Nonprofits join forces to save artist’s historical legacy inside a California state park

 In Arts and Culture, Public Lands
19th Century Barn Converted into an Artist Studio and Workshop at Pond Farm

19th Century Barn Converted into an Artist Studio and Workshop at Pond Farm, Austin Creek State Recreation Area, photo by Christine Sculati

Today Bay Nature published a story I wrote on a hidden gem in the California State Park system. The story is about a world famous ceramic artist and arts educator who lived and worked for more than 40 years in what is now a California State Park near Guerneville in western Sonoma County.

Over the last couple of years, I have been digging up stories about our endangered California state parks and talking to many inspiring and hard working people along the way who are raising funds and volunteering their skills to keep parks open and protected.

In December, I contacted Michele Luna, executive director of Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a nonprofit doing amazing work in Sonoma County, to learn about their strategies to save a state park called Austin Creek State Recreation Area. She told me how her organization had taken over operations of the park under the new law AB 42 that allows a nonprofit to take on full financial and operational responsibility for a state park. Austin Creek shares an entrance station with the enchanting redwood grove of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, so Stewards now staffs the entrance station for both parks.

Marguerite Wildenhain at Pond FarmDuring my conversation with Michele she mentioned Pond Farm Pottery and an artist named Marguerite Wildenhain. At first I thought she was saying “palm frond pottery.” I am probably not the only one who had never heard of this place. After all, the historical site here sits on a hilltop along a steep ravine behind gates that warn “No Public Entry.” Michele Luna put me in touch with Anthony Veerkamp, a field director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. With Anthony’s help, I started to piece the history of Pond Farm together.

Anthony told me the story of Marguerite Wildenhain going back to 1919 when the Bauhaus school for the arts opened in Germany. Marguerite was the first pottery student. He spoke of Marguerite on a first name basis as if she was an old friend. My research into her life and legacy continued after I checked out three fascinating books from the Berkeley public library.

Pond Farm's namesakeFrom the 1940s until 1985, the beauty and serenity of Pond Farm and the surrounding wilderness captivated the imagination of Marguerite and her students. Famed photojournalist Otto Hagel, who came here frequently in the 1950s, chronicled the experience of the artist community that grew and fell apart during the 1940s and 50s.

The more I learned about this talented woman, of Jewish descent, who fled Europe during World War II, the more I realized it is important to stop this important piece of California history from crumbling. It could disappear before giving people the opportunity to learn about Marguerite Wildenhain’s incredibly rich life and legacy as an artist and an educator. Do you feel a sense of urgency?

Go to the Bay Nature story to learn more about a new national effort that combines the resources and determination of three nonprofits — National Trust for Historic Preservation, Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods and California State Parks Foundation — working in partnership with California State Parks to find a solution.

How to Experience Pond Farm Pottery

Pond Farm gatePond Farm Pottery is located less than two miles up a steep and winding road, which rises out of Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve near the town of Guerneville. Marguerite Wildenhain's home at Pond Farm

Hiking trails meander from the visitor center to the redwoods. From the far end of the grove, the East Ridge trail climbs steeply to Pond Farm’s namesake – a large pond in the shape of a fish. A short trail takes you from the ridge over to the main road.

By car or bicycle, you can follow the winding main road up the steep hill and park outside of the historic site, which is nestled among fir and oak trees along Fife Creek. Beyond Pond Farm, the main road and the East Ridge trail continue to climb to the ridge, where you can take in panoramic views of the rugged wilderness that stretches over nearly 6,000 acres.

Marguerite Wildenhain describes Pond Farm in Invisible Core: A Potters Life and Thoughts (1973):

One had to go through a redwood state park to get there, and then in sharp hairpin turns 600 feet up to a plateau that lay open to the south and had a backdrop of higher hills behind it. There was an old farmhouse with palm trees and a dilapidated, old, traditional western barn, nothing more, at first sight. But when I climbed the hills, I could see the elongated pond in form of a fish and yet higher hills all around. It was wild, steep country, just one generation away from the Indians who used to bathe their horses in the pond, on their way from the volcanic area of Lake County to the Coast, there to exchange obsidian arrowheads for fish, etc. For me as a European, as I was then, this was fantastic coming from Lyon, a town that had had a 2,000-years jubilee as a Greek settlement! Here everything was new, fresh, and nearly untouched by human hands, virgin land and uncharted mountains. Here one could make history!

Books on Marguerite Wildenhain’s Life and Legacy

    • Pottery: Form and Expression by Marguerite Wildenhain with a photo story by Otto Hagel (1962)
    • The Invisible Core: A Potter’s Life and Thoughts by Marguerite Wildenhain (1973)
    • Marguerite Wildenhain and the Bauhaus: An Eyewitness Anthology. Edited by Dean and Geraldine Schwartz (2007)


Austin Creek State Recreation Area wilderness trail

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