It is an unassuming barn that conceals within its rough walls a significant, and yet little-known chapter in the history of 20th-century American art.
Built in the 1870s for horses, this barn became a refuge as well as an artistic and spiritual home during World War II for Marguerite Wildenhain, a displaced French-born Jewish potter. Her life work as both an artist and teacher would send out ripples that still course through the art world.
Inside remain the ancient kiln and all the potter’s wheels on which Wildenhain, regarded as one of the most accomplished ceramicists of the 20th century, taught countless students for some 40 years in the disciplined style of the legendary German Bauhaus, where she trained before fleeing the Nazis in Germany and Holland.
Visionary arts patrons Gordon and Jane Herr bought the 160-acre Walker Ranch above Guerneville in 1939 with the idea of establishing a Bauhaus-inspired art colony that would, as they said, be a “sustainable sanctuary for artists away from a world gone amok.” Two years earlier they had met Wildenhain and her husband, Frans, on a recruiting trip. As things heated up in 1940, Wildenhain immigrated, leaving behind Frans, who was forced into the German Army. She taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, then made her way to what would be called Pond Farm. There, from 1949 to 1952 she headed the Pond Farm Community of Artists. Other highly-regarded artist/teachers included metal workers Viktor Ries and textile designer Trude Guermonprez.
When the group fell apart after Jane Herr’s death, Wildenhain stayed on, buying eight acres from Gordon, teaching summer workshops and creating her own studio art. She loved the land fiercely. Even after the state acquired 14 parcels to create Austin Creek State Recreation Area in 1963, she appealed and was the only landowner granted a lease to remain.
“Here, everything was new, fresh, nearly untouched by human hands, virgin land and uncharted mountains,” Wildenhain wrote in her biography. “I found it absolutely thrilling and no words can explain the intensity of wanting to build something there myself, maybe something that might have permanent human value.”
She died at Pond Farm in 1985 at age 88. Since then the site, in a sunny clearing off a windy road in the park, has sat deteriorating. Dismayed, many of her devoted students still come yearly to tend to it, and state parks workers struggle with meager resources to keep it from completely succumbing to time and the elements.
Now there is reason for hope that what remains will be preserved. Nearly $500,000 from a 2006 state bond initiative has been committed to begin stabilizing the property, which includes the pottery barn, the cottage Wildenhain helped build in 1942 and a guest house built in the 1960s, now occupied by a caretaker.
“State parks is working on cost estimates and seeing how much of the work can be done with that amount of money and to make final plans to do the construction, which we believe will happen next year,” said Michelle Luna, executive director of the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, which oversees Austin Creek for the State Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Stewards also received $5,800 from the Sonoma County Landmarks Commission to create a docent training program to lead tours of the site, set behind a vertical wood fence and closed to the public. Luna said she hopes to begin training next year.
After a five-year effort to document its history and national significance, supporters have gained another victory. Their application to have Pond Farm placed on The National Register of Historic Places was approved in April, a move that will “help enormously in legitimizing the history of the site,” said Anthony Veerkamp, field director for the San Francisco office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Trust, which identifies and helps preserve threatened historic sites, singled out Pond Farm as a “National Treasure,” — one of 50 in the U.S. — in hopes of drawing more attention to what Veerkamp calls “a magical spot.”
“In those few acres you had a coming together of one of the most extraordinary artistic moments of the 20th century,“ he said. “The physical space of the barn studio is strikingly beautiful in its simplicity. But really, it’s the human story that sets it apart.”
Petaluma landscape architect Janet Gracyk, who wrote the application, worked on and off on the paperwork beginning in 2009, a process Luna described as “oppressive.”
“Marguerite was part of a very small group of ceramicists of the era who promoted the idea that ceramics could be viewed as an art, which was a pretty revolutionary idea,” said Gracyk, who first heard about her in the 1970s from Dorothy Hager, an art teacher at Solano College and student at the original Pond Farm Colony in 1952.
“She had a system she learned at The Bauhaus. Simple steps, each one leading you to learn all these different steps that were the conditions of throwing. One year I spent just concentrating on one form,” said Hager, 89, who lived one summer in a tiny room in the barn.
Moving forward, the goal, said Luna, is to create a plan for using Pond Farm in the future, perhaps as home to an artist-in-residency program. Additional fund-raising is also needed to reach the estimated $2.5 million needed to restore the entire site.
State Archaeologist Breck Parkman lamented the lack of landmarks in California that speak to the arts and the contributions of women.
“We’re rich with Hearst castles and Vallejo homes and Jack London Wolf houses. We need Marguerite’s Pond Farm to help tell that story,” Parkman said. “And it’s not just with Marguerite, but all important women who have been muted and ignored through history.”
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at email@example.com or 521-5204.