Marguerite Wildenhain and Pond Farm, Where Art and Life Blended Seamlessly
“To make art, you have to care a great deal and not give a damn.”
As one of the most influential ceramicists of the midcentury American Studio Pottery movement, Marguerite Wildenhain understood what it took to perfect one's craft. Producing great art meant putting your whole self into the work, and not caring about what others thought about it.
For the hundreds of students that she trained, the sentence was just one of innumerable lessons about not just her craft, but also her way of life. At Pond Farm, her home and studio for more than 30 years and the site of a renowned art colony, Wildenhain carved a career for herself that perfectly married her artistic talents with her independent streak.
“One of the absolutely amazing things to me about Marguerite is the fact that she created her own existence,” says Kathleen Kennedy, a state historian in the cultural resources division of California State Parks. “She chose a lifestyle and made it happen in a very inaccessible place […] She was very authentic in her approach and lived life on her own terms.”
Tucked away in a lush landscape north of Guerneville, California (about 70 miles north of San Francisco), Pond Farm—which recently joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program—still holds much of the rustic magic that Wildenhain treasured in the colony’s heyday. Three of the buildings where Wildenhain lived, worked, and taught still stand, along with her pottery wheel and other historic implements.
But behind the serenity and apparent constancy of the site lies a history of threats both old and new. Though Pond Farm has survived wildfires and decades of neglect, its future still hangs in the balance.
Marguerite Wildenhain once thought she was destined to become a doctor. Born in Lyon, France, in 1896 and raised in Germany and England, she found herself fascinated by drawings that detailed the anatomy of the brain and inner ear. It took her some time before realizing, as she recalled in a 1980s interview, “It was the drawing that interested me, not the ear or the brain!”
Her passions realized, Wildenhain began pursing a career in fine arts. After her family moved to Germany around 1914, she studied sculpture and pottery before joining the legendary Bauhaus school. There she trained alongside artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Gerhard Marcks, eventually becoming the first woman to earn certification as a Master Potter in Germany.
But as it did for so many others, the dawn of World War II threw Wildenhain’s life into chaos given her Jewish ancestry. She fled to the Netherlands with her husband, Franz, and managed to secure passage to the United States in 1940. Franz, however, would have to wait another five years before making the journey, and separated from Wildenhain soon after arriving.
Wildenhain settled down in Oakland, California, and landed a teaching position at the California College of Arts and Crafts when she was approached by San Francisco-based couple Gordon and Jane Herr. They presented their vision of an experimental, self-sustaining settlement for artists and their students, sited amongst native oaks and Douglas firs to inspire creativity. The Pond Farm Workshops were born.
Wildenhain was one of several accomplished artists who initially taught at Pond Farm, but the task of teaching pottery to Pond Farmers belonged exclusively to her. According to ceramic historian Elaine Levin, “If you were a beginning potter in the 1940s and 1950s, and your goal was to make pottery your life’s work, the person you would have been advised to study with would have been Wildenhain.”
Her curriculum balanced precision and improvisation. Each student began by crafting basic forms, such as dog dishes, repeating them until the aspiring ceramicists had met Wildenhain’s exacting standards and could move to the next level. None of the attempts were ever fired in a kiln and kept; each had to be returned to clay, placing an emphasis on process over results.
This approach to art education dovetailed with her overall philosophy on how an artist should live. While others sought notoriety or fortune, Wildenhain believed that an artist should stand on their own feet and understand the practical side of running a business. She herself had helped build or remodel many of the Pond Farm structures at the time she arrived, in addition to making other improvements to the property. And regardless of whether or not pottery was one's ultimate calling, Wildenhain felt that her students would gain much from her teachings.
“It wasn’t so much that [the students] would become great artists or great ceramicists,” says Michele Luna, executive director of the nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods (SCR). “It was really about learning how to live a life with integrity, and then all the rest would come with that. [Wildenhain’s students] all talk about how she transformed them when they first came in their 20s.”
Though the Pond Farm Workshops were prematurely disbanded, partially due to the passing of Jane Herr in 1952, more than 300 students passed through the colony. Wildenhain subsequently purchased 7.83 acres of the 160-acre property and continued to educate students in the summer. In winters, she traveled the country, held art shows, and taught at universities.
“Her students absolutely loved her,” says Luna. “They are her legacy, so to speak.”
California State Parks (Cal Parks) began acquiring land to establish the Austin Creek State Recreation Area in 1963, including the area that had once formed the Pond Farm Workshops. Since Wildenhain remained a permanent resident, Cal Parks agreed to lease her the land that she had purchased. Wildenhain was therefore allowed to reside on her beloved property until her death in 1985.
In the years after Wildenhain’s passing, the site slowly decayed while Cal Parks occasionally utilized it as staff housing. It wasn’t until SCR offered its support alongside the National Trust and the California State Parks Foundation in 2012 that Pond Farm received the preservation work it desperately needed. This included repairing the main house’s foundation and roof, retrofitting the structures for earthquakes, and making the guest house ADA-compliant. The National Trust named the property a National Treasure and helped successfully advocate for its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Later, SCR initiated docent-led tours (currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and an artist-in-residence program that has allowed a new generation of artists to find inspiration in the same landscape that enthralled Wildenhain.
Today, wildfires present the most looming threat for Pond Farm and many historic sites across California. Fires during the summer of 2020 reached the Pond Farm property line before being pushed back—close enough to cut off water and electricity to the site. Repairs from that damage remain ongoing, and as summer fast approaches once more, there’s only so much that can be done. Cal Parks and SCR have explored the possibility of installing a sprinkler system, for example, but that would require an independent water source so as not to divert water from other areas in a time of crisis.
“[Cal Parks] has hundreds of buildings and properties that we’re responsible for, and each of them have their own unique situations. That is not only costly but time-consuming,” says Kennedy.
With the artist-in-residence program set to resume in July and a National Historic Landmark nomination in the works, there is much for Pond Farm’s fans to look forward to. But if last summer is any indication, the strongest extant link to Wildenhain isn't out of the woods just yet.
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