Q&A with Sculptor and Ceramist Stan Bitters

Q&A with Sculptor and Ceramist Stan Bitters

Stan Bitters

Stan Bitters in his studio. Photo: Renee Zellweger

This Saturday, celebrated sculptor and ceramist Stan Bitters will be on hand at Heath Ceramics' Boiler Room in San Francisco for his first show in 35 years. An important figure in the California Funk movement, Bitters will be showing a wide variety of work, both past and present, May 31 through June 30. We caught up with Bitters pre-opening to ask him about working with Peter Voulkos, the genesis of this exciting show, and what's next in his storied career.

What was it that first got you interested in clay and making ceramic work? What was your relationship to Peter Voulkos? What was the most valuable thing you learned from him?
Before enrolling at Otis Art Institute, the only knowledge or interest I had in ceramics was awareness of the Fresno-based Duncan Ceramic industry and its involvement with hobby activities - the small figurine works that one applied finishes of their products to and then took them back for firing in their kilns, which one never saw.

All that changed when during my lunch hour from regulated undergraduate work, I sneaked out to the pot shop, where I saw Pete Voulkos beating large clay shapes with wood shapes. The amount of energy and intensity going into that confrontation was mind-boggling. As we got to know each other, I spent more time in the pot shop and began using one of the numerous wheels for throwing. At some point, having trouble managing a shape, I called Pete over to ask advice on closing a form to become a ball. He immediately reached down with those large skilled hands and put that shape into a ball, effortlessly. Not much verbiage occurred throughout the semester, as we both were only interested in the work at hand. There was not much to be said. It was all in the confrontation of moist clay and the tactile activity related.

We remained friends and when Pete came to Fresno to deliver his "Big A" metal sculpture (at the Fulton Mall) he called at midnight to get together for a drink. He, unlike me, was a night person. I would get phone calls from him at two in the morning, wanting advice as to whether or not he should undertake a metal cast piece that involved water.

This relationship was to stick with me forever. For the first time there was an excitement and an undertaking with clay that felt so right to my nature and to my unresolved direction in art at that point in life. For me there was no reason to continue the aimless search of becoming a painter. I knew what was right, what I had to do.

From small-scale birdhouses to large-scale architectural installations, the range of your work is impressive. What are your favorite pieces to make?
Although that encounter with Pete of the ball form went on to my working at the Hans Sumpf Co. in Madera, where I produced the classic bird house or bobbles in the sky. As I became more experienced in playing with clay, I proceeded to do more exploring of scale, which became for me the development of the dynamics of art in architecture working with the medium of clay. From pots and handmade tile, the direction of working on murals and wall pieces became more exciting. And then onto working on sculpture forms that made use of a seven-foot-high kiln opening. To see the impact, length and width, of a wall of massive clay forms projecting from a depth of a foot or so gives me great excitement at having that opportunity and having a willing client to do it.

It's been 35 years since your last major show. what was the impetus for this exhibition at Heath Ceramics?
To commit to a show at Heath Ceramics was really a snap judgment because normally I would ask for at least six months to prepare such an undertaking. It started out as an interest in a group show, and then it turned into a why-don't-you-do-a-one-man-show kind of deal. There was no time to think about it. Up to this point, the majority of my work (namely commissions) has come from Los Angeles, where I've had around 25 in the last three years. I had never considered Northern California because in my early years I had been looked at as being too organic for the Bay Area, and I just gave up with the feeling that LA was so much more into what I was doing. So probably the combination of timing and an attitude produced the immediate response. If somebody up north has seen my work and is OK with it, then I'm open to anything.

What are you looking forward to most about the show?
I am looking forward to seeing the response to this Northern California show, especially after getting some great vibes from hearing that more than 550 people have given an RSVP. That's opening night. I am overwhelmed.

Can you tell us a little about the specialty pieces you've created for it?
I have been giving a great deal of attention to doing wall pieces recently. It probably suggests an interest and background in painting, and the ability to have the forms leap off the canvas and have great tactile quality and richness of surface. I have been experimenting with spraying molten metal to the clay surface and applying a patina which has opened a whole new dimension in the way we look at clay.

Does this show mark a return to the exhibition scene for you or what's in store for you next?
With regard to exhibitions, I think one needs that kind of recognition and kudos now and then, but it is a hell of a lot of work. I tend to take a very hands-on approach in every show that I have had. I create an environment that hopefully leads viewers to a realization of the diverse nature and application of clay. My purpose is to create an awareness of the architectural environment's many solutions that are possible as people confront their habitat with that common earthy material called clay.

Presently I need to heal before confronting a number of commissions that await me. Some things need to be in order for the artistic process to be beneficial. There are questions like "why couldn't all this have had happened 20 years ago when I still had a lot of energy and enthusiasm?" But the sobering fact remains that as artists wind down in age, people tend to say, "We better get him while we can, not much time is left." And then it does seem that the longer you live the more you have to offer. So apparently there is no happy answer. Do it while you can.

If you're in the Bay Area, don't miss "Stan Bitters: Modern Primitive," opening May 31.