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Woman of achievement

Pioneer activist and Atascadero resident Emily Polk celebrates 93 years


In an hour-long address to a packed conference hall in Calcutta, India, Emily Despain Polk spoke in declarative tones about a "woman’s place in American society."

Polk was the only American and first woman delegate invited to attend the annual South Asian Cultural Conference. Her audience, which was predominantly Asian and decidedly male, had mixed reactions.

That was 1963.

"You can imagine my talk contained ideas that were not very popular with this group," said Polk, who turns 93 this week.

At the conference, Polk described early pioneer women who worked "shoulder to shoulder" with their husbands, a position that would eventually lead them to permanent equality with men, she said, "equal in decisions, equal in public affairs, equal in combat, and equal before the law."

Perseverance in the face of unpopular ideas is a recurring theme in Polk’s life.

Seven years after the Calcutta conference, in an essay inviting California residents to participate in a groundbreaking conservationist group, she wrote: "The unfashionable comments I’m going to make may seem soft-headed. Nevertheless, at this time of world history, a sense of perspective can only be achieved by saying a few unfashionable things, and a swift look at eternity is about as unfashionable a subject as one could wish."

Christening the new group SWAP, for Small Wilderness Area Preservation, Polk would soon find herself begging for the life of one of the oldest forests in California, just two weeks before it was to be leveled by developers.

That forest is now the Los Osos Oaks State Reserve, and the saving of that small, wild space was the first of SWAP’s many successes throughout California.

During the 1970s, Polk and her dogged crew of conservationists identified thousands of acres across the state–all pristine, open lands–in danger of being destroyed to make way for more homes, shopping centers, and businesses. By the end of the decade, more than 2,000 acres of natural, wild spaces in five separate areas of the state had been saved from development and brought under public domain (see sidebar). Many more thousands of acres were brought under protected status, placed on the State Coastal Acquisition List, or otherwise preserved as wilderness.

Born in Aberdeen, Wash. on July 6, 1910 and raised on a country ranch in central Oregon, Polk’s love affair with the earth began in a rushing stream with forested banks, first glimpsed she says, from a knapsack on her father’s back when she was only 8 weeks old. In a life that spans more than nine decades and several of the world’s most exotic locations, Polk’s achievements in conservation during one brief but heady decade take their place among a long list of others.

As artist, author, poet, and designer, Polk was invited to tell her life story to the Society of Women Geographers, whose 30 hours of taped interviews now reside in the "Women of Achievement" section of the Library of Congress.

Polk studied art at two Oregon universities before moving to San Francisco to take a job in a fashionable antique store owned by her aunt and uncle. At 20, she accepted an assistant buyer position at Bullock’s Wilshire in Los Angeles where she continued to cultivate her talent for design.

"Greta Garbo came to see a dress I had designed," she recalls. "She brought her own dress designer, who sketched it, and then had six of them made in different fabrics."

That year Polk met Ukrainian count and industrial designer Alexis Sakhnoffsky, for whom she worked as an assistant designer, producing a line of women’s accessories. That success prompted a move to New York City, where she established DeSpain DeSign in the early 1940s.

In 1945, she returned to San Francisco where she met and married esteemed architect Benjamin Polk. Soon after the death of their infant son in 1950, the couple moved to London where Ben was engaged in post-graduate studies. Her husband’s friendship with Gandhian Indians he met in London led to a 12-year stay in Calcutta, Pakistan, and New Delhi. Ben was commissioned by then Prime Minister Nehru to design and build some of India’s most prominent public buildings and private palaces. Emily was asked to design many of their interiors.

While in India, Polk flourished. Her first book of poems received the All India Book Award, she became president of the American Women’s Club, established an interior design firm, and gave recitals on a zither she’d learned to play as child.

"I was invited to the Royal Palace of Panna in central India," she recalls. "The Maharaja arranged a tiger hunt for me."

Traveling alone while Ben worked, Polk spent time in Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Italy, drinking in the art and the history of the land that continues to fascinate her today. Upon her return to Calcutta, she developed a unique "flash" ink-wash technique to capture movement on paper. The resulting 25 large ink paintings won rave reviews during a gallery show in Calcutta.

The Polks returned to the states in 1964, first residing in Connecticut and later in Washington, D.C., where Emily continued to paint, write, speak, and design. She added oil painting, jewelry design, and short stories to her repertoire, even trying her hand at writing for television.

In the fall of 1966, Ben accepted a post at Cal Poly’s School of Architecture and the couple eventually bought a spacious home in Los Osos. It was there that Polk discovered the charm of the primeval forest that inspired SWAP.

In the decades to follow, the couple spent a year in Sri Lanka, where the lack of paper and canvass prompted Emily to create a new medium: acrylics on Styrofoam. She also designed clothes and had them made from the Asian silks available. They spent three months in Portugal, and then returned for a 10-year stay in England, where Emily co-authored two books: "India Notebook" and "Buddhist Hill Temples."

In 1995, Ben was asked to compose the introduction to his wife’s oral history transcribed for the Library of Congress.

"Emily lives in the joy of each fresh dramatic moment," he wrote. "She finds in each one a new experience to be discovered and framed in positive expressions … through an astonishing range of skills and humor."

Currently at work on an essay for a national contest whose topic is "Do we need nature?", Polk continues to live in much the same way, reading, writing, and contemplating the wonders of the world from a smaller, more manageable apartment in Atascadero.

"Eternity is here to stay," she once wrote, " … to be used as a standard of measuring the state of human achievement."

The human achievements of Emily Despain Polk have won her a place in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who is the West; she has been invited by the national Museum of Women in the Arts to send archival material covering 70 years of artistic accomplishments across a multitude of media; she is the author of two nonfiction books, several volumes of poetry, short stories, and a novel. And today, there remain four active chapters of SWAP in Central and Southern California, still working to preserve small wilderness for posterity. Æ

Susan Stewart enjoys walking through the open spaces Emily Polk helped preserve.

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