“Teacups don’t interest me,” says Fresno-based sculptor and designer Stan Bitters. While to most of us, ceramics mean cups, bowls and vases, household objects are not really Stan’s thing. “I need bigness. I like the large scale of things.” Drawn to clay while studying sculpture at UCLA in the late 1950s (it was cheaper than metal), it wasn’t long until Stan was a complete convert. “I started to do huge wall clay murals, making them on the floor in one piece and then cutting them into tiles, painting and firing them and then installing them.”
Stan’s large textural murals grace the walls of Californian banks, hotels and homes, while smaller works include clay fountains, birdhouses, and unglazed earthenware ceramics and screens. His book Environmental Ceramics even makes a case for incorporating clay into architecture, not just as decoration but as a structural medium.
“There is only one way to discover clay,” says Stan. “Get a ton or two and leap into it. In working with clay as a medium of expression, you must do it with your feet, with your hands, with your heart and mind. Jump into the middle and flail around. Take all the money you can get hold of, buy tons of clay, and wallow in it. Work your way out. Get involved in it. Start at one end and come out the other.”
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to visit the modernist home of Stan’s gallerist, Scott Nadeau, which is the perfect showcase for Stan’s work. Intrigued, I asked Stan to explain more about his unique style.
KATIE LOCKHART How did you learn your craft? Were you influenced by any particular ceramicist’s work early on?
STAN BITTERS Having wandered through the education system as a painting major, I was blown away by my encounter with the legendary sculptor, ceramist Pete Voulkos. Exiting San Diego State College after three years, and bored with having consumed so much superfluous education, I felt it was time to move on. It was coincidental that a friend, artist John Baldessari, was applying for entrance to Otis Art Institute and when I asked to go along, we both ended up on scholarships. It was my confrontation with the energy of the pottery department and specifically Pete Voulkos that changed my life.
KL: You call yourself an environmental ceramicist. Do you know of many other ceramists working in this way?
SB: I think because of what I did and the time period it was done in, my work has created interest in environmental concerns such as landscape and building applications that were not apparent before. I think because of my conceptual and philosophic approach in creating these undertakings, there isn’t another artist that performs in this way.
KL: How did your birdhouses came about?
SB: I picked out a corner of Pete’s studio with a wheel and started to play around. I asked Pete how to throw a closed ball. Without hesitation he leaned over and performed this magic. I later began producing that little statement that became the notorious birdhouse. Along with the development of the birdhouse came the classic thumb pot that many children create in grade school, but when the same activity is done at three to six feet in height, plus the addition of a large plant specimen, it suddenly takes command of the space and we have a living sculpture in a home environment. People can rationalise this kind of cost over a straightforward sculpture.
KL:How did you start designing on a larger scale?
SB: The encounter of Otis Art Institute then UCLA in 1958 and ‘59, during the period of art expression and abstract expressionism, laid the groundwork for my future. Arriving back home in Fresno I was immediately hired by the Hans Sumpf Company of Madera, California. Sumpf was the world’s largest producer of emulsified adobe brick and had started to test his production methods of making slump adobe brick. He had just bought a walk-in kiln to fire this new product and was eager to hire a ceramic artist and create a ceramics department – I was given access to 20 tons of clay and told to do something with it. My Germanic background of a strong work ethic meant that I felt compelled to not only do a lot of work quickly for on-the-job experience, but to explore all aspects of the potential of this new medium for the company.
KL: Have you formed strong working relationships with particular architects and interior designers over the years?
SB: I’ve worked with architects and decorators in custom work: formal planters, building murals, tiles for bank fronts and hotel work. All of the tile work was rolled out with a rolling pin, using meat tenderisers from secondhand stores for imprint design and cookie cutters for shape.
KL: Do you have a work that you feel has been your most successful or defined your career to date?
SB: I was asked to design a textured tile exterior for a savings and loan building that still exists although the original business is gone. The texture on this building design projected out as much as 14 inches. The sheer gusto of a building done this way in the Brentwood area of LA at this time makes it still my most accomplished mural project.
KL:Do you still accept commissions?
SB:Yes, although people always want to relate to something that they have already seen and feel comfortable with. It is therefore always my challenge to convince someone to try something new in direction. In the last three years, I have done some 30 commissions and it always gets down to the client wanting something like I have done before. That is why recently it was so exciting to present several models for a presentation and my client chose something very foreign to what I have ever done. The commission involved white cement columns that have areas of coloured tempered glass inserted within them. The water flows in a continuous sheet gently over the glass with the added attraction of the colored reflective dancing patterns on the ceiling as the big show.
KL:Your own home (featured in Environmental Ceramics) showcases much of your own work. Have you used it as a playground for experimentation over the years?
SB: My home environment that was featured in the book was unfortunately destroyed in a fire but yes, it was most definitely a showcase for my work.
This interview is from Home New Zealand Magazine – April/May 2012