Categorized | Northern California

Pond Farm, Guerneville, California

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton

I was first introduced to Bauhaus design when I was living in Tel Aviv in the 70’s and 80’s. I didn’t know what Bauhaus was, only that I was looking at crumbling architectural treasures that were stunning inside and out. No one else seemed to appreciate them at that time, with tastes going more towards modern buildings and single family homes. It would be decades before Tel Aviv came to embrace its architectural heritage – and just in the nick of time to save those buildings.

The Bauhaus movement began in Germany in 1919, with the establishment of the Staatliches Bauhaus. More commonly known as “Bauhaus”, or “School of Building”, the institute combined the teaching of both crafts and fine arts in an attempt to break down the class distinctions between the two. The school lasted 14 years. The Nazis ordered it closed in 1933 claiming that the school was a centre of communist intellectualism (translation: “Jews”).

In spite of its relatively short life span, the Bauhaus style became  – and has remained – highly influential in modern design, architecture and art, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography.

Germany’s loss was Israel’s gain. Tel Aviv’s 4,000 or so Bauhaus buildings were designed by the many Bauhaus-educated German Jewish architects who fled to Israel ahead of the Nazis. They have earned Tel Aviv the name of “The White City.

When the Bauhaus opened, one of the first students to enroll was a Jewish ceramicist named Marguerite Friedlaender. Marguerite graduated in 1926 as a master potter and continued teaching at the Bauhaus until its closure in 1933. During her tenure there, she married one of her students, Franz Wildenhain.

The closure of the Bauhaus and the rise of Nazism convinced Frans and Marguerite to leave Germany. They moved to Holland and opened a pottery store named “The Little Jug”. As the political situation in Europe worsened, Marguerite and Frans decided to leave Europe altogether for the States. As a Jew, Marguerite was able to receive a visa, however her non-Jewish husband, Frans Wildenhain, was denied a visa. In 1940, Marguerite left alone to the United States and Frans stayed behind in Germany. This type of situation happened regularly, including in my family. People lived in hope that the separations would be short.

While still in Holland, Marguerite and Frans had met a San Francisco couple named the Herrs who were planning an artist colony on the West Coast. They had invited the Wildenhains to join them there. After leaving Europe, Marguerite got in touch with the Herrs and traveled across the United States from the East Coast, eventually settling in with Gordon and Jane Herr in their newly established artist colony of Pond Farm, which was located in Guerneville, in the Russian River area of Sonoma County.

pond farm pottery sign

In addition to the artist colony, the Herrs had also established a homestead which included farming, They planted orchards of nut and fruit trees, vegetable gardens, and even established some fish ponds.

After 7 years apart, Frans joined Marguerite at Pond Farm in 1947. In the intervening years he had worked as a teacher and in 1943 had been drafted into the German Army. He deserted in 1945, hiding with friends until the war ended. Marguerite had become an American citizen in the interim and was able to sponsor her husband’s emigration after the war. Frans taught sculpture at Pond Farm. Other teachers taught metals, weaving, painting, collage, and other mediums.

This idyllic situation did not last for long. The workshops collapsed under continual bickering between the instructors. There were personal tragedies as well. The original visionairies, the Herrs, lost a son to mushroom poisoning and not long after, Jane Herr died of breast cancer.

Predictably – or not predictably – the Wildenhain’s marriage collapsed. Frans subsequently moved to the East Coast where he accepted a positiion at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He stayed there the remainder of his years, remarrying several times. Frans died in 1980.

The only person left at Pond Farm was Marguerite and she stayed on, teaching summer workshops in pottery until 1980.  She passed away in 1985.

So strong and so powerful was Marguerite and so loyal were her students, that she was able to survive a standoff with the State of California. In 1963 the State of California began using its powers of “eminent domain” to force Pond Farm residents to sell their property to the State.  California was trying to expand the Austin Creek State Recreation Area. Gordon Herr was forced to move, but, in response to appeals by her students, it was decided that Wildenhain could continue to live on the property until her death. As a result, when she died in 1985, her property reverted to the State of California and became part of the State Park System.

After being transferred over, the property languished and fell into disrepair, its only salvation being the work of dedicated park rangers.

Marguerite's Potting Shed

Several years ago, Pond Farm crossed the radar of my friend Janet (Nevada City escapade of 2011). Janet is a Landscape Architect (trained at UC Berkeley) who – in addition to landscape design work – became very interested in cultural and historical landscapes. The Pond Farm project started many years ago and through Janet’s hard work, intelligence, scholarship, volunteer, time, and commitment, this project was recently rewarded with National Register of Historic Places designation. Thanks to Janet, the decline of Pond Farm has been stopped.

Janet in studio

My friend Janet in the Pond Farm pottery workshop

We went to Pond Farm several years ago, while everything was still in process. It was an early spring day, misty and a little drizzly at times.

We got to Guerneville, then drove through Armstrong Woods, finally finding a road that took us uphill to an area that I never even knew existed.

The site was breathtaking, even on that foggy March morning. The studio was in excellent shape, the wheels still in place, pristine and broom clean, with a soaring ceiling. Windows looked out on meadows and trees.

Marguerite’s home was in high disrepair.  Plastic covered the roof and it was impossible (and probably dangerous) to enter the building. There was the vestige of a pathway that had led from the studio to her home, demarcated by a row of unbloomed foliage (probably daffodils).

pathway to Marguerite house

Janet gave me some leg covers and some sort of spray -against ticks, I believe. We walked a lot of the grounds with a map she had, searching for remnants of the orchard that the Herrs had originally planted when they started homesteading at the farm. We never found it, which was odd, since usually orchards will hang on for decades after abandonment.

The Russian River area – where Pond Farm is located – is warm and sultry in the summer.  It could only have been unforgettable to have enjoyed a workshop there over the summer.

In the few photos I have found of that time, it looked like the students enjoyed outdoor bonfires and trips to the nearby coast. The work that they did was spectacular.  During the course of uploading these photos to flickr I met a man who had been one of her students. You can see his pottery work and some photos of his student time on his Flickr page.

Pond Farm Tool Silhouette

I was still only about 8 months out of chemo at the time of this trip.  I wish my photos had been better, but I did the best I could  I was tired and at one point took a nap in the car.

Recently, Janet and I met for coffee and talked about Pond Farm and solitute.  She wondered how Marguerite managed there alone for so many years. During the summer, the workshops were busy and she had many devoted students and admirers.  But the Russian River winters are long, dark, and rainy. The river floods and closes the roadways down for days at a time.

I think that Marguerite was probably OK with it.  She might have left town from time to time, and she probably had visitors coming regularly.  More than anything else, she had a lived a life that had required strength, cunning, talent, inspiration, and an ability to keep going forward. I think that perhaps the winters may have been a beautiful time for her of rejuvenation, renewal, and introspection.

Pond Farm countryside

Interestingly enough, I wrote most of this while spending a weekend in busy, bustling San Francisco. No place could be further from Pond Farm than where I was staying.

On that Saturday night I lay in bed, the streetlight illuminating my room and the sound of cars rushing by on the road outside.  I thought of the day I had spent. The crowds of people I had seen in the restaurants, cafes, stores, on the street, in busses, in their cars, and on their bikes. There were people everywhere.

I tossed and turned and couldn’t fall asleep. If I hadn’t been a houseguest in someone’s home – with people who were expecting to see me the next morning – I would have just gotten up, thrown my stuff in the car, and driven right back to the country.

Marguerite was right to end her days at Pond Farm. Cities are the loneliest places.

window at Pond Farm




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