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Wayne Bates
By Sandy Miller Sasso

This biography and process article appeared in the March l997 Ceramics Monthly magazine.



As a child growing up in northeast Georgia, Wayne Bates knew nothing of the rich tradition of art and craft. His family moved to Athens when he was an adolescent, and he did his first carving there for a middle school art project. Today he looks back upon that experience as extremely important in shaping his mature work, especially when he carves sgraffito lines on his pottery at the leather-hard stage, solving puzzles of geometry and creating new ones. This is the first of many dimensions of Wayne's world.

After he completed the eighth grade, Bates moved to Jackson, Tennessee, where there was no art program in the public school. During high school he worked on local farms and acquired the skills needed to make things. He learned welding and wood working, and took engines apart and put them back together, thus acquiring mechanical knowledge. As an undergraduate at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, Bates majored in painting. Despite the lack of a strong ceramics program, it was at Union that he first began working in clay. Stimulated by his teacher, Bates took over the small ceramics room, fired the kilns and taught himself how to use the potter's wheel. It was also at Union that he met and married Kay Gardner. Both went on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, Kay in vocal music and Wayne in ceramics.

His work in graduate school was in the Leach British stoneware tradition. Completely immersing himself in this aesthetic, Wayne copied the forms and used the original recipes for the glazes to learn the art and craft of that style. In Athens, Bates had access to the Peabody Collection of Archaeology, and its extensive collection of drawings of native American and South American pottery. He also took classes in the history of ceramics with an emphasis in Pre-Columbian pottery. His continued study of the history of ceramics has very much influenced his work as a potter and helped him understand his own work in the great tradition of hand-made functional ceramic objects. He envisions himself able to connect to this vast knowledge, or as he puts it, "To swim in a very deep and wide river of experience."

In the summer of 1969 Bates was kiln supervisor at the Haystack Mountain School for Crafts, where he met William Daley who later hired Bates to teach at the Philadelphia College of Art. Bates stayed from 1970 to 1978, co-chairing the Craft Department with Daley for three years. Also during these years, Bates was ceramic consultant to the historic Moravian Tile Works in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. There he supervised the reactivation of the tile production,including the the glaze and slip recipes and the tile making processes.

  With New York just a train ride away, Bates was able to visit museums. His interest in traditional forms was increased by seeing pots at the Museum of the American Indian. Here he studied the work of the Mimbres Indians who, he explains, "had all the strategies worked out as to how to divide a circle." Later, when his work led him to carving lines within the spherical space of the bowl, he recognized a kinship with their vision and his own. Tired of academia and urban life, Bates decided to set up a studio and become a production potter. His wife accepted a teaching position at Murray State University in 1978 and the family moved to western Kentucky, where Wayne set up his one-man Blood River Studio. Since that time he has successfully sold his work through shops, galleries and other venues, including the prestigious American Craft Council fairs.

Bates currently works in English porcelain. Though the clay is unforgiving, the tradeoff is its whiteness, and its ability to gather light due to its translucence. The pieces, mostly bowls, platters and vases are sprayed or brushed with engobes, then carved with handmade tools to reveal the porcelain clay body. He refers to this process as "looking for the white." Bates does the surface embellishment, both painting and carving.To do this he positions the pot on the wheel, and uses a tool to carve rings, and spirals. Many of his drawings, or carvings, result from the circular motion inherent in this way of working. These patterns reflect simple geometric strategies. "These are not about emotions or feeling; they are more about getting a plan and figuring it out. They are about the intellect," Bates says of his work. "This is not to diminish them, and when I look at them I get feelings, but they derive from a more mechanical origin."

Despite the incredible beauty of his work, it is very important to Bates that his bowls be useful and that they be used. "My best shot is to make things that are really beautiful and that people are going to use." Though, as he states, the Industrial Revolution "freed the craftsman from the slavery of making utilitarian objects," he feels that the attributes of functional objects separate them from painting or sculpture and that those attributes -- intimacy, connection to a purpose, and connection to ritual -- are celebratory. He looks upon all of his work as being part of a continuum, constantly evolving, multi-dimensional. Each pot is kin to the one before and the one after; thus the necessity to make many pieces. Viewed in this way, production pottery, with its inherent repetition and order, suits him. He is a purist who strives for clarity and sees the limitless possibilities of embellishing simple, elegant forms.
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