She lived a life that would have been considered outrageous even by today’s standards, but Beatrice Woods began her life in 1893 as a daughter of a wealthy, socially conscious family in San Francisco. Ultimately, it was her exposure to the arts that ruined her mother’s hopes for her in 1912, when Beatrice rejected plans for a coming-out party and decided she wanted to become a painter.
Supervised by a chaperone, Beatrice went to Paris to study, but it was in Giverney, home of Monet, that rebellious Beatrice ditched the chaperone and moved into an attic with her painted canvases.
Moving to Paris, she decided to become an actress, and while taking acting lessons, Beatrice became became part of a Bohemian group of artists, and where she was introduced to the artist Marcel Duchamp. “We immediately fell for each other,” Beatrice recalled. “He was an enchanting person.” Duchamp introduced her to Henri-Pierre Roche, a French diplomat, writer and art collector, who became her first lover. He was also the first man to break her heart. Beatrice had found herself surrounded by Bohemian men who thought little of bourgeois morality. During this time she became known as the “Mama of Dada”.
“Marcel shocked me because he said that sex and love are two different things,” Beatrice later recalled. Yet she fell into a relationship with both men, and remained life-long friends with Duchamp. In 1953 Roche wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called Jules et Jim, about a threesome, which some some erroneously suggested may have been inspired by the association of Woods, Duchamp and Roche.
In 1948, Beatrice moved to Ojai, California, to be close to the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. She built a home in the small peaceful village of artists a little south of Santa Barbara and surrounded by lovely rolling hills. There she taught and pursued her art for the next sixty years. At age 90, at the urging of her friend Anais Nin, she became a writer. Her most famous book is “I Shock Myself”.
I first became interested in Beatrice in 1985 while teaching a class in conceptual art and Marcel Duchamp, and when I learned that she was living in Ojai, I welcomed an opportunity to visit her.
If you want the local lowdown in Ojai, California, a resident says “People rarely ask what you do—they ask, ‘what brought you to Oja?’ I love that. Ojai is a beautiful sleepy small community of artists, farmers, and a few people who simply want to relax and enjoy life.
The prospect of seeing poppies drew us up into the green hills above the town. We had been graced with the sight of enormous 5 inch wide white flowers along highway 101, and Ojai thought enough of them to name a park Matilija—Ma-till-a-hah.
Winding up through the hills we came upon Beatrice’s little house where she lived, worked and had a small gallery of her work. The door was answered by a diminutive Indian man who introduced himself as “her humble servant.” Beatrice was momentarily engaged in another room but we saw her as she darted past the doorway like a barefoot hummingbird. Draped in colorful sari and Native American jewelry, she was an iconic figure, even better than I had thought
When she floated into the gallery and found my interest in art, her “humble servant” brought cups of tea and she described the art displayed in the room. She was quite open about her relationships with Duchamp and Roche, and introduced us to her German Shepherd dog,
Roche” who wandered into the room in search of a pat on the head.
Her sculptures were funky, funny and engaging and told a wry story of her life. One large piece was of a brothel on fire, with girls leaning out the front windows while a variety of men were pouring out the back doors. Beatrice explained that the men were “the mayor, the police chief, etc.” It was plain that her way to get even with the men who had hurt her throughout her life was to put them all in erratic or hazardous situations in her art.
To what did she attribute her longevity? Her stock answer was “I owe it all to chocolate and young men.” Beatrice Woods died in Ojai at the age of 105 in 1998.
Her personal and artistic style intrigued me, and I developed a number of pieces as a dedication to Beatrice.