Pond Farm sits high above the densely wooded Russian River Valley, not far from the Sonoma Coast. It is a secluded site that lies within a vast area established, in 1964, as the Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Visitors come to these hills for the vistas, and to access semi-rigorous hiking trails that weave through peaceful oak woodlands and along seasonal creeks.
I was an avid hiker in the 1990s when these trails became my favorite local destination. One day I noticed a wooden fence and a weathered sign:
An art studio in a nature preserve? I contemplated its place in the wilderness. A padlock on the gate implied that Pond Farm was a thing of the past. But as I peered beyond the gate I sensed a story, and I felt its lingering vitality.
Thanks to the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, California State Parks, and the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, that story is now being told.
Bauhaus in America
In the early 1940s a Jewish potter fled Germany for the wooded hills of Sonoma County and changed the course of California pottery. The first female master of the Weimar Bauhaus, Marguerite Wildenhain accepted an invitation from Gordon and Jane Herr, to help create a 140-acre experimental art colony outside Guerneville, later to be known as Pond Farm Pottery. Over a 30-year period at Pond Farm, Marguerite taught a new generation of young potters, and produced work now recognized as masterpieces.¹
The Weimar Bauhaus emerged in the years between the two World Wars (1919–1933). Its central objective was to produce artisans and designers adept in creating objects that were both useful and compelling; a new guild of craftsmen, free from the class distinctions that stood between craft and art. Marguerite Wildenhain (née Friedlaender) was inspired by this radical concept and became one of the first students to enroll.
An Artist in Exile
Marguerite’s work was widely acclaimed in the years that followed, but her need to flee fascist Europe became evident in 1939—the same year that Gordon and Jane Herr, purchased Pond Farm in Northern California, with the intention of creating a Bauhaus-style school.
The Herrs’ invitation for Marguerite to join their utopian experiment came at the right time, and it likely saved her life. She emigrated from Europe in 1940.
The Herrs′ vision was to integrate all of the arts, with students and teachers working across disciplines toward integrated solutions. They believed that a rural environment was an essential ingredient of that vision, and they worked to draw sustenance and inspiration from nature.
Figures and pots by Marguerite Wildenhain, 1950s
Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 2018 Exhibit
The story of the Pond Farm artist colony is rich and complex. It reads like a dramatic play, containing characters that were young and old, and their experiences that ranged from triumph to tragedy. Most of it is beyond the scope of this summary. But unexpected events in the early 1950s gave wings to one of the great mentors of our time—the opportunity arose for Marguerite to undertake sole ownership and control of the workshop. The end-story burgeoned from her sense of community and shared purpose.
Educating the Whole Human Being
Pond Farm Pottery • 1953–1980
Marguerite is remembered by her students (the Pond Farmers) for teaching more than pottery. She taught them how to live, artfully. Phil Docken recalls Marguerite’s lessons: “She stressed often that encountering beauty in what one touches every day is of utmost importance.”
Marguerite instructed 15–30 students each summer in intensive nine-week sessions. She continued to offer instruction through 1980, and lived in a small cottage next to the workshop until her death in 1985, at the age of 88.
“A good pot has soul, it flows out of
the human experience. It lives.”
Pond Farmers Remember
Oral History Project¹
“Marguerite always emphasized the synthesis between technical knowledge and spiritual content and that the key to freedom of expression comes through the mastering of skills. Once we knew how to throw well, we would be able to breathe life into the pots of our imagination.” —Jane Hero Dodge
“In the middle of this seemingly pristine California landscape—it was beautiful!—we not only looked at it, we drew it. We drew this leaf, this tree, that rock. I can’t separate the Pond Farm environment from the teaching.” —Carol McFarlan
“She was teaching the technique of how to make these shapes, but also, she was teaching us to see.” —Wayne Reynolds
“Live honestly, thoughtfully, compassionately. Hold tightly to these personal character qualities, as firmly as to high standards of craftsmanship.” —Julie A. Dickinson
“The time I spent sitting in the summer light and listening to the sounds of Pond Farm are with me still. Marguerite’s work, the stories behind her pottery and drawings, inspire me. The more I look, the more I see, and for this I am very grateful. It is a great gift to have a teacher who asked much and gave so much.” —Mary Deneen
The exhibit “Past and Future Connections to Pond Farm” is on display at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts through May 6, 2018, including works by Wildenhain and current work of her former students. Some Pond Farmer works are offered for sale.
A reunion of Pond Farmers in April 2018 included workshops and demonstrations for the general public. Below: Frank Philipps demonstrates the kick-wheel.
Pond Farm can be accessed through docent-led tours oraganized by the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods (SCR). Those interested in Pond Farm can be directed to the SCR website.
An Artist-In-Residence program is in the planning stages.
Donations for the preservation of Pond Farm can be made here Donate to Pond Farm. Scroll to the bottom of the page, list a “Specific Donation” amount, and the Pond Farm option will appear.
Pond Farm was listed in the National Registry of Historic Places in 2012, and is designated as a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
¹Italicized excerpts and quotes from the oral history project are used by permission of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.
Archival (black and white) photographs by Otto Hagel, 1958.
Posted April 16, 2018
© Cynthia Albers, 2018