BAREFOOT HUMMINGBIRD


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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.

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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”.
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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.

Matilija Poppies
Matilija Poppies, watercolor by kayti sweetland rasmussen

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.

Out Of The Woods
“Out Of The Woods” clay sculpture by kayti sweetland rasmussen

Beatrice Lives
“Beatrice Lives” clay sculpture by kayti sweetland rasmussen

HOW THEY SEE THINGS–THE OUTSIDERS


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Bill Traylor’s talent surfaced suddenly in 1939 when he was eighty-five years old and had ten more years to live. By then he had left the plantation in Southern Alabama where he had been born a slave in 1854.

After Emancipation, he scratched out a living as a sharecropper before moving to Montgomery, the state capitol where he slept on a pallet in the back of a funeral home and spent his days watching the world pass before his eyes on Monroe Street, the center of the city’s black district.

One day he picked up a pencil stub and began to draw what he saw and what he remembered. He ultimately produced hundreds of drawings and paintings. He was a born storyteller who pushed images of the life around him toward abstraction with no loss of vitality.

His work exists because of Charles Shannon a young white artist and admirer who watched him drawing on the street. He began visiting him every day and while hearing stories about Traylor’s life, he watched him recreating scenes still vivid in his mind as well as that of passing strangers. Shannon brought him art supplies, and buying some and taking others for safekeeping he saved the memories of a long life.

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“Outsider” art encompasses all sorts of art which lies outside the boundaries of official culture, otherwise thought of as those on the outside of the established art scene. Typically, though not always, an outside artist doesn’t move in the mainstream of the established art world. The sculptor Beatrice Woods might have been thought of as an outside artist, and surely her lover, the artist Marcel Duchamp, would have been seen as part of the movement (if the term had been around then).

See my blog NAUGHTY LADY for more about Beatrice Wood. She wrote a book called “I Shock Myself”. I’m not sure which was shocking to her, her art or her sex life! Her favorite reply when asked to what she attributed her old age (103) was “I like young men and a piece of chocolate every day.” Either way, she was a grand old lady.

Beatrice fell in love with the French artist Marcel Duchamp when she went to Paris as a young woman first starting out in the art world. She quickly formed relationships with Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roche, two of the avante-gard artists of the time.

Duchamp bounced around trying any number of art styles, never really settling on any one type. He liked to think of himself as a Dadaist or conceptual artist, or anything which challenged the conventional thought abut artistic processes.

In 1917 he submitted an upside-down urinal to the Society of Independent Artists show. It was titled “The Fountain” and signed “R. mutt”. It was rejected even though the rules clearly stated that all works would be accepted if the fee were paid. Instead it became even more famous than it would otherwise have been when he had his friend the photographer Man Ray photograph it, and then take it to New York where it was celebrated as a huge joke by the reigning artists of the day. Clearly Duchamp would qualify as an “outside” artist even though he had been classical trained.

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The na├»ve art of Grandma Moses, another artist with latent talent, falls into the category as well as some of the following type of art. These paintings by Henry Taylor, a Los Angeles artist, and some of the art we classify as folk art are by those considered “outsider” artists.

Henry Taylor
Painting by Henry Taylor

Banksy, a pseudonymous of an England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director and painter is also considered an outsider artist. His satirical stenciled street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humor with graffiti. Banksy’s work can be seen on streets, bridges, and walls in cities throughout the world. The son of a photocopier technician, he trained as a butcher in Bristol, but became involved in graffiti during the great Bristol aerosol boom of the late 1980’s.

Banksy does not sell photos of street graffiti directly himself, however, art auctioneers have been known to attempt to sell his street art on location and leave the problem of its removal in the hands of the winning bidder.

Banksy