A view of the old barn at Pond Farm in the Sonoma Redwoods, where master potter Marguerite Wildenhain lived and worked for more than 40 years. Chloe Veltman/KQED
A view of the old barn at Pond Farm in the Sonoma Redwoods, where master potter Marguerite Wildenhain lived and worked for more than 40 years. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Revitalizing a Master’s Hidden Pottery Enclave, Deep in the Sonoma Redwoods

Revitalizing a Master’s Hidden Pottery Enclave, Deep in the Sonoma Redwoods

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here’s a small, wood-shingled structure at Pond Farm near Guerneville — the former home, studio and school of renowned potter Marguerite Wildenhain — that’s so run-down, the insides are off-limits.

As I stand on the creaky exterior porch squinting through the grimy windows, I figure the ceramicist probably fired her pots in the cobwebby shack.

But it's not Wildenhain's kiln. It's her house.

"This was her kitchen, her dining room and her bedroom," said potter Caryn Fried, setting me straight. "This world-class artist lived this very humble existence right here."

Once, people from all over the world traveled deep into the heart of the Sonoma County redwoods to study at Pond Farm with Wildenhain. She may not be a well-known name outside of the rarefied world of ceramic art. But an unlikely debate has arisen over the future of Pond Farm and Wildenhain’s legacy.

"She was just really a very powerful person," said Fried, who studied with Wildenhain at Pond Farm in the 1970s, along with her husband. "The vibration that she put out."

Marguerite Wildenhain at her wheel.
Marguerite Wildenhain at her wheel. (Otto Hagel Courtesy of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods)

Lately Fried, as well as some other Wildenhain students and collectors, have been concerned about those vibrations; that they might grow weak or entirely disappear, now that plans are in motion to develop the bucolic and remote site where Wildenhain lived and worked for more than 40 years.

Potter and former Wildenhain student Caryn Fried.
Potter and former Wildenhain student Caryn Fried standing outside Marguerite Wildenhain's former cottage. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"If it becomes like this art center, you no longer have Marguerite's energy there, which is what made Pond Farm," Fried said.

"You have all these other people’s energy, which most likely is not going to be the energy that Marguerite had."

Wildenhain came to Pond Farm in the early 1940s at the invitation of the landowner, Gordon Herr, who wanted to start an artist’s commune there.

Her dynamic, earthy ceramics could be found in high-end stores and museum collections. But the French-born artist’s story begins long before she first set eyes on the Sonoma Redwoods.

Wildenhain studied at the Bauhaus — the influential arts and crafts school that emerged in 1920s Germany. Her classmates included painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky.

A Marguerite Wildenhain jug from the collection of Caryn Fried and Wayne Reynolds.
A Marguerite Wildenhain jug from the collection of Caryn Fried and Wayne Reynolds. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

She became Germany’s first female "Master Potter." Then the Nazis came along. Wildenhain, who was Jewish, fled to New York, and eventually moved to the West Coast.

She was in demand as a teacher. Droves of students came to study pottery at Pond Farm, where Wildenhain taught them to think beyond the mechanics of throwing pots.

"I don't admire technique as such," she said in a documentary (see below) about her life and work shot at Pond Farm in the 1970s. "I admire if you have something to say with that technique: human, aesthetic, religious, or whatever you want to call it."

Despite Wildenhain’s powerful legacy, Pond Farm fell into disrepair after her death in 1985 when she was 88.

In recent years, the nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods has been working with California State Parks and other partners to resuscitate the site.

"We want to bring people to the site so there can be almost living history happening there again," said Michele Luna, the Stewards’ executive director.

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They’ve stabilized the Pond Farm buildings and are offering monthly tours of the site.

Their bid to get the site designated as a “National Historic Landmark” is in progress, as is a plan to open Pond Farm to resident artists starting early next year.

Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.
Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Luna said they’re accepting applications from all kinds of creatives. Except, bizarrely, from potters.

"We don't have facilities for ceramicists," Luna said.

Luna said state parks would have to undertake a public review process before deciding whether the dozen or so historic Pond Farm pottery wheels, which line the sides of the old barn where Wildenhain coached her students, can ever be used again.

This is fine by former students like Fried, who shiver at the thought of anyone but Wildenhain setting up shop there.

"Especially if they were to have people teaching pottery there," she said. "That would be disastrous."

Fried isn’t totally opposed to the idea of developing Pond Farm. But she’d like to take a quieter and more reverential approach.

"I would love to have something down in the parking lot — a little museum with her work there, her books there," she said.

"Then people who are really interested in learning more about Pond Farm could walk up the hill, go through the wooden gates, and feel the vibration of the place for themselves."