwarz, South Bear Press, 2007
by Richard Whittaker, Aug 30, 2010
This book is a treasure chest that vividly restores a largely forgotten pottery master to life. The material gathered here is a service to aspiring potters and to all who love the ancient craft of handmade utilitarian ceramic ware. Part biography, part art history and weighing in at just over seven pounds, it's also a comprehensive collection of memoirs, essays, stories, letters and reflections by Wildenhain's former students -to say nothing of its extensive visual content. A rich resource for scholars, this volume may launch a renewed interest in this important figure of the studio pottery movement that flowered in the U.S. in the late 1950s and early 1960s-even as interest in the craft of studio pottery seems to have faded in our age of speed, electronic media and inexpensive dinnerware from Pottery Barn.
Dean Schwarz counts 28 years of connection with Wildenhain, first as a student, then assistant teacher and finally as close friend and colleague. With these bona fides, he was qualified to undertake the ambitious project of mining the collective wealth that lay largely untapped from the results of the decades of Wildenhain's teaching. And all along the reader begins to get a real feeling for Wildenhain herself and the poetry of her own work.
As I've read through the book, perhaps I'm most struck by the depth of the impact Marguerite Wildenhain had on her students. Here are three short excerpts that exemplify this: David Stewart writes, p. 448-49, "It was not the method of teaching that made Pond Farm important. The method was only the matrix for the magic she performed there. Marguerite taught the craft of pottery only as a way of administering the art of living." He goes on, "Marguerite demanded the very best from her students and wanted the very best for them. Pond Farm was emotionally intense and difficult for both students and teachers because art is emotionally intense and difficult." He quotes Wildenhain, "You can't get out of your skin. You may wish to be someone else, or more like someone else, but you are stuck with who you are." Stewart adds that, "the acceptance of self is a goal as well as the result of being an artist."
Lynn Bowers writes, p. 506-7, "I first came to Pond Farm from Reed College, nineteen years old, as agitated and ardent as most teenagers. The beauty, the quiet and the clay centered me. Marguerite showed us a simple, dignified and honorable life. Today I am near the age Marguerite was when I met her. I still live in a quiet, beautiful place. All these years I have made my living by my hands and have never been an employee. I realize Marguerite passed on to us, intact, an entire pre-technical craft. She often told us she meant for us to use the craft to become fully human. Marguerite gave me the core, and I have wound my life around it."
Wayne Reynolds, like many students at Pond Farm had a difficult time at first. In a moment of rebellion, angry at Wildenhain's insistence that he participate in learning hand-building just as he was beginning to enjoy throwing on the wheel, he responded by "building a large monstrosity, wanting to shock her." He writes, p. 511, "She stopped and looked at it for what seemed a long time. Then she looked at me with those penetrating eyes and said, 'Well, Wayne, it's really not so bad if you would just clarify the form more.' [then] She started working on one side of the form with me looking on. I saw those thick, cracked fingers almost dancing on the clay. She became totally absorbed in the work and under her guidance the clay came alive. I was in a hypnotic trance of some kind and in that instant, I was filled with the knowledge that I could do that, I could learn to bring the clay to life. I knew for the first time in my life that I could do something I deeply wanted to do, and I knew that she was the one to teach me."
He goes on, "I was in an euphoric state when she stopped working and turned to look at me. She said, 'Why Wayne, it looks as if a light has gone on!'"
Having met and spent some time with Dean Schwarz, I have another source of evidence for the impact Marguerite had on her students. The place she shares in his life is not hard to sense. The book itself is an inspired edifice that houses the memory of a remarkable woman, the Jewish potter from the Bauhaus who fled the Nazis and came to the U.S. where she left a deep if somewhat hidden legacy, one that should be better known.
Wildenhain was clearly an exemplar of the kind we sorely need, someone to help us become fully human. Indeed, the many testimonies of her former students shared in this show that something like this was taking place under her tutelage. One wonders, was it just that this woman was a teacher in a deeper sense? And what part does the deep practice of craft play? I think we can say that both elements were at work even if it's impossible to sort out one from the other.
I'll close with two more quotes from the book. The first from Father Dunstan Morrissey, a Benedictine hermit, and close friend of Marguerite's during the last twenty years of her life. He writes, p. 728, "I studied Simone Weil and, in many ways, Simone's book was replayed by Marguerite." The second is from Charles Counts, p. 731, "The year I met her, 1957, fresh from Berea College and aspiring toward a master's degree at Southern Illinois University, she was one of several adjunct professors, others being Buckminster Fuller and Charles Eames, for example. Almost immediately, as if plugging into a great mass of undefined energy, our needs became complemented. She taught, I learned... With Marguerite it was trial by fire. Because I had seen traditional potters working in Kentucky I knew what she meant by 'an honest day's work.'"--Richard Whittaker
The book is available from South Bear Press: www.southbearpress.org
About the Author
Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.
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