I visited Clayton Bailey at his rural home and studio in Port Costa, California not far from the Carquinez Strait Bridge where the Sacramento River meets the San Francisco Bay. Approaching Bailey’s place, among other exotic sights, an aluminum rocket comes into view and several demon dogs standing guard on a high fence that surrounds an outdoor collection of his work spanning decades of inspired fancy. It had been almost twenty years since I’d first had the pleasure of a visit with the artist. Clayton let me in through a gate and as I looked around, it seemed like the years between visits evaporated. I was in the same wild and delightful wonderland as before except it had grown quite a bit. I suggested that we just stroll around looking at pieces while I recorded our conversation. I started by asking how many years the hundreds of pieces of work surrounding us represented.
Well we’ve lived here for 42 years and most of what you see around the yard was made here. We drove out here from South Dakota with a U-Haul truck full of old art in ‘68 and then we moved to this place in 1970.
Now this piece of property you’ve got is a real find.
We didn’t realize when we first moved out here, what a blessing it was to be out in the country. Over the years the park bought a lot of the property around us. There’s lot of wild turkeys now, a lot of deer.
RW: I came out here to see you, let’s see, when was it, 1992?. That’s 20 years ago.
RW: That’s kind of shocking. But I remember these figures made out of steel here, for instance.
A lot of old water heaters that were burned-out since we moved here.
RW: Did you do a whole series of these things at one time?
I don’t really like to weld that much so I let these two tanks sit around for a long time. Then I made both of these animals. See, this pig has got a tattoo— “pork kills” and another one the other side “meat thinks.”
RW: Are you a vegetarian?
No! But he was!
RW: [laughter] I see—don’t eat me
Yeah. That’s what a pig would want.
RW: I love what you’ve done with these nails here.
I’ve never showed any of this stuff. I just made it for my yard. But they’re fun to have. It turns junk into something easier to look at. These reflector eyes came out of old time traffic signs. If people shine a light on them at night, they shine back.
RW: [looking at the creature’s face] It must tickle you when you get an expression like this.
I get my laughs.
RW: Is it a measure of whether a piece is going to work by how much it makes you laugh?
In some cases, yes, that is the measure.
RW: My wife does this great cartoon story. When I hear her laughing in her studio I know she’s hitting some good stuff. You recognize that, right?
Definitely. I figure if it makes me laugh, it will make somebody else laugh.
RW: Some of the expressions are priceless; I mean there’s something about getting it just right.
CB: Just having the right piece of junk available, you know. It’s mostly all found-objects. I scrounge a lot and I have a lot of junk to pick from— especially aluminum.
RW: Are you still doing regular junk runs?
CB: No, I noticed when I did my taxes this year that I didn’t buy from the junkyard one time last year. But after forty years, I’ve got a junkyard here now. Sometimes I would go three times a week to the scrap metal yard.
RW: What places would you go to?
CB: Just the one—Custom Alloy. It’s in Oakland. I would be looking for light sheet metal and aluminum. I bought a lot of copper and aluminum because they were easy to work with.
RW: These ceramic tiles here, skulls, when do they date from?
CB: From when I was teaching at Cal State East Bay. OSHA was getting on us to account for the scrap material in the shop, and I started experimenting with what to do with the scraps. So I made a mold for the different kinds of clay that you were going to otherwise throw away. In some cases there are pieces of glaze or other unknown materials from what you sweep up off the floor. So it was a way to use it up.
RW: You would just press this scrap into the mold and fire it.
CB: That’s why it’s so marbleized and spotty.
RW: Wow, that’s a creative way to deal with it.
CB: See, that one is a mixture of high fire and low fire clay.
RW: Some of it bubbled, didn’t it?
CB: Yeah. But it’s interesting just to see what happens when you get these mixtures of clay and glaze.
RW: So none of these tiles are actually glazed?
CB: Well there’s a glaze on top, too. It’s a way to use up the material. They become like, in some cases, like an ashtray—“No Smoking, Slow Death.” If you look at it for a while you realize the words are in there: “No Smoking, Slow Death.” I was calling them the “Toxi-Tiles.”
RW: So you used the same mold for every one of them, basically?
CB: Yes. It’s a minor thing, but it was kind of a conservation measure, too.
RW: You’ve done a lot of different things it seems to me, Clayton.
CB: Oh yeah. I have. Over here, these are porcelain light switch covers from a press-mold. These are all rejects. The shrinkage made the slot too small or the spacing of the screws were wrong.
RW: I remember these guys here—demon dogs.
CB: When I first met you I was doing these. It’s something I’ve done occasionally, but not since the 1990s, for the most part.
RW: But you made a lot of them.
CB: I did a series of thirty that were molded, like the ones I have on the fence posts. But then I’ve done them individually, too—not that many. With the individually built ones, I would just get into it and, hey, now there’s an expression! Let’s leave it there. Then I would try another, and another one would come out. When I got tired of it, I went on to another exploration or experiment.
RW: How do you get such a nice round shape with the hand-building?
CB: You roll your material out just like you would to make a slab and bend it carefully.
RW: Your work has such a high level of craft. Would you say something about doing things carefully, doing them well and the craft aspect of your work?
CB: I do like to have the ability, the versatility, to deal with all different kinds of ceramic processes, to know how to do them, how and make a mold and know when it’s appropriate to use one, how to hand-build or how to spin a cylinder on a wheel. I would like to have at least a working familiarity with a lot of techniques. But as far as crafts—as you see it in the craft magazines—there are so many technical craftsmen who are so much better.
RW: What’s so obvious about your work is its humor and its of out-of-the-box quality, but I’m also aware of the level of craft in it. For instance, look at this: the eyes and the teeth, this whole thing; it’s really well made.
CB: Well I don’t want them to crack. But I would say these are highly stylized demons. There could be more realistic demons. Would that be more craft?
RW: I’m just saying the piece is well made. I mean, look at those pots, for instance. You threw those, right?
RW: Now that’s some pretty serious throwing, to me.
CB: Yeah, not many guys would do that.
RW: Now these pots here, it looks like they’ve sagged.
CB: After I could make big, perfect pots I got the idea of making imperfect pots and the different ways they could go bad. I’ve got a whole body of work that’s about destroying the jug. These are kind of melted, slumpy, and sometimes they get bumps on them. Or for example, here’s a bottle labeled saying “Danger—Corrosive” and the bottle is slumping in that threatening way. Better get out of the room!
RW: Yeah. Back up! So you made them slump this way on purpose. But I know sometimes you put stuff in a kiln and just to find out what’s going to happen.
CB: Yes. These were deliberately made into these shapes. It gives the illusion that you’re looking at some kind of hazardous material escaping, or about to escape the jug. Other times, yeah, I put pots in the kiln to see what will happen.
RW: You’re going to over-fire it or you put different clays together and don’t know what to expect. Where do you get that kind of freedom?
CB: Well where would science ever go if people didn’t experiment? So I put these things in the kiln to see what’ll happen to them, but I’m using a little bit of caution because I know I could easily ruin an expensive kiln, just making one thing.
RW: So you have kind of controlled experiments.
CB: Yes. I ease up on the parameters, and sometimes it goes too far. Here’s an example, this puddle in the bottom of the kiln. There’s some damage. But I’m pretty careful and I have an idea of what would happen, or what I hope would happen. This one [pointing to a hyperthermium pot] is right on the edge of disaster, too, which I like very much.
RW: I love some of your titles. You said this one is right on the edge, which you like. Would you say anything more about that?
CB: Because it stretches the clay. The clay just bubbles up like a devilled-food cake, yet the pot doesn’t quite loose its shape. That’s why, in that particular case, I like that one.
RW: Would you say something about the hyperthermium?
CB: Well it’s a threat to your health, to your safety! hyperthermium
RW: I get the pleasure you take in some of these words, “hyperthermium.” Then there’s the whole pot that embodies it. There’s something about it that’s both funny and poetic. It’s hard to explain certain aspects of humor because they do something very subtle. Do you know what I’m trying to say?
CB: Yes. And I say, thank you. And here’s a collection of some other experiments [Bailey’s “exploding” pots]. I didn’t mention these recent pieces. The emphasis is on the fact that the clay swells up, expands during the firing. Those other ones were more around an emphasis on the clay beginning to melt.
RW: These are amazing.
CB: It’s like man-made pumice. There are all these impurities in the clay, which is just from my backyard—some iron, some calcium. It’s like creating a rock, in a way.
RW: Does this go back to your “ripped and torn”? On your website from way back, there are some pieces. I couldn’t see them very well, but they looked really beautiful.
CB: Yeah, those old pieces were the result of laminating clay layers together many, many times and then ripping them so that you got kind of the torn edge of geology. These exploding pots seem to have more of a volcanic origin, not a sedimentary origin. But I think there’s a similar desire there to make something that’s not manmade.
RW: Are you pleased with these?
CB: Yes. And that’s why they’re sitting here. I’ve tried many times to make a bottle like this. You can still read that it’s an explosive on this one so you can interpret it that way as exploding, but on the other hand it’s kind of like volcanic rock.
RW: It’s actually kind of beautiful.
CB: Because it’s got the same organic beauty as a rock.
RW: And it’s labeled, “Explosive” and there it is, kind of exploded.
CB: It’s a pleasure to invite the viewer to contemplate the change in shape from the original smooth bottle into what it became outside the hands of the artist. And there’s a nice pattern of cracks and crazing naturally formed there.
RW: Is this an ongoing series right now for you?
CB: Yeah. Let’s walk up to the other end of the yard and I’ll show you what I’m working on now.
RW: [stopping on the way] Now here are more of these big pots that look like they’re wheel thrown, but you say they’re actually slab built.
CB: Yeah these are all fake throwing.
RW: [laughter] They’re beautiful.
CB: This probably is not the biggest one. The only limit on the size is really the size of the kiln. I fired these right to the limit. They shrink during the firing though.
RW: Now I think I read that you were a chemistry major in high school and went into college as a chemistry major, is that right?
CB: Well, sort of. In high school chemistry was one of my favorite subjects. A neighbor friend and I had a chemistry club where we combined our materials and did explosions and stink bombs and such. Then when I went to college, I thought I was going to become a pharmacist, but I had to declare chemistry as my major because of a scholarship. When I discovered ceramics, there was just enough chemistry involved that we hit it off really good.
RW: I loved chemistry in high school, too.
CB: Did you ever make nitrogen tri-iodide?
RW: No, I never did.
CB: It’s made out of iodine and ammonia.
RW: It’s explosive, right?
RW: Does it crystallize?
CB: Yeah, black crystals.
RW: And then if you step on them, or just touch them, they…
RW: My father told stories about how he used to do that as a kid. He would paint them on people’s shows and stuff. Then, boom! I sort of regret that I never learned how to do that [laughter]. Once in my high school chemistry class we were working with hot, concentrated sulfuric acid for some reason. We also had some concentrated sodium hydroxide, a very strong base. I was working with this and all of sudden the bell rings. So now what? You can’t pour hot, concentrated sulfuric acid down the drain. It would just destroy the pipe. But suddenly, I got a great idea. Why not pour the sodium hydroxide into the hot sulfuric acid? A base neutralizes acid. Then I could pour it down the drain. So with some trepidation, I poured the concentrated sodium hydroxide into the beaker of hot sulfuric acid. Wow! It was like a little, silent atomic bomb. This whole cloud just shot up out of this beaker and filled the entire room with these snowflakes.
CB: Wow. You didn’t you get splattered with anything that burned you?
RW: No. I was lucky. It was amazing
CB: Wow [laughter]! What was the acid? Sulfuric?
RW: Yes. You’re the first person I’ve been able to tell this story to who would understand it.
CB: In high school we liked to make bottle bombs, where we’d take an empty insulin bottle, have a little tiny neck, and you could go down to the farmer’s store and buy dynamite fuse. So we would fill the glass bottles with gunpowder and put a dynamite fuse on them and blow them up in the parking lot.
RW: Did you make the gunpowder?
CB: Yeah, but it never worked good enough. We didn’t know about the wetting and granulating.
RW: Yeah. I made gunpowder, but it never was that great, either. [looking at another piece in the yard] Wow, now this is a great little creature. Was this built around the same time as those water heater things?
CB: No, these two copper guys I made last year. I got a commission from one of my neighbors to make a pig for him and then I got rolling with the copper and made these two for myself.
RW: You had to shape those feet yourself, right?
CB: I make a mold and use a hydraulic press to stamp out those hands and feet.
RW: How do you get them to fit so well?
CB: That’s what you learn, I guess, from experience—how to measure and mark, and cut your material so it fits. I’m not good enough to build a jet airplane yet.
RW: Maybe next year [laughs]. Did you have a lot of hands-on experience working with materials when you were younger?
CB: Yes, because we were really poor and we had to make things for ourselves and repair things, convert one thing to another, work with jerry-rigged tools and such.
RW: Kind of like how farmers have to do that.
CB: Yes, my dad was from a farming family and he just figured out how to deal with the problems with ingenuity.
RW: You improvise, right? You come up with something.
CB: That’s an aspect of building with found objects that I enjoy, figuring out how to solve the problems.
RW: So there’s that, plus the design aspect, like what’s the most pleasing tweak on the tail?
CB: Yeah. Roy De Forest was an expert on that.
RW: Right, with those wonderful, crazy dogs. Did that reflect something about Roy?
CB: No, he interpreted everything in life and reinterpreted it as dogs and dog stories. Like we were talking about the dogs’ tails. He had a famous lecture about how various artists works were like dog’s tails, the different kinds of tails they had.
RW: I wish I’d heard that one. I love the way those dogs’ eyes and their expressions look. They’re kind of crazed and wonderful, in a way that’s hard to describe—it’s kind of art magic. Does that make sense to you?
CB: You see a lot of magic. He was a very eccentric guy, no question about it.
RW: I’m calling it magic because I don’t know what else to call it. They communicate something that’s actually kind of complex and, boom, it’s all right there. I mean art can give you a complex thing just like that.
CB: It could put a lot of stories in the window in front of you.
RW: That’s why it’s hard to talk about, and a lot of your work does that.
CB: We sure liked Roy and enjoyed Roy’s work. He was a next-door neighbor. The reason we found this place to live in was that we knew Roy. He told us about it.
RW: I imagine that you guys had a lot of fun together.
CB: At certain periods we did. I always enjoyed the way he could interpret the entire world by the kind of tail the dog had, and the tail’s behavior.
RW: People say the devil is in the details, but the great stuff is in the details, too. Would you agree?
CB: Well I did give some consideration to the shape of the tail, and the one that made me laugh the most was the winner—the same with the buttocks.
RW: That’s true probably as a general principle, right?
CB: I think in animal art that’s true. But I think that what makes my work interesting is that I have different kinds of problems to deal with.
RW: Would you give an example?
CB: Well for example, the exploding pots. It’s about what will happen with this formulation of clay that I’m making, tweaking it this way or that way or firing it this way or that way or shaping it one way or another. I’m looking at it more as an experiment.
RW: And then, let’s say you learn something. Would that get put to use for another purpose, to create some other object that uses that?
CB: Yes. I think there’s a kind of a continuing building, hopefully to some climactic point in the future.
RW: Okay. How about these dogs, is this one of Roy De Forest’s?
CB: That’s a David Gilhooly dog there.
RW: It’s great. And there’s a Bulwinkle.
CB: Yes. And the rest of these in the animal collection were made by students from Cal State Hayward over the years.
RW: What are some of the highlights of your teaching career?
CB: Long pause [then laughter]. Probably the highlight of my teaching career was back in Wisconsin at Whitewater in 1963-67. I lived on campus and did my work in the studio at the college. We had all kinds of enthusiastic students going to the state university and the new art department we were creating. Then, when I came to California, I really enjoyed Cal State Hayward, especially in the late 60s and early 70s when there were so many good art students. Basically, they were avoiding the draft. There was all kinds of excitement there. But I think the fact that I lived far from campus made that a little less satisfying than my earlier gig, where I lived on campus.
RW: What was the most satisfying part of that for you?
CB: In those days I really liked the business of having a lot of people around, a lot of students working, feeling that it’s a real center of the world kind of thing.
RW: Were you making nose cups back then?
CB: Yeah. I was making nose pots, and I was making figurative ceramic pieces and converting them into rubber latex masks so I could send them to New York and become famous.
RW: Sounds like you were all having a lot of fun. There must have been a high fun-quotient.
CB: We were all just crazy with our life centered on making our art. You know, I was 20-something years old and the students were 20-something years old. There has always been high fun-quotient in my teaching, pretty much—if I could stay away from faculty committees.
RW: Have you ever thought about the importance of having fun?
CB: Not too much. I just try to create it. I think I learned that early on from things like Mad Magazine
. I’ve always thought humor was an important thing. I read all these books by H. Allen Smith about the world’s greatest practical jokes and thought, boy, this is the life! You know the Johnson Smith catalog?
RW: I don’t, no.
CB: Well when we were kids it was like a two-inches-thick catalog full of whoopee cushions and x-ray glasses, and so, yes, those were the kinds of things that I tried to do.
RW: I’ve wondered why are some things are funnier than others. Some people have a real gift for humor. Does that make sense to you that there is something about some things are just funnier?
CB: Some people don’t see funny, or they even get angered by it.
RW: Would you say there’s a spectrum, like of low humor, medium humor, high humor, something like that?
CB: I guess. The more associations you can conjure up, the higher it would be.
RW: Well like your closed bottle, Unobtainium
. That’s kind of a subtle joke.
CB: If would help you appreciate the humor if you took Latin or if you knew the Periodic Table from chemistry.
RW: Then there’s some of your humor that’s on the lower side.
CB: I like that kind, too. It’s about body parts and odors and …
RW: And sometimes, depending on your mood—at least speaking for myself— I’m attracted to it, or it’s unaccountably funny.
CB: Oh yeah. It’s got a time and a place. So along this side of the room here, it starts from more major pieces and goes into fragments up here that could someday become incorporated into something. That’s the way a lot of the stuff around my yard is. There are fragments maybe on their way to becoming something. For me the only way is to have a lot of projects I can chose from so I can really get into what I’m doing.
RW: So you might have a breakthrough, suddenly, where you see something.
CB: Exactly. I can say, yes! Why didn’t I see this before? Or here, right now, this is just what I needed! Or, now I’ve got the idea!
RW: So this pleasure you take in kind of spoofing archaeology and science, where did that come from do you think?
CB: I like to have cool things. I thought it would be a good idea to have a Big Foot skeleton. And from that, other mythical animals came along—the Cyclops and giants and so on. And Kaolism is a secret, yeah— findicus wishbonus
RW: You come up with some poetically funny stuff.
CB: Well I had Latin!
RW: There you go! Kaolism
. There’s humor there, but it’s also poetic.
CB: Some people think it has to do with diarrhea [laughter].
RW: [laughs] They don’t know about kaolin clay.
CB: Right. So it started out as having a bigfoot skeleton that you could brag about and try to make into a famous item. Then it kind of evolved into a collection that I could take pictures of and go around and give lectures about. That’s why it is what it is now, like a hidden museum. I don’t really want to bring people back here to show them the wonders.
RW: You don’t really want to, you say?
CB: I don’t really want to. They have to come to my lecture. They have to get an invitation from Dr. Gladstone.
RW: So Dr. Gladstone—that’s another great creation. What’s the inspiration behind Dr. Gladstone?
CB: Modesty, really. Because you can’t go around telling everybody how great your ideas are. You have to have somebody else who can do the bragging.
RW: Yes. That’s always good. How did you come up with the name Dr. Gladstone?
CB: It’s just so appropriate, you know. Gladstone. It sounds right historically, and it even sounds right, attitudinally.
RW: That’s what I mean. It’s why I’m calling it poetry. The name has a certain rightness that goes beyond the ordinary use of words, the same way “kaolism” does. With “Dr. Gladstone,” there’s glad
. And there’s stone
. And there’s “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” It has all those British explorer layers of resonance.
CB: That’s so true. But the whole thing is called an “unnatural historical site.” Now that name doesn’t ring too well with some people. An unnatural act is different than an unnatural site.
RW: I understand. You’re probably always getting into trouble in different ways, right?
CB: Words mean so many different things; that’s why I’m afraid of writing anything down. Psychoceramic
. That’s an expression that we used in terms of the mad doctor’s laboratory, which I will take you to next.
RW: And you have the psychoceramic church. Now where did that come from?
CB: We were sitting around with Roy De Forest and David Zack and David Gilhooly and a bunch of others one day, and we all decided that we would become ministers. We’d have our own churches. This was in 1969, I remember. Some of us even had our dogs ordained, but I took it seriously. I gave it that name and made stationary and performed quite a few weddings. In fact I married my daughter to her first husband.
RW: Yes, performing marriages is kind of a serious thing.
CB: And I did that. I have the robes and lots of different ceremonies that I’ve collected. But it was kind of a joke, really, to have a church and to be a minister and do whatever you can get away with as a result.
RW: But then the joke stops being quite as much of a joke if you’re marrying your daughter off to somebody.
CB: Yes, it’s only a joke insofar as anybody could really be doing this and signing this piece of paper.
RW: A lot of humor is played off against something that’s unsaid. Humor often plays to the absence of something. For instance, some things are funny because they point out the stupidity of how things are. With a little intelligence anyone ought to see something is ridiculously wrong. Does that resonate for you at all in anyway?
CB: I don’t know what to say about that.
RW: Is there stuff out there in the world that bothers you?
CB: Not too much, although I do read the newspaper [laughter]. I mean I could see a lot to be bothered about but on the other hand I have to get on with my life, too. I do keep my work foremost in my mind.
RW: I looked at your website and over the years, lots of articles have been written about your work. It’s fun. It’s interesting and, in some cases, it’s a little provocative. I mean for instance, your Marilyn Monrobot
stirred up a fuss.
CB: Yeah. Robots with breasts. That’s a problem I didn’t mind dealing with.
RW: You want to say anything more about that?
CB: Not really. I think it got more attention than it deserved. Actually, what happened was the Lawrence Hall of Science invited me to have an exhibit there. There were at least two exhibits that I had there, and Marilyn Monrobot
was one of them. Some women told the director that if he kept that robot in the show, it was going to get vandalized. So he took it out. That’s what they told me. But on the other hand, I had my other robot On-Off
, the walking, talking robot who has a slinky type of spring that comes out of his torso like a penis. He was there at the party all night, and nobody noticed him enough to complain about him. I even have a picture of him cavorting with Glenn Seaborg, the Nobel Laureate. So anyway it got more publicity than it deserved, but then again, that helped me sell more work, too.
RW: You’re saying you try to stay out of trouble, but sometimes your work is also a little bit provocative. Sometimes it’s a little like putting a stick into a hornet’s nest.
CB: That’s exactly right [laughter]. Yeah! Like I said I’ve been lucky that they haven’t noticed.
RW: What is that impulse to kind of poke a hornet’s nest?
CB: Well I think it’s the practical joke carried maybe too far. But I’ve always thought that the practical joke was very entertaining when a challenging opportunity presents itself.
RW: A lot of people love your work and I do, too. Is this thing here an older piece, this bug?
CB: It goes back to the ‘70s.
RW: That’s a beautiful piece. It’s fallen into disrepair a little bit.
CB: It had the legs taken off to travel and I just haven’t put them back on.
RW: What’s the most rewarding stuff for you in your work?
CB: A lot of it’s got to do with answering a problem or figuring out a problem, whether it’s finding two things that fit together or coming up with a concept, maybe while I’m running in the hills. It’s hard to pin down because I do more than one kind of thing.
RW: [sudden crashing sound and I’m startled] Oh my god! Is that part of the piece doing that?
CB: Yeah. That's Jumping Judy
RW: [laughter] That got me.
CB: It got them screaming at the show at the Crocker Museum.
RW: Are there pieces that over the years just continue to satisfy you or please you more than others?
CB: Well, yeah probably. Take the robots, for example. I started making this kind of thing about in ’76. I remember I had one finished when Star War
s came out. We went to the opening in San Francisco with a robot in our truck, and they let us in free. But the rest of these have all happened since then. Some of them date back to those early days when I first started, like this was one of the very first ones that I made. I just haven’t sold it.
RW: So the robots are something you’ve kept on building.
CB: It began when we opened a storefront museum in Port Costa in ‘76. I made a robot costume. My son and I would take turns appearing in the street in front of the museum to hypnotize people. We’d tell them, “Go to the museum
.” Or, “Put a quarter in my slot
.” Then we’d dispense a postcard, and that kind of thing.
We did that for a few years and I’d even done some commercial gigs for companies like Grand Auto. But then I got overdosed with being a robot, and meanwhile I had also been just making robots out of what materials I had laying around. I was shopping for more materials, going to the scrap yard many times a week. I just got rolling from building a costume to doing this kind of stuff.
RW: Here’s the Kaolithic Museum [we come to a sign].
CB: Most of the Kaolithic Museum is outdoors, but some of this stuff has to stay indoors.
RW: All the little bones and everything were made by you, I take it.
CB: Kaolithic specimens.
RW: They’re beautifully made. And here’s a “fossil tester” and more specimens.
CB: This is what we call “the laboratory” [suddenly scary sound effects appear] Then there was a classification of things I’ve made that I call “specimens.” This is an example, this “love specimen.” See, there are a lot of specimens in their bottles, or mounted on the head of a pin, that sort of thing. Another category is “equipment,” including things like instrument panels and chemical apparatus.
RW: Some of the equipment you’ve made is very cool. There’s one on your website, but I don’t see it here.
CB: A science machine?
RW: Some kind of medical device. It sits by itself [scary audio track is playing again]. Where do you get the sound effects?
CB: Oh I have a neighbor, and I tie a scarf around his neck.
RW: [laughter] Look at this, this is cool.
CB: It’s a motion-activated circuit, and it’s some kind of a baby-making machine. You can see down here it’s got one of those babies in it, and then it’s got the high voltage activation circuit.
RW: You built a Tesla coil early on. That must have been impressive to have a spark that could jump a gap of six feet. Do you still have that?
CB: Nope. That’s another thing I’ve built ever since high school when I built my first one.
RW: Here’s another instrument.
CB: Mystery equipment. It’s got meters pointing in the red zone and indicator lights that are on, with handheld devices here on the side that have little brushes and electrical parts, a high voltage coil and you wonder now, what the hell that could have been?
RW: It has all the emblematic features of science to persuade us.
CB: Yes. Which come from a period of maybe 100 years ago—the black cabinet. The clunky design. This is not modern medical.
RW: Is there something funny for you about how these things cast a spell, in a way?
CB: Yes. If it could make you question, doubt your perception of it for a moment, like when you see a ceramic dog. For a minute you thought it was a real dog. It’s the same thing here, a plausible scientific instrument.
RW: It’s an art to cast a spell, wouldn’t you say?
CB: If you say so [laughs]—if it can make you stop and wonder.
RW: These dials with their needles, in a way, they cast a spell on me.
CB: You mean, “Wait a minute! It’s in the red zone and maybe I should get away from here!”
RW: Exactly. Danger! It’s casting a little spell.
CB: And that’s one of those other kinds of humor, too, where you’re frightened and then you realize, oh, it will be all right.
RW: Right. And now here’s “Brain Control.”
CB: Another mystery machine in the laboratory.
RW: [laughs] Brain control
. There’s a fantasy in the culture that there could be a machine that could control our thoughts. And actually, there is. It’s called advertising.
CB: That’s one of them. Yes.
RW: Look at this: [laughs] “Creates life out of mud!”
CB: Yes. This is Doctor Gladstone’s writing here. Basically it’s his theory of kaolism, summarized.
RW: Now you said you weren’t interested in having more people coming out here?
CB: No. But I wouldn’t mind if they were art collectors or art writers or something. I like my private time too much.
RW: Now this is amazing. This is a beautiful piece [large winged-bug in a case].
CB: It represents a period of time when I was trying to make realistic bugs.
RW: Is that all made out of clay?
CB: Yes. The wings, for example, are made from a mold I took off a cabbage leaf. The arms and legs are made from molds I took from a Dungeness crab. The body is just the natural textures of specially prepared clay without any touching. So again, I was trying to make every little detail look plausibly organic.
RW: And it does. This would be another example of where I say you have a high level of craft in your work.
CB: You have to have a level of craft to do the job. That does pretty well. We were looking at the demon dogs where I was apologizing for the craft.
RW: You didn’t think that their craft measured up?
CB: Well, they’re a little more stylized than realistic. I guess that was my measure of craft.
RW: See, I’m not talking about whether it’s realistic or not. I’m talking whether it’s well made or not. Look at these robots. If they had been made by someone else, wouldn’t you say, hey, that guy’s pretty good?
CB: Pretty good for working without a torch. Because it takes a lot more ingenuity to figure out how to put all those things together with nuts and bolts and screws than if you just tack them together with a welder.
RW: You must have had to shape these foot pieces.
CB: Yes. And then cut and articulate them. Actually those are cast, too. I had to make the pattern to cast those.
RW: What I see is your capacity to make things look the way you want them to look.
CB: With a limited amount of tools. I think that’s another thing. I don’t have a lot of tools, but I know how to work with the ones that I have.
RW: Now your air guns, when I saw the photographs I thought, these are just beautiful objects.
CB: Well, me too. I like guns. A gun has an aura about it. You can sit around on the couch and watch TV and polish your gun—if you’re a man [laughs].
RW: Are you friends with Michael McMillen, by any chance?
CB: Yes. We have a lot in common. I met Michael recently and I’m an admirer.
RW: I’m sure it would be mutual. As a kid he lived just up the back alley from a man who built props for the Hollywood sci-fi movies in the fifties, the Van de Graf generators and tesla coils and all that. He’d hang out with that guy a lot.
CB: I read that. And if I’d lived there, I’d have been right there with him. But growing up in a mid-west town in Wisconson, there was nothing. The drug store, that’s where I landed. I was learning how to become a pharmacist.
RW: Did you actually become a pharmacist?
RW: How about automobiles? Were you into them at all?
CB: My dad was an autobody repair man, so he was always repairing cars in the backyard.
RW: Did you learn the trade through him?
CB: No. I never paid any attention. My parents wanted me to become a doctor. What I did learn from my dad was how to use tools and fix things.
RW: How did that work?
CB: He had a stack of old Popular Mechanics
RW: He said, “Here, read this”?
CB: No, but that was all there was around the house. And there would be projects like how to build your own aqualung, for example. I remember trying to make one using an inner tube and a gasmask.
RW: So you didn’t get into cars when you were a teenager?
CB: I had one and I did some customizing to it, like painting flames on the fenders, reupholstering it, putting a continental kit on it.
RW: Did you do the reupholstering yourself, or did you have someone else do it?
CB: My mother and dad and I did it. My mother sewed. We did a headliner and the doors, too, a really funky, pink vinyl interior.
RW: Wow. I mean to upholster your own car. I’m impressed.
CB: I probably didn’t even know you could have it done somewhere.
RW: Do you still have the Studebakers?
CB: I got rid of all the Studebakers.
RW: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. What was it about the Studebakers you loved?
CB: It was the post-war futuristic look starting with 1950 with the bullet nose and then 1953 with the slope-down hood in front that continued on to the huge fins in 1961. And we had an Avanti, too.
[we go inside his home and his wife Betty is there]
RW: Now you’ve been with your wife since, was she a high school sweetheart?
CB: Yeah. We’ve been together for fifty-five years now.
RW: That makes you kind of a rare couple.
CB: Among artist friends, it’s pretty unusual.
RW: How did you get into art? I know you’ve told this story before.
CB: Well, I always admired people who could draw caricatures, comic strips and stuff like that.
RW: How early on was that?
CB: Junior High School and High School. I had a friend who could draw portraits of people, just line drawings that looked like people. And I always really admired that.
RW: Is there anything else that you can think of?
CB: Nothing except looking at MAD
magazine and liking the comics. I would have been sixteen or so. I discovered MAD
magazine when I was working at the drug store. And I remember in Junior High School I met this guy who really could draw. I thought, man, that would be great.
So then I went to college. There was a humor magazine called The Octopus
. I liked to draw copies of Don Martin’s faces and one day I was in the student union. I was a freshman and they were having an Easter egg decorating contest. So I picked up a pencil and drew a Don Martin face on the egg and put it in the contest. I won first prize! [laughs] So then I started thinking, well, maybe I’ve got some talent as a cartoonist. That’s when I discovered the humor magazine. I was still a freshman and I started drawing imitation Don Martin characters for their ads.
RW: What was it about the Don Martin drawings you loved?
CB: I liked the curly toes and the pointy teeth and the wild eyes. So I got several gigs drawing cartoons for the humor magazine. And then I started having doubts about sticking with the pharmacy career. I thought that maybe I should learn a little bit more about cartooning. That’s how I discovered there was an art department at the University of Wisconsin. I was looking to see if there was a class in cartooning or maybe animating. I couldn’t find one, but I thought, I’ll just take an introduction to art course, anyway. The second semester I stumbled into ceramics because it was one of the required classes. And it was the only art class I could get into that quarter. I liked it and I decided, hey, I’m going to major in ceramics.
RW: What was it about ceramics you liked?
CB: It was the magic of making a lump of clay into a pot. It was also the magic of mixing those minerals together and making a glaze. That’s the chemistry part of it that appealed to me.
RW: Was there something about just the physicality of it?
CB: Well, yeah. And the clay is just sort of flowing up into this shape in your hands and you want to get good at it, and teach other people how to do it. That’s what happened to me when I was twenty years old. Luckily I got a T.A. in the art department and I never had to work outside of the art area after I got into graduate school.
RW: Because you got paid for being a T.A.?
CB: And for firing the kilns or teaching an extension class, and those kinds of things.
RW: Are there any local artists that you particularly like?
CB: I’m very tough. But I like Jim Melchert’s work a lot. I always have, even before we lived out here we knew about Jim Melchert—and Pete Voulkos.
RW: When you say you’re tough, what do you mean?
CB: I think I’m looking for uniqueness, and there are a lot of people whose work just seems like they don’t know what they’re talking about. I like Lulu Stanley’s work. I like Westerman’s work. Arneson.
RW: Were you connected with Voulkos, at all?
CB: We knew him. I had him come to Wisconsin to do a workshop. He came for three days one time and stayed at our house. And yeah we’ve seen him from time to time, had dinner with him.
RW: Voulkos seemed to have an ability to inspire people.
CB: He was this big, heavy-breathing, dark Greek guy with long hair. I was really impressed the first time I saw him. And I was 21 years old.
RW: I get the feeling that he was good at helping people break through a lot of their limitations.
CB: Well if you mean that in terms of technical matters in ceramics, yeah, he did. He was a guy who could throw a three-foot tall pot but he wasn’t satisfied with doing that. He was the first guy I ever met that had hair too long. Betty’s a barber’s daughter. You can imagine what hair was like in the 50s.
RW: I don’t have to imagine it. I was there [laughs].
CB: Anyway, seeing Voulkos with long hair, that’s when I decided to stop going to the barber.
RW: That might be pretty radical.
Betty Bailey: It was—especially when we went home.
CB: And Voulkos didn’t have really long hair, either—just compared to the way the barbers would scalp you.
RW: Right. How much has serendipity played a role in your life, would you say? I read the great story about how you went out to Cal State Hayward looking for a job at just the right moment and bam, you got the job.
CB: Yup. Incredible. Everything! Everything in my life.
RW: Say more about that.
CB: The first job that I ever got teaching, I got because Mabel Curtis, the director of the People’s Art Center, called Harvey Littleton and asked if he had a student to recommend to for teaching art at the center. And there I was, Harvey’s graduating student. So I took that job.
We were down in St. Louis and we got a call from an old buddy from graduate school who was teaching at Whitewater. He said, “Hey Clayton, they’re going to hire an artist-in-residence. How would you like to come up and do that?” I said, “Sure.” Of course I interviewed and all, but I knew somebody on the inside. I feel like major breaks just kind of happen—just pack everything up and move. And we had two little kids all this time that we were moving too.
BB: Bob Arneson invited you up to Davis.
CB: Yeah, but we’re talking about serendipity now…
BB: But that’s what brought us to California.
CB: I gave up a tenure-track job to come out here on a whim because we liked what we saw at Davis and we wanted to live around San Francisco. We just happened to know Roy because I taught at Davis the previous quarter. That’s how we found Port Costa. I parked our U-Haul truck in this front driveway while we looked around to find a place to set up a studio and live. Then we just happened to find this empty building in Crockett. It had been empty for years, but we found the landlord and talked him into renting it. That’s when I took out my list of colleges in the Bay Area to investigate finding a teaching job, and Hayward was the first one on the list.
So serendipity, yeah. And the whole idea of becoming an artist, or becoming a potter, was just a total accident because I had to take the class that I didn’t want to take.
RW: [asking Betty Bailey] Do you have any insights in terms of his artworks, which ones have been the most pleasing for him?
BB: Well the whole Wonders of the World
experience was great, having the show at the deYoung. That was very exciting, just after we moved here.
RW: You had a show at the deYoung right after you moved here?
CB: No, it was in ‘75.
BB: In ‘76 …
CB: It was the Kaolithic Museum
, and prior to that it had been in our backyard for a long time. Then after that, we brought it back to Port Costa and put it in our storefront museum for two and a half years. That’s when Betty was much more involved because we had employees. In fact even Betty would be a ticket taker. And we had the two kids in high school who worked there as ticket takers or as the barker robot.
RW: It seemed that you had some other things you’d recalled.
BB: Let’s see. The question was?…
RW: What were some of the pieces in Clayton’s career that stood out?
BB: Well there’s quite a few that I
like. I loved his early work at Madison. He made wonderful planters or umbrella holders. And then the animals he created, they were very special.
RW: Which animals would that be?
BB: I can’t really say what kind because they were made up
CB: Demon dogs, you mean?
BB: Yeah, like your demon dogs. But your early works too—oh there were the critters and dead pigs.
CB: They were stiff and stylized kind of like Japanese Haniwa figures.
RW: I don’t know what a Haniwa figure is …
CB: They’re like built out of tubes, and not very sculpted; they’re more assembled. Anyway that was the inspiration for those early animals that Betty was bringing up.
BB: He was making those in Madison and St. Louis, and …
RW: What years were you in St. Louis again?
CB: Yeah, that was a pretty busy year for us. I taught five days a week, children and adults, all in ceramics. We associated with people that lived around Gaslight Square in St. Louis. So we knew people like street poets.
BB: We also knew some very wealthy art collectors and society people, too.
RW: So does teaching in Wisconsin predate St. Louis?
CB: No that would be immediately after our St. Louis years. So St. Louis I think was one year and a half that we were there, and then we went to Wisconsin for about three and a half years, which were pretty good. Like I said, we lived on campus and associated with students, and just had a red hot faculty that all got along together.
BB: It was a party that lasted three and a half years. They had so much fun.
RW: That sounds great. When I was down in Claremont, I made friends with a lot of the art people. It was pretty cool and a lot fun. I really enjoyed that.
CB: Did you meet Paul Soldner?
RW: He was my first connection with clay, entirely by accident. I had a girlfriend at Scripps, who was taking a class from him. We went into the pottery studio one evening and he was in there. I got to try my hand on the wheel and that was the extent of my meeting Paul Soldner. But there was something about him that I remember. Is he a friend of yours?
CB: No, but I saw him do a demonstration that was memorable. This was in 1963 when I was in Iowa for a summer. I was teaching ceramics at the University of Iowa. Soldner came and did a demonstration and I saw him do a trick. He pulled a piece of rope out of his clay while he was demonstrating. He complained that whoever prepared his clay hadn’t done it right.
Anyway he made a show out of the demonstration and I always thought, now that’s the way to do a demonstration! That’s why you [to Betty] found the big oversized brassiere in your drawer [laughter]. So fast forward 30 years—I went out and bought the biggest brassiere I could find at the Goodwill store so I could stuff it in my ball of clay for the first day of demonstrating pottery making. Then I pull this thing out[laughter]. Or I must have bought two of them, because I hid one in Betty’s dresser drawer and forgot about it. Then way later, Betty finds it and confronts me with it. She thinks that I had some girlfriend over [laughter]. I can trace all of that back to seeing Soldner pull the rope out of his clay.
RW: You did this demonstration at Cal State Hayward with the brassiere?
CB: I did that at Hayward for one of my beginning classes.
RW: How did that go over?
CB: It got a lot of laughs.
BB: He demonstrated at a lot of NCECA conferences all over the country, too.
CB: But I didn’t do the brassiere trick anywhere else. It was just a one-time thing.
RW: So tell me about your demonstrations at NCECA conferences.
CB: Probably the most extravagant one was I wanted to do a demonstration how if you mix manure and clay together and make something, after it dries you can light it. It will burn and fire itself. It’s called “internal combustion ceramics.”
RW: That’s hilarious.
CB: I made a trunk I could take with me when I went to do a demonstration. The trunk contained a canvas kiln, a 24-inch collapsible cube. It included an instrument panel with gages and stuff, and a porcelain piece which was a demented head with a light bulb in it so it glowed red. The whole trick was you make the clay, do a sleight of hand, put it into the kiln and the kiln explodes when the manure ignites from some sort of a electrical activity. Then you reach in with your bare hands and take out this glowing red pot. Everything required for that fit into a 50 lb. crate. Somehow they would allow me to take it on an airplane as baggage. It went to Pennsylvania once and to Ann Arbor once.
RW: That must have been a treat for the audience.
CB: When I think about the ridiculous amount of work that went into making all that stuff for showing it to the public two times… I still have it sitting out in a crate,
RW: And you had something for doing raku that you could just reach in and grab, right?
Yeah. That was a variation on the same glow-in-the-dark pot.
RW: What did you call it again?
Bare-hands-raku—because most people wear gloves.
RW: Most of them can’t quite handle those red hot pots [laughter].
I remember this guy, his name was Shapiro. He was a really red-hot raku maker from Louisiana. I was going down there to demonstrate bare-hands-raku. I remember his students and friends telling me about how he was trying to figure out how I was going to do it. Was I going to use wet newspapers? He had different theories.
BB: And then there was the compression testing.
Yeah our biggest deal. That was even a bigger deal.
RW: I’m glad you brought that up because it’s mentioned on your website. So what is this compression testing.
It was a collaboration between Jack Dollhausen and me. The theory was that you could find a component of the aesthetics of a pot by crushing it in a machine and calibrating compression strength. So Jack built a machine and I came up with the valuable pots that we were going to test, like a blue and white Chinese vase or a Greek, red-figured vase. We had a whole list of things including a Gilhooly frog and a piece by Richard Shaw. This was for a convention of ceramic scholars and students and teachers. We had an armed guard who brought in each of the specimens. It turned out that no museums would give us any.
BB: They wrote many museums, and the museums wrote back.
Part of the documentation was getting the refusals from the museums. Anyway we made fakes that looked pretty realistic and we had an armed guard in a uniform who would bring them in one at a time. Then we would crush them. It turned out that the contemporary works by Gilhooly and Melchert were inferior to the old ones [laughter]. That’s the conclusion we came to. But mostly it was a spectacle of breaking all these valuable pots.
RW: That’s great.
It involved making a whole lot of beautiful pots. Some of my students did most of it. We made them all for a 45-minute demonstration. But we had 2,000 people in the audience. It was good.
Clayton Bailey passed away June 6, 2020
The Bailey Art Museum
Visit Clayton's website