In Loving Memory of
Sweet Mom, friend, companion to many, an icon in the community, a novelty, wild, vivacious. Always active, an upstart, firecracker, whipper snapper, spritely, doggedly determined in her course to accomplish her dreams, creative in all ways, always there with a smile. All these describe Lila. She veered off the road of Life at an ever-young and tender age of 75, on September 5, 2003. She certainly will be missed.
Born Lila May McCulloh on May 10, 1928 in Glendale, California, and raised in Pasadena, she majored in Fine Arts at Pasadena City College. An early job was hand painting flowers onto plates for a china company. She quickly tired of that, and began a line of detailed hand painted, adorable, whimsical creatures made of clay that were sold to shops all along the west coast. At 22, she married Robert Lessley and soon had three small children in Claremont, California, and was a self-sacrificing, loving mother. She continued to hand paint cups with jungle, forest, and barnyard scenes, as well as humorous customized cups for friends and relatives.
In 1963, after her divorce, she taught ceramic classes at the Claremont and Montclair Recreation Departments. During this time, her style expanded. She began to use texture, stains, light glazes, drybrush, and reduction firing. Unbeknownst to her at the time, these classes inspired the successful careers of several young artists who learned their craft from Lila, no doubt due to her ability to nurture others in the art field.
In 1968, she married Larry Stuart for a short time, and was inspired to try art shows. These were very successful. Excited by her newfound opportunities, she decided to move to Northern California. She moved to Santa Cruz in 1974, and opened a workshop and retail store in the Sash Mill, called “Wild Earth.” Here she honed the craft of making fine porcelain sculpture, from the clay to firings to high-temperature glazes. She also enjoyed traveling to her many art shows, making many valuable friends within the art community. In the late 1970’s she built her home and studio (more like a fantasy castle) in Bonny Doon and moved the shop to Cedar Street.
Known for her dragons, turtles, elves riding on snails, and myriads of different fantasy critters, they brought joy into many households in Santa Cruz and have been sold in shops across the country. The ceramics were an outcropping of her whimsical nature, characters that came to life right from her imagination. The warmth and humor embodied in her creations reflect their maker, always looking at the sunny side of life.
Lila had many workers over the years who were like family, who helped make her Wild Earth dreams possible. Some people even referred to them as Lila’s elves! Many of them thought of her like a mom. They were taught to make pieces, glaze, do macramé, fire, or ship. She brought many along on her artistic voyage through life, spurring others on. She always was able to bring out the artist in others, which helped fulfill their dreams. In fact, her ability to nurture others may be her greatest art, helping many people to find the center in their lives.
Creating her art and home in Santa Cruz, she carried her work in a van to art shows. She was able to do that week after week, year after year. She was able to continue this even into her later years, at an energy level of a much younger person, never tiring. She enjoyed even the hardest of work. She would load the van to the top with creatures, that looked like a zoo out of someone’s imagination, and set off like a gypsy down the road. She would set up and take down, and do it again the next week. For most, once would be enough, but this enabled her to live in Santa Cruz, which she dearly loved. She had a special, unique, lively spirit. By selling creatures, she was really expressing her own whimsical love for life, giving a little piece of that to others. She was well aware of that, and it became her mission in life.
She loved her family, children, and grandchildren, but always had room for others, even at family get-togethers. She had many family gatherings at the house she built. She made castles, but her own house was her castle, complete with tower, and had rooms for many.
She was like an Earth Mother in the section of downtown Santa Cruz near her shop. She was a nurturer. Regardless of what your condition was, she would take care of your soul. Lila adopted every person who flew by, and always made them feel they were the most important person. Her core belief is that we’re all here to help each other. Sometimes she would ask others to help, but always would end up helping them in the process. She was like a butterfly, always moving. She was the Fairy Godmother, in all places at all times. Her feet were not rooted, yet she was grounded. She was always ready to celebrate life, the center of every celebration. At her gatherings, where people were fed by her spirit even more than by the delicious food, she was more a participant than a host. Her life was expressed in her clothes, home, and ceramics. Color and happiness were the way she expressed her essence.
In September 2003, Lila Stuart had a tragic car accident. Swerving to miss a deer she ran off the road and died on impact. Lila entrusted her daughter, Lorinda Bechtel with continuing Wild Earth and the production of the wonderful creatures of the Wild Earth Kingdom. Lorinda had worked beside her mother Lila for around thirty years. She designed and makes many of the familiar pieces: Cats, Dogs, Book Frogs, Cows on Moons, Cow pies and many others. It is Lorinda’s privilege to preserve the amazing humorous spirit that Lila wanted to share with the world.
Besides her many dear friends, Lila is survived by ex-husband Bob Lessley of Capitola, sons John Lessley of Salida, California, Frank Lessley of San Marcos de Laguna, Guatemala, daughter Lorinda Bechtel of Capitola; sister Dorothy Stock of San Marcos, California; brother Thane “Buddy” McCulloh of Dallas, Texas; and grandchildren Nathaniel Lessley, Dustin Winslow, Emerald Lessley, Dan Bechtel, and Amanda Bechtel.
Lila has come to know and love so many of you in Santa Cruz, adopting you into her life and heart. The family would like you to share your memories of her, as we celebrate the life of this wonderful woman.
We invite you to contact us with any fond memories of Lila and her art. We look forward to hearing from you.
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